Nonprofit arts and education group QUEER, ILL AND OKAY brought a neglected component of Cuban history to the mainstage with a screening and panel discussion on Los Frikis, a group of Cuban punk rockers in the late '80s who intentionally contracted the HIV virus to be put into state-run sanatorium camps. In collaboration with Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, QIO hosted the event on Nov. 30 at the museum to bring to light a troubled past in HIV and AIDS history and honor World AIDS Day, which was Dec. 1.
Cuban documentary filmmaker Vladimir Ceballos, who was a Friki in Cuba during the movement, shared his personal experiences of living during the "Special Period" of Cuban history and its economic destruction after the Soviet Union stopped supporting the country. This created a lack of resources for many citizens, which is why Los Frikisostracized from society and looked to as the enemy from the government because they dressed differentlywho listened to punk rock and didn't fit the mold of the Cuban regime's idea of the "new man," turned to desperate choices when they found out they had contracted the HIV virus.
"Being a Friki was a rebellion," Ceballos said, speaking through a translator. "The government saw us as the enemy."
Radio Ambulante's Luis Trelles, a Puerto Rican journalist and producer, presented an audio documentary on Los Frikis and how they were treated by the authorities. With a socialist government crumbling and lack of access to information and contraceptives, there was no discussion of safe sex or proper healthcare in Cuba at the time, the documentary said. Los Frikis had created a tight community where those who felt outcast could express themselves freely and enjoy American rock music, but facing the HIV epidemic was a challenge they were not prepared to face, Trelles told the audience.
Ceballos agreed and said the state of disinformation in Cuba at the time was so strong that he and all his friends had to make the difficult decision of socialism or death, which is the name of one of Ceballos' documentaries he produced undercover in Cuba.
The sanatoriums were originally created to quarantine the Cuban soldiers coming back from Africa who had contracted HIV but it turned into a prison camp of sorts. Because there were such different laws and "inequality on the streets" in Pinar del Rio, Ceballos said, Los Frikis thought that it would be best to live in the sanatoriums, where they could listen to rock music openly, have access to proper medical treatment and healthy foodall things they could not do on the streets. No one could leave or walk about freely, but for Los Frikis, it was worth that sacrifice. They saw it as a way of living by their values and expressing themselves in any means they could.
"There is a link that can't be undone between that self-injected movement and self-expression and that there was a punk aesthetic that went into this very hard decision," Trelles said.
As the movement took off, Ceballos said, it became like a fashion statement to self-inject with HIV to get into the sanatorium. But the honeymoon phase did not last long, and soon many HIV-positive people died in the sanatoriums.
Ceballos had to flee to the U.S. in 1976 and has only been back shortly to film for his documentaries on Los Frikisundercover. He said he cannot go back to Cuba because he would be arrested for "working with the enemy" in the eyes of the government. As a result, his work has never been seen in Cuba, but that's where it needs to be seen the most, he said. He has created two documentaries on the movement; "Cursed Be Your Name, Liberty" was the first produced in 1994 and the second is called "Socialism or Death."
"I wanted to make [the documentary] in Cuba because I wanted to show the youth there that it wasn't a good idea to be injecting the HIV virus," Ceballos said. "[Leaving the country] is the price I had to pay to show the world," he said.
After all of the discussion about the past, Trelles asked Ceballos and playwright Krystal Ortiz, who just returned from Pinar del Rio to interview the last Frikis who had self-injected themselves with the virus, what lives on about the historical time. Ortiz plans to write a play about the self-injecting movement and said its relevancy is an example of Cuba as an island of contradictions.
"It will always be relevant in how extreme it is in naturethat there was a whole community who felt they needed to die in order to live," Ortiz said.
She also shared a video message from the last Frikis she interviewed; They said they are happy, living on their own and are now getting good medical treatment. They had hoped to attend the event in person, but the current immigration issues from the Trump administration and the U.S.-Cuba relationship made it difficult to travel.
Ceballos said he sees the legacy of the movement from a philosophical perspective.
"Death is a door that you can open to find freedom," Ceballos said, which he believes is a perfect tie to existentialism and the self-injecting movement.
People can get more information about Ceballos' first movie at www.dmovies.org/2016/10/29/cursed-name-liberty/ and watch the beginning of the film at www.youtube.com/watch .