“Right or left?” I ask Ruben Blades, the noted Latin American actor, musician and politician, during a recent interview.
Before I even finish the question, he says, “Left.”
Blades does not shy away from expressing his opinions, especially his political views. He says he is supportive of left-wing ideologies, especially “a left that works” _ though that does not include the left of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, where the communist philosophies have been entrenched since the revolution in 1959.
Blades has not traveled to Cuba since 1978. “No way will I support a regime that imposes its will on the people,” he says.
At the same time, he opposes the United States’ near-total embargo of the island nation, in place since 1962, because it is ineffective. “The embargo is absolutely absurd,” he says. “What it does is hurt the people _ Cuba’s people. And in no way has it created a change.”
Blades’ iconic fame as a musician sometimes obscures the fact that he is a seasoned politico as well. In 2004, during the administration of President Martin Torrijos, he put his artistic career on hold for five years to work as Panama’s tourism minister _ though that was hardly his first experience with politics.
Ten years before, Blades, who was born in Panama, founded the Papa Egoro political party and ran for president. But filling concert stadiums and selling millions of CDs (he has released more than 20 albums) along with starring in films (he has appeared in more than 30, alongside actors like Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford) does not necessarily translate into votes. He lost the election, garnering only 18 percent of the vote.
“I was very foolish,” he admits. “If you are going into politics, you have to do politics full time: 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. I didn’t do that.”
Still, in our conversation Blades jumps effortlessly from analyzing Panamanian and Honduran politics to consider recent moves by President Barack Obama and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. He is so intensely focused on the topic, it’s easy to forget that he has made such an impression as a musician.
As an artist, Blades sings about the problems of Latin Americans over a salsa beat, and the result is remarkable. Just take a closer look to these titles: “Pedro Navaja” is a song about a gangster’s murderous exploits in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in New York; “Tiburon” is the story of a shark hunting its prey and a criticism of Western intervention in Central American nations; “Pablo Pueblo” chronicles the lives of poor, hard-working men trying to rise above the slums and the failed, empty promises of politicians; “Desapariciones,” or “Disappearances,” captures the grief of families in Latin America searching for loved ones who, because of their political views, have gone missing in suspicious circumstances.
“Is there a contradiction in having become a wealthy man (and) singing about the forgotten and the poor?” I ask him. “Do you feel some guilt? Is this hypocrisy?”
“Whoever wants one of my records buys one, and those who don’t, don’t … I would have been hypocritical if I hadn’t been consistent _ in creating a political party, running for president or letting five years go by without doing an album.”
The fact is, Blades seems to have done it all. He is a lawyer. He came to the United States as an undocumented immigrant in 1974 after earning a law degree in Panama. His family was fleeing from then-Col. Manuel Noriega after his father was accused of working for the CIA. Eventually, Blades attended Harvard University and earned a master’s degree in international law. All the while, Blades wrote music.
Shortly after he arrived in the U.S., Blades began his career as a musician at Fania Records in New York _ a label that launched the careers of great Latin American musicians like Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe. His job was not to sing, but to deliver letters in the mailroom as a clerk. All he needed was a foot in the door.
He nabbed an opportunity to sing with Ray Baretto’s salsa band. While it is hard to believe, his first public performance was at Madison Square Garden, in front of 20,000 people.
Since then, he has been unstoppable. His last album, the politically poignant “Cantares del Subdesarrollo,” or “Songs of Underdevelopment,” was financed without any music company’s help. And at 62 years of age, Blades is really just starting.
“I am interested in paleontology … I’m interested in painting, I am interested in archaeology,” he says. “I want to write, and now I am going to do it full time. I want to write about my experiences as a Latino in the United States, as an actor, as a musician, about all the people I have known.”
Finally, I ask him if he is afraid to die.
“No, fear, no,” he says, smiling. “That’s part of life. What would have given me fear is regret for the things I didn’t do … There is a moment, I think it’s 10 seconds, before you die, and in that moment I want to be able to say: ‘I tried. I did the best I could. Thank you.’ Period.”
(Jorge Ramos, an Emmy-award winning journalist, is the senior news anchor for Univision Network. Mexican-born Ramos is the author of nine best-selling books, most recently, “A Country for All: An Immigrant Manifesto.”)
By Jorge Ramos Avalos
© 2010 Jorge Ramos
(November 08, 2010)