There is no age restriction for Saturday night debauchery in Santa Clara, Cuba’s wildest town. Toddlers get their kicks on a goat-pulled cart that clops in dizzying circles around the Parque Vidal, the main plaza, pushing through a crowd gathered around a salsa-playing band in an archway.
Dapper old men in cream suits spin much younger partners, and preteens—the blue glare of cellphones conspicuously absent from their groupings—gossip in tight circles around the central gazebo.
A young transgender woman in a tiny red dress snakes through the throngs and beelines toward the square’s far corner. Past the musicians, past the local theater, currently hosting a humor festival, and past a crowd heading into the chocolate-filled dulceria, is one of Cuba’s most unique nightclubs.
El Mejunje, a hybrid theater-club fittingly named “The Mixture,” is home to Cuba’s only drag show—and it hosts it every week on Saturday night. I arrived earlier in the afternoon, dropped off from a nearby town by Jorge, an absurdly dashing young Cuban who expertly navigated his vintage baby blue Dodge through the town's lazy streets.
When I made my way to El Mejunje to inquire about that night’s festivities the bartender behind the counter said the show had instead been on the night before and would be again the night after. But it didn’t matter, he said, because the “the drag queens, gays and lesbians will be here” whatever the schedule is.
At that moment, a comedy show was eliciting cackles from an antiquarian crowd in the back, where bleachers sat propped in the middle of four crumbling walls comprising the roofless theater. The club occupies the ruins of an old hotel and in the adjoining section, chickens wandered around an art display of a toilet molded into a wheelchair.
It hardly looked like the den of hedonism described by guidebooks. But around 10 p.m., as salsa music was strummed in the main square, a line of dolled-up club goers trailed out of the front doors of El Mejunje.
Inside, piña coladas and mojitos were being doled out by the dance floor, where towering drag queens danced a head above the pulsating crowd. A trans woman with long black hair and a skin-tight dress flitted from group to group, collecting Havana Club rum in a clear plastic glass, and shaking her hips to the Rihanna mashup.
Outside, a blonde in a American flag-colored sequin tube dress beelined for the front doors. “You’re the best!” she said in a gravely yell to a passerby who complimented the shiny outfit.
Sex-change operations are paid for by the government in Cuba, where Raúl Castro’s daughter, Mariela, has led a nationwide campaign for LGBT acceptance and education. For more than 20 years, long before these programs, El Mejunje has been operating in different capacities.
“I was not interested in making a gay club because that would just create a ghetto and people would leave,” the founder told local website Cuba Si a few years ago.
In Santa Clara, 175 miles east of Havana, nothing seems to be off-limits for celebration. Miss Travesti, a transvestite beauty pageant, is held in the city annually.
It’s not just drag that gives the city its edge: Santa Clara hosts Cuba’s second-best university, a famous heavy metal festival, and a vibrant arts scene, much of which surfaces as cartoons and political captions decorating the city’s walls.
Behind many of these colorful facades are casa particulares, rooms rented out for visitors in Cuban family’s private homes. Thirty dollars gets you a night’s stay and a homemade breakfast of homemade juices, eggs, and sweets. There are few ways to better understand a country, while contributing directly to local economic growth.
Down one of the streets that feeds into the central plaza, behind a set of double windows is the modest casa particular of José Marante and his wife, Ines.
Marante, a silver-haired man of 73, is the boisterous grandfather to seven. He introduced himself with a pound on the chest and an exclamation: “Maestro!” He immediately asked what he should make for dinner: Perhaps lobster?
Through a chain of gossipy hearsay from a hostel owner in Havana, it had come to my attention that Marante once served as a private chef for Castro. “Did Castro like lobster?” I ask. Marante put his finger to his lips and laughed, “Shhhh!”
Later, he comes back with a bag from the market filled with green bananas, and joins his wife in the kitchen, where she’s chopping garlic.
He offers a brief history of his time in battle with Castro. In 1961, at the tender age of 18, Marante volunteered to fight an American-backed insurgency attempt at Playa Giron, or the Bay of Pigs. “I wasn’t scared,” he says in Spanish.
Though the fighting only lasted three days, Marante says he spent three weeks cooking for Castro. Earlier in the revolution, he had also cooked for his righthand man, Camilo Cienfuegos, at a hotel where Marante worked. They ate everything, he reports—no food was a favorite during those politically uncertain times.
Later, over a meal of rice, beans, plantain chips, and fish fillet, and a geometrically impressive salad arrangement, he brings out his war medals upon request: two for valor, one for cooking, another for his teaching. “I’m still very strong,” he says, flexing his muscles.
Marante met many of the top guerrillas during that time, but he never shook hands with the man that has since risen to saint levels in Cuba and across the world.
Santa Clara is known best for its perma-resident: Che Guevara, the restless Argentine rebel who helped Fidel Castro overthrow the Batista dictatorship. Thirty years after his execution in Bolivia, his remains were returned to Santa Clara for burial.
Che neither lived nor died in the diminutive college town, but in 1997 he was interred there in a symbolic move.
Che and a tiny band of revolutionaries won an unlikely victory when they defeated a heavily armed group of government soldiers, and made Santa Clara the first liberated city during the guerillas’ campaign for Cuba. And so its residents have come to claim the national hero, whose bearded face graces walls and tourist souvenirs across the country.
To make this association clear, the town greets visitors coming in from a three-hour drive from Havana with a towering monument to its fallen hero.
Tour buses dump their loads on the side of the massive memorial square and visitors climb up a labyrinth of steps to the towering comandante, who stands, gun in hand, on a pillar inscribed with his motto that is repeated in billboards and T-shirts across the island: “Hasta la victoria siempre.” Or, “Until victory, always.”
In the 50 years since the Bay of Pigs, a battle that would cement Cuba’s allegiance to the Soviet Union and put a halt to relations with its nearby capitalist neighbor, Marante says he was the chef for three restaurants in Santa Clara. Now retired, he and his wife rent out a room in their house for visiting travelers.
Most of the country, particularly the younger generations, are eagerly anticipating the cash and information flow a relationship with the United States will bring to their shores. But how does the former freedom fighter feel about Cuba’s warming relations to its old enemy?
“We are very happy about it,” Marante says with gusto, and gives the whole dinner party high fives.