Short story of how I met “Tres Patines”


May 2009

Author: Manny Pérez

Tres Patines Promotional Poster Teatro Marti
Promotional poster for theatre production in Teatro Marti

As a Cuban American who grew up in Northern New Jersey, the city of Union City to be precise. I'm no different, than any other American kid. My connections to my heritage have been passed on by my parents and elders and even my friends. Due to the odd nature of our existence in America being of Cuban decent , can bring a mix bag of feelings for a young man, pride, laughter, sadness, pain, embarrassment just to mention a few. In this respect we are no different than any other American families (Italian, Greek, Jewish, Japanese) dealing with the quirkiness of there background. No matter where anyone's family emigrated from, the next generation will have a difficult time, reconciling certain issues; Cubans were no different in that respect.

In similar fashion to the early settlers, the reality of Cuban Americans flocking to the Florida shores, was predicated on, religious and Political persecution. No different than any refugee from an eastern bloc nation during the cold war era. Our parents, motives and reasons were based on restraint of basic freedoms, at the hands of a communist dictatorship.

In that respect we were somewhat different, granted not completely unique but there was a distinction to other immigrants. Our parents came running to the beacon of freedom with the hope that someday they would return to Cuba. They came for the promise and opportunity, at liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Their motives were not based on socioeconomic; there was a distinction to most other immigrant groups.

Cubans tend to be more nostalgic or melancholy, we carry that exile mentality with us wherever we go. You ask most Cubans over the age of 55 about their status in America and you'll hear that famous quote of General Douglass McArthur when he left the Philippines "I Shall Return". Meaning Cubans still hold out hope, that someday they will return to their beloved Island paradise. As kids our parents instilled that in us, to some degree we were conditioned with the belief we were expatriates living abroad rather than Citizens of America.

Needless to say, relief of the aforementioned emotions came by way of comedy relief. Humor played a large role in our lives, waiting for that moment when all would be better and we could return to our native home. In that light, I write this short story about a famous Cuban comedian named Leopoldo Fernández. The connection to Him and to the Island we came from and the land that I call home; "America".

When I was 12 years old my friends and I sneaked into Manhattan one fall Sunday afternoon for what promised to be the "an adventure to remember", this was to be our first solo trip into New York City. Little did we know how much truth that statement would turn out to have? All six of us gathered on Bergenline Avenue, the equivalent of Main Street USA for us kids. As we made our way onto a New York City bound bus, we all felt the excitement of the moment and the adventure we were about to undertake.

Union City and West New York was quite a popular destination for Cuban Americans back then. This largely populated area of north Hudson County, N.J, was referred to at times as "Little Havana North". We made sure to wait till the last man arrived and we quickly hopped on the first New York City bound bus to come down the Avenue. Port Authority Bus Terminal on 42nd street was our final destination. No sooner the driver brought the bus to its parking slip we all jumped out and ran to 42nd street.

Wow! What an impact this famous street had on us kids, the peep shows, massage parlors, street walkers and Arcades inter mingle with each other. The lights the noise, all those people walking the streets, was all part of our adventure and sensory intoxication. After some well spent coins in the arcades we managed to find a pizzeria and ferociously devoured our hot pizza slices. Needless to say, I like the others, burned my mouth on the hot cheese but who cared we didn't have our mothers, to tell us, I told you so and that made it not hurt so much. We even bought fake I.D's in one of the many stores along 42st; we were, free from our parents, in the heart of this colossus called Manhattan; we were men and we felt ten feet tall that afternoon.

As the day progress from one arcade to the next, we walked over to Broadway and stroll the great white way. We found ourselves mesmerized by the millions of lights blinking all about us, window shopping seem to be the ideal next phase of our adventure so we commenced to stare into all sorts of shops. We stopped at Jumping Jack Flash to see the latest platform shoes, the hip flower shirts in the boutiques and the futuristic electronics. These all seemed to captivate everyone's attention, at one particular store window we stopped to look. We hardly took notice, of the two adult couples, watching the displays behind the windows just like we were.

After a few brief seconds one of my friends yells out abruptly"hey guys! That's Tres Patines"! Without hesitation and knowing exactly what was said, we immediately surrounded the two couples and sure enough there he was in real life, the one and only Leopoldo Fernández, otherwise known by the character he made famous "José Candelario Tres Patines". We were all so excited, to see up close one of the most famous Cubans ever, he made us laugh, so many times, on radio and television. We had come to know all his characters, through the years, "Tres Patines" and "Pototo", "La Tremenda Corte" and there were all the movies too.

Our parents had grown up with his comedy and for some of us even our grandparents were fans. We shared excitement and pride to see him in front of us, in the flesh. An instant bond was created, that very moment, between us kids and Leopoldo Fernández. That brief instant, as we stood there we knew a magical link had been created, he was our connection to our past in the location we stood was the present and our young faces was the future. I didn't realize it then, but that look he had in his eyes, was familiar to me, I had seen it many times before. It was a combination of sadness and longing with a smile on his face displaying resilient determination. We all stood there, the ironic nature of the situation not being lost on us kids. We had all been born on an Island just 90 miles southeast of Key West Florida, we were brought here by the same calamity that brought him, except he was in the twilight of his life, and we had not started ours yet.

Never the less we were very excited to meet him he was ours he was the Cuba that our parents always spoke to us about. The laughter the music the sense of happiness and adding to our exuberance was his celebrity status. At that moment his radio show, was syndicated all over the Spanish speaking world, he must have been 70 years old by then.

He told us he was window shopping with his wife and friends just like us and he introduced us to his. It turned out one of his friends was "El Chino Wong" who we all knew as one of the Characters actors from "La Tremenda Corte his syndicated radio show and a fine comedian in his own right. He made us all laugh and feel like we were special, like only the true masters know how to do. Our common denominator was our Cuban heritage and for a few minutes, on a late Sunday afternoon that fall day, we were all standing there on the Island of Manhattan linked by a bond to a faraway place.

After a few brief minutes the moment passed, he said goodbye and wished us well. As they walked away, we stood there, watching them, walking away, down Broadway, disappearing slowly into a small crowd. As quick as the moment happened it came to a finish, we all went back to the Bus Terminal and back to our homes that late afternoon, where our parents waited. On that day Leopoldo Fernández capped an already terrific adventure of our first time alone in New York.

He gave us a rich and wonderful memory, that continues to get better with time and he allowed us to see our past and not forget our yesterdays at the same time we, became the future. It's been 35 years since that cool fall afternoon in Manhattan, I'm a middle aged man with a family now and much water has run down the river of my life since that Sunday afternoon in the fall. But still to this day; whenever I hear the name "Tres Patines" my mind can't help, but visit that day when a mischievous 12 year old boy and his friends met "El Gran Comediante" "Leopoldo Fernández" on a Sunday afternoon. Thank you "Pototo". Thank You for the memory and the laughter… Thank you for my link to my heritage…

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