Words and illustration Duke Riley
Photos Kitty Joe Sainte-Marie
Special thanks to Magnan Metz Gallery
Of all the places in the world to throw a St. Patrick’s Day parade, Cuba might not be last on the list, but it’s also not a frontrunner. Ireland and Cuba are more than 4,000 miles apart and don’t have a lot in common—at least not on the surface.
But dig into their respective histories and you’ll find more than a few intertwining roots. The connection was strong enough to inspire New York-based artist and owner of East River Tattoo, Duke Riley, to organize the first Desfile De San Patricio in 2009.
While wandering around Old Havana in 2006, I stumbled down a side street that I was surprised to discover bore my last name (Well, sort of, thanks to some changes made at Ellis Island). Curious about this potential Cuban ancestor of mine, I decided to look him up. Calle O’Reilly was named after Alejandro O’Reilly, an Irishman who served as a general in the Spanish army in 18th-century Cuba and went on to govern Spanish-occupied Louisiana. He was a forerunner to the abolition- ist movement and overall a pretty cool guy. O’Reilly was one of many Irish soldiers and railroad workers who settled in Cuba during the 18th and 19th centuries. Many Cubans with Irish surnames can still be found in Havana today. My Cuban friends were quick to school me on several prominent figures marking the symbiotic history between Cuba and the Emerald Isle. To name a few: Bonifacio Byrne, the Irish-Cuban Brooklynite and poet; Eamon de Val- era, the half-Cuban third president of Ireland; and of course, Che Lynch Guevera was one-quarter Irish.
When I was invited to return to Cuba for the Havana Biennial in March 2009, I decided it was high time that Calle O’Reilly was honored with a parade on St. Patty’s Day. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to confront my love-hate relationship with the holiday.
The St. Patrick’s Day parade itself is an entirely American concept. Irish serving in the British army organized the first parade in the 1700s while stationed in Boston, Massachusetts. It started as nothing more than singing and drunken revelry from a marginalized group trying to create a voice for themselves.
Unfortunately, in recent years the St. Patrick’s Day parade in America has become a symbol of exclusion and religious piety, drifting far away from its beginnings—and far away from the mayhem, I remember as a kid. In other words, add cops and barricades, sub- tract booze and gay people, sprinkle a little commercial bullshit on top, and you’ve got a recipe for a pretty boring parade.
I knew I wanted to have a parade in Havana, and I knew I didn’t want it to be boring. As a former terror suspect, the idea of staging an event within the Axis of Evil was also appealing to me. In recent years, my own government’s policies on public assembly have become almost indistinguishable from those of Cuba, and I was no less allergic to Cuba’s brand of authority then I was to ours. I liked the idea of fucking with both governments simultaneously, but I wasn’t certain that I’d be able to pull this off. Being locked away in a Cuban prison might be pretty boring, too.
I arrived in Cuba on the ninth of March with the intent of staging an unauthorized parade. After an hour of coercing Cuban customs interrogators with promises of cerveza verde, I retrieved my duffle bag packed with green Mardis Gras beads, feather boas, green foil hats, and ball gowns. To my utter amazement, within 24 hours of touching down, I had a handful of bagpipe-playing Cuban conspirators who were willing to risk any potential repercussions.
had followed the far-reaching and unmistakable drone for several blocks through the quiet night, eventually leading me to a rooftop. There I met Daylin and Soria, who were practic- ing their ancient Asturian bagpipes. They didn’t know any Irish songs and there wasn’t any time to learn them, but they could play “Scotland the Brave.” I figured no one would know the difference.
Word spreads very quickly in Havana, and Cuban people have more passion for history than they do for baseball. Within a few days, the level of support and number of participants we gained put us far beyond a covert operation. I now admit to a growing nervousness, especially when I thought about the arrests that resulted from the Damas de Blanco protests. When word finally did reach back to the Biennial Committee, I was accused of being an imposter. When they threatened me with expulsion from the Biennial and possibly from the country, I decided to gamble the fate of the parade—rather than the fates of its participants—and seek official authorization. After five days of both rushing around and wait- ing for a dozen bureaucrats located in various parts of the city to attend meetings over cafecitos and mojitos (with about 500 cigarettes thrown in for good measure), the San Patricio parade was officially approved, with one day to spare.
It was decided that about 50 people would march from Calle O’Reilly at the Plaza de Armas, up Obispo for about ten blocks, and end back on O’Reilly at the Parque Albear. I was given a stern warning: “Keep it historical and calm. We don’t want a free-for-all.”
I realized the following day, as we prepared to kick off the parade, that I had somehow forgotten to mention to the officials that Farah, the legendary drag queen of Calle O’Reilly, would be leading the procession. I also neglected to mention that roughly 200 Cuban musicians and artists—a lively crowd I recruited from the local gay bars—and a handful of Irish ex-patriots and Brooklyn-based co-conspirators, would round out the march.
The parade drew an excited crowd, and everything went smoothly until we got midway through the route. From the corner of my eye, I caught what looked like the beginnings of a “free- for-all.” Fellow artist Sofia Maldonado’s green tube-top went flying up around her ears as a swarm of wide-eyed kids with a lust for green Mardi Gras beads almost trampled her 4’ 10” frame. At this moment, I felt a policeman’s hand clasp my shoulder and I assumed my caper was about to come to a quick and unpleasant end. Instead, he alerted me to a large pile of dog shit in the road that I was in danger of stepping in as I marched backward down the street. He danced a bit with Farah, the crowd cheered, and the parade continued.
High on adrenaline at the Parque Albear, the pipers and winds formed a circle and we all danced under a statue of José Martí until the deaf-mute Ernest Hemingway impersonator marching next to the “showgirls” wrote on his crumpled notepad: “We need to get the fuck out of here. NOW!”
The event was followed by a late night of green beer, skinny-dipping, and bagpipe music along the Malecón.
Duke and friends were invited back to organize the Second Annual Desfile De San Patricio, which happened successfully in March 2010.