In 1959, Cuba was on edge.
Fidel Castro’s revolutionary movement had ousted Fulgencio Batista, the US-backed dictator, and the world was waiting to see what would happen.
Many Cuban parents were wary of the changing political landscape, and rumors spread that children would be taken from families and forced into communist work camps.
Fearful of communism, the US initiated Operation Peter Pan, a program that moved children out of Cuba between 1959 and 1962. Some 14,000 children were shuttled to the US via Catholic organizations. One was Victor Alvarez.
Now a Santa Fe resident, Alvarez and fellow Cuban ex-pats formed the Cuban street music band Savor in 2002. Rafael Arredondo plays timbales and tom-tom, Rene Navarro commands the congas and bongo, Jeremy Bleich lays down the bass line, and Alvarez plucks and picks the mandolin. Savor has become a fixture in the Santa Fe music scene, playing somewhere almost every night.
Alvarez is the subject of a recent documentary film—One Among Thousands, directed by Santa Fe resident and filmmaker Gunther Maier—that taps his Cuban roots.
“I had a vision for a song,” Alvarez says. “I’m just one among thousands of kids whose parents tried to save them from communism.” Maier liked the vision and decided to film it.
Maier accompanied Alvarez on his first visit home as he toured his old haunts in search of his musical roots, his family and himself.
As a boy in Havana, Alvarez was constantly playing music. His mother was a gifted musician and taught him to play the laud, a twelve-string Latin instrument akin to the mandolin. Making One Among Thousands brought Alvarez right back to those days.
“I went back and saw places I had lived and played music. I went to a place called La Bodeguita del Medio. I used to go there as a kid and watch the musicians and steal their licks,” Alvarez says, laughing at the recollection.
Street music is widespread in Cuba and remains a passion for the people, Alvarez says. “If you stand on a corner playing music, it’s not long before a bembe (an open gathering of street musicians) breaks out.” It’s a spirit he loves sharing with Santa Fe.
“Santa Fe is such a diverse city, and people here appreciate so many different kinds of music. We play Cuban music in a very informal manner—just like we did on the streets when I was growing up,” Alvarez says. That’s what has made Santa Fe home. Now, though, he has two homes.
“It’s funny…I thought I was going to cry a lot when I went, but I didn’t cry once,” Alvarez says. “I felt at home. That place is mine.”