In 1980 thousands left Cuba in what became known as the Mariel Boatlift, a time when those fleeing Castro were joined by thousands of prisoners and mental patients that Castro himself sent away in a fortuitous emptying of the islands prisons and mental institutions. In 1980, Mario Mesa, a "Marielito," says he was brought to the U. S. by his family, arriving as a political prisoner and leaving behind a hard life in Cuba.
"I was abandoned at birth," he says. "I was poor and couldnt go to school. I never played the games children play. I was always working"--as an electrician in a shipyard, as a bartender. When he was 21 he got married: "It was a disaster. Lack of experience on my part. The environment I worked in, bars and all, didnt prepare me for marriage. After that I had a lot of women. Im a great dancer. I can dance 24 hours a day."
Mesa started painting in the U. S., after being hospitalized for a nervous breakdown. "When I got sick I lived in the streets. I had always been very neat and clean, but everything changed. When I got better I had to help myself. I started to paint the day [Rufino] Tamayo died," in 1991. "I started painting to give something back. Thanks to the painting I got better."
Mesa says he always wanted to be a painter "so I could paint the beauties of mother nature. Im not a poet but I have a very strong sense of what life and nature are, and that moves me to express myself without words."
But as soon as he says this, he tells a story that seems to contradict: "I dont know how to paint. Its the Indian who paints. The Indian lived a long time ago and he prepared his paint and painting on rocks." He also credits the aliens he saw in a flying saucer when he was seven and later met in the hospital when he was treated for problems with his pancreas: "I lost a hundred pounds and the aliens came and I had a relation with them and they made me better. Their headquarters is in the Bermuda Triangle. They help me whenever I have a problem. I do what they tell me to."
Nonetheless, Mario Mesa paints. "Im lonely. My daughter got married and isnt my daughter anymore--shes her husbands wife--and to make a long story short, no one wants a crazy person in the house. All I have for company is my brushes and paints, and I thank God for giving me that."
Copyright © 1999 Jeffrey Knapp and Tamara Hendershot