1980’s Cuba may have subscribed to socialism, but it was far from the progressive state we might expect. With little room for creative freedom to speak out against the government, and an economy that was reliant on a soon to disappear Soviet Union, the Cuban youth took to Punk to fight their cause.
Los Frikis, also known as “The Freaks”, were a group of Cuban youth who emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, during the economic crisis known as the “Special Period.” The Frikis were a subculture composed of teenagers who rejected the norms and values of the Cuban Revolution and embraced a counterculture that celebrated punk rock, heavy metal, and other forms of alternative music. They were also known for their distinctive fashion style of leather jackets, ripped jeans, and colourful hair.
Photo Helena de Braganca
The Frikis emerged in the context of the severe economic crisis that Cuba experienced in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been Cuba’s main source of economic and political support for many years. The loss of this support led to widespread shortages of food, medicine, and other basic goods, as well as a severe economic contraction that left many Cubans struggling to survive.
The Frikis were a response to this crisis, and to the political and social restrictions that the Cuban government imposed on young people at the time. They rejected the official ideology of the Revolution and sought to create a space where they could express themselves freely and openly, without fear of persecution or repression.
One of the key elements of the Frikis’ subculture was their embrace of punk rock music. Punk rock had emerged in the UK, USA, and France in the late 1970s as a reaction to the economic and social conditions of that time, and it quickly spread to other parts of the world, including Cuba. For the Frikis, punk rock represented a form of rebellion against the status quo, a rejection of the values and norms that they saw as oppressive and repressive.
The Frikis’ love of punk rock was also tied to their desire for freedom of expression. In Cuba, the government tightly controlled the media and the arts, and anyone who expressed dissent or criticism was at risk of being punished. The Frikis saw punk rock as a means to express themselves and their ideas without fear of retaliation.
In addition to punk rock, the Frikis were also fans of heavy metal and other forms of alternative music. They organised concerts and other events to highlight their favourite bands and to promote their subculture. These events were often held in underground venues, such as abandoned buildings or private homes, and were not sanctioned by the government. This tight control by the government made it near impossible for bands to exist anywhere other than underground.
But it was the arrival of HIV+ in the late 1980’s that threw the Frikis into the spotlight. At a time when the disease was highly stigmatized and misunderstood, the Frikis saw HIV/AIDS as an extreme way to rebel against the system and to assert their autonomy. They deliberately sought out sexual encounters with people who were HIV-positive, and some even injected themselves with contaminated blood to contract the virus. Cuba had a progressive public health service and the policy on HIV was to isolate any patients for their lifetime in state run sanatoriums. Knowing that as HIV+ individuals they would be moved to state-run sanatoriums or camps, the Frikis not only saw their “embrace “of HIV as a rebellious statement, it was also a way to secure a life in sanatoriums, which in the” special period “appeared, to them, to be preferable to staying on the streets.
This behaviour was highly controversial, and it provoked a strong reaction from the Cuban government. The government saw the Frikis’ behaviour as a threat to public health and morality, and it launched a campaign to eradicate the subculture. The Frikis were rounded up and forcibly quarantined in special camps, where they were subjected to harsh treatment and abuse.
Despite the government’s attempts to suppress the movement, punk continued to try to find its way in Cuba, with bands like Porno Para Ricardo emerging in the second half of the 1990’s. Led by Gorki Aquila, the band were subjected to prison sentences and forced into exile in Mexico.
But back in the sanatoriums, run by the Ministry of Health rather than the military, and in a complete twist of destiny, the Frikis were not only taken care of as patients, but they were also given freedom to do as they wished as they saw out their final days. It was in the unlikely environment of the sanitoriums that they could form punk bands and create music. Most notable of these being Eskoria, a band made up of members who had all self-injected HIV. In another twist, the actions of the Frikis drew the attention of the authorities to the severity of the HIV/Aids epidemic.
Pictured on the left Porno Para Ricardo
On the right Eskoria
This twist also saw the hero of the hour enter the stage. Now affectiionately known as the godmother of Cuban Punk,Maria Gattorno was responsible for state run “Culture House “an arts and culture centre nearby the Plaza de Revolution in Havana. Gattorno managed to secure slots for punk and metal bands with Saturday afternoons being the meeting time at what became known as “Marias Patio “. It was Gattorno’s proximity to the bands together with her state role that put her in the unique position to help. Maris Gattorno launched the Rock vs. AIDS program at Maria’s Patio in 1991 raising awareness about AIDS and sexual health with the support of both the government and the youth that had rallied against them. Here was the twist, the ostracized Frikis were to end up playing an important part of the state’s efforts to contain Aids.
Protest movements, countercultures, and subcultures, proudly and, usually, rightly so, fly the flag for a worthy cause. But so suddenly this movement was not so romantic or ideal and it became all too realistic and deadly. It is estimated that around 60 Frikis had deliberately contracted the virus and by 2000 only a handful were still alive. By 2010, the main sanatorium had closed and only two of the Frikis – a couple who had met in the facility – remained, living as squatters.
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