An Interview With One of CET's Shining Stars: Orlando

 Photo by Stewart Halperin

Photo by Stewart Halperin

If you've traveled with us, there's a chance you already know Orlando, or "Orly" as we like to call him. 

One day with him and you'll learn he can flawlessly rap in English and Spanish. He spent two years in the Cuban army. He taught himself English listening to Eminem and practicing the syllables  in the mirror. He incorporates idioms like "off the dome" and "beating around the bush" in his everyday lexicon -- his English is so good that Americans ask him what state he is from. He's one of the "Cinderellas of Havana", or a resident of Regla, located across the Bay of Havana -- and he needs to return home on the last midnight ferry every night. These days, he spends his time romping around Havana, sharing history, culture, and the occasional rap song with CET travelers and friends alike. 

If you don't know, now you know. Our interview with Orly below.

What's your background and what led to you CET?

I hold a degree on modern and contemporary dance, although I have never danced professionally. Dancing isn’t really my thing. That’s why after graduating from the national school of performing arts I decided to move into music events management. I have always loved rap music and luckily for me I landed very close to Obsesión, one of Cuba’s most popular rap groups. I worked for them for a couple of years as their manager and it was thanks to our relationship I was introduced to CET.

How did you learn and perfect your English?

Languages are keys one should try to possess. The more keys you have the more doors you can open. English was one those keys I always wanted to have on my side. I don’t know why but as a Cuban I have always had an interesting relationship with the English language. For a number of years this was an illegal thing in my country. Back in the seventies, people had to learn Russian, because of our relationship with the Soviet Union. I was born in the eighties, and in the nineties, after the fall of the Soviet Union, a lot of Cubans started to learn English with the desire of moving to the US. Although my family never intended to move to the US, my mom did take me to a few English lessons as her plus one. I must have been four or something like that and I only remember very basic things from those lessons. It wasn’t until turned 15 when I really got into English. A friend of mine gave me a copy of the Eminem Show and my whole world was turned upside down. Of course, I couldn’t understand a word, and that is probably what made feel the need to understand this language. Eminem’s music meant everything to me back then. I was such a die-hard fan, I would often get into arguments with other classmates about what his lyrics were. One day a friend asked me why I loved Eminem so much since I wasn’t even able to understand what he was saying. I didn’t have an answer for it, and I felt so bad I decided to fake my knowledge of his lyrics. I called a friend of mine, who, back then was the only person I knew who had access to the internet, and asked him to print out a couple of Eminem’s lyrics for me. I spent about a week memorizing the lyrics to "Lose Yourself" just so I could go to school and make everyone think I knew English and that was able to understand Eminem. After graduating high school I was sent to serve in the army for two years and soon I realized that there I would be wasting my time. I needed do something and the only thing I kept thinking was I needed to learn English and understanding Slim Shady. I got myself a couple of books and since I didn’t really know anyone who could teach me, I decided to teach myself. With the help of my books, my Eminem tapes and my friend with the internet who printed the lyrics for me whenever I needed them, I was able to learn English in just two years. The same amount of time I spent in the army. I studied every day, Monday through Sunday. Sometimes I would only study for 30 minutes or an hour but there were days when I did it for 8 hours straight. Once I learned something I would always try practice, I didn’t care who I talked to, for me it was all about practice and making mistakes. I value my mistakes because they have been my best teachers. I have made it this far by practicing non-stop and making mistakes.

What makes your work special?

I very much enjoy what I do at work, my job is pretty cool. Every week I meet someone new and interesting, every week I go somewhere I never thought I would go to. Taking people around is really fun, however, it also comes with a lot of responsibilities. I’ve noticed how much people trust their guides, they listen to you, they give you that power and that is what I think makes the work I do so special. I am not talking about brainwashing anyone, I am talking about being the cultural interpreter for someone who wants to understand what this country is all about. Why do people interact the way we do here? Why there are so many old cars? Or, why most Cubans don’t get married and instead live with their parents, spouses and sometimes even children in the same home? Understanding the culture of any country you travel to is the best souvenir you can take back home and most of the time I get to be the crafter of that souvenir. That is something I consider to be truly powerful and not everyone gets to do it everyday.

What's your most memorable moment in the last few years?

I feel like I have done so many cool things in this past two and half years that is kind of hard to choose just one moment. Back in 2016, C.E.T and Havana Strategies organized a huge event for Netflix. This was a massive operation for us and it took us three months or so to put things together. The event was a total success and on the final day, there was a big party to celebrate. That day I got up at 7am and went to bed the next day at 5am. It was crazy, but honestly, it felt really good to see all those happy faces once everything was over. Also in 2016, we were part of one they biggest concerts that have ever happened in Havana. Major Lazer came to Cuba to perform, for free, and we were there to help them make it happen. I met Diplo, and I got chicken for Diplo because he was hungry... who does that for work? I went to the concert in the front row, there were hundreds of thousands of people there and I was in the front row. One year after the concert I got a thank you red jacket from Major Lazer. 

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What does US travel mean for the Cuban people?

For many years I thought Americans and Cubans were meant to not get along, I was wrong! We have so many things in common, I can’t even describe it. In 2016 Cuba welcomed American travelers in a way it had not happened in many years. The average US traveler loves to go out and wander, meet local people and support their business. So, 2016 was a good year for everyone, we were happy. What I am trying to say is that with the numbers we had a couple of years ago, regular Cubans were able to put food on their table a little easier than today. Things looked very promising back then and, with the help of those who bought some kind of service and tipped the local entrepreneurs, families were able to get ahead. 

Why should Americans visit Cuba?

Because the people here are kind and welcoming. Because Cuba is probably one of the safest places you could take your family to. Cuba is a rainbow of color, I am not talking about those pink convertibles you see on Instagram. I am talking about the different colors of life. In a country like this with such limited access to technology and money, people manage to focus on the things that truly matter. To me that is colorful. It doesn’t matter where you go, in Cuba, you will always find music and people dancing on the streets, everyone blending in. Havana, in particular, is a very surprising city, you can take a trip to Spain without having to go to Europe. Or feel like you are in Brooklyn without having to go to New York. Cuba is still virgin and expecting you discover it.

If you could host any American visitor who would it be and what would you show him?

Ok, I will say Kendrick Lamar just because I love what he does so much. I think Kendrick would enjoy coming to Obsesion’s block party in Regla so, that's where I would take him. 

What’s the key to understanding and enjoying Cuba for visitors?

When you come to Cuba you have to understand you are not in America anymore. We might be geographically close but in terms of technological development, Cuba is some 20+ years behind. So be chill and relax. Forget about Instagram, forget about Twitter and your brand new iPhone X you just bought. Just so you know there are no Apple stores in my country. Just open your mind and take pictures with your eyes, dive into the culture. That is the key to travel to Cuba, opening your mind and getting out of your comfort zone just for a little bit.  

Want to see more from Orly? Come visit us! Until then, here's a feature from UNC film students about him and his daily life. 

Orlando Méndez crosses between two worlds connected by a ferry ride. The 28-year-old works as a tour coordinator in Old Havana by day, but he lives in a small, low-income neighborhood across the harbor called Regla. As a tour coordinator, he makes 150 times more money than his family and peers. This story explores the tensions and impacts of tourism on Méndez and his relationship with his father.
Isabel Albee