Interview with El Sexto (Danilo Maldonado) in San Francisco
Translator: Regina Anavy
May 9, 2017
"At the moment it doesn’t make much sense – it’s not very logical – for me to be in Cuba. I can’t keep going to jail every five minutes. I can’t help my family. Now I’m trying to start a new life here, and I’m trying to focus on my career. There are a few motives for me to return, of course, because that’s my country, that’s my place, but I’m not sure when that will be."
Danilo “El Sexto” Maldonado is in San Francisco, planning for the opening of his art exhibit, “Angels and Demons,” at the Immersive ART LAB, 3255A Third Street, May 11, 6-10pm. His exhibit is sponsored by the Human Rights Foundation as part of its Art in Protest series. This interview took place with the translation help of Alexandra Martínez.
Link to exhibit on Facebook
Regina Anavy: Danilo, I know that you’ve already had interviews with the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and other people about your experiences as a political prisoner in Cuba. Now I want to ask you about your artistic process. How you were able to create art while you were in prison?
Danilo Maldonado: I wasn’t able to paint in prison. I could only draw.
RA: How did you get drawing materials?
DM: To draw, all I need is pencils and plain sheets of paper.
RA: Did you have visitors who brought you these materials?
DM: My family brought colored pencils and pens and paper.
RA: Did the authorities try to prevent you from having these materials?
DM: Yes, that happened. They search everything, and a lot of the things they take away. For example, they didn’t let my mother take in my asthma medication, but I could get pens and little notebooks, as long as there was nothing already written on them.
RA: What did you do without your medication?
DM: A friend provided it for me until my mother finally was able to bring it in.
RA: How did you have the space to draw in a cell with other people?
DM: The same place where I was living and sleeping was the place where I could draw: my bed. I wrote letters but also spent my time drawing.
RA: How did you get your drawings out?
DM: In Valle Grande, I could always get somebody to help me take out the drawings. Someone who worked with an official but who wasn’t part of the searching, even sometimes an official.
RA: So people were mainly sympathetic to you?
DM: Some, yes. When I was in the isolation cell in Valle Grande, a doctor at one point gave me a sheet of paper and a pen so I could draw.
RA: It’s good to know that there were people inside the system who wanted to help you.
RA: How long have you been living in Miami?
DM: I’ve been here for roughly four months in total in the U.S.
RA: Are you here permanently or are you planning to go back to Cuba?
DM: At the moment it doesn’t make much sense – it’s not very logical – for me to be in Cuba. I can’t keep going to jail every five minutes. I can’t help my family. Now I’m trying to start a new life here, and I’m trying to focus on my career. There are a few motives for me to return, of course, because that’s my country, that’s my place, but I’m not sure when that will be.
RA: I understand you’re having a baby with Alexandra. Congratulations. How did you two meet?
Alexandra Martinez: I met him over a year ago in Miami. I’m a local journalist in Miami, and he was there for an art show, and I interviewed him, and then a few months later I went to visit family in Cuba and we started dating.
DM: It was her plan to be together. She went after me. And she’s been supporting me ever since. There have been a lot of dark moments but also some nice moments.
RA: Alexandra, are you still working as a reporter in Miami?
Alexandra Martinez: Freelancing. I went with him to Cuba for a month, and I was reporting from there. That was our original plan, for me to do that from Cuba with him, and then he went to jail. There was a moment when they didn’t want me to visit Danilo. They tried taking my camera away, and then when he was in jail they wouldn’t let me see him at first. They said that I was American and I wasn’t really his spouse. So I couldn’t see him. And then I was with his mom trying to visit him, waiting outside the prison, and in that very moment we hear Danilo’s voice, and he’s screaming, “They’re taking me to Combinado del Este.” And that was the first time that Danilo and I had seen each other in a month. They move prisoners around without informing the family. Families have to struggle to find out where the prisoners are, and it was lucky that we were out there.
DM: In 55 days I was moved to six prisons.
RA: And each time your family didn’t know where they had taken you?
DM: No. But I would always find a way to relate the news back to my mom. Whether that was through a prisoner who had recently been released or a friend who worked there, I would always find a way to get the news back to her.
RA: Were you allowed to have telephone calls?
DM: No. It was always very difficult for me to get to the phone. It was complicated, because if the guards helped me they would get into trouble.
RA: Did you have trouble getting a visa to come to the U.S.?
DM: No. I have a five-year travel visa.
RA: Are you planning to study art here?
DM: If they pay me, I will teach. I’m not a student anymore. I absorb what’s going on around me, and it would be difficult for someone else coming from a different tradition, a different place and time to teach me something. I’ve always drawn from when I was little. I had art history professors; then I studied marketing and public relations.
RA: I understand your mother is in Cuba and you also have a daughter there.
DM: Yes, but my mother can’t travel. She doesn’t have a passport. My daughter has a British passport, like her mother, and I’m trying to see if they will be able to come over here, so I can see my daughter.
RA: Is your art recognized in Cuba as much as it is outside?
DM: There are many people who know me, who recognize me in many parts of Cuba, in my neighborhood. I didn’t make myself famous on social media at first. I’m a graffiti artist who invaded the street, and the people on the street know me. It’s a different type of thing, because bloggers, journalists and people who tweet or do interviews are famous on social media, but I’m coming from the street and this gives me a different type of visibility. For example, on May Day, May 1, the activist who went out with the American flag and was beaten, many people had known him and seen him before, but never on the television screen. Although many people would never dare do that, many people now know about him, like the famous Reggaeton artist, Chacal. They will give a shout-out in a concert, and the popular rap group, Los Aldeanos, who are on film, critical of the Regime, have made songs about me as well. Now is when I’m able to take my career to another level of visibility. I’m really just trying to show and teach others through my own conduct.
RA: Do you feel now that you’re outside that you’re getting more information about what is going on in Cuba with opponents of the Regime?
DM: Yes, now I can get a lot more, but I already have my network and I’m well connected. I know what’s going on in my neighborhood.
RA: Is this through the Internet, telephone, word of mouth?
RA: What was your reaction when Obama suddenly ended the wet foot /dry foot policy?
DM: Unfortunately the issue of immigration and people entering the country is really only a concern for the president of that country. Really it was Obama’s decision whether or not to end the policy. The reason Cubans emigrate is not really Obama’s fault. The blame is on the Castro Regime for forcing people to leave. And at the end of the day, I’m more concerned about the problems facing the Cuban people. Even I could have been a victim of the change, of not being able to come into the country, but really the people to blame is the Castro government. The main concern is changing things inside Cuba. The dictatorship is to blame for me even being here right now. The country’s a prison. Look at all the people who attacked the man with the flag. There are people who get attacked and don’t appear on television. But we need to be very clear about who’s to blame here, because maybe even if they [the Castro Regime] are brought to international trial, they could be set free, and we need to be very clear. Who’s to blame? The guard in the prison? The police officer who didn’t want to open the door for me or the security guard who was beating me up for saying something? In this case both of them are guilty.
RA: Our mutual friend, Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo wants to ask you this question: Was it easy to find a tattoo artist willing to put the image of the martyrs, Laura Pollán and Oswaldo Payá on your skin? Tell us about that experience and what it means to you.
[There is a You Tube video of the tattooing.]
DM: Yes. A friend made the appointment. I explained what I wanted to do. He told me, “Don’t record my face.” And immediately I had a solo appointment just for me. Another problem with art is that tattoo artists in Cuba are persecuted by the Regime. It’s not a legal business. They don’t give out licenses. Everyone is persecuted.
RA: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo has another question: In 2011, in the first article ever published about you, which appeared in Diario de Cuba, he quoted you as saying that you were like “the noise of the people.” Today, six years later, what do you feel is the noise of Cuba?
DM: I believe that there’s some “noise” now with respect to graffiti. There are a few graffiti street artists, like Yulier [Yulier Rodríguez Pérez]. I love his work. He does graffiti on the street, very morose-looking surrealist creatures. He’s not outrightly political; he doesn’t associate himself with anything political. Right now I’m in a process of war against the bad in Cuba, and even heroes like José Martí had to leave Cuba and go into exile for some years. So I consider what I’m doing now to be part of this process, part of this war that I’m fighting. I didn’t leave to forget about what’s going on. I don’t stop working. I don’t stop thinking every moment, every day, about what I started and what I want to achieve. So there’s a lot left to do.
RA: What about what’s happening in Venezuela. What would it take for a movement like that to happen in Cuba?
DM: No, it’s a different situation. The people in Venezuela are completely different.
RA: What do you predict will happen when Raúl steps down in 2018?
DM: I don’t like predictions. The future belongs to the future. But I believe that what comes after Raúl is going to be another Castro. They will put different faces, different people to control the economy, different people to control different sectors, but at the end of the day they’re all puppets for the Regime. And one day they can put up on the television that so-and-so, like Miguel Díaz Canel, is betraying the revolution. Mariela Castro knows what she’s doing with the homosexual community, running around with the flag, and they’re trying to make out that what she’s doing is not a political campaign, not a political strategy, but of course it is. What’s coming is Mariela. That’s what they’re preparing. She’s taking a political platform. And if it were the sons, they would have created a political campaign for them. But the only thing people see is Mariela Castro going around, touting herself, doing whatever she wants and getting away with it, so we can only imagine that she is staging a political campaign to build the next face, the future of the revolution, something progressive, a human rights activist, a woman.
RA: But she wont be officially replacing her father.
DM: No. I wouldn’t dare make that type of prediction, but I can see that she’ll be the president; she’ll be the one controlling everything from behind the scenes. It will all be the same.
RA: So we should talk about your upcoming art exhibit in San Francisco.
DM: I’ll be inside of a cell for three days not eating anything, just drinking water.
RA: And at night?
DM: Same thing. I’ll be drawing portraits of political prisoners to raise awareness not just in Cuba but also in the whole world.
RA: What about a bathroom?
DM: There is one inside the cell.
RA: Are you going to have more of your paintings up in the gallery?
DM: There will be a total of about 20-25 paintings, all the drawings I did in prison and the most recent ones. They will be for sale.
RA: And this exhibit is going on how long?
DM: Two weeks, but I’ll only be there for three days.
RA: What are your future plans?
DM: I’ll continue with my work here. First I’m trying to take my art to the next level. Not just in the U.S. but in the whole world, the free world. Now there’s a show coming up called “Angels and Demons,” on May 11. Then I’m going to Europe for an Oslo Freedom Forum and Internet event, and then in September, this same show is going to Houston. The goal is to not stop working, to build a larger platform, so that when I decide to go back to Cuba, I will have a larger following, a larger layer of protection. We’re dealing with a group of murderers, of assassins, and we don’t know if they will detain me or not, so I have to keep doing what I’m doing. That’s my job.