By Patra Urairat
To wander through a modern city and see young people sleeping in parks, using drugs and listening to music would not be a bizarre experience. In Castro’s Cuba, though, simply existing differently was a bold statement. The island’s “Frikis,” or “Freaks,” represent a group of hippy nonconformists that materialized to resemble a subculture that was part political protest, part response to a helpless situation and part mass hysteria.
They symbolized Cuba’s “inactive” youth––the government’s greatest fear. They feared a youth grassroots movement, which was exacerbated by a cold-war mindset. Western rock music and hippy lifestyle were deemed intentionally subversive to the Cuban ideology. This led to chartered crackdowns, such as the Unidades Militares para Ayuda a la Producción (reeducation through labour).
1986 marks the year the first HIV case was discovered on the island. Soon after, quarantine centers, sanatorios, sprung up across Cuba. Enforced for treatment, they remain what is probably the most controversial practice associated with Cuban health care. People who tested positive lost their freedom indefinitely.
The rest of the world saw the sanatoriums as prisons in disguise, but the Frikis saw a unique opportunity. In light of the reverse ageism that plagued the 1980s, the youth were desperate to “opt out” of the collective. They were energized by jinterismo, petty crime and their own nihilism––a force aching to be mobilized. Faced with the choice of life under police brutality or in a state-supported clinic where food and drinks were free, many Frikis turned to the latter.
Thus, the self-infection began.
“I found a friend who gave me his blood, I extracted it and injected it into me,” said Gerson Govea, one of the last surviving Frikis of the generation.
Turning a blind eye to the death that was slowly surmounting around them, they built communities within; Frikis formed bands, played gigs and spent time with the people they loved.
“When one of us felt alright, another would be in bed sick,” Govea said. “When they were, it meant they were dying.”
The surface of antiretroviral drugs in 1987 slowed the virus’s killer impact. By then, it was much too late for the Frikis. When internment clinics closed in 1994, some had lost limbs, and others had lost their lives. Govea and his wife still live in what once was the Pinar del Rio sanatorium, filled with posters of punk bands and old memories. The Frikis and their wave of self-infection will always be a ferocious reminder of the brutality of Castro’s regime. Pushed into a corner, they turned to the unimaginable to continue existing as a community.
Though outrageously reckless, the Frikis were an astonishing force to be reckoned with. Their madness will live on in Cuban memory.