Cuban, Libre

Cardinal Bar’s founder and longtime owner Ricardo Gonzalez recounts his experiences with revolutionary Cuba during his childhood, and his journey toward self-sufficiency and acceptance throughout some of the most tumultuous decades of the LGBT movement in the U.S.

They all gasped when they saw me coming into the living room wearing my mother’s evening gown and high heels. After all, I was only five and it wasn’t the sort of thing a boy would do, but the dress lay on her bed and I instinctively put it on, slipped into the shoes and out I paraded in front of company no less! To this day my older brothers remember the scene and kid me about it, realizing that it wasn’t just mischievousness, but the first sign of my being different.

Growing up in Cuba, especially in Camaguey—one of the island’s most conservative areas—middle class boys did not grow up to be dancers, actors or artists, let alone drag queens; yet that was what I wanted to be until the realization hit me that if I pursued those dreams I would be called a maricon and I knew that was bad. So then I took refuge in the Church, becoming an altar boy and announcing to my parents that I wanted to be a Marist brother. I must have been about 10 or 11, and their response was to wait and see how I felt about it in a few years. But by the time I was 13, all I wanted to do was dance and party.

We grew into a young adulthood rather fast. The drinking age in Cuba may have been 16 or 18, but no one paid attention. A boy, especially, would start drinking whenever he wanted. For me and my friends that happened around age 13; we would go to parties at someone’s home or at the social club and there would be rum and cokes—and dancing! There wasn’t any dating as such, but we were already thinking about girls. Being a social butterfly, I had to have a girlfriend and so began courting. Never mind that my fantasies were all about my boyfriends, I would learn to keep those deeply buried and carry on with the charade of being the Latin lover until finally coming out at 22.

In spite of that earlier display of drag, I was always rather masculine in my behavior. I did my share of sports but wasn’t really athletic, being more interested from an early age in history, geography and politics. When the Cuban Revolution triumphed on January 1, 1959, I was only 12 but immediately identified with it and became an ardent supporter, going as far as raising funds for the new agrarian reform. Soon I would learn that such legislation was hurting my father’s business and that of many of my friends whose families owned ranches and sugar plantations. It was a heady time in Cuba, and many changes were under way that would affect my life forever.

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Coming to America  

However, my interests then were all about social dancing and developing what would become a life-long obsession with Cuban music. The person who would most influence this development was my nanny, Brigida, by getting me into dance reviews which required choreography. Thus, I learned to dance well from an early age. She always had the radio set to the popular music stations and would encourage us to watch variety shows on TV, so I became familiar with the leading bands of the time. Shortly after my 13th birthday I actually organized a dance party at a public place, hired our esteemed choreographer to play music on a reel-to-reel tape player, got Brigida to make some appetizers, and charged everyone $1 to attend—which I collected by going to each of my friends’ homes. And there was a bar to boot!

By the fall of 1960, the word on the street was that the government was planning to take children under 16 away from their parents and send them to Russia for communist indoctrination. My parents decided to send us to the U.S. until things calmed down; after all, the U.S. would not allow a communist government to take hold in Cuba, or so was the conventional wisdom. The result was that by November I was in Miami with a younger brother, staying with an uncle whose wife was a fidelista! Their daughter was about my age and soon provided my first sexual experience of sorts.

Since my brother was younger, I considered myself his keeper and assumed a serious and responsible attitude. Our youth had been thwarted and within months I had to get a job. My parents came, and we settled in Miami right after the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. My oldest brother had joined the invasion forces and was captured and jailed in Cuba, adding considerable drama to our initial years of exile.

Those were hard times. New arrivals from Cuba were coming daily, many of them people we knew. In spite of the hardship, the exile community was united in its hatred of Castro and what he had wrought upon us. People helped each other find housing and jobs, and soon a new community began taking shape—one that would become the most successful immigrant group in U.S. history. But that would come later. For now, it was the early 1960s and jobs were getting scarcer to find in the Miami area, prompting the Cuban Refugee Center to offer exiles the opportunity to settle elsewhere in the country. Entire families would accept help from church groups and move to places like Indiana, Oklahoma, Iowa, and other states that many had never even heard of.

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Go West, Young Man  

My girlfriend’s family moved to Oklahoma City early in 1963, and I convinced one of my older brothers to join me in pursuit. The Refugee Center provided us with a one-way plane ticket and a winter coat, and with $20 that my father gave me, I set out to begin a new life. The only thing I knew about Oklahoma was the movie musical which I had seen in Cuba. The relationship with my girlfriend, such as it was (after all, she was only 14 and I was 16), didn’t last long but my brother and I decided to stay the course in Oklahoma. We got jobs, and I finished high school. During that year, with my oldest brother back from prison in Cuba, the family moved to San Antonio, Texas.

My wish was to attend the University of Oklahoma at Norman, but it would not accept me as a state resident which meant paying out-of-state tuition, something completely beyond my means. A high school teacher suggested I try a small college in Tishomingo and I set forth and enrolled at Murray State Agricultural College, a two year school in the heart of “Little Dixie” in southeastern Oklahoma, where I became the 500th student to enroll—and the first Cuban. The student newspaper did a story on me, and I became a sort of celebrity. It was the fall of 1964, and my first presidential election was in full swing, with me supporting the GOP candidate, Barry Goldwater. That would be the last time I would support a Republican for president; by the time I graduated, I had gone from archconservative to ultra liberal, and my anti-Castro attitude was being challenged by new awareness caused by U.S. intervention in Vietnam and the raging civil rights movement. By the ’70s, I was a committed anti-imperialist and had come to conclusions that I still hold dear.

Ripon, WI  

Politics was indeed my other obsession. It was to be expected, given the politicization caused by events in Cuba. Within my family I was called “the lawyer” for always having an opinion; in fact, going on to law school was a given until life presented other options. Moving to Oklahoma at 16 had been a big change and had set me on the road to self-sufficiency. When I graduated from college, I fully intended to go on to graduate school and had picked the University of Missouri for its political science program, but after a summer job with Green Giant, I was offered the position of personnel manager at Ripon, WI and promptly accepted.

This was 1968 and I was about to turn 22, still a virgin and deeply closeted. But Ripon had surprises in store for me. I loved my job and thoroughly enjoyed the responsibility for overseeing the hiring of over one thousand seasonal workers, most of them college students during the pea pack (June/July) and Mexican migrants for the corn pack (August and September). The contact with the mejicanos would have a deep effect on my sociopolitical thinking as well as my health. I empathized with them and proceeded to bring about changes and improvements in the way the company dealt with them, but halfway into the first summer, I contracted TB and had to spend the next seven months in repose, first at a sanatorium and then later at home in San Antonio.

Imagine! Full of life and ambition at 22 and struck by a disease that 20 years earlier would have killed me. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, however, as the rest gave me the opportunity to read and get more acquainted with what was going on in the country, especially the protests against the Vietnam War. I participated in the San Antonio Moratorium march, and somehow my picture made the front page of the local paper—totally scandalizing my mother who became convinced that I was a communist and leading to many arguments. Frustrated with the home scene and having pretty much recovered from the bout with TB, I decided to go visit some friends in Washington, DC. The experience would prove catalytic.

Self Reconciliation  

A former girlfriend had given me a copy of Andre Gide’s The Immoralist and I began to read it. In it, the main character was stricken with TB and also had to deal with his homosexuality. In Washington, after touring the White House and walking around for a while, I went into a bookstore and came upon the current issue of TIME magazine which featured a cover story on “The Homosexual in America.” Wow! I thought, scared to pick up a copy, but doing so eventually and devouring the story based largely on the events of June 1969 at the Stonewall Inn.

Rewind to the spring of 1969. I had befriended the owner of a men’s clothing store in Ripon soon after my arrival and, even though he was effeminate and reputed to be gay, I had rented a room in his house and soon found that he was friends with a group of interior decorators from Madison. On Memorial Day weekend, we drove down and stayed at their home on Jenifer Street, where I had my first adult homosexual experience. As such, it was mellow with no real passion, nothing like I had dreamed, but the genie was out of the bottle. The material I read later that year only spurred me to become more curious and determined to finally come out.

After returning to work, I gave myself to the life of going to gay bars. It was the early 70s, and coming out was still a very iffy thing to do. All I really wanted was to experience the new sexual freedom, although certain aspects of it gave me pause. By 1978, even after having the Cardinal Bar for a few years, I became convinced that the so-called “advocate experience” of multiple sexual encounters did not really amount to freedom. My apprehensions turned out to be prophetic with the advent of AIDS.

My first significant other was a teacher who lived in Ripon, and we would get together with other friends for dinners and outings. It was during this period that the idea for the Cardinal Bar was born, as we would get high and dream of having a place that would overlook water and be the most beautiful bar. Our fantasy name for it was “Moon Lake Casino,” as in the nightclub in Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire. It would take three years for me to run into the Cardinal and realize that the dream had come true.

But politics took precedence. In 1972, I got totally involved in the McGovern campaign for President and ended up becoming a candidate myself for the Wisconsin Assembly in what was arguably the most conservative district in the State. My boyfriend was adamant that I not come out on account of his parents who lived nearby, but I still ran a very progressive campaign focusing more on national rather than local issues. Even by today’s standards, I would be considered a radical in that district, advocating for consumer protection, environmental regulations, amnesty for war deserters and a woman’s right to choose an abortion. Needless to say, I went down in flames.

My Madison  

That brought to an end my career with Green Giant, which had become alarmed at my increasingly radical views on corporate farming and migrant workers. Without a job and licking the wounds of my political loss, I decided to move to Madison. I was already in love with the city and had envisioned living here one way or the other. Even then, Madison had a burgeoning gay culture with young, beautiful and smart people. I was ready and soon found employment as an affirmative action officer for the State of Wisconsin. It was a great job that put me in contact with the Latino community for the first time while also affording me the opportunity to build a new life as an openly gay man.

However, the dream for “Moon Lake Casino” would not go away, and soon I was itching with the desire to open my own business. Following a vacation to Key West in the summer of 1974, I came into my office one day and looked in the classifieds under “Business Opportunities” and there it was: “Tavern for lease, décor ca. 1912, overlooking the lake, near State office buildings.” Eureka! I immediately called and made an appointment to see it and, as they say, the rest is history.

Looking back on the past 40+ years, there is no question that the Cardinal was heaven-sent for me to achieve, not just the dream of owning a bar, but the creation of a very unique space that would provide a political forum and a place to exert all my energies, whether they be sexual, entrepreneurial or artistic. It would become a base from which to launch myself into local and national politics, but most importantly, the Cardinal would be a place for a community to gather for fun and entertainment, while doing serious and important business.

To be sure, the Cardinal has had ups and downs throughout its history. Built in 1908 as a railroad hotel, it survived the urban decay of the post war years and was spared any major remodeling, thus preserving its beautiful architectural features. Even a fire in a third story room in 1981 and the subsequent major renovation in 1986 did not affect the continuity of the bar.

There are many things I may do differently now, if given the opportunity, but I do relish the trajectory that my life has traveled. I can only point now to the positives of sharing a life with Brian (my partner of 31 years), to the success of the Cardinal Bar, to a loving and understanding family and to having had the great fortune of living in one of the most civilized and beautiful places on Earth.

And then there is still Cuba, beckoning!