Ruben Blades leaned up, his eyes intent on the colorful tapestry on the wall. "The motif is similar to the Navajo, no?" he asked in nearly perfect English. He'd been focusing on a colorful cloth made by a Mexican Indian. He stared at it unabashedly.
Helen Valdez, the executive director of the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum in Pilsen, nodded enthusiastically. A stocky, smiling woman, she was taking Blades and Sonia Braga, two stars of Robert Redford's The Milagro Beanfield War, around the center's huge exhibition of Mexican weaving.
On their heels were camera from both English- and Spanish-language television and a retinue of reporters and other hangers-on who mostly wanted to hear about making a movie with Redford.
"My mother does this kind of weaving in Brazil," Braga said in a crisp accented English. When she repeated it in Spanish, it came out a childlike mix with her native Portuguese. Braga's role in Milagro is her second big shot at American stardom. The Brazilian actress was the leading lady, the tantalizing vision, of Hector Babenco's Kiss of the Spider woman. The film won William Hurt an Oscar.
"The colors, they're vegetable dyes, aren't they?" Blades asked, his nose inches from the fabric, and again Valdez nodded. Blades was entirely serious in his demeanor, his bands clasped behind his back. As he peered at the work, his eyes narrowed and the TV lights shone on the thin hair crowning the back of his head.
Blades was lingering beyond everybody else's attention span. The beautiful Braga, wearing jeans, a bolo, and cowboy boots, drifted away from the throng. "Can I have your autograph?" begged a little man with a rodent's face. Braga tossed her hair back, smiled, and consented. In minutes she was surrounded by a circle of small men, all with some sort of official credentials, and all begging for written attention.
"I know about this," Blades told Valdez as they walked from tapestry to tapestry. He took his time examining each one, reading the accompanying text and occasionally touching the fabric. In the museum lobby, the skeletal stands of the TV equipment waited for Blades and Braga to finish so they could be grilled on moviemaking. Blades has a strong supporting role in Milagro (he starred in his first film, Crossover Dreams). But he was taking his time in the museum, enjoying his little stroll with Helen Valdez. "It's amazing isn't it?" he asked her. "Computers can do this, but not as well, not as complex. These weavers, they hold the pattern in their heads. They work it out as they're doing it, out in the open. In Panama, they do the same thing."
When Blades pronounces Panama, it's always in Spanish, regardless of the rest of the sentence. He accents the final syllable, leaving his mouth open. Even on his new album, Nothing but the Truth--his first-ever English-language record for an American audience--Blades pronounces the name of his native land only in Spanish. (His name, by the way, is Blades in English, as in "blades of grass"--his great-grandfather was from the British West Indies. The Spanish-sounding "blah-dehs" is just a mispronunciation.)
"Imagine the mathematics of this," he said as roving cameras recorded his every move among the textiles on display. But Blades wasn't playing to them. His chatting was directly with Valdez, in a near whisper and with his back to the intrusive lenses.
Out in the lobby of the museum, a half circle of reporters waited. Theresa Gutierrez from Channel Seven stalked the door with a long black microphone in hand. Billy Zayas, the former cohost of WBEZ's salsa show, Mambo Express, watched the maneuvering as Blades and Braga faced the glaring lights. As he passed Zayas, Blades recognized him with a warm hug. "Hombre, como anda?" the singer said.
Zayas, now in the public-relations business, smiled from under his shaggy mustache. He's a short, stocky man with a street poet's demeanor. Like Blades--who's singer, actor, writer, activist, and lawyer--Zayas has been a million things at different times: he's written plays, done stand-up comedy, played music, been a political consultant. For the press conference, Zayas wore a bag strapped around his shoulder and held a small mike in his hand. The other media people stared, a little green as Blades stopped and bantered with him.
"This is going to get me in trouble," Zayas predicted with false modesty as Blades turned away. "Everybody's going to think I can deliver him to this or that show now, but I can't. I mean, the guy just knows me from radio. And me, I just like his music."
"Ladies and gentlemen," Helen Valdez announced at the front of the room. Blades and Braga stood to her side. "We're going to begin the press conference now. However, Mr. Blades will not take any questions on [pronounced American-style] Panama--"
"No, no, no," Blades interrupted. "It's not that I don't want questions about Panama, it's that I dont want to have to defend myself about wanting to be the president of Panama." His mouth hung open for emphasis on the end of "Panama," letting the "ah" sound linger.
It was a little less than two years ago that Blades dropped out of music temporarily (immediately after the release of the critically praised LP Buscando America) to go to Harvard Law School. It was then he told the New York Times he wanted to be president of his native country.
"Well, then, what do you think of what's happening in Panama?" asked a reporter from a Latino neighborhood paper.
"Noriega's a symptom, not the disease," Blades explained. The problem in Panama wont be solved exclusively with the exit of Noriega. There's an absence of leadership. This is part of the process, part of the crisis."
He put forth his presidential platform as reporters fidgeted. Channel Five's Ray Suarez fretted because he couldn't get a camera crew to come and film Blades.
"So long as there's no liberty of expression, no political maturity, then it feels correct to me to continue with my artistic activities," Blades said. "Look, when I go to Panama, I go visit an old friend who's the pianist at the Holiday Inn. Every time I go, I visit this guy and he's still there. In the last eight years, every time I go, there's a new president in Panama, but my friend's still the piano player at the Holiday Inn."
The crowd laughed nervously. Zayas looked around. "I don't think anybody understood the metaphor," he whispered. "How awful . . ."
"It's the inspiration for your music, isn't it?" asked a reporter. He was grinning broadly as he poked at a guy standing next to him; he was proud of his question. Zayas chuckled.
"No, no," Blades said coldly. "I don't need dictatorships for inspiration. Daily life in Latin America is fantastic enough."
"What was it like to work with Redford?" asked Channel Seven's Gutierrez.
"Well, it's like these tapestries," Blades said, nodding toward the exhibition space. "He was the weaver and we were the colors. The experience was good because there was respect." Braga, whose English is still somewhat new, nodded agreement and appreciation to her costar.
By now, Gutierrez was firing off question after question, eventually holding both stars hostage to her piercing microphone. The neighborhood reporters backed off, muttering obscenities.
"Is Hollywood fair to women? Is it fair to Hispanics? Is it fair to Hispanic women?" demanded Gutierrez of Braga. The Brazilian literally stepped back.
"I think we've got a growing audience," she answered.
"Are you ready to conquer Hollywood?" another writer asked.
"The world!" Braga said with a laugh.
"Absolutely," Blades added. "Why settle for just Hollywood?"
Zayas smiled. "Not when Panama's waiting."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jose Almanza.