GMCLA Returns from Historic Visit with Cuban, U.S. Leaders in Havana

A delegation consisting of 13 members from the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles (GMCLA), including its CEO Chris Verdugo, Artistic Director Joe Nadeau, and West Hollywood Council Member and Board President John Duran, returned this week from an unprecedented and historic visit to an island nation that is just beginning to re-establish normalized relations with the United States, and one in which there is still much mystery and curiosity surrounding it. Cuba.

The contingent of members was invited to Havana by Fermin Rojas, a Cuban-American entrepreneur and the co-founder of Cuba’s first-ever gay men’s chorus, Mano a Mano. The six-man ensemble will be GMCLA’s special guest at its upcoming June performance of “Oye Mi Canto!” in Los Angeles.

While in Havana, GMCLA had the distinct pleasure and rare opportunity to gain a deeper and richer understanding of Cuban culture from within the country’s borders. Additionally, they spent some one-on-one time with Mano a Mano, going over the upcoming repertoire of songs to perform in Los Angeles. Demonstrating a truly significant alliance between the two groups, Mano a Mano was also designated as GMCLA’s sister organization in Cuba, and in reaching that milestone, has become GMCLA’s first international program, marking an important milestone.

On the second day of their journey, they experienced an extraordinary moment visiting the residence of the U.S. Ambassador to Cuba, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, spending time with his wife Jennifer, and Bruce Kleiner, the Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy. During the “dynamic meeting,” as reported by Verdugo, “We conversed about the impact of art and music on Cuban society and shared our thoughts on the new, emerging Cuba and the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead.”

They also spent time discussing their upcoming joint project with Mano a Mano and how GMCLA and the LGBT community at-large can further help to improve relations between America and Cuba by helping to change hearts and minds. They also visited the offices of CENESEX, Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education, an institution started by Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela that studies human sexuality and helps advise on policy matters surrounding sexuality education. During this tour, they unloaded a plurality of humanitarian items that can’t readily be found in Havana, including medications. The group also got the chance to engage in robust conversation regarding the work they’re doing to end bullying in the country, what is being done by GMCLA in the States, and shared information about GMCLA’s Trans Chorus of Los Angeles.

Nadeau, GMCLA’s Artistic Director, shared some of the excitement he felt from touring Havana and in talking to locals. “We’re seeing the change happen, and the experience we had might be different in a year or two from now for those traveling to Cuba. One other thing we saw and noticed as an outsider was that there wasn’t a sense of depression or sadness at all. Cuban people were very proud and talented…took a lot of pride in their art and food and culture.”

Rojas, the organizer of the event, has a strong connection to Cuba and to gay men’s choruses. In forming Mano a Mano, his intention was to create something long-lasting, a legacy…a gay men’s chorus in Havana. And while they focus on musical excellence and being a spectacular performing group, they equally focus on helping to change the climate for LGBT people in Cuba.

Verdugo himself also has an intense connection to the country. In fact, he’s now the first Verdugo to return to Cuba in 50 years. “It was quite emotional. I spent over an hour talking with my dad on the phone the first day back.”

“Oye Mi Canto!” will be presented by AIDS Life/Cycle with additional support from Southwest Airlines and by Season 37 Presenting Sponsor Wells Fargo, in Glendale’s landmark venue, the Alex Theatre (216 N. Brand Blvd.).

To purchase tickets to “Oye Mi Canto!” or for more information on the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles and its upcoming 2016 programming schedule, visit www.gmcla.org.