The impact of Cuban music is enormous in Veracruz, and one type or another can be heard everywhere you go. You'll hear it in the Plazuela de la Campana, a hard-to-find, pocket-sized square in the shadow of a former convent, with regular live music including weekly danzón nights. You'll hear son jarocho—the local version of the classic Cuban rhythm—on the malecón, the waterfront promenade where musicians linger outside the cacophonous Gran Café de la Parroquia, which has been a Veracruz landmark for nearly 200 years. You'll even hear hip-shaking rumbas blaring inside the municipal fish market, where among thefresh seafood you can eat a perfect snapper a la veracruzana (in a sauce of tomato, onion, chiles, capers, and green olives) in one of the many food stalls.
"Like Cubans, we are very festive, and there isn't a Veracruzano alive who doesn't dance," explains Bernardo "Nayo" Lorenzo, Veracruz's unofficial historian, tireless raconteur, and author of five books about the city. Most days, Nayo can be found in hisoffice above the fish market, from which he broadcasts his eccentric, ad hoc radio show. "Of course," Nayo adds, with a mischievous smile, "we are also liars and dreamers. This comes from living in a seaport. Seamen depend on their imaginations to get through a long voyage, and when they arrive they are full of fantasies. That's who we are, too."
Fantasy could find no better vehicle than the danzón, which evokes a world of exquisite manners and glittering ballrooms (in fact, it is often referred to as "His Majesty, the danzón"). This romantic image is no doubt what appealed to many of the first enthusiasts, who came from Veracruz's underclass. "In the beginning, the danzón attracted people without the resources to go out and enjoy themselves," Zamudio says. "It was the best alternative entertainment for them. But over the years that changed, and lots of people took it up. Now in Veracruz we have something like fifteen different artistic dance troupes, mostly older dancers, who study, practice, and perform together."
For the 28-year-old Zamudio, the greatest challenge is to persuade young people that the danzón is not just for their grandparents. The 1991 release of a popular Mexican movie called Danzón, filmed in Veracruz with sexy leading lady María Rojo, helped broaden the dance's appeal, but it still continued to suffer from the stereotype that it was for old folks. Zamudio realized that without the next generation's support, the dance could die off with the old-timers, or, perhaps even worse, end up as a hokey folklórico show. To avoid this, he has put together a dance troupe of his own, Tres Generaciónes, which is composed mostly of teenagers. Now, twice a week, some 45 members between the ages of 16 and 25 practice their steps and learn new routines; they have performed before audiences throughout Mexico as well as in Cuba and Japan. "The danzón had skipped a generation," Zamudio explains. "It was being danced by grandparents, but not their children. So with Tres Generaciónes, we are teaching the grandchildren the traditions of their elders. We want to show that the danzón can be for everybody."
And everybody, it seems, is who you'll see in the crowded zocalo on Saturday night. Even though the band has finally wrapped up its set and the musicians have packed up their gear, the die-hard dancers aren't quitting. By 10 p.m. or so, they have reassembled at the evening's next stop, Rincón de la Trova, a popular two-story nightclub on Callejón de la Lagunilla, a stone-paved alley several blocks away. Here, some 300 people will dance to four live bands playing son (to which many of the dancers do a kind of danzón, minus the pauses). The dancers stay until two or three in the morning, and after the last number they spill back out into the alley, passing the statue of legendary Cuban sonero Benny Moré on their way home.
Daniel Cruz Rosas, 70, a retired electrician who still plays trumpet and works with one of the city's danzón troupes, rarely misses a Saturday night out. When asked why he's so passionate about danzón, Rosas says,"I'm an old man, but when I dance I feel young again."
Arnulfo Luna, another regular, puts it a different way. A member of one of the city's most established troupes, Los Seguidores de Su Majestad el Danzón, Luna never misses a chance to dance. Next Saturday night, his group is to put on a performance in the zocalo, so tonight he and his colleagues are out practicing their routine. "They say that once the danzón is inside you, it never leaves," Luna says. "Its rhythm enters your heart and soul."