- Associated Press - Friday, June 24, 2016

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Gathered around a keyboard in Los Angeles, conductor Ernesto Lima Parets stopped his singers and told them to try again.

The five men who make up the gay Cuban choir Mano a Mano performed Gloria Estefan’s “Mi Tierra” (“My Homeland”) with perfect harmony. But he wanted them to feel it.

“You must imagine what it means to leave Cuba,” Parets told them.

On Saturday, the men are scheduled to launch their first U.S. tour, performing a repertoire of Cuban classics, pop hits and the Estefan song with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles.

In an era of renewed relations between the U.S. and Cuba, the joint performance would mark another step toward fostering collaboration between the LGBT communities in each country. Both choirs had charted history in their respective countries: GMCLA was founded in 1979 and lost over 150 members during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Mano a Mano was created just two years ago, forging a unique space as one of the only independent gay organizations on the island.

“This is the first time there is a real exchange between the gay community in the U.S. and in Cuba,” Mano a Mano singer Arian Ferrer Castro, 29, said.

The journey from Havana to Los Angeles started in 2014, when Cuban-American producer Fermin Rojas and his husband, Jay Kubesch, visited Cuba and decided to start the group. A former singer with Miami’s gay men’s chorus, Rojas wanted to bring the gay choral movement to Cuba, a country where a culture of machismo has long pervaded daily life and homosexuals had been imprisoned and sent to labor camps decades ago. In recent years, gay rights have expanded and a visible LGBT community emerged.

Still, Rojas wondered: Was Havana ready to embrace a gay choir?

“Having an audition for a gay men’s chorus in Cuba was kind of like, ‘OK, how do you go about doing that?’ ” Rojas said. “Because it’s never been done before.”

Rojas hired a renowned pianist to direct the choir and began spreading the word about an open audition.

Fifty men showed up. Twelve made the initial cut.

The men began performing in Cuba within months. But after a banking problem forced Cuba to suspend U.S. consular services in February 2014, Rojas and thousands of others were unable to get visas to return to the island. For months, he watched Mano a Mano develop from afar.

When he was finally able to return, Rojas learned the director had been calling the men gay slurs.

Rojas fired him and hired 25-year-old Parets in his place.

In the last year, Mano a Mano has performed throughout Cuba and twice at the Cuban National Center for Sex Education’s annual gala against homophobia and transphobia. The center is led by President Raul Castro’s daughter, Mariela Castro, who is widely credited with helping advance LGBT rights.

The men hope renewed diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba will have a positive impact on the LGBT community. Touring in the U.S. is an important first step, they said, but so far the normalization has not brought many substantial improvements.

“We are six, only six,” Parets said of his group. “The big community gay in Cuba doesn’t know about any change.”

Earlier this year, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles visited Cuba. GMLCA executive director Chris Verdugo said watching a pride parade from a balcony in Havana made him think of Los Angeles decades ago, when gay organizations like the choir began to emerge.

But he said the U.S. can also learn from Cuba on LGBT issues.

The island prohibits job discrimination by sexual orientation; a comparative federal law in the United States does not exist.

“Those are conversations that here in the United States we’re still having a very difficult time approaching,” Verdugo said.

In their first days in the U.S., the men performed on TV and visited The Abbey, a famous gay bar and restaurant in West Hollywood, California. One of the most surprising moments, though, came at a grocery store. When Castro came across a row of plump red, yellow, orange and green peppers, he began to cry.

He had only seen red and green peppers before.

Days later at their rehearsal, the men found themselves reflecting on Estefan. GMCLA’s music directors had selected her song about yearning for a lost homeland. But the Mano a Mano singers had not grown up listening to her. For years, Estefan’s music had been banned.

Discovering there were people like her in the U.S. who felt Cuban and pined to return was a revelation.

“You can be Cuban in whatever part of the world,” Parets said. “That’s what we’re feeling right now.”

___

Follow Christine Armario on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/cearmario

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