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'This is just like Cuba used to be'

Every weekend at Pipo's, a multigenerational crowd that could pass for a family reunion hits the dance floor to relive Cuba before Castro.

By PATTY RYAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 8, 2002


[Times photos: John Pendygraft]
Richard Egues plays flute with Rico Son, a traditional Cuban salsa band. Though some of the songs they play are 40 years old, the crowd knows every word.
DAVIS ISLANDS -- Something tickles Dr. Jose Dominguez Sr. The island air, maybe. The salsa band. The aroma of ropa vieja.

He tilts his face toward the bougainvillea, lush as it climbs a courtyard wall. His gaze finds the banana tree, the palm fronds, the tiered fountain. Each breeze carries the music closer.

Dominguez, 73, smiles at the past.

"This is just like Cuba used to be," he says.

He has planted himself at Pipo's, a cafeteria and nightclub opened by a 31-year-old man whose tonsils he used to check. "Danielito," he calls out. In a blur, Pipo's owner Danny Hernandez sweeps through the courtyard, tending to the needs of his elders.

It is Hernandez who has helped Davis Islands residents discover their wiggle, while delighting those who gave him life.

"There really isn't any place in Tampa with the music our parents heard growing up," he says.

Across the street, a sign hangs over Davis Islands Hardware. In either direction, more signs mark the Davis Islands Pharmacy and the Davis Island Super Market. Davis Boulevard, unbroken by traffic lights, leads to the Davis Islands bridges, the foothills of downtown Tampa.

Every Friday and Saturday, cars slip in from West Tampa and Town 'N Country, carrying the aging survivors of Fidel Castro's revolution.

They park next to Mercedes Benzes owned by indigenous Davis Islands residents. Inside Pipo's, the Latinos and the Anglos juggle their plates of roast pork and black beans, energy to fuel the dance, el baile. When the jaws stop, the lips and toes take over.

Dancers (foreground) Edith Dominguez, left, Jose Dominguez Sr. and Nancy Miguel enjoys the rhythm at Pipo's on Davis Islands on Saturday. Every weekend, the aging survivors of Fidel Castro's revolution line up to drink in the sounds of traditional Cuban music. Nancy met her husband, anesthesiologist Higinio Miguel, dancing in 1957 in Havana.
"You see people mouthing the words to songs that were popular 30 and 40 years ago," says Nicolle Sequeira, wife of Gaby Sequeira, bass player for the Saturday night salsa band, Rico Son.

Most Saturdays, Dominguez brings his wife and dancing partner, Edith. They live in Beach Park but their moves began long ago in Havana.

"She asked me when I met her, "Do you dance?' " Dominguez recalls. "If I didn't dance, she would never marry me." He winks. "I wanted to have my cake and Edith, too."

She wears black slacks and an animal print sweater, to his khaki trousers and tweed jacket. They meld into a multigenerational crowd that could pass for a family reunion or a wedding reception.

Sometimes, Jose Jr. comes with his wife and two daughters. Or, the Dominguezes dine and dance with friends, anesthesiologist Higinio Miguel and his wife, Nancy, who met dancing in 1957 in Havana, when Fidel was still hiding in the mountains.

"They come with little kids and sit down at tables and they dance," Dominguez says of the crowd. "The parents dance and the kids dance.

"The feeling is contagious."

Among the eldest this night is Rosa Lopez, 92. She sits shyly in a corner with a group of friends, some of whom have driven up from Miami to gather outside Pipo's and listen to Rico Son.

Marco Sequeira, 11, watches while his father performs.

"He plays in nightclubs where I would never think of bringing Marco along, but here I don't hesitate," stepmother Nicolle says. "You can get a meal and bring your children and still feel comfortable. It's very classy."

A few yards away, a woman in white capri pants with a white knit top cannot help but move. She dances alone and accompanied, on the dance floor and in the aisles.

Ignacio Rosquete, 51, tunes the tres, a traditional Cuban instrument, at Pipo's on Saturday. The band, Rico Son, plays often for the crowd that gathers there on weekends to dance to the salsa music and ballads of their youth.
"Every Friday and Saturday, I'm here," says Amparo Mata, 48. "I'm the one who takes everyone up to dance. I go around the tables."

One man sits amid a cluster of women.

To explain why he isn't dancing, he makes a rhyme in Spanish:

"Porque mi esposa esta celosa" -- in English, "because my wife is jealous."

Inside Pipo's, in a far corner of the bar, the island regulars nurse drinks. Their numbers include a Gasparilla pirate and a member of the Rough Riders. They seem entertained, more concerned about encroaching mini mansions than about the island's weekend visitors.

Bill Cowherd, a Davis Islands resident for four decades, keeps an open mind.

"We can't understand the words, but it sounds good," he says.

Nicolle Sequeira would cheerfully translate.

One ballad, El Cuarto de Tula (The Room of Tula), tells of a young woman named Tula who falls asleep beside a lighted candle. Her house catches fire.

The song is a favorite of Rico Son singer Abel Feria.

He likes it because Tula's neighbors all come to put out the fire.

"It's one of the idiosyncrasies of the Cuban people," Feria says. "If there's a problem, everybody goes to help."

He knows a little of how it feels to be Tula. At 36, he has Hodgkin's lymphoma. On a recent Friday, when the Pipo's crowd receded like a tide, it happened because of Feria.

His fans assembled for a benefit at the West Tampa Convention Center. The next night, everyone returned to Pipo's, adding their coins to the fountain of wishes.

Another Saturday dance is nearly over.

"Muchas gracias, buena noche," a band member will say.

Dominguez, holding Edith, lingers, not nearly ready to go.

The Miguels, too, resist the night.

Higinio Miguel stops to drink it in, the last drop.

"The past is forgotten," he says. "The present is gold. And the future is illusion."

- Patty Ryan can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or pryan@sptimes.com.

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