Death of former Cuban fighter tells me I don’t want to be present at the deaths of any more hardcore Xenites.
My Kiwi pal, who has never seen an episode of Xena, was watching the queue of autograph seekers at a fan convention. At first they are laughing and joshing at the back of the line. Then when they get to within four or five people from the table she said they become very still and focused on me.
By the time they get to the front they have worked themselves into a lather. Some dissolve into tears and can't speak.
My friend's jaw was on the ground. "What the hell do they see in you?" she asks. It's moments like these that reinforce the notion that fame is a phenomenon of other people. It cannot possibly be about the actors, most of whom are all too aware of the gulf between fan perception and reality.
The uberfan has attached to the actor an awesome mythology. Xena: Warrior Princess has an unusually fervent group of adherents. Its themes of inner strength, love and the potential for redemption have spurred many of these fans to free themselves from lives of torment.
I hear stories of escape from sexual abuse or battery and their stigma. I meet many gay people who found the courage to come out to their parents, or folk with health challenges who used the messages of strength to push through.
I am guessing that these people were primed to pull these messages out of the ether at the time they watched the show. What's incredible is that they acted upon those impulses. So really, the magic happened in them. I claim no responsibility for any of it but that's some kind of alchemy.
Very early on in my career, I became acquainted with a hardcore "Xenite" called Aleida Santiago. A diminutive Cuban exile who had fought against Batista in 1957, Aleida smuggled vials of nitro-glycerine in her knickers to bombmakers.
She was 16 but looked 12 and soldiers never suspected that this child was the harbinger of doom. Aleida's family was destroyed over the years, Castro betrayed the rebels and eventually she ended up in America, becoming a respected teacher and union negotiator.
Grace, her partner of 25 years, was also an educator who, with a bit of eye-rolling, tolerated Aleida's infatuation with the Xenaverse. They were a wonderful couple.
Now here was Aleida, 65 and stricken with cancer. I called her from Vancouver where I was working, and I could tell that she was losing the fight. I promised to visit the second I returned to Los Angeles, which I did. When I arrived Aleida was ensconced in a La-Z-Boy, looking radiant. She was having trouble with some words so I asked her if she wanted to watch one of the childhood home movies which were lined up with her Xena cassettes along the wainscoting. She nodded and beamed.
Apparently she had always wanted me to see the life she'd had before Cuba went to hell in a handbasket. There was her beloved father in 1950, his pants belted up high as was the fashion, an urbane gentleman. Then behind him, cantering through cane-high grass, came little Aleida bareback on a pony.
The image flickered and next a silver double-prop DC3 landed on their lawn and children padded in the limpid Caribbean. All the time, Aleida never took her eyes off me. She was so very happy to have me observing her sunnily bourgeois upbringing, surprising as her teen years were given to Marxist rebellion. While I watched, she slipped off for the last time into blessed unconsciousness.
I was there two days later when she died with Grace beside her and surrounded by her Xenite friends. They lovingly laid her tiny body out in the spare bedroom, put a Hawaiian shirt on her and, incongruously, a baseball cap.
Her purpled lips were drawn back like a hapuka. My 4-year-old son was with me that day and asked with evident surprise, "He-e-y, who's the dead guy?" It was like someone had left him a present.
I am good with dying people. In fact, I prefer 'em. But really and truly, I don't think I can be at the deaths of any more fans. Unless they're planning something spectacular. Dying peacefully in a La-Z-Boy recliner was a bit of an anticlimax for a mad bomber. Apart from the obvious, she could have chosen death by cocktail or floated into space in a weather balloon, but that would just be showing off. Instead she opted for dying painlessly at home in the arms of her lover and surrounded by friends.
At the funeral, we lined up to pay our respects. We exalted in her life, sang songs and shared photos and it struck me that the tables had turned. I was a fan of hers.