RECENT NEOLOGISMS IN COMMUNIST CUBA
This is not my first study on Cuban Spanish. During my academic life at the University of New Orleans, I have studied language changes in the two geographic areas in which the communist government of Fidel Castro has sadly divided the people of Cuba: the Island and Exile. Although my main field of research is the Spanish spoken by the nearly four million exiled Cuban Americans with its strong English influence, here I shall make no reference to it.
Each linguistic group reflects the circumstances and experiences it has lived through and that is at the bottom of the constant evolution of languages. The Spanish spoken by more than ten million Cubans in the Island is progressively reflecting the profound socioeconomic and political transformations of those who live under a Communist system. Two of my articles present the language changes inside Cuba: one deals with the first travelers to the island after president Carter lifted restrictions on travel to Communist countries in 1977; the second one studies the dialect of the 125,000 refugees who arrived in this country in 1980 by way of the flotilla of Liberty, and who are popularly known as the marielitos because they left Cuba through the port of Mariel in the province of Pinar del Río.
This paper Recent Neologisms in Communist Cuba will analyze the lexicon of what has been called by Castro período especial (the special period). This period of time encompasses a consequence of the collapse of the Soviet block, brought about by the policies of Glassnost and Perestroika initiated by Gorbachev. These policies of openness caused the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the independence of Eastern European countries that had been members of the Warsaw Pact. For Cuba, these events meant the end of Soviet aid to the Island. They resulted in shortages of oil, limited means of transportation, electric power and food. This pathetic situation was called by the government opción cero (zero option). Coloquial wisecracking soon pictured this plight as nada de nada, nananina (zero of everything).
For this paper, one hundred new words of the special period were obtained through Cubanet, from newspapers and magazines published in Cuba (Bohemia, Granma, El habanero, Juventud Rebelde, Tribuna de La Habana), and from informants who have visited relatives in Cuba during the last five years or who have become residents of the United States by lottery drawings held also during the last five years. The neologisms have been classified in four large categories: food, jobs or occupations, transportation, and phrases with miscellaneous connotations.
Before analyzing the words in each of these categories, it is important to mention two terms of frequent use: actividad (activity) and alternativa (alternative). According to Internet reports reaching us from Havana, the first one is a magical word that may be applied to any kind of activity: a meeting, a dance, a sporting event, a cultural gathering, even a linguistic activity since the people in Cuba are convinced they have created a mini-language. If you are not afraid of Castro's monada (police force), you can be a human rights activist or a dissident. The second word alternative offers the possibility of a choice between two roads or two things. Thus, in Cuba you can have alternative food (the use of soja to replace meat), alternative medicine (the use of herbs instead of unavailable medical drugs), alternative cement (made out of ashes and lime instead of clay and powdered lime). The newspaper El habanero (June 14, 1994) reports that there are even alternatives for the improvement of the oral language. In the United States we also have alternatives. Maybe the most difficult one is the choice between a brand name drug and its generic equivalent.
The words and phrases referring to food reflect the lack of essential products required to keep children, adults and senior citizens healthy. It should be explained that the scarcity of foodstuffs does not apply to tourists or to those Cubans who receive American dollars from their U.S. relatives. For them there are the expensive government operated restaurants in hotels and the paladares. The latter are small restaurantsno more than twelve dinersoperating in private homes. The word paladar is derived from the name of a restaurant in a Brazilian soap opera called Vale tuto, which became very popular in Cuba. As to the food items on my list, they all demonstrate the wit and ingenuity of the Cuban people, who improvise out of thin air and then invent clever and funny expressions to refer to them. For example, in the area of desserts, since guava is exported and scarce, the well-known barras de dulce guayaba (guava bars) has become barras de dulce guayaba de naranja (guava bars made of orange). The Spanish phrase sounds illogical, but the fact it is made with 50% oranges, 25% papaya, and 25% guava, explains it. It also reminds me of Cuban Americans in Miami ordering un apple pie de manzana (an apple, apple pie) perhaps hoping to get an extra portion or lagniappe as we say in Louisiana. In the old days there were many different kinds of pudding in Cuba. None, however, was as original as the new sweet potato puddings, which happen to be the only ones available.
Health organizations and physicians stress the importance of proteins for maintaining a sound human body. The physical condition of Cuba's inhabitants has severely deteriorated due to the lack of meat. Once a year, the 26th of July, the anniversary of Castro's revolution, a small supply of third-class meat is made accessible to every person. It is known as carne de población (population meat). Every five months, children under twelve years of age, are eligible to receive a small portion of third-class meat called carne de niño (child's meat). Elderly or sick people pick up their small rations of chicken at meat shops called carnicerías piloto (pilot meat shops). When chicken is thus available to the old and sick, the expression heard is el pollo piloto vence el viernes (Friday is the last day for pilot chicken). As with everything else under Castro's regime, only tourists and dollar holders are entitled to first class meat. The following words and phrases describe the meat eaten by the average population: fricandel is meat ground from wastes, and, according to my informants, it looks and tastes horrible. A common expression is Si hoy no llega el fricandel me das Changó con conocimiento (if fricandel does not arrive today, give me Changó with knowledge). Changó is the African God of Thunder, a leading deity of la santería, a spiritual system of African gods, transplanted and acculturated to a new habitat, the Island of Cuba. In the cafeterias, known as rápidos (fast food restaurants), they sell perros calientes (hot dogs), which may be purchased only with dollars. Perhaps based on this calque, meat shops also offer perro de pollo (chicken dog) and perro sin tripa (tripeless dog). Cuban newspapers commented ironically that poor people's dogs had been converted into fowl or were walking the streets with an essential part of their bodies missing. The last "meat" item on my list is unique: the so-called ground meat made of boiled grapefruit rind or banana peels. From the weekly magazine Blanco y negro published by the Spanish newspaper ABC (May 4, 1997), I read about the Cuban pan de boniato con colcha (sweet potato bread with bedspread). Colcha (bedspread) is a euphemism for frazada de piso (mop) which is cured in oil for several days until the fibers soften. No wonder Cuban wit defines bread as el lamento cubano de cada día (our daily Cuban lament).
The struggle for survival in Castro's communism has given rise to new names and new meanings for old trades. The dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy will include in its twenty-second edition scheduled to appear in the year 2000 one of those terms of the special period: jinetera, a synonym for 'prostitute'. Two dictionaries of Cuban coloquialisms, one by Carlos Paz published in Cuba (1994), and the other by Oswaldo Ramos published in Madrid (1997), define the masculine noun jinetero as a blackmarketeer (130, 89); and jinetera, as the female who sells her body not for money, as is the usual case in the prostitution trade, but to assuage essential material needs such as food or medicine (130, 89). The verb jinetear is also recorded with both of the above meanings. The press, inside and outside of Cuba, refer to this complex phenomenon with an abstract noun, jineterismo. Cuban newspapers, especially Juventud Rebelde, emphasize that jineteros, male or female, do not consider themselves petty criminals or prostitutes, but luchadores, (fighters for survival). Therefore, their customary approach to foreigners, is: Voy a hacer el pan (I am going to earn my bread and butter) or Voy a luchar (I am going to struggle to make a living). These idioms bring to mind an expression employed by Castro in one of his endless speeches: "No cojas lucha que son cien años y la caña es mucha" (Do not get into fights because there is sugar cane aplenty and it will last for one hundred years).
Among the jineteras, there is a frequent saying which, because it is a pun on Cuban slang, loses much of its charm in the translation. Quiero un papirriqui con guaniquiqui, que pase de los treinta y no llegue a los cuarenta (I want a rich man over thirty who is not yet forty). Papi is an affectionate term used by women to refer to men; guano is a cubanism for money. The suffixes qui and iquiqui have been respectively added to the adjective rico and the noun guano. Papi, guano and the suffixes were commonly used in Cuban Spanish before Castro. Another, not so optimistic expression of jineteras is Búscate un temba que tenga un buen gao y bastante pasta para que te mantenga (Look for a sugar daddy with a nice home and enough money to support you). In other words, don't fall for a nobody. It thus evokes the English saying: "It is as easy to fall in love with a rich man as it is with a poor man." The word temba has been recorded as tembán and tembo by Carlos Paz (1994, 61) and Oswaldo Ramos (1997, 141) with the meaning of a middle-aged man. All my informants used the feminine noun temba possibly to make it rhyme with mantenga. Gao means home. It comes from the gypsy slang, and though very popular in today's Cuba, is not a neologism coined in the last five years . Pasta, like guano and baro, guayacán and yira, are still in use; they were previously known synonyms for money. By the way, the dollar is known as fula, verde or fao. Only the first two are recorded by Paz (1994, 104, 106) and Ramos (1997, 74, 152). Jineteras always pursue foreign tourists who in addition to papirriqui, tembán, tembo or temba, are also called yumas or bárbaros. The term yuma has been around for years and belongs to the Castro era. It seems to derive from the name of a small Arizona town, Yuma, which was very popular in Westerns although these films have not been available during the dictatorship. Maybe yuma is a phonetic acronym for United of America. Bárbaro pokes fun at the fact that an old, fat and ugly foreigner can seduce a young, attractive jinetera. Therefore, he deserves to be called bárbaro, an adjective or a noun applied to a thing or person out of the ordinary, good or bad. Other occupations like patrullero (patrolman or police car) and colero (a person who is paid to stand in a food line) are not analyzed here because they were in use before the special period.
Among words in the transportation category, it is interesting to point out that máquina, the usual Cuban word for car, has been replaced by Lada or Moscoví, the names of Russian made automobiles. When American cars were first introduced in Cuba they were all called Fords, so something similar is happening today with Lada and Moscoví. Cuban Americans in Miami refer to their old non-expensive cars as (transportation)/trans-por-téi-con/. The few cars running in Cuba today are government cars with red or blue licenses: chapa roja or azul. The amarillos, or government inspectors so called because of their yellow uniforms, post their cars at puntos de recogida (bus stops) where hundreds of people are waiting for transportation, and force private drivers to carry five or six people in each car. [The amarillos are shown in the film Guantanamera by Gutiérrez Alea].
The lack of fuel has made bicycles the most important means of transportation in Cuba. In fact, there are bicitaxis or ciclotaxis, bicycles that are used to transport persons or small cargos like mail or newspapers; and cicloservis or serviciclos, bicycles that deliver goods to sick or old people. The government has built special lanes known as ciclocarriles or ciclovías for bicycle traffic. A reflexive verb emparrillarse which meant and still does 'to go to bed' had its meaning extended to include 'to ride on a bicycle book carrier'. Parrillero is the name given to the free rider, who accepts such an uncomfortable seat only because he needs transportation badly.
Trains and buses are equally deficient means of transportation operating on the island. Trains go from one province to another, but are never used for leisure travel. They rarely keep to a schedule, do not have air-conditioning, and are badly in need of repair. Though most trains in Cuba's railway system which began operating 160 years ago are old, a few were made in Russia in the early 1980's. They have wooden frame windows and seats with a thin layer of ripped vinyl. They are nicknamed Casa de Guano because of their similarity to the rectangular wooden houses common in rural areas (see Sunshine, December 14, 1997). If the conductor of the train is a woman, her name is ferrohermosa (iron beauty); if a man he is just plain conductor (conductor). There are also buses that travel to different provinces, they are called rastrabús (sledbus). To transport passengers in residential areas of a city, four-wheel wagons that have been loaded with the bodies of buses no longer serviceable are used. They generally display a raised portion in the middle resembling a camel's hunchback. For this reason, they are known as camellos (camels). Because of violence, robberies, sex, and foul words, the camel is popularly called la película del sábado (Saturday flick). They are diesel-engined, carry 300-350 passengers, and are officially known as metrobuses or trembuses spelled trenbuses. Tourists do not use camels because they have available special air-conditioned buses. These buses are called viaje azul (blue trip) and the dollar is the only currency acceptable for the fare. Lastly, for bike riders to be able to cross Havana's bay tunnel, there are the ciclobuses or taxibuses. In these all seats have been removed to make room for the bicycles.
Cuban newspapers complain of the impoverishment of the language. Judging by the words and phrases that follow, one cannot help but to agree with them. Burumba means a problem, a mess. Someone trying to find a medicine no longer available is en la burumba del antibiótico (in the problem of the antibiotic). ¿Qué bolá con la pincha, nagüe? (What is the matter with your job, partner?) Bolá is an umbrella word of frequent use in Communist Cuba; for example: ¿Qué bolá con tu cake, asere? (What's new, friend?) Pincha is a synonym for work, and pinchar is the corresponding verb form. Asere, ambia, caballo, consorte, ecobio, monina, nagüe are forms of address that have almost eliminated the old ones like chico, a, compadre, comadre, etc. used in pre-Castro's Cuba. In the province of Havana, people address a person from another province as palestino (palestine). This new gentile form was explained to me as the crowded way people from other areas have to live when they first come to Havana. Cake is an anglicism so well established in Cuba that not even Castro's hatred for anything from the U.S. has been able to eliminate it. Estar cogío con el tiempo is a vulgar expression meaning to be in a great hurry. Construirse el médico de la familia refers to the building of a two-story house for the neighborhood's physician. In the first floor, the family doctor sees the patients and in the second floor are his/her living quarters. Estar entero, a is to be ready or well after an illness.
Tirarle un cabo por estar partí'o means to give a hand to someone in need.
Time does not allow me to continue with the analysis of other expressions. Nevertheless, those mentioned here are clear examples of the deteriorating language of the Island and of the failure of education under Fidel Castro's dictatorship. And lastly, you will be pleased to know that Los americanos ya no son traidores sino trae-dólares (Americans are no longer traitors because they bring in dollars). The Spanish expression involves a pun. It is fair to add that Cuban Americans also carry dollars.