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A row of water tanks each is painted with one letter, spelling out Viva Cuba

Favorite Cuban quotes

I often hear a Cuban say something memorable – whether because it’s funny or because it’s somehow revealing of Cuban culture. Sometimes these are so memorable, they’ve stayed with me ever since. Here are some of my favorites…

1. Mmm… sin chicharro

In Cuba, there are two ways to buy coffee. You can buy a package of high-end coffee in a fancy shop for several dollars, which is more than most Cubans can afford to spend… or you can buy it at the ration store, where it’s really cheap. But to stretch the coffee beans, the ration store coffee is mixed with ground roasted peas. So what they’re buying isn’t pure coffee.

One day I went with my friend Mohamed and his mother to a coffee shop in the touristy part of Old Havana. I’ll never forget the moment she first tasted the coffee. Her eyes closed as she savored the taste and said: Mmm… sin chicharro. “Mmm… no peas.”

It was a poignant reminder of the deprivations – some little, some not so little – that are a part of typical Cuban life.

2. Matapajaro

If you read my post on Cuban home brews – and watched the video at the end – you know some of the various names for bootleg rum. One of them is matarata, “ratkiller.”

Matapajaro is a play on matarata. It literally means “birdkiller,” but in Cuban slang it’s also “fagkiller.” That’s what they call the bootleg rum at El Mejunje, an LGBT-ish bar/club in Santa Clara. If you walk up to the bar and order this, you’ll get a bottle of rum, of dubious origin, for about a dollar.

A smiling traveler stands before a red wall covered in graffiti

Scott stands before a graffiti-covered wall at El Mejunje

3. No pagamos la corriente

My friend RubĂ©n took me to visit his friend, Mechi. As we walked to her house, we saw there was a blackout in her whole part of the city. When we finally got there, she came out and joked, No pagamos la corriente: “We didn’t pay the electrical bill.”

This is typical Cuban humor. There’s a lot of black humor, where they joke about the difficulties of daily life. Here’s another example…

4. Dime que quieres! Carne de res no tenemos.

In Cuba, it’s basically impossible for most people to get beef. It’s very strictly controlled – to the point that it’s illegal to kill a cow, even if it’s yours. You can raise the cow, milk it, and sell it to the government, but you can’t kill it for meat. And when the government sells beef, it’s expensive, far beyond the reach of most Cubans. So outside of fancy restaurants, you never see it. In Cuban homes nobody cooks it, nobody serves it, and nobody eats it. One friend said she hasn’t had beef in twenty years, so long she can’t even remember what it tastes like.

My friend Dayron took me to his aunt’s house, where much of the extended family was hanging out. This is a family without a ton of money. The aunt had cooked up lots of food, and she was serving it up to us, one after another. As she made up a plate for someone, she said to them: Dime que quieres! Carne de res no tenemos. “Tell me what you want! Not beef, we haven’t got any.”

5. Pantalones cagaos

This literally means “crapped pants.” It’s what they call pants with a drop crotch, which are currently the height of street fashion, according to a young Cuban friend of mine. Always cracks me up that the popular name for them is basically “poopypants.”

A linguistics note if you’re trying to understand the Spanish: cagaos is an informal pronunciation of cagados – “crapped.”

Black poopypants

Pantalones cagaos. These are currently the height of street fashion.

6. No te creas que es como lo pintan

Many Cuba tours are run through government tour agencies. These agencies organize the itineraries, train the tour guides, and so on. So the government has a fair amount of control over what tourists see and the narratives we learn. I’ve led a number of these trips, as well as trips not organized through the government agencies.

Anyways, I’ve noticed some state tour guides push an absurdly idyllic image of Cuba. Once I had a group on the Bay of Cienfuegos. Right next to the bay is an oil refinery. And our guide pointed to the water and said, “Look: No pollution at all!” I remember thinking, Just how dumb do you think we are? Another time, a guide complained to me about beggars – because they disrupt the image of Cuba he’s trying to present. It was a shock to hear him acknowledge that he’s trying to spin things a certain way for us.

I went for a walk one night and struck up a conversation with a random Cuban guy. He wanted me to know that life in Cuba is harder than the image they present to tourists. He was telling me horror stories about homelessness and poverty, a far cry from what we see on the government itineraries. He summed it up with the admonishment: No te creas que es como lo pintan: “Don’t believe it’s like the picture they paint.”

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1 Comment

  1. Very fun post, Matt! Useful, too.

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