Lost in Cuban Translation

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When was the last time you felt like a 5-year-old? If you live in a foreign language like me, it was probably yesterday.

Maybe it’s because as an adult, my English grammar and pronunciation very rarely need correcting. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer and pride myself on how I wield words. Or maybe it’s because the person doing the correcting – consciously or not – establishes an immediate power construct in which I’m the perennial underdog. Reasons aside, having my speech corrected makes me feel like a child (or special needs adult).

So too, does not knowing the word for something – a handicap reserved for foreign language speakers and kids. Struggling for how to say bruise or gutter, ravish or rhetorical is a quick, sure smack down to the ego let me tell you. It doesn’t help that my husband too often gives me a dumfounded look when I ask him how to say things like hydrant or drain. Adding insult to injury: when he does remember a word or is listening closely enough to correct my pronunciation, it is nearly always in the presence of studiously hip (and oddly competitive) Cuban intellectuals. Thanks buddy.

Written Spanish is another issue altogether. Like many, I occasionally write a Cuban word as it sounds, resulting in glaring mistakes (and dogged corrections by readers). Nothing as bad as pescao or toke, but still.

I admit I’m prickly when it comes to this language business. I suppose my command of English – hammered into me by a family of grammar Nazis and Scrabble fanatics – colors my approach to Spanish and feeds the neurosis. Why else would I want five choices for how to say ‘disgruntled’ en español? Some days I’d settle for just being able to find the word for ‘upset.’ Sad, but true.

Yet, even while I’m beating myself up for calling a crutch a woman of mixed race (‘muleta’ is quite different from ‘mulatta’ after all), Cubans often comment about how well I speak, saying my accent is 100% cubano. The aforementioned hipster intellectual class excepted, of course.

Such unsolicited props for my verbal skills provide a temporary ego jack, it’s true. But some words continue to elude me. In fact, I’ve realized after nine years of living here that some Cuban words have no English equivalent whatsoever. Am I wrong? Let me know.

gaceñiga – I discovered this treat back in my first days here in Havana when an older gentleman with salt and pepper hair would peddle past our microbrigada several times a week yelling ‘gaceñiga! gaceñiga!’ Since no one sold much besides bleach and brooms out that way, I was intrigued. After a cajoling, linguistic tango, my husband equated this long baked confection with a pound cake. It’s unclear whether his comparison stems from his verbally-challenged tendencies or his unfamiliarity with baked goods, but to call a gaceñiga a pound cake is like calling a groupie a music critic. Definitely not a pound cake, it’s not a stöllen either. However, a fresh gaceñiga does resolve breakfast nicely. (This is not to be confused with Sponge Rusk, or as the Cubans say esponrrú, another favorite over this way).

descampó – This is one of those Spanish words that makes English jealous. How efficient and to the point! Just one word to say ‘it has stopped raining.’ You’d think the nose-to-the-grindstone Anglos would have come up with this one word wonder instead of the expressive, expansive Spaniards.

guara – Elusive little bugger this one. In a previous post and under pressure, I translated this as ‘moxie’ or ‘pluck.’ But since then I’ve heard a couple of different meanings for guara and now I’m not so sure. Anyone? Anyone?

mantecado – Given that ice cream is one of my minor addictions, this one has chapped my ass since the early days. Mantecado is an ice cream flavor (and only ice cream as far as I’ve been able to determine) that has been described to me as ‘the absence of flavor. Like cream-flavored ice cream.’ While the ‘manteca’ stem of the word would suggest butter or fat of some kind, if it were truly cream-flavored it wouldn’t taste so blech. I’ll try anything once – especially a new to me ice cream flavor – and once was enough for mantecado (NB: a pox on the waiter who told me vanilla was the flavor of the day when what he really meant was mantecado).

pena – I’ve saved the best for last. Most people translate pena as embarrassment. But that’s a gross simplification for a very complex concept (among the most complex in the entire Cuban character if you ask me). Pena is something so ingrained in generations of Cubans it’s like a dominant gene. If you know Cubans, you know what I’m talking about.

To start, pena is intrinsic – it’s not caused by outside forces. Whereas falling in a hotel lobby or having your period in a white pair of pants is embarrassing, neither is a cause for pena – not for a Cuban anyway. It’s also a slippery concept, pena, and is more like a state of mind because it’s so individual. At its most base, it’s related to how one’s actions will be perceived and received by others.

‘I don’t want to ask to borrow a cup of rice. Me da pena.’

‘I want to go to her house, pero me da pena.’

‘Will you flag down a car? Me da pena.’

Pena is so powerful it can lead people to inaction, which is a paradox given Cubans’ seemingly innate desire and ability to resolve problems. Some people suffer so acutely, they’re labeled penoso/a. If you’ve been here and had something go mysteriously pear shaped or unaccountably awry, look to pena.

Me? I’m completamente sin pena.



Filed under Americans in cuba, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, cuban words without translation, Expat life, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

88 responses to “Lost in Cuban Translation

  1. Ole

    Hey Conner-

    I was sorry to hear that mantecado ice cream does not agree with you- it is my all time favorite! ( when done properly) I have never found it anywhere but Cuba.
    Pena is a very Cuban concept- not quite verguenza which is a more temporary condition. Pena to me is more like not wanting to do something because it would indicate bad breeding- maleducacion. Mi Espanol me da Mucho pena a veces!

    Keep up the good, and highly entertaining work.

    • Interesting Ole – I would have thought that mantecado would have made it across the Straits to South Florida. I had a kick ass mamey ice cream in Jersey once.

      Yes, definitely related to poor breeding, thanks for pointing that out.

      Glad to be of help in the entertainment department.

    • juan ramos

      descampo isn’t a word, it’s, descanso de llover= it stopped raining
      descanso can be used several ways, descansó un poco y..= I’ll rest a little and.. although you should really say it like this,
      voy a descansar un poco y..= I’ll rest a little and or I’m going to rest alittle&
      or el descanso un poco y se fue= he rested a little and left. all about accents mámás y bébés gratis, mamas y bebes gratis lol, i rarely go out of the way to hold alt 0225,0233,02etc. for the accents and ppl will understand
      penoso/a=shy one
      me da pena= it gives me shyness/embarrassment
      no vale la pena= not worth the time/money/trouble/shame
      que pena= what embarrassment!
      verguenza= pena(no te da pena/verguenza?= aren’t you embarrassed?)
      que pena= what embarrassment!
      im from miami, there you go

  2. Nimrod

    Hi, it is not English but how about “hutzpa” [for guara] a good Yiddish -Hebrew word. If you live in NYC as I once did very much part of your vocab.

    • YES! You’re a mensch, Nimrod, for reminding me of all the wonderful Yiddish words out there. And pardon to all my Jewish friends for forgetting about ‘chutzpah” (this is how we always spelled it?) – a household word for us. Born and bred in NYC, so….me da pena to have forgotten about this one.

  3. Julio Garcia

    You’re getting there Girl. About the “gaceñiga”, have you heard the joke of Jay Leno asking for FIVE pound cakes in London when he means five pancakes? Priceless..and pena va mas para el lado de shy que del embarrasment, aunque a mi no me hagas mucho caso que soy un poco penoso…

    • Hmmmm. No se. Im not sure about “shy” for pena – I know some normally ballsy ass Cubans (see: Conner’s husband) who turn penoso at the oddest moments. I think it is more related to being perceived as poorly raised, as another reader notes. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Doug Haxall

    Hey Conner,
    Awesome and entertaining as always! How about “shame” for pena? That seems to be how it’s used in Brazilian Portuguese which I’m slowly getting better at, thanks to my Brazilian husband. Que pena! Talk about a language that takes forever to get your head around, ha ha!!!! Hope you’re well – hope to see you soon!!!

    • Hola! Shame is involved for sure, but it almost seems gratuitous – I mean, feeling shame to ask a favor or for when someone extends a kindness? Odd, our latino brethren.

      Brazilian Portuguese is so lovely and lilting. Good for you for learning – not easy when you’re not immersed (although, in a way, you’re more immersed than most!) Lots of cubans, incl my hubby, speak Portuñol – more colorful than Spanglish methinks

      Had a chance to see the Dreamspeak videos from Earth Day 87 on YouTube. We were so young and lithe!!

  5. Very interesting Conner! Must be something in the latino air lately because I also wrote about language problems today (those prickly diphthongs that tie my tongue in knots)!
    I was intrigued by the Cuban use of “pena” because we use it a lot in Chile, but related to sorrow or sadness (this may be the standard Spanish use)… as in “ella está mal, me da pena verla así”

    • Chica! Isn’t this the second time we’ve been on the same wavelength? Yes! I see in this comment, that you were also contemplating writing about PZP – Public Zit Popping (awesome acronym – thanks for that!) – as popular in Chile as in Havana, apparently.

      Diphthongs are an issue, I agree but what really gets me tongue tied are multi-syllabic words ending in “ion” like dispensarizacion (something used in Cuban health care, so I have to say it fairly frequentlyl!)

      Yes, that would be pena in the classic sense and you hear it here once in a while, but not nearly as often as the ‘other’ pena.

  6. Ole

    “more immersed than most”! Hahaha! You would be one to know about That! We learn more about you from your witty replies than the posts, sometimes.

    Are you familiar with Papamiento? A kind of ingles-spanglish-island type speech? very needed for travel through the Caribbean, as it is more of a Universal tongue than any of its Mother languages. Except in Haiti, where speaking French will get you Nowhere, as I am sure you learned in your extended stay there. Patois would be the way to go there, and my years in Naw ‘leans prepared me well!

    Ciao pescao.

    • French got me farther than Spanish in Haiti, but Creole was beyond me. I first learned about Papamiento working on the Lonely Planet Caribbean Islands guide.

  7. Caney

    “gaceñiga” = I agree with your husband, is a *kind of* pound cake.

    “descampó” = is wrong, it should be “escampó”, from the verb “escampar”, to stop raining.

    “mantecado” = the base is egg yolk. Check the recipe:

    Un litro de leche, canela en rama, ralladura de limón, trescientos gramos de azúcar, doce yemas de huevo

    Instrucciones de elaboración:

    Colocar medio litro de leche en una cacerola con la canela (una ramita) y la ralladura. Colocar en el fuego. Cuando la leche hierva, quitar del fuego, colar y dejar enfriar. Aparte, colocar las yemas y el azúcar en un recipiente. Batir hasta obtener una crema. Agregarle el otro medio litro de leche (antes no utilizado) y seguir batiendo. Adicionar luego la primera preparación. Colocar todo en una cacerola y poner en el fuego, revolviendo continuamente, hasta que la mezcla espese y al levantar la cuchara, ésta salga cubierta con una película formada por la mezcla. Esta última preparación no debe hervir, porque si esto pasa, se corta. Retirar del fuego y cambiarla de recipiente. Dejar enfriar, revolviendo de vez en cuando, para que no se forme nata en la superficie. Llevar a la heladera, y dejarla ahí dos horas. Retirar de la heladera y batir la preparación; luego volver a ponerlo en la heladera durante una hora.”

    “Pena” = In Spain we say “vergüenza” instead. Depending on the context it can mean shame, embarrasment, feeling shy…

    “Guara” = Check this explanation, it’s very good:
    “por J. Badajoz
    Después de leer las notas publicadas sobre el término guara, quisiera sumarme al intercambio etimológico sobre este curioso término, que a pesarde tener varias entradas en el diccionario de la RAE, recuerdo más usado y conjugado con otra acepción que en éste no aparece reflejada ni siquiera como cubanismo, y que aunque sea más pedestre creo que valdría la pena intentáramos encontrarle una etimología. Me refiero al uso de la palabra en frases tan extendidas como: Entrar en guara, dejar esa guara y tener tremenda guara tan mágicas e inquietantes como mi favorita: estar en el tibiritábara, que casi todos los cubanos hemos usado alguna vez. Y es que ese otro sentido popular creo que ha terminado desplazando, por lo menos en el orden coloquial y en el habla cubana, a las acepciones académicas. Pero, ¿qué quieren decir exactamente esas frases? Si tuviera que definir el significado de la palabra guara, haría énfasis en el comportamiento social de una persona que intenta ser extremadamente popular, amistosa y extrovertida; el típico confianzudo cubano. El guaroso, tiene un comportamiento tan definido que bien podría tener su lugar en el retablo bufo nacional junto al gallego, la mulata y el negrito, o haber sido blanco (no recuerdo si lo fue) de las simpáticas crónicas de Marcos Behemaras o H. Zumbado. Este individuo intenta ser aceptado por todos y mantiene una relación superficial con el entorno, opera construyéndo sentimientos de complicidad o intimidad exagerados y muchas veces infundados. Al guaroso no le interesa meterse en problemas, por eso, aunque a menudo se vale del arsenal del choteo, es menos cáustico. Su búsqueda parece tener un sentido más instrumental que ontológico, o para decirlo en cubano, es más cáscara que boniato. Siendo una actitud bastante común en la psicología del cubano, o por lo menos en sus estereotipos, no sería raro que se trate de un homónimo autónomo de reciente incorporación en el habla cubana que no guarda ninguna relación con la etimología de la palabra guara que aparece registrada; pero, ¿cuál sería entonces su origen? En este sentido he advertido dos caminos posibles, en uno de ellos he tratado de aplicar una aproximación parecida a la del sistema soundex Daitch-Mokotoff, que se utiliza para detectar variaciones de un mismo apellido hebreo según el alfabeto latino creando grupos de pronunciaciones similares según las lenguas. En este caso, pudiera ser un préstamo del anglicismo Wear (las aproximaciones fónicas de la w inglesa aceptarían traducciones particulares al español usando la familia gu-hu), una de cuyas acepciones es: mostrar o manifestar emociones faciales o físicas. Wear/Guara, sería entonces esa actitud extrovertida. También hay que considerar una variación del término guaro, que se refiere a una especie de loro muy locuaz, y estoy pasando por alto que provenga del vocablo taíno guara, que quiere decir lugar, ya que no le encuentro ninguna conexión aceptable. Teniendo en cuenta la formación de otras etimologías populares cubanas, me inclino a pensar como otra vía posible, que el origen de esta acepción pueda ser un apócope o hipocorístico de guaracha, que implica la modificación informal del término para connotar la actitud desenfadada y divertida del guaracheo, la descarga. La frase Deja la guara (que por cierto es el título del último disco del regetonero cubano, radicado en Londres, Leximan y que se incluye en la tesis de la Lic. Mairilys Rodríguez, Análisis de algunos fraseologismos en el habla juvenil) podría ser: deja la confianza, desmaya esa talla. Sería bueno escuchar otros criterios sobre la etimología de una palabra que en algún momento aparecerá en el diccionario de la RAE y que al parecer llegó para quedarse.”

    BTW, your feelings toward being corrected *could* be translated as “pena”…

    • Wow, thanks for this Caney. You’re quite….diligent. Maybe some day I can speak and write as accurately and meticulously as you!

      Interesting the explanation of guara. Having read that, I might equate it with extroverted or gregarious. If that’s about right, it’s kind of redundant for a lot of Cubans; as the author says – a stereotype, widely applicable.

      I wish being corrected made me feel “embarrassed, shamed (or shameful) or shy.” Unfortunately it makes me feel small – quite different (and crappy), no matter the language

      ps – I stand by my assertion that gaceñiga is NOT a pound cake. Pound cake got its name because it contains one pound of butter (making this more like an “ounce cake” – and we know that’s not butter in there!); the idea that gaceñiga is a “type” of pound cake is like saying someone is a “little” pregnant.

      • Doug Haxall

        Hey Conner, Is Caney acting like one of those hipster Cuban intellectuals you were just talking about? Ha ha!!

      • Nah, that’s just the way she rolls!!

      • Ivan

        Hola, excelente artículo. concuerdo con lo que dice Caney. Ah, mantecado p “manteca’o” como decimos los cubanos, creo que es butterscotch in English. Keep up the great writing.

      • Hola Ivan – yes! mateca’o, pesca’o, prepara’o: love the Cuban way! Butterscotch? Estas sonando brudder!

  8. Caney

    Oh! another thing… I often see you use the word “mulatta” (in italics, meaning you’re using Spanish) , instead of “mulata” (no doble “t” in Spanish).

  9. Caney

    Ole, come to Spain, plenty of “helado de mantecado” here!

  10. Caney

    connerg, it’s impossible to exactly translate a typical dish from any country, but what you can do is to try an apporximation. That’s why in international menus in many restaurantes, the dishes remain in their original language, or you see “a la” so many times…

    … regarding what you feel about being corrected, it seems is more like a “complejo”, and you DEFINITELY shouldn’t (although I hate the should thing) feel that way. It’s your second language, and I’m completely sure your spoken Spanish (or Cuban, for that matter), is impecable. Wish my English was like that… maybe one day… On the other hand, I LOVE to be corrected, it’s the way to learn!! (many Cubans, in a similar case, would feel “pena” when they are corrected, sometimes, as I said, that word can be used in cases you wouldn’t think of using in Englihs… the wonders of language!)

    • I also love to be corrected – fits right in with my personal culture of being on this earth to learn (and love). Having said that, learning get s abit oppressive when its every day, every week, every month, every year. Sometimes I wish I could just get off the ‘Cuban learning wheel’ – that’s where the complex comes in for sure! Also – you know a lot about Cuba and Cubans too, so you know that they can be the most tiresome know it alls (I have a post cooking about ‘sabe los todos’). This too contributes to the complejo

      • Julio garcia

        Metele con los sabelotodos…. Esos a mi me dan “pena” ajena. Es todo un tema. Será el aire del Caribe? Oye, y como mismo te sientes tu me siento yo en Texas, mas perdido que calzoncillos de pulpo!! A veces puede ser desgastan, hasta ese día en que eres, de los tuyos, el que mas sabes de ellos….si llega ese día. Saludos desde el tip of texas

      • Ole


        Awaiting this post!

  11. Luisa Lander

    In Mexico the distinctive feature of helado de mantecado is that it has pieces of dried fruit in it–delicious! The folks who sell home-made nieves in the park near me charge 2 pesos extra for the mantecado.

  12. Brea Bondi-Boyd

    Oh Conner, i love this blog. i find living in CA how strange my blend of Cubanisms and Chilinismos (from living with Chileans in Cuba for so many years) is for the mainly MExican spanish speakers here, but we always manage to resolver. I think the words i appreciate most are the ones that are so succinct in spanish that in english just take too long to say, like aprovechar. And thanks for maintaining a dialogue otherwise impossible to find in any news or conversations within these borders…
    abrazos, Brea

  13. Jane

    Hi Conner
    Entertaining, as always.
    I’m only going to comment on ‘penar’. To me, at least in the situations where I’ve had it attributed to me, I’ve interpreted it as a combination of two verbs, which are complimentary. Not ‘shame’ directly, but “the fear of shame’. I may be totally off-target. It’s usually said to me on a night out dancing, so maybe it means “fantastic” – but I suspect not 🙂

  14. shane

    Please don’t worry about “smart asses” correcting your Spanish,…it really shouldn’t worry you at all,…..you wipe the floor with anyone, in your own language,…in fact many times over!!;-)…..your writing and use of the idiom, just Rocks!!

  15. I do wonder how I’ll ever manage to learn how to speak Spanish. In November I’m about to hop across the Atlantic and teach English in Mexico and it’s very overwhelming to start learning a new language, especially as I read so many travellers/ex-pats blogs who are based in different Latin American countries and they all have different words for different meanings. I guess I’ll learn the majority of my Spanish when I’m in Mexico and start speaking like a Mexican.

    • You’ll do great! make a deal with your students (and yourself!): outside of the classroom , no matter what language people speak with you, you’ll (try!) and respond in Spanish. Immersion and consistency are key I think, to being able to learn and retain…at least at my age, that’s what Ive found. Have a wonderful trip (and don’t be surprised in Mexico when they call you “chula” just like in HAvana!)

  16. Kristen

    Conner, I can so relate to where you’re coming from! Being a native anglophone and having spent almost half my life now in Cuba, there are STILL occasionally words that I come across that I have to have explained to me. Thankfully my husband is ever so diplomatic in making his corrections. My friends also agree that my Cuban accent is very good, and one of my girlfriends says the odd mistakes I make are usually funny ones. Years ago my next door neighbor Alexander nearly split a gut when I was trying to get him to move faster and I told him “aburrate” (get bored) instead of “apurrate” (hurry up). This is what happens when you learn a language by immersion and hear rather than read alot of the vocabulary you’re picking up along the way. Thankfully my work also requires me to write quite a bit in Spanish so I’ve also been forced to hone my Spanish spelling skills along the way. In fact, my mother in law says I write with fewer errors than than one of her granddaughters who has almost finished university!

    Here’s one for you. You’re sitting on your front porch having a coffee with your girlfriend. In the street her nephew is running around chasing 3 girls and she says. “!El es la candela!¨ How the heck do you translate that to English? Literally, it means something close to “He’s a livewire”. But we don’t really say anything like “Candela!” in English. Not that I’ve ever been able to think of anyway.

    If you’re also a Scrabble fan, here are a couple of fun new games I’ve picked up over the last couple of years: Scrabble Slam (I’ve played this in Cuba. While there’s no Ñ in the cards in the English version of the game, still very much able to be played with Cubans) and Banagrams. Banagrams uses the same tile idea as scrabble, but each player constantly works on his own grid. It´s very fun and more dynamic (you can change the words) than Scrabble. These are great fun ways you can kill some time with friends and also challenge your or their spelling skills at the same time.

    Conner, one of these days we two blue-eyed blonde anglophones living in Havana married to Cubans are going to have to meet and swap some stories… I’m pretty sure we’d have a few laughs! Keep up the good work.

    • Hahaha! Thanks for writing in and all the great suggestions. We should have a tag-team SPANISH Scrabble tourny: the yuma vs the habaneros. Ive got the Spanish board! Happy trails.

      • Kristen

        If you’ve got the Spanish tiles, I’ve got the deluxe turntable board. I’ll be around all summer, so we could sweat it out in a free-for-all game some night…

      • Absolutely!! Let’s definitely hook it up! Team Yuma vs Team Cubano?! Email me chica!!

  17. sikudahijau

    Hi Conner. Love love love your blog!
    As for the English translation of guara, check out this article on the Uruguayan version of the word (they call it garra over there): http://joeposnanski.si.com/2010/07/01/the-meaning-of-garra/

  18. Katie

    Thanks for the post. I relate to this greatly. My Spanish is very good, but there are still MANY moments when I am frustrated because I can not communicate something. I’m a language teacher, so I guess it helps me remember what my students go through every day.

  19. David

    Hi there and good afternoon
    I think that this part in your comment “at its most base, it’s related to how one’s actions will be perceived and received by others” explains exactly what “pena” is. Yes, you need a cup of rice but you don’t know how your request will be received by that person you’re going to borrow from, so you’re not willing to make that decision in such a easy way.
    On the other hand, the term “pena” will also be referred to as “pain”. If you lose a member of your family, then you are suffering a “pena” because you’re mourning his/her loss; if somebody has a health problem that causes pain, then you’ll say that “she moves “penosamente” or with “pena”because of her swollen legs”

  20. Conner, love your blog! I was never really into blogs, but a friend recommended me yours recently and I can truly identify with your ‘relatos.’ I was so excited to see that this post was on translation – to me, it really sums up the expat experience. Being a foreigner in the place you call home definitely puts you in a weird sort of limbo. Humor is such a great way to give yourself some space from the country’s cultural quirks. Love your articles, they’ve really encouraged me to write more 😉

    • Right on mujer – what a nice comment. thank you so much. If I can inspire just one more person to write more, I’ve surpassed my expectations.

  21. dany

    No te de pena chica, even those foreigners who’ve lived in Cuba for many years still make mistakes, same with us Cubans who live abroad and speak another language. Gabriel Garcia Marques described one of his characters who was anglo in a spanish speaking country as having “una piedrecita en la sintaxis” love that phrase. No cojas lucha 🙂
    But you know what bothers me, american movies where they have a cuban character played by a non cuban speaking spanish and they make very obvious mistakes (not the accent) Javier Bardem came really close, the only one I’ve seen.

    • So freakin’ true Dany: I hate movies where they’re supposed to be Cuban and it’s so obvious by accent/slang/lack of dramatic hand waving and exuberant punctuation of points with hands that they’re not. Same thing with movies set in Havana that never set even get near the Malecon (this is because Cuba is very very particular about who gets filming rights there).

      On the flip side: have you seen Memorias de Desarrollo? The main character in that is NOT Cuban (i’m told – anyone know?) but does one hell of a job. I found myself trying to find the crack in his accent and speech instead of watching the damn movie!

      • Jorge A

        Rob Blair, the lead actor in Memorias del Desarrollo (despite the misleading last name) is as Cuban as it gets, I know this because I worked with him. He was born in Santiago de Cuba. He had a British grandfather (hence the last name).

      • Thanks, Jorge, for clearing this up! (although not sure having a British grandfather is as “cuban as it gets”. A mambi great great great grandfather, maybe!)

        Any thoughts on the movie itself? You can imagine what the buzz was over here….

  22. dany

    Who? Sergio Corrieri in Memorias del Subdesarrollo? he’s as cuban as it gets! quite famous for playing agent/spy David in En Silencio ha tenido que ser, he was director of ICRT and of the Instituto de Amistad con los pueblos.

  23. quepasa

    “Me da pena ” has many meanings. Eg. “me da pena” can also mean that you feel sorry for someone, eg. “su situación me da pena”. or “Que pena !” : “How sad”. Like mentioned before the word “candela” is widely used to describe something energetic, wild, strong, a bit out of control. ….And we haven’t mentioned the many ways to use the word “pinga” 😉 I love Cuban, it is a very lively language, funny. To me the best way to stay updated to the new expressions is to listen to reggeaton music.

    • jajajaja! pinga – one of my favorite words! I use it liberally (swearing, though it shows a lack of vocabulary, is somehow in my blood) – to the neverending chagrine of my Cuban friends/family. After all, pinga isn’t a word a “nice” girl uses. I have no idea where they got the idea that I was nice, but that’s another post!

      Thanks for reading and writing in.

  24. Ro

    liked your post on speaking/translating cubano, Conner

    pena is indeed a thought-provoking concept with philosophy, ethics, “breeding” (don’t like that word for people) or upbringing, and even cubanía all rolled in

    cubanía is not the easiest word to translate either…. a couple of attempts: the essence of being Cuban, the Cuban identity (neither really does it) and ditto for “sandunguera” — i haven’t found a satisfactory translation. any suggestions anybody?

    I like “está acabando” (literally, finishing or killing as in you’re killing me) for a lively, mischievous child who may also be precocious, surprising, all-around incredible, from doting parents/grandparents/etc.

    Here’s one that was just applied to me, which I liked: “estás escapa’o” (literally, you’re escaped, as in you are cool) which was given as a compliment for … speaking cubano!!! i think…

    and an example of progressively nuanced differences in saying the same thing:

    aprovechar y resolver… to…
    guapear… to, finally … luchar…. in talking about the process of obtaining something needed, up to and including doing so in a not exactly legal way

    liked caney’s explanation of guara… also i think it is used sometimes like “pull” or “palanca” and i think of a “guaroso” person as schmoozy (going back to NY lingo)

    Conner, chagrin aside, i bet you can get away with saying pinga in Cuba, but some foreigners look/sound ridiculous when they try to sound “street” … think middle-class white suburban kids doing gangsta rap…it just doesn’t “cuadrar”…

    • hear hear! Thanks for all this great material – enough for a new post entirely. And Cubanía – very fertile ground, as you know.

      As a huge Van Van fan, I once asked my husband what “sandunguera” meant and he told me (with a totally straight face): someone who is sandunga. Really. I’m not kidding.

      Esta acabando/esta escapao – both great ones, also used in sports, music and other genres to indicate that someone is swesome, killer, or as they say in Cuba ‘un monstruo’

      I completely agree with you about foreigners trying to sound “street” – in 9 years, Ive said ?Que bola asere? 0 times and asere perhaps once while pissed at my husband. A good pinga! for a bloodied stubbed toe or when the chicharron grease splatters my arm is just S.O.P.

      • quepasa

        Interesting discussion. How should a foreigner with years in Cuba speak and act? I have sometimes heard from my Cuban “friends” : “please do not get too Cuban”, and that does not mean that they want me be to a yuma ” que no sabe mucho”. Though I have also heard ” tu sabes demasiado”, like a reproach. …Anyway, I think RO has a point , we just sound strange when we adopt “el cubaneo” completely.

      • Hmmm. Ive never thought really about how I “should” act – Im a guest in their country, I act as well mannered a guest as I can muster, within my own given character and personality. I have always said, for instance, the moment I begin to lie, obfuscate, omit or otherwise be dishonest just to get ahead/along is the moment I leave Cuba. This thankfully has not yet been an issue!

        I have never had a Cuban say to me don’t get too Cuban. My experience has been the opposite: people marvelling at my capacity to understand and work with ‘la mecanica’ and withstand all the frustrating, dumfounding and plain weird Cuban stuff that comes my way every day.

  25. Ro

    following up on quepasa’s comment,
    Anywhere I go in the world, either within my own country or outside of it, I think I should respect the local codes of behavior to reflect civility, mutual respect and whatever appreciation I may have for that particular culture.
    Part of that is being true to myself (and that is not always easy), even when the desire to melt into the background becomes strong, when I feel like the perpetual outsider, and part of that is understanding the codes, which takes TIME and a capacity for listening and assimilation…
    “I have never had a Cuban say to me don’t get too Cuban.” Ditto. On the contrary, given the Cuban appreciation for all things Cuban, they delight in me showing an understanding of the mecanica, humor, philosophy, etc. , and at the same time, open-minded Cubans, like open-minded people anywhere, want to learn about a culture that is different from their own — they don’t WANT everybody to act/talk like them just to ingratiate themselves (I know that’s not the only motivation).
    Depends on the context, but I think the “tu sabes demasiado” reproach-like remark refers more to you being “too” familiar with negative aspects of Cuban life, the dirty laundry, maybe? I

    • Ro: Yes! Always helpful to remember the Cuban saying: dirt laundry gets washed at home. If someone is heaping story upon story on you about how hard and shitty life is in Cuba, they want something from you. Don’t believe me? Take a close hard look and listen how Cubans speak to each other and about what they speak.

      One thing I always say when people ask: “what is Cuba like” is: depends who you ask. Question 5 different people and you’ll get 5 (or 7 or 10) different opinions. Some (many? most?) of those responses will be based on what the responder thinks you want to hear +/o what they think will get them the most traction with you. Also, I counsel folks new to Cuba that there’s a potent combination out there of 1) many of the best and most confident English/French/German speakers (and certainly those just approaching you on the street) are hustlers and 2) many people have an axe to grind. Combine that with the “telling them what they want to hear” and it leaves a lot of visitors very confused! As Ro points out: it takes time to figure all this out. Patience required, grit obligatory in Cuba!

    • quepasa

      Okey, a short answer to Conner and Ro. I really must admire you Conner if you manage to “act as well mannered a guest as I can muster, within my own given character and personality”.

      I have experienced that to get by and be respected by the Cubans I also have to adapt. Adapting means I have to be harder, less trustful, sometimes lie, and use other tactics that are not what I instinctively would do according to my values and personality.

      I also get a lot of credit for understanding la mecanica, the humor etc, but I feel that Cubans want to keep us foreigner in a group where we never can be like them, the more “cuban” we get the harder it is for them to see us as just “Yumas”, and the do not feel comfortable with this.
      You, Conner, describe it so well in the tread “Allways the outsider inside Cuba”

  26. Reinier Menendez

    Para los que tenían duda con la palabra “guara” realmente en cuba se usa y se traduce mas bien como confianza. Por ejemplo> Cual es la guara? se traduce como cual es la confianza? refiriéndose a alguien.
    De ahí tenemos también guaroso que se viene traduciendo como confianzudo..
    Puede que hayan otros significados pero estos son los mas comunes y mas usados. Soy cubano de la Habana.

    • Muchas gracias Reinier por la explicación (y su visita – todavía no tengo muchos-as lectores cubanos-as en la isla, asi que lo agradezco su participación)

  27. vlad

    Guara: To have a “good approach” to somebody or somewhere is “tener guara” with somebody or somewhere. Things will run smoothly if yo have “guara”.

  28. vlad

    Sandunguera: Somebody (a woman) who has sandunga.
    Sandunga: Is to have tropical grace and sensuality in the movements (walking, dancing, etcetera).

  29. Heiko

    For “gaceñiga” I offer the translation “fruit bread” (which probably isn’t very common in the US). What we here in Germany call “Früchtebrot” is at least a “primo hermano” of gaceñiga, which you are right is quite different from “Stollen” (“stöllen” does not exist, btw).

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  33. Lynn

    Hi Can anyone help me? How do I get a Cuban death certificate?

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  35. I may have comments for all the words you mentioned, but I’m a lazy person so will just comment on the most interesting one: “pena”.
    Like you said, this word is not as simple as it may be thought to be. It has many connotations depending on the situation. Some were given by Caney. For instance, all the examples you mentioned can be related to what in Spanish is called “vergüenza” and also “vergüenza ajena”. The first one, vergüenza, is embarrassment or shyness (timidez), and the second one has more to do with how you feel when someone else goes through something embarrassing.
    For example: “I don’t want to ask to borrow a cup of rice. Me da pena” You feel “vergüenza” or “timidez”, embarrassment or shyness. Now, the person you borrow from or someone that saw you asking may feel “vergüenza ajena” because they may think you’re so broke you can’t even afford to buy some rice.
    Vergüenza ajena means “embarrassment that does not belong to me” or “someone else’s embarrassment”. It’s weird, but you may have felt that, maybe you can relate to what I’m explaining?
    Now, to feel “pena” can also mean to feel pity. Say you get to meet someone that has no arms and legs and you gave him the look–you know, the pity look. That’s because you feel “pena” for him. So it’s related to sadness.
    Although, real definition of “pena” is the instrument of an State to act towards a crime–say, the punishment.
    So, well, there you go with the words thing… Keep in mind that Cubans use a lot of made-up words, it’s like a cultural thing. So some words (like guara) are not real Spanish (we have this institution that defines which word is or is not Spanish).
    PD: Descampó may have been “escampó” (to stop raining).
    PD2: What you feel when corrected *may* be a kind of “pena” like Caney said, although what I’m getting from you is that’s more related to your ego because the person correcting you may feel “pena” (or “vergüenza ajena”) for you.

  36. Karen

    There is pena up the wazoo in Colombia as well — it sounds pretty similar. It’s essentially so untranslatable, except in broad strokes, that I still use it when I’m speaking in English sometimes. For example describing a mildly awkward conversation I need to have, I might say, “I don’t know if I can handle the pena”. It is a pitch-perfect word when you need it. My brother came & stayed with me when I lived in Colombia, and we wanted to get T-shirts made that said “F#ck the Pena”. Kind of our version of Just Do It.

    This was a fun thread to skim. I love linguistic stuff. One of the things I picked up on & then enjoyed observing in Medellin was the use of the passive voice…and all that this potentially implies. For example, “the bus left me” vs. “I missed the bus”. Soooo interesting!

    • Hola. Thanks for taking the time to read and write in. I would love a F*ck the Pena shirt! I had one made up a couple of years ago that says on the front “Soy extranjera…” and on the back “pero no comemierda.” The Cubans love it and resident foreigners here beg me to make them one, reflecting how we will always remain outsiders inside Cuba.

  37. LuisC

    The word guara probably came into use after I left Cuba. I never heard it when I lived there. Of course, I left 42 yrs. ago, at the age of 14 and 5 months.

  38. Cerezita

    Hi Conner
    It’s great to have found your blog and also realise that I’m not the only one who has ever thought extensively about the Cuban use and interpretation of “pena”. I think it definitely reflects people telling you that you’re not “rude, wrong, inappropriate” etc. So when I’m with my family and my Suegra offers to make me a tortilla say, before I have the chance to say yes or no, my cuñi will practically shout “SIN PENA!!!!!!” as they think I’ll say no because I don’t want them to make a fuss. Ironically, I personally ending up doing things out of pena e.g. I often end up drinking 10-15 cafecitos a day due to not wanting to say no as of course Cubans hate you not accepting the one and often only thing they have to “brindar”.
    I also find that although it is used by other Spanish speakers, it doesn’t have the same connotations. For example, if my friends from DR offer me something and I refuse (them thinking it’s out of politeness) they will say “ella tiene verguenza” whereas in Cuba they would defo have used “pena” and in actual fact, the Dominicans are horrified in general if I use “pena” as there it really does seem to relate to real shame and suffering!
    I also like other readers love the use of “candela” and amongst my Cubans found it most used in a slightly different way e.g. can you help me buy a new rucksack as mine is “en candela” meaning in bad condition.
    “Cómico” is also another word which although I’m sure is not only used in Cuba does feel more “Cuban” in use. I say that as whenever I use it amongst other latino friends they always smile, albeit affectionately and ask me why I use that word but I hear it in Cuba all the time and it comes naturally to me.

    • Comico, pena, candela – all in the daily mix here. En candela is one of my faves (probably bc much of my material world esta en candela) since it can refer to stuff, situations, relationships, and more. I like versatile words like this (in any language) and Candela!!! said with just the right inflection can signify mucho.

      Thanks for writing in.

  39. Yorja

    And what about sentir o tener “una penita” (diminutive of pena) that means you suffer from a slight pain in some part of your body? Have you heard that one? Excellent blog, I’m a Cuban from Havana and I love your writing.

    • Hmmm, I haven’t heard penita, which is surprising since Ive covered the health system as a journalist for the past 10 years. But more importantly, Ive got tons of friends 70 years old + and they’re full of penitas! Thanks for the warm wishes re the writing.

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  41. Lily

    Hola Conner,

    Me again! (aka the American with the Cuban fiance — a modern day I Love Lucy, hay que reirse para no llorar) Thank you so much for responding to my questions about intercultural relationships. No es facil, para nada. We deserve…the lottery o algo, sabes? Madre santismia, que dolor de cabeza y tetas aveces.

    I have been enjoying reading your blog, since dating mi Cubano because I have never been so frustrated in my life, dealing with cultural crashes with his family and him. I go through moments of wanting to have him/or his sisters in a blood choke hold/arm bar all while laughing and crying. (I practice mixed martial arts, Krav Maga etc) It’s helped me control or work on my explosive temper because if I really let loose, I think we could all kill each other, since his younger sister is really explosive and also, violent, unlike her brother(my fiance), who is a grumpy, angry, distrusting prone to celos old man in a 27 year old’s body. Mima says her son es un bruto aveces, para decir cosas, so that’s says alot. And I have called him out on yelling on his mom, they seem to get annoyed easy. I have been a challenge to him, considering my sensitive,empathic soul and the Cuban’s lack of diplomacy or tact. As well as my unfeminine tendencies, (being independent, working in a field where men outnumber women), dislike of being ordered about or told what I can or can’t do (why I never joined the army like my parents), and my interest in martial arts and guns, offset by my love of baking and vintage pinup photography and clothes.

    I think you tell which things mi flaco and I butt heads over.

    Tambien soy muy educada (his words). Saying por favor, gracias is odd for them, at least his family dynamic. His mom says it back, but I can tell it’s not something she’s used to saying, but says it out of courtesy and doesn’t want me to think she doesn’t have manners. I adore his mother, his siblings (who adore his ex, the crazy cubana, I guess solidarity?) are a different story. They also have their own particular opinions of what is a proper relationship and seem to take issue or jealousy over my….American-ness? Not Hispanic enough? I am odd duck to them for sure, the outsider. I don’t think it helps that Mima seems to defend me o me saca lucir –Mira que bonita Lily, mira que cinturita tiene, and it’s just envy.

    Despite living in Tampa, FL, I have encountered Cubans all my life, I never dealt with them as much as I do now. Sometimes I feel like I am in another world yet I am living in the USA. And the Cubans I did interact with more, well, the family came over before the revolution and thus, they seem to be very well mannered and on the higher end of society. I guess more Cuban American than lo tipico Cubano? My nana worked with them, taking care of their grandfather, the daughter when was diagnosed with cancer and their baby grandson. Dona Liana y Anita did not dress like the typical Cubana, not even close.

    Cuban Spanish is another thing entirely–sometimes another universe. I was born in the USA, my parents are Puerto Rican and Costa Rican and my nana/nanny/2nd mom is Costa Rican too. I grew up learning both languages at the same time. The rule in the house set by my fierce nana was that my sister and I could only speak Spanish at home and we could speak English at school, and that it would benefit us in the long run si no, ahi estaba el cinto (la faja for Costa Ricans is belt, while faja to others means one of those smoothing gridles to hide the congri belly/muffin tops) Smart lady, I am eternally thankful for it. I grew up, going with nana to doctor appointments, stores and translating for her, it became second nature. She understood English more than people thought she did, but speaking it was a struggle, despite taking English classes when my mom was stationed in Germany for a year.

    I remember when I was 11 and I went to visit my Puerto Rican side in the Bronx, and there I discovered Puerto Rican Spanish, which was utterly confusing as a child. Orange juice – Jugo de China, Pantallas – Earrings, Amarrillos – Yellow plantains. My Puerto Rican cousins find my non Puerto Rican accent adorable. I roll my R’s too, unlike the typical Puerto Rican that omits them, el ca-ho – el carro, el pe-jo – el perro.

    So I am used to being lost in translation, since I grew up more American/Costa Rican, even though I lived with my mom. Every summer I would spend a month in Costa Rica till I was 10 years old during school break. It was a second home. I guess the Spanish I speak, is more Costa Rican I have discovered since being with my Cubano. I don’t have an accent when I speak English, though some people have caught little nuances in it. Sometimes I get stuck on words in English, same with Spanish. Not because I don’t know them, my tongue just seems to forget how to say it, even if my brain is telling me to say it already.

    I have amused and bemused my future Cuban in laws, with my funny little Spanish. Saya to us is either falda/ enagua for us ticos. Un elote – corn on the cob, they thought I was talking about a parking lot. And I got into a heated debate over it with my significant other. They always like to be right I have discovered. -_- Also, sometimes it’s hard to understand his Spanish, since it sounds like they talking with cotton balls in their mouths. I say que? que dijistes alot to mi flaco, which annoys him because no estoy poniendole atencion, conjo!

    Then there was the most recent, “Oh, mima, te traje esto para que hagas fresco de guanabana.” Que? “Fresco, mima, fresco, un batido!”

    Oh, how I made them laugh, silly gringa (though I think his sisters enjoy when I supposedly mess up because it makes them feel better due to their insecurities), fresco is how it feels outside or if someone was being fresh aka descarado. “Voy a ser un fresco descarado,” Mima joked. The correct term is refresco! -_- However, after feeling embarrassed and doubtful, I doubled checked with my Costa Rican relatives and they confirmed I was not crazy. Fresco para los Ticos es “refresco” natural like mamey, mora, etc. The actuall refrescos para los Ticos son los que vienen en botellas como la Coca Cola, una gasosia. Congri is the version of the Costa Rican traditional plate, gallo pinto. What they called picadillo, to us is just seasoned carne molida. Our take on picadillo is something like, picadillo de chayote o un picadillo de papa.

    Oh y el boniato es camote para nostros. Mima found that hilarious too. Pantela -cake-queque, bangs (hair) – cerquello – to us, pava.

    I was lost on mantecado, the flavor? But I guess it’s an actual flavor. There is a brand here called Valentini that make these non typical ice cream hispanic flavors, like guava, mamey, coco, mantecado de vanilla, pina y naranja y malta. Whenever I heard mantecado, I figured it was like this butter dish, since it has part of the word, manteca and assumed it was what they called ice cream.

    But I talked your ear off enough, you are spot on those little Cuban quirks, nuances, mannerisms, behavioral and relationship dynamics –(sometimes I noticed some of those relationship dynamics are borderline emotional abusive) just from my observations and stories told by his mother and mi flaco. Very do as I say, not as I do. And they dislike having that flaw pointed out. “Siempre yo tengo una respuesta para todo.” –mi flaco

    Also, I always had respect for Santeria and that sort of thing, raised by a God fearing Catholic nana who told me stories about seeing things that the typical person wouldn’t see. However; since being with mi Cubano and his jealous crazy exes that are like stubborn ticks, I have been doing more reading into it, and bathing myself in white baths and lighting white candles for protection and cleansing. (I know silly, right? Pero uno nunca sabe!) I even have a back up legit (not the typical con artists) palero, babalawo and espiritista connections, just in case they decide to get creative.

    I have decided to take up reading up on the culture, to sustain my sanity and help me be more understanding, to not take certain things personally and help bridge that communication. This blog was like OMG, I am not crazy! I am not the only one who sees it! They seem to think the Cuban way is the only way aveces. They have a very black and white perspective, very reactive (not big on planning) and they are full of contradictions at times.

    There are things about the Cuban culture that I appreciate and love, very refreshing, but also very challenging. No son facil.

    Buenas tardes, señora.

  42. Not sure how I came across your blog but I love! As a cuban who’s lived half her life in the States I would like to give you my two cents, I’m not from Habana so gaceñiga was a foreign word to me lol I actually had to google it, in Ciego de Avila, where I am from we call it panqué and the closest translation I could find for my husband was imagine banana bread without the banana lol. I would agree that pound cake is not exactly the same as panqué is more firm but if you look at both words i think panqué is a cubanismo for pound cake.
    Descampó is also called escampó
    Guara….Is such a cuban word!!! I would say someone who’s very “fly” would be a better description than moxie
    Hope this helps

    • Hola la piloto! So glad you found me. This language thing is so frustrating for me (so many pointed out that its escampó NOT descampó that I will never make that mistake again), but also terribly fascinating. You probably know that when Habaneros say ‘panqué’ they’re talking about a muffin-like product (a kinda dense, hard, not too sweet muffin). Two of my friends started a small business last month making THE BEST gaceńiga ever. If you ever get to Havana maybe you can try it. Fly! HA! a word I haven’t heard in a long time but I like it. Thanks for reading and writing in

  43. Kristin

    Let me tell you about real pena. I was 15 years old and wanted to express my shame at my rudimentary Spanish when I met my Colombian boyfriend’s parents for the first time. I told them, “Soy embarazado porque mi Español es tan malo”, because obviously that’s the word for embarrassed, right? Mouths dropped open, beverages were choked on, etc.

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