Sometimes you don’t travel just to travel, you travel to truly be one with the locals. Since I already look the part, I decided to partner with Apple Languages to practice my Spanish with a local Cuban teacher with some private lessons.
I had the privilege to have learned Spanish from an incredibly smart, and charismatic teacher turned into Cuban abuelito named Pedro, While I had studied Spanish before, I had never received this sort of individualized and thorough teaching; every question I posed would result in a 10 minute explanation with historical and factual reasons in each response.
I asked so many questions that my teacher teased me saying I never left the “3s” stage of my life where kids constantly ask “WHY?” The greatest part was that he too constantly questioned things making him the perfect teacher for my 20 hours of intensive Spanish classes with Apple Language. During our many conversations and lectures, I added various words to my vocabulary notebook that translated into more than just text, they had meaning and value that I could only understand had I been in the country studying the language.
Here are some of my favorite Spanish words learned in Cuba:
Jinetero (N) Colloquial word for “Hustler”
Cuba is a land filled with people who have sadly been cut off from the ability to thrive economically. While the Western world lives in fast paced lands of opportunity and technological advances, Cubans are stuck trying to just survive. What this means is that it’s extremely difficult to access basic things most of us take for granted; toilet paper, shampoo, clothes, etc. With Cuban salaries averaging at $20 a month, it’s no wonder “Jinetero” is used around in Cuba; almost everyone has to hustle to make ends meet. This word is derived from “Jinete” in Spanish which means horse rider; the idea is to cling onto someone for long enough as if you’re riding a horse, to hustle them for as much as possible.
Guagua (N) Cuban way of saying “Bus”
When I first heard this word, I laughed at how childish it sounded, even though it was coming from my adorable 60 year old Casa host. She was explaining how to get to a nearby town and dropped the “guagua” in there casually, making me giggle. I’d studied in Latin America before, and had never heard this way of expressing bus. My teacher Pedro gave me the breakdown that the reason Cubans call buses “guagua” is due to the old system of buses used in Havana back when they were operated by horses, the conductor would ring a bell that would make a “wawa” sound. From then on, locals began referring to the bus as the guagua.
Piropear (V) “Catcalling”
As a woman of color who blends right into the rest of the Cuban looking women, I have to say that this was one of the first words I needed to learn; so I could tell men to stop catcalling me. In Cuba, men of all ages will constantly catcall women, whether it’s sweet, or gross (more often the latter). The intension is usually to make a woman smile, but as someone who wants to be seen beyond what I physically look like, I was pretty bummed at the amount of “piropos” I had to hear, whether it was directed to me, or to other women. I had to surrender to the fact it’s Cuban culture to catcall at women. And so, to contribute to the culture, I would piropear right back.
Mareado(a) (N) Cuban slang for “Head in the clouds/Out of it”
This word was perfect to learn early on in my Spanish language process; I was constantly so pensive about the entire process that I’d day dream (most times in Spanish) and my teacher would joke asking me if I was “mareada.” I loved the friendly teasing of the Cuban culture, they’re not afraid of making you feel like family, and I appreciated the genuineness of it all.
Paladar (N) “Privately Owned Cuban Restaurants”
After roaming the streets of Havana, I kept taking note of the word “Paladar” that was printed across several signs in front of restaurants. I took it to my Spanish class and asked what the word actually meant. Professor Pedro broke it down and informed me that Paladar actually means “Palatte” and coincidentally, the word started being used for private restaurants because of a popular Brazilian novella that Cubans loved. The novella showed the life of a very poor woman who opened a small restaurant in her home, and named it “Paladar.” After years of trials and tribulations, she became a millionaire from her privately owned hot spot. Since the early 1990s, Cuban law allowed private restaurants, but with strict limitations, including number of tables and chairs, allowing few entrepreneurs to open businesses of their own. In 2010, the law was revised making it slightly easier to operate Paladares, and more Cubans have been naming their restaurants after the novella-based success story, in hopes of having the same monetary success as depicted in the novella.
Guajiro (N) “Farmer or Country person”
My teacher’s explanation of this one had me cracking up. Apparently, during the War of Cuban Independence in 1898, thousands of North American troops came to assist in Cuban efforts to gain independence from Spain. The Cuban troops consisted of ordinary country farmers who all believed in the need to fight and defend the idea that Cuba should be it’s own nation. These brave farmers went to the front lines of battle with barbaric machetes, while the North American troops came with fancy weaponry to support them. The English speaking soldiers turned to the Cuban men and called them “War Heroes,” because of their bravery. Meanwhile the Cuban men all thought they were calling them farmers, so they agreed, “yes, we are Guajiros.” From that point on, farmers became “Guajiros.”
Tranquilo (ADJ) “Calm and safe, chill, easy-going”
I already knew the meaning of this word, but when I arrived in Cuba I truly understood its essence; there is no other country I’ve been to with calmer streets, safer neighborhoods, and harmless people. It’s one of the best places to travel solo as a woman, just stay away from the jineteros out there!
El Paquete (N) “The Package, AKA USB drives containing digital files that Cubans transfer among one another on a weekly basis”
As you may already know, internet in Cuba is extremely slow, expensive, and overall challenging to access. But that doesn’t mean that Cubans are left in the dust from the latest addicting Netflix series, or dance crazes. The Paquete is Cuban’s alternative to streaming the web, and it’s brilliant if you ask me. Maybe one in three hundred people has strong enough signal to download new movies, series, news, and even YouTuber’s content on a weekly basis that’s saved all into a 1 Terabyte USB. Those files are then copied into several USB drives and sold to Cubans for a small price ($2-$6 a week). Although “illegal” it’s Cuba’s largest employer, and is so well known that there’s no way the government could go without noticing. The government tolerates distribution of the Paquete, but doesn’t contribute to it.
Un Refran (N) “A Saying”
As my teacher and I debated on various topics and discussed history, he would teach me different “refranes”or sayings to fully express himself. My favorite was one he used to help me remember the past participle of “decir” and “hacer,” it goes like this: “Del dicho al hecho hay un gran trecho.” It translates to “from what’s said, to what’s done, is a long way.”
El Bloqueo (N) “Cuban word for “The Embargo””
Not to be confused with “sin embargo” or the Spanish way of saying “nevertheless,” Cubans call the Embargo a Blockade. Understanding the different ways the USA and Cuba refer to the cut off from all relations is interesting on a linguistic perspective. While “Embargo” sounds more politically correct and authoritative, “Bloqueo” straight up sounds emotionally painful, and morally wrong. It goes to show you the kind of language that both governments use when addressing their people, and it makes you think about the essence of why each country uses certain language.
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