A basic gringo’s guide to Cuban culture

When I came to South Florida a decade ago, I was pretty much the most basic white person you know. I’m from the deep and dirty South, and I lived in the Northwest before I came here. When I arrived, it was with a very real understanding that I was not in any place that looked or felt like the rest of America that I knew.

I remain a regretfully very white person, alas, but during the past 10 years, I at least got smarter. I found a partner who is Cuban. And she set about educating and retraining me.

As an interloper, it’s impossible to know everything,  but I  learned quite a bit from my wife and her family and my Cuban friends. I’m here to spare you, my fellow basic gringos, the embarrassment of learning these lessons the hard way. Let’s tirar la casa por la ventana

The Theory of Relativity

The most important thing to know is that time is relative.

Einstein may get all the cred for explaining this theory with a nice story about a dude on a platform and a passenger watching the same train struck by two bolts of lightning, but Cubans have perfected it by saying “The party starts at 7.”*

What does it all mean?

If a gringo party starts at 7, you should probably arrive as close to 7 as possible. But for your Cuban friends, 7 means that the party starts no earlier than 8, and they’ll probably get there like 9-something — màs o menos.

Only the host’s Cuban mother will actually show up around 7. (Only family can arrive this early. It is super rude.) She will have 10 pounds of food, even if the host said she didn’t need more food. And she will immediately begin pointing out all the things in the apartment that aren’t properly cleaned — “Aren’t you going to wipe down the baseboards? Dios te ampare y te resucite!”

If you succumb to your gringo tendencies here, you’re likely to make the mistake I have made of walking into the “party” while the host is in her bata de casa frantically pushing around a Cuban mop while her mom scrubs the counters with lavender Mistolin and mutters about what a pigsty this seemingly spotless apartment is.
Relativity, man. Cubans got it on lock.

* Please note that this has nothing to do with actual physics, only my limited understanding of it. Also, you should probably never attempt to learn about physics from someone with a journalism degree.

Culinary delights

One of the biggest mistakes myself and other gringos make upon arrival in Miami is thinking we can saunter up to the cafeteria window and just hang with those old dudes who throw back cafecitos all day because, hey, we like coffee and we drink plenty of Starbucks. NOPE.

This Cuban baby is drinking cafe RN …
This Cuban baby is drinking cafe RN …

You need to know that Cuban babies’ cafecito habits are established before they have teeth. Cuban parents understand that they must raise their children to not only tolerate but to thrive on ultra-high levels of caffeine and sugar, so babies get a nice cafe con leche as soon as they can hold a cup. Those Cuban kids graduate to the real deal rocket fuel while your gringo ass is still toddling around trying to figure out how to poke the straw into a Capri Sun without going all the way through the back. Next-level coffee game is a Cuban thing.

A friend went to the doctor upon arrival in Miami. The doctor welcomed him to the city and promptly told him, “Only one Cuban coffee per day, and go easy on the lechon. Your heart can’t handle it like ours.” This is sage medical advice.

As for lechon, I am a Southerner, so I have an abiding love for pork. It is perhaps our most versatile ingredient, making biscuits delicious, rendering even the healthiest of green vegetables deeply unhealthy, and providing the base for all fried foods. Cuban cuisine is similarly, comfortingly pork-focused.

I have a couple of friends who are vegan, one of whom is also Cuban. When he visited, he’d take his tongue on a trip down memory lane at La Carreta with some rice and beans or at least a non-buttered tostada and cafecito. My wife shattered his dreams when she casually revealed to him that pretty much every Cuban food contains lard. Cuban bread? Lard. Black beans? Lard. Pastelitos? Lard. Lard is what makes Cuban food so good. Sorry, vegans.

Party time

One day, when you have been here awhile, you will be invited to a family party, maybe even Noche Buena, but most definitely something that can only be celebrated by roasting a whole pig in an aluminum-lined plywood oven called a Caja China. You’re going to think this a nice dinner, and you will bring a decent bottle of wine or maybe a pie, and you will wear a tie or a nice skirt and you will comb your hair like it’s yearbook picture day in 7th grade. These will all be mistakes, but at least your hosts will find it endearing.

To remain endearing, there are three things to know: Never discuss the Virgin Mary. Never eat candy that’s just sitting out in a dish. (It may be an offering, for real, just let it chill there.) Don’t talk about how much you want to visit Cuba for vacay, because there will inevitably be someone at this party who is real pissed about our current diplomatic relations with the island.

Because you have mastered the Cuban theory of relativity by now, you arrive maybe two hours after the party’s official start time. You know you are in the right neighborhood because you simultaneously hear and smell the party from four blocks away. The charcoal is blazing, Celia Cruz and Willy Chirino blast from the backyard, and the entire 30-person family is singing and shouting and already a bit buzzed on rum and cokes.

How is everyone already buzzed? You arrived on time – two hours after you were told dinner would be. Ay gringo, there is an exception to the Cuban theory of relativity for family parties. Family party time is actually “Come over sometime after 2 p.m. and we’re going to hang out for legit 10 hours, minimum.”

This party has nothing to do with those quiet, refined family parties you know from back home with church clothes and a nice jello salad and everyone’s home by 9. Instead, you’re now an extra in Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, but with dialogue at a much, much higher volume – and the protagonist is your friend’s 85-year-old abuelita who can salsa you under the table.

All 30 people will be straight-up yelling at you to welcome you to the party. (They don’t think they are yelling, though, so don’t bother telling them that they are yelling. It’s fine. Adjust your hearing. Let it ride.) First they will yell at you to have a drink. Then they will yell at you to dance. Prepárate. You will be dancing at this party.

Shakira is right, gringo. Your hips don’t lie. You have no rhythm. But the nice abuela will begin teaching you how your hips should move when you dance. It will be very Karate Kid, but with more “Ay, niño” – and the “wax-on, wax-off” is performed on your butt, a vain attempt to make it move in some semblance of a relationship to the beat.

When you are sweaty and you’ve rolled up your sleeves and lost your tie or maybe someone has loaned you some chancletas, a tío will ask you to play dominos. This is a trap. There is no escape. You are going to get your ass kicked now, and you’re going to laugh about it, or else you’re un pasmado, and you will suffer that reputation forever.

Maybe three hours after you arrive, the pig will be ready to come out of the Caja China. At this moment, you will be tested. Everyone is now happily drunkish and hungry and the best part of the pig is the skin. This skin, the chicharrón, is so crisply broiled that the men who have tended this pig roast all day will tap it with knives and crack it off into brittle golden sheets, dripping with fat.

All bets are off now. I have witnessed kind and loving mothers stiff-arm their own children for chicharrónes. Best to hang back until you reach varsity-level pachanga status. Some nice tía may take pity on you and pass you a piece during your first party — after that, you’re on your own.

Y más

There is no way to encapsulate every lesson in our brief primer. We haven’t even covered slang yet, but there are two words you should understand by the time you get a local driver’s license.

ñooo que barato (Mercedes Dayanara, Flickr)
This store has the best name in all of Miami. (Mercedes Dayanara, Flickr)

The basic rule is that coño (and ño and ñoooooooooo) is an exclamatory curse that covers every possible emotion or circumstance. You also should know that it literally translates as vagina, and is therefore perhaps not the best choice for a job interview, let’s say.

If you want a more PG version, you can stick with ay, which also can accompany any sentiment:

  • “You look so cute!” = “¡Ay, que cute!”
  • “That guy is a jerk!” = “¡Ay, what a bofe!”
  • “I broke my arm.” = “¡Ayyyyyy, me duele!”

These are the most basic words. There are a bajillion little words and phrases, though, and just when you think you have learned them all, you will hear a new one. Google them. Also, just listen to your friends and their parents, because they know what’s up.

It will take years for you to master Cuban culture, my fellow basic gringo. But the important thing is to keep trying. Be willing to dance, to sing, to get whooped at dominoes, and to try out your terrifically bad Spanish. (I’m still bad at this last one.) Ever so slowly, you will learn. You will learn Cuban culture, and you too, will grow to love it as if it were your own.