Ten curious expressions to listen out for during your visit to Cuba

Posted by Jeremy John on 31-03-2020 13:02:38

Whether you are fluent in Spanish or not, you might notice certain expressions frequently said in Cuba. There are many cultural idiosyncrasies in Cuba, and one of them is the language. To list all the ways in which the Spanish spoken in Cuba is curious would require a lifetime’s work, but to get you started here are ten expressions to listen out for during your visit: 

No es fácil 

This literally means ‘it’s not easy’, yet it can be heard much more regularly than the English equivalent. It’s frequently used as a conclusion to conversations, whether it be surviving a heartbreak or pondering how to repair a broken ceiling. ‘No es fácil' seems to fit the bill well, and it’s surprising it’s not used more in English. It neatly distills the complexities and difficulties of life into just a few words. 

Candela 

Candela can literally be translated into the similar English word ‘candle’, or also ‘light’, ’flame’ or ‘fire’. In Cuba, the word is used for a myriad of things, especially people, behaviour, situations and even innuendos. 

If someone says you are a candela (“eres candela”) with a smile, it usually means that you are a cheeky rascal. However, without the smile, it can mean that you are sneaky or a troublemaker. Meanwhile, if you are in candela (“estás en candela”) it means you are in trouble, or in a bad state. 

If you want to practice singing this word, listen to the old Cuban song ‘Candela’ (one of the songs re-recorded for the Buena Vista Social Club album), in which it is sung no less than 33 times. 

Que bolá acere 

This is a greeting you’ll hear on the street, an informal way of asking how you are doing. Often shortened to ‘que bolá’, feel free to throw it out yourself, although be warned that some people might burst out laughing hearing it said by a foreigner. It would be a bit like someone visiting the UK and saying with a cockney accent “‘allo geezer, what’s gaaan on?!” 

Ay 

Ernest Hemingway spent much of the last 20 years of his life in Cuba. In his Nobel Prize winning novela, The Old Man and The Sea, set in Cuba, he writes the following: 

‘“Ay,” he said aloud. There is no translation for this word…’ 

Hemingway’s lead character was using an expression that can be heard across Cuba, yet as Hemingway acknowledges, it is a difficult task to translate it into English. 

In some contexts it can mean ‘ouch’, ‘ow’, ‘damn it’, ‘jeez’, ‘oh dear’. Yet in other contexts in carries other connotations, which can usually only be discerned by the tone of voice and the body language. For example, if it is said with a soothing, affectionate tone then it might be meant as a term of endearment, especially if accompanied by your name and a hug: “ay, Jeremy…” But said slightly stronger, and it is being used to grumble. The possibilities are endless with this one syllable, two letter word. 

Tremendo Mangón / Tremenda Manguita 

This is an expression used to describe someone that you think is drop-dead gorgeous. The masculine version, ‘tremendo mangón’, literally translates as a tremendous big mango, and the female version ‘tremenda manguita’ literally means a tremendous little mango. If someone calls you this, remember not to take it literally, instead accept it as a very nice compliment indeed. 

Note, whilst mango implies being attractive, when mango is metaphorically combined with rice it is not considered positive anymore. An ‘arroz con mango’, a ‘rice with mango’, is used as slang for a messy or complicated situation. 

Tranquilo 

This is a very popular word in Cuba. It literally translates as ‘tranquil’ or ‘calm’, and is often given as a piece of advice when times are tough and you are feeling tense. It is therefore not just a simple instruction to calm down a bit, but also a general state of mind that should be aimed at, a philosophy for life. To live happier, and to dance better, you’ve got to be more tranquilo. 

Jamaliche 

If you get really into Cuban food, and can’t stop feasting on the delightful dishes at hand (link with 5 Cuban food dishes article), you might be referred to as a ‘Jamaliche’. This single word has no direct translation, but it basically means someone who eats a lot. The closest expressions in English are ‘glutton’, ‘greedy pig’ or ‘someone who likes to stuff their face’. 

Guagua 

Pronounced ‘wah wah’, in Cuba this word is a synonym for a bus. The origin of the word is debated by historians. It’s generally assumed that the word came into common usage in Cuba in the early 20th century with the arrival of buses from the North American company ‘Wa & Wa Co.’ (short for Washington, Walton, and Company Incorporated). That said, the word was sometimes used before their arrival, hence the linguistic debate. Incidentally, in parts of Latin America ‘guagua’ does not mean bus but ‘baby’, which is thought to onomatopoeically relate to the ‘wah wah’ sound of a baby crying. 

Guajiro / Guajira 

This Cuban word means someone from the countryside. Guajiro is masculine, guajira is feminine. In bars across Old Havana you’ll often here live bands playing the old song ‘Guantanamera’. This song is partly based on poetic verses by Cuba’s national hero, José Martí. (link with José Martí article) In the chorus there are two words: ‘Guantanamera’ and ‘guajira’, so it’s very easy to sing along to. 

Ahorita 

This is a word in Cuba that can cause confusion even for other Latin Americans. Ahorita in Mexico means ‘right now’, but in Cuba it doesn’t mean right now but rather ‘in a moment’. Yet, how long is this moment? It depends on context, the person saying it, the expectations, the task in hand. So, ahorita can mean anything from ‘in a few minutes’, ‘in an hour’, ‘in a few hours’ or even ‘in a few days’. And if that is not confusing enough, ‘ahorita’ is sometimes used to mean ‘a few minutes ago’ too! If you manage to grasp the meaning of this word, you’ve made a big step into integrating yourself into Cuban culture. 

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