You don’t travel to Cuba just for its natural charm. The island’s real treasure is its people. The opportunity to share with its people is always one of the main attractions for those visiting the island.
That’s why, before you arrive, you should at least know the names of a few famous Cubans, who have been distinguished themselves by their talent of because of their contribution to the country’s history. Some of them are: José Martí, the most universal of all Cubans, poet, thinker, supporter of the independence and Cuba’s National Hero; Carlos J. Finlay, Cuban doctor whose main contribution to world science was to have explained the manner in which yellow fever was transmitted; Wifredo Lam, the most highly recognized Cuban painter; Ernesto Lecuona, exceptional composer and pianist, the most well-known Creole musician worldwide; y José Raúl Capablanca, Cuban Grand Master, World Chess Champion from 1921 to 1927.
Others who have reached universal fame over the last decades are Chucho Valdés, Alicia Alonso, Omara Portuondo and Javier Sotomayor. But there are also some famous Cubans, who were born out of creativity and fantasy (they’re almost real up to a certain point), who for the Island’s inhabitants are as outstanding as the mythical Celia Cruz, the Caballero de París or Alberto Yarini.
For example, older people all remember with great affection Juan Quinquín, the archetype of the Cuban campesino (farmer) and the main character of a humorous adventure novel written by Samuel Feijoó. The story of Juan Quinquín was filmed in the sixties, and became one of the best-selling movies of the Cuban film industry. Another character of the Cuban countryside is the Güije: a sort of crafty elf also known as Jigüe or Chichiricú. The Güije lives in rivers or small lakes, in the hills, and has fun scaring incredulous travellers. He’s small, with black skin and big eyes, according to those who claim they have seen him.
Elpidio Valdés is a popular children’s cartoon hero, who has starred in several animated movies. He’s a Coronel of the Liberation Army that in the nineteenth Century fought for Cuba’s independence. His personality and sense of humor can be considered a summary of the Cubans’ main features. Another famous representative of Cuban culture is Cecilia Valdés, who despite having lived in the same century and sharing the same surname as Elpidio, is not related to the movie hero. Cecilia is the main character of the most famous novel written on the island before the twentieth century. She is distinguished by her beauty and seductive charm. Born during the colonial period, her whole life took place in colonial Havana. The love story she in which she is featured tragically develops amongst the spacious houses and narrow cobblestone streets of what today is known as Old Havana.
Similarly, when you ask what time it is, and its 3:00pm, it’s likely that somebody will say “es la hora en que mataron a Lola” (“it’s the time at which they killed Lola”). Who’s Lola? Well, that’s another legend. And it’s really hard to know how much truth is behind this story. It seems that she was involved in a tragedy of love and infidelity, which ended in murder, which occurred at 3:00pm someplace in Havana in the early twentieth century. Maybe this whole event would be a detail totally forgotten today if President Ramón Grau San Martín, during a public speech, had not looked at his watch and said “…, it’s three in the afternoon: the time at which they killed Lola”. This is how this phrase was forever engraved in the Cuban’s popular memory.
In the same manner, it’s useful to know that the phrase “voló como Matías Pérez” (“he flew away like Matías Pérez”) referring to a person, implies that the person shall never be seen again. It turns out that at the beginning of the nineteenth century a very daring Portuguese tailor named Matías Pérez lived in Havana. After having flown successfully for several kilometers in a balloon over Havana, he tried it again and…, he simply disappeared. Nobody ever heard anything from him again. Even though he wasn’t the first balloon pilot on Cuban soil, he is Cuba’s most famous aeronaut, together with cosmonaut Arnaldo Tamayo (the first Latin-American to fly to space).
But if instead of the previous phrase, you hear someone saying “cantó El Manisero” (“he sang El Manisero”) the news might be much sadder; because it means that person has definitely died. El Manisero is one of the most famous Cuban folk songs, composed by Moisés Simons and popularized by Rita Montaner. The lyrics are based on the cries of a particular type of street vendor that sold roasted peanuts (a highly valued snack in Cuba). The black humor that has engulfed this song comes from its last verse, adding some double meaning to the phrase: “The manisero is leaving, The manisero has left”.
In a bit more cheerful tone, Cubans refer to Kike & Marina, or rather to their caldosa. The caldosa is a Cuban culinary formula (a thick soup) prepared with hen, yucca, plantain, malanga, potatoes and different spices. During the 1980s many stories circulated referring to the invigorating effect of the caldosas prepared by Enrique (Kike) y Luz Marina (Marina). This is what gave birth to a very popular song whose chorus says: “¡con esta caldosa qué bien se camina!” (“with this caldosa we can really walk well!”). Therefore, during your trip to Cuba, when you get tired and hungry, the solution is simple: find out where they serve caldosa and ask them to make it like Kike’s & Marina’s. After that you’ll be up and ready to continue discovering the island’s most exciting stories while walking around its streets.