A Tale of Two Cities

¿Serán de La Habana?/¿Serán de Santiago? 

"You all talk like Negroes", she told me. I was around 12, she maybe three years older. She had come from Santiago to see a medical specialist in Havana for some kind of back problem, a curvature that, as far as I could see, only accented the natural curves of her already very Cuban figure. I was smitten but obviously had no chance -- with her or with anyone. She was staying with us: our families were friends. And we were having a good natured argument about regional accents.

"You speak in singsong", I said, repeating what we habaneros said about orientales, the people from Oriente province, where Santiago de Cuba is the capital. "No", she argued. "It's you habaneros who speak in singsong. And you all talk like Negroes."

And she illustrated this by pronouncing the word for coal, carbón, with all its vowels and consonants. "In Havana you say 'cahb'n'." She had a point: that's how we said it. And, yes, that's how black Cubans spoke, at least on the street. Had we engaged in this debate many years later, I would've riposted a mucha honra -- I'm honored to sound black. But we were children in the mid 1950s, soaked in racism, a word I did not even know. I was mortified.

In retrospect, and leaving aside the old Havana/Santiago rivalry, as old as the two old cities, I think it's not that we habaneros sound black, it's that we sound street. I would've been far more mortified if she had told me I sounded fisto -- pretentiously refined. Even the most refined of habaneros, poet and novelist José Lezama Lima, spoke with a marked Havana accent, as I discovered once when I heard a recording of the writer reading from his masterwork Paradiso. His famously convoluted language, practically lifted from the Spanish Baroque, and his unabashed high-culture references almost shocked me coming from the lips of someone who spoke so. . . so. . . so Havana!

Habaneros of all backgrounds shy from refined diction. Well, not all. There is a Havana accent that I call mid-century theater and I associate it with thespians of that era. I have known Havana folk, mostly female, who spoke like that, and, indeed, some of them had been on stage. It's very affected, and any male who used it would be subjected to our macho homophobia. 

Otherwise, we tend to speak plain, which in the estimation of my santiaguera early object of desire meant we all talk black. We're not alone. Contemporary American speech is laced with expressions that come from black culture, and many a white kid, steeped in nothing but rap and hip hop, will try to sound that way, down to the common use of "nigger" among friends.

Habaneros will say "cahb'n", except there's not much reason to do so -- back when the young santiaguera used it as an example, coal stoves were still common in Cuban kitchens. What we do use are expressions that are less than refined. I knew the matriarch of a high-society family, a true grand dame, who addressed others with the repeated use of , which in this context meant something like the American "yo'." Knowing her status -- a classically trained pianist, a member of the most exclusive Havana clubs, an expert golfer -- was as startling as hearing Lezama read his prose with a marked Havana accent.

There's a flip side to this demotic speech. Sure, we all sound or try to sound like the salt of the earth, as long as that salt is straight. I already noted how that stagey accent would identify a male as gay and open him to homophobic ridicule. Lezama, who was gay, did not use it, though I think his speech was what came naturally. Or maybe his language was already so contrived that to speak it with affectation would be far too much.

As for the Havana/Santiago dialectic, it must be noted that Fidel spoke like the oriental that he was, and it is said that he had no love for Havana. He's gone, so no matter. The young woman who argued with me about who spoke in singsong grew old, as I did, and continued to be a family friend -- in Miami, of course. A few years ago my mom told me that she'd told her she had a crush on me back in the day. I'll be damned! My feelings were reciprocated and I was clueless -- though even if I'd been a cool kid, which I wasn't, how much clue can you have at 12? Now you tell me!, I said to my mother.

I didn't pursue anything. Some things are better left as memories. But if I could travel in a time machine to the day of that argument, what I'd like to say is, not that I'm proud to sound black and street, if I ever sounded that way, which I doubt. But that I found the santiaguero singsong, particularly hers, irresistibly charming.