BOOK REVIEW: Cubanisms, A Look at Cuba Through Art and Words

Expressed as a map, Cuba’s linguistic heritage would resemble a map of the world. The words and phrases brought to life in Pedro Menocal’s new book, Cubanisms, don’t just step off the page but out of the undulating, living landscape of Cuba, past and present.


The book can serve as both foundational material for a traveler new to Cuba and finish carpentry for more experienced Cubaphiles looking to polish previous constructions.

Speaking “Cuban” as distinguished from Spanish in Mr. Menocol’s book introduces the reader to the inexactness in the meaning of many Cuban words and phrases but also surfaces cultural intricacies and nuance – like a marlin heaved over the transom – and the magic of coming into contact with something rare and special, from hidden depths.

We are reminded of language’s indispensable connection with identity and its power to translate ambiguities into a coherent worldview.

Mr. Menocal’s passion for speaking Cuban stems from his Cuban heritage and a love of language developed over a lifetime of travel and overseas living in places like Europe and the United States.

Buses in Cuba are called guaguas and, in Havana, camellos (camels). In pre-revolutionary Cuba, guaguas were operated by two people: its driver, the guagüero, and the conductor, who was the one who collected the fares. Then, after the revolution, for many years, buses in Havana were called camellos or “camels” because their design made these buses look like camels on wheels. Today, buses are often called “la rufa.”“¿Cuándo viene la rufa?” or “Hace rato que no pasa la rufa!” (“When is the bus coming? “It’s been a while since the bus came by!”)

The book is enhanced by the gifted illustrator Gustavo “Garrincha” Rodriguez.

Cubanisms is definitively a reference book but does not suffer from the blandness of the other members of its genre. That’s because the work is an extension of some earlier linguistic sleuthing of Mr. Menocal’s father. This early work no doubt nourished Mr. Menocal’s ambition to infuse the book with rich texture and expressiveness – itself a quality common among Cubans – and in doing so renew his own connection with his father.


In speaking to Mr. Menocal about the book, he told the Cuba Journal, “The book was a love story for me – my affection for Cuban culture blended with my love of language.  There’s such a rich history behind the Cuban language, even the slang, that is both fascinating and quirky.  I wanted the book to be fun and informational not just for the Cubans, but for anyone who appreciates Cuba and wants to learn more.”

The book is organized by subject matter and is narrative – a quality that makes it pleasurable to read even in small quantities, like when standing in the immigration line at the Havana airport.

A cachumbambé is an Afro-Cuban word for seesaw. It is also used to describe a person who keeps changing his mind. An old nursery song ran, “Cachumbambé, la vieja Iné’, que fuma tabaco y no toma café.” Totally Afro- Cuban, it means, “Seesaw, old Inez, who smokes cigars and doesn’t drink coffee.” “La vida es un cachumbambé” (“Life is a seesaw”) means that life has its ups and downs.

Like a scarf wrapped around the neck of a pilot in an open-air plane, Cubanisms captures an accurate sense of motion as the island national’s mysterious unfolding happens right in front of us.

Listen to the podcast interview with Pedro Menocal.

You can purchase the book here.

pedro menocal cubanismsPedro García-Menocal is a writer and lawyer. He is the son of noted Cuban artist Pedro G. Menocal and the great-grandson of Mario García Menocal, the third president of Cuba. Pedro was born in Mexico City and thereafter grew up in the United States and Europe. He grew up with a cultural identity crisis of which he was reminded every time someone asked him where he was from. Sometimes, he didn’t really know the answer. He was Cuban, but yet had never been to Cuba. He was Mexican, but that was only because he was born there. And he was American because he spoke English like an American. And when he finally went to Cuba, Cubans told him, “Sí, pero eres de allá.” “Yeah, but you are from over there…” Of course he was. Still, there was no denying that Cuba has always been a part of him, no matter where he has lived in the world. Today, Pedro lives in Miami Beach and hopes that one day, he will be able to spend an entire year in Cuba without anyone telling him where he is from.

Gustavo “Garrincha” Rodriguez is a Cuban illustrator and comic artist residing in Miami, FL. Like every other cartoonist, Gustavo Rodriguez began drawing since he was a kid. His cartooning career “started” in 1986 in his hometown of Havana, Cuba. He had one of his comic strips appear in a monthly magazine under the pen name of Garrincha. After that, his works began to appear in several other Cuban publications. Many hundreds of cartoons, illustrations and comics later, -as well as exhibitions and awards in some international contests- he left Cuba for good and came to the States in 2005. He is currently contributing regularly to El Nuevo Herald newspaper, Yahoo Noticias en Español and Martí Notices. His works are also distributed by The Cartoonist Group and Cartoon Stock. He’s got one comic strips book published and two more are in the works.

BOOK REVIEW: Cubanisms, A Look at Cuba Through Art and Words was last modified: December 6th, 2016 by Simons Chase