Haz De Cuenta Que
This phrase means something like “Imagine that…”, “Pretend that…”, or “Make believe that…” and is used whenever you would want to say one of those phrases in English–don’t use “pretender” or “imaginar“, neither are appropriate really: “pretender” means something more like “to aspire to” and “imaginar” is used like “imagine” in the sense of “I thought” or “I suppose” e.g. “I imagine you’re quite busy” or “I thought you’d have already heard about it.”
If you wanted to say anything along the lines of “Make believe that you are a car made of cheese”, or “Pretend that you’re the mayor of Cheeseville, what would you do?”, you would use this phrase as such:
“Haz de cuenta que eres un carro de queso.”
“Haz de cuenta que eres el alcalde de Quesovilla, ¿qué harías?”
Edit: A couple native speakers have told me that they’ve also heard this phrase used to mean something like “remember that” or “keep in mind that”, etc. So that’s also a possible alternative meaning depending on the dialect.
Like “bueno”, but more informal. It frequently finds itself in places where an English speaker would say “Well”, “ummm”, “let’s see”, “errr…”, “Hang on, let me see here…”, etc. Examples:
“¿Quieres ver una película?” (“Do you want to see a movie?”) may be answered with something like: “Pueeesss…..no sé, ehh….sí.” (“Weeelllll….I dunno, ehh….sure.”)
In many places, Mexico in particular, “pues” will be shortened to “pos” or even just a hiss that kind of sounds like “pss”. In Spain it’s “pue” instead. Which one you should use should be determined, as always, by how the people around you are speaking.
La Verdad Es Que
“The truth is that…” or “The truth of the matter is that…”, but a more contextual translation that would give you a really good English equivalent would be “actually”, because they use it the same way we do that word and about as frequently (in other words: very). Many beginning learners will say “Actualmente…” when they want to say “Actually…” but that’s incorrect as you know, “actualmente” translates more to “currently” than “actually” and is used to express what’s currently going on right now.
“¿Estás bien?” (“Are you ok?”)
“Pues…la verdad es que no me siento bien.” (“Well…actually, I don’t feel well.”)
It literally and contextually means “then” and is used in a very similar way that we use that word. Normally it’s used to indicate that one event followed another, just as we use it (“Then I went to the store” = “Entonces fui a la tienda”), and it’s also used in a sort of “So what, then?” kind of way, sometimes used the same way we use “so”, as in:
“So, what happened next?” = “Entonces, ¿qué pasó después?”
“So…you’re not coming then?” = “Entonces…¿no vienes?” or “Pues…¿no vienes, entonces?”
“In other words…”, “That is to say…”, or “I mean…”
Interesting structure in this phrase, because you’ve got the subjunctive involved (click me if you need help with that) due to the fact that’s sort of a hypothetical (as in, it means something like “if one were to say it this way” or “one could say it this way”). “O” means “or” and “sea” is the 3rd person present subjunctive form of “ser“, which means “to be”. This is an extremely common verbal crutch that you’ll hear used quite frequently in the way we would use “like” or “you know”. Examples:
“El jefe no me ha hablado todavía, o sea de verdad no sé.” = “The boss hasn’t talked to me yet, so in other words I don’t really know.”
“[blah blah blah long explanation about something], o sea la verdad es que solo me gusta mucho la ropa interior feminina.” = “[blah blah blah long explanation about something], in other words I just really like women’s underwear.”
More literally means “that is to say” and can be used pretty much anywhere you would use “o sea”, except it’s considered a bit more correct and less slangy than “o sea” is.
“Luego” also technically translates to “then” and is frequently interchangeable with “entonces”, though “luego” is more often used to indicated something happening next in sequence, e.g. “…then I went to the store, then the airport, then home.” would be something like “…luego fui a la tienda, luego al aeropuerte, y luego a la casa.”
Sometimes it’s used when we would use “later”, as in the most common example of “Hasta luego” which means “See you later”. Other similar expressions include “Luego voy” (“I’ll go later”), “Luego te digo” (“I’ll tell you later”), “Luego lo hago” (“I’ll do it later”), etc.
Not “actually”, first of all. This is a false friend, it doesn’t mean what it looks like it does. “Actualmente” actually (see what I did there? 😀 ) means “currently”, “at the moment”, “these days”, or, as the dictionary defines it, “nowadays”. The best basic translation is probably “currently”. Examples:
“Qué pasa?” “Pues, actualmente no sé, creo que esperamos a que Juan llegue.” = “What’s happening?” “Well, currently I don’t know, I think we’re waiting for Juan to arrive.”
“Actualmente hace muy buen tiempo, pero podría llover más tarde.” = “Currently the weather is very nice, but it could rain later.”
A Propósito / Por Cierto
They both pretty much just mean “By the way”. Just as with “by the way”, they usually indicate a change in subject or a transition into some new sort of business. Just use them the same way you would “by the way”, e.g. “A propósito, ¿sabes dónde está María?” = “By the way, do you know where Maria is?” or “Por cierto, ¿no ibas a ir a la tienda?” = “By the way, weren’t you going to go to the store?”
Por Lo Menos
It means “At least”. “Por” means “for”, “lo” means “that” or “it”, and “menos” means “less” or “least” in this case, so you put them together and you get “that which is least”, or…”at least” 😉 Examples:
“¡Por lo menos pregúntale el nombre antes de que le quites la ropa, hombre!” = “At least get her name before you try to take her clothes off, man!”
“Finally” or “At last”.
Frequently said with exasperation that the thing in question is finally happening. Examples:
“¡Por fin! ¡Estás aqui!” = “Finally! You’re here!”
“Por fin, tenemos la tarea de todos.” = “At last, we’ve got everyone’s homework.”
This is the Spanish equivalent of “It’s that…” or “It’s such that…” or “The thing is that…”, all of which are roughly the same thing. This is one of the most common and most useful, all-purpose phrases in Spanish, and can be used for nearly anything–I guarantee you that if you ask a Spanish-speaking person “Why?” or “Why is ____ ?”, there’s a superb chance that their answer will begin with “Es que…”, meaning “Well, it’s that…” or even “Pues, es que…” (hey, don’t forget: you can mix-‘n-match all this stuff! 😀 )
“Es que” is always used to answer something, in response to something, it requires some sort of preceding question or statement to actually respond to.
This is pretty much exclusive to Argentina and just means something like “Hey!”, or “Hey buddy”, e.g.
“¡Che! Me gustan tus zapatos.” = “Hey, I like your shoes.”
“¡Che! ¿Qué tal, hombre?” = “Hey! What’s up, man?”
Lo Que Pasa Es Que
“What’s happening is that…” or “What’s going on is…”, that’s it. It can be used anytime “Es que…” can, which means pretty much any time.
Quizás / Tal Vez
They both just mean “maybe” or “perhaps”, that’s it, very simple. You’ll sometimes see it spelled “quizá” minus the “s” on the end. Examples:
“Quizás no debí haberme comido todas esas ardillas, creo que tengo una bola de pelos.” = “Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten all those squirrels, I think I have a hairball.”
“Tal vez El Presidente nos preste algunas de sus prostitutas si nos aburrimos.” = “Perhaps the President will let us borrow some of his prostitutes if we get bored.”
Literally, “It results that…” or “It results in…”, more accurately it means something like “It turns out that…”. If you wanted to say “Well, it turns out that the dog doesn’t like broccoli!” you would say that “¡Pues, resulta que al perro no le gusta el brócoli!”
You would also use this particular expression to mean “it works out that” in a mathematical context, such as saying “The price of the car works out to 20,000 pesos.” would be done as “Resulta que el precio del carro es veinte mil pesos.”
Just another way of saying “So” when used at the beginning of a sentence, such as “So, you think I’m fat?” would be “¿Así que crees que estoy gordo?”, or “So, you’re coming then?” would be “¿Así que vienes?”. The reason it’s used in this very specific manner is due to what it really means, “así” means “this way” or “like this” or “in this manner”, and “que”, of course, means “that”, so “así que” literally means something like “It’s going to be like this, then is it?” in reference to whatever follows that “Así que”–got it?
“Although”, “Even though”, etc. Examples:
“Aunque me dicen que estoy loco, aún voy a rezar al monstruo volador de espaguetti.” = “Even though they tell me I’m crazy, I’m still going to pray to the flying spaghetti monster.”
“Aunque hui del “Superbowl” como de la peste, aún tuve que oír personas quejándose sobre Christina Aguilera. Yo no estaba feliz.” = “Although I avoided the Superbowl like the plague, I still had to hear people complain about Christina Aguilera. I wasn’t happy.”
“Moreover”, “Besides…”, “Also”, etc.
This is occasionally also used where we would use “too”, e.g.
“Él es guapo y además inteligente.” = “He’s handsome and smart, too.”
“El queso es demasiado suave, demasiado débil, y además huele muy mal.” = “Cheese is too soft, too weak, and besides, it smells terrible.”
Ni Modo Que
“No way that…”, or “No way in hell that…”. “Modo” literally means “way” so this one is pretty intuitive. It’s never just used on its own like “No way!” is in English, something always follows it and that something will always involve the subjunctive (click me if you need help with that). Examples:
“¡Ni modo que vaya a hablar con ella!” = “Like hell I’m going to talk to her!”
“Ni modo que yo pueda ir contigo, lo siento” = “No way can I go with you, sorry.”
“Sin embargo” means “However”, “Nonetheless”, “Nevertheless”, “Notwithstanding”, etc.
Frequently used while someone is shaking their finger at you, haha. They’ll acknowledge your point, quite aware that they’re about to invalidate it, and then say “sin embargo” right before they do so. As such:
“Entiendo que el queso no es tan furte como el acero, pero sin embargo voy a hacer un carro con él.” = “I understand that cheese isn’t as strong as steel, but nevertheless I’m going to make a car out of it.”
“Admito que pagué por más o menos una docena de prostitutas con fondos del estado, ¡pero sin embargo aún creo que soy adecuado para ser El Presidente!” = “I acknowledge that I did pay for a dozen or so prostitutes with state funds, but nonetheless I still think I’m fit to be President!”
Menos Mal Que
“Good thing that…”, or “It’s just as well that…”. Fantastic little sentence-starter that you can get a ton of mileage out of. It literally means “Less bad that”, and is just they’re way of saying “It’s good that this thing happened.” Examples:
“Menos mal que no estacioné mi carro de cheese al sol, ¡se derretiría!” = “Good thing I didn’t park my cheese car in the sun, it would have melted!!”
“Menos mal que no olvidaste los ratones, ¡las serpientes tienen mucha hambre!” = “Good thing you didn’t forget the mice, the snakes are really hungry!”
“Look”, “Look here, …”, or “Look at that…”, etc. “Fijar” means “to fix” in the sense of to focus or fixate on something, not as in “to repair” (that’s “arreglar“), so “Fíjate”, as you can imagine, means something like “fix yourself” (as in, “focus yourself”, i.e. “pay attention”) and “que” means “that”, so “fíjate que” means something like “fixate yourself on that”, or “focus yourself on that” and best translates to what we might say as “Look, …” or “Look at that”. It’s just used to call someone’s attention to something.
An example would be if you wanted to say “Look, there’s a giant car made out of cheese!”, it would be “¡Fíjate, hay carro enorme hecho de queso!”
“Fíjate” without the “que” means “Watch out!”, “Look out!”, or “Pay attention, …”
Also, note that “Fijarse que + subjunctive” = “Make sure that…”, as in “Make sure that the oven is off.” (“Fíjate que esté apegado el horno.”). This is usually used the way that we would say “Check that…” instead of what most English-speakers will be inclined to use, “checar“–most Spanish speakers use “Fijarse que + subjunctive”, not “checar”.
Lo Bueno / Lo Malo
“The good thing…” / “The bad thing…”
“Lo” = “It” and when placed before another word it means “that which is ____”, e.g. “lo bueno” means “That which is good”, “lo malo” means “That which is bad”, and of course the more accurate contextual translation in English would be “The good/bad thing…”. This works with a ton of other words, such as:
“lo peor” = “the worst thing…”
“lo único” = “the only thing…”
“lo extraño” = “the strange thing…”
“lo gracioso” = “the funny thing…”
Such as in “¡Lo mas extraño es que El Ministerio de Transporte no me daba permiso que manejar mi carro de queso en las carreteras públicas!” = “The strange thing is that the Department of Transportation wouldn’t let me drive my cheese car on the public roads!”
“Let’s see…” or “Let’s see here…”
Fantastically useful little sentence-starter here. It’s frequently used to call attention to something, such as:
“¿Tienes un dólar?” “A ver…” = “Do you have a dollar?” “Let’s see…”
“A ver si mi paquete ya ha llegado…” = “Let’s see if my package has arrived yet…”
“A ver si mi carro de queso flota…” = “Let’s see if my cheese car floats…”
It will be frequently used with “si” or “qué” to mean “Let’s check and see…” or “Let’s check…”, as in:
“A ver qué hay en televisión…” = “Let’s see what’s on TV…”
“No wonder…” or “Little wonder that…”
“Razón” means “reason”, so with “con razón” you get “with reason”, e.g. “Con razón tu carro de queso se derretió, ¡lo dejaste al sol!” = “No wonder your cheese car melted, you left it in the sun!” or, using the literal translation (see if this makes sense to you now , it should), “With reason your cheese car melted, you left it in the sun!”
“Because” or “That’s why”.
It’s frequently used to explain or to help make things understood when it might not be clear what’s going on, e.g.
“Señor Andrew, ¡manejas un carro de queso!”, “Sí, por eso mis pantaloncillos están amarillos.” = “Señor Andrew, you drive a cheese car!”, “Yes, that’s why my pants are yellow.”
“Fíjate, hay un video musical de Shakira en la televisión.”, “Sí, por eso no puedo levantarme” = “Look, there’s a Shakira music video on TV.”, “Yes, that’s why I can’t stand up.” 😀
“Well, anyway…” or “So, anyhow…”
It literally means something like “In conclusion…” but isn’t always necessarily used to conclude something (though it frequently is, that is it’s often used to lead into the conclusion), sometimes it’s used to change subjects or bring the conversation back to what was originally being discussed. Examples:
“En fin, la verdad es que sobreviví sólo comiéndome mi carro de queso cuando quedé varado en el desierto.” = “So anyway, I actually did survive only by eating my cheese car when I was stranded in the desert.”
“So it turns out that…”
“Total” literally (and normally) means, simply, “total” as in “complete”, but when it’s put at the beginning of a sentence as a starter it basically means something like “So anyway, it turns out that…” and is frequently paired with “que” in the process of doing so e.g.:
“Pues, total que no me levanté a tiempo esta mañana.” = “Well, turns out that I didn’t wake up on time this morning.”
Not very common at all in this particular context in Latin America, but I’ve noticed (thanks to Ben and Marina’s FANTASTIC free podcasts that I highly recommend) that it’s used all the time in Spain, it’s their equivalent of our “ok” or “you know”, it’s a constantly used filler word there. You can use it like you would “ok”, you can use it like you would “well” (“vale” and “pues” are frequently interchangeable), you can use it like you sometimes would “ummm”! See below:
“¿Vale?” “Sí, vale.” = “Ok?” “Yeah, ok.”
“Pueesss, vale, vamos a ver lo que tenemos aquí…” = “Wellll, ok, let’s see what we’ve got here…”
“Creo que mi carro de queso no funciona muy bien, vale?” = “I think my cheese car didn’t work very well, you know?”
“Vale…ehhh…donde puse mi busto del culo de Shakira, es doscientos kilos de bronce, sé que está en algún lugar por aquí…” = “Ok…ehhh….where’d I put my bust of Shakira’s ass, it’s two hundred kilos of bronze, I know it’s around here somewhere…”
What a fantastic little word. It’s a bit difficult because if you use the literal translation of “ya”, which is “already”, every time you hear it, it won’t make sense, but you have to understand this word because you will hear it used ALL. THE. TIME…I mean constantly.
It can mean “already”, of course, it can also mean “now”, or if made negative it can mean “anymore” as in “not anymore”, e.g. “Ya no viene” = “He’s not coming anymore.” It’s often used simply as emphasis, usually to emphasize that something is being done, it’s being done now, or that something will be gotten to in just a second if the listener would just be patient and quit friggin’ bugging you about it. Examples:
“Ya voy.” = “I’m already going” / “I’ll go in a minute” / “I’m going!!!!” [in response to someone repeatedly insisting that you go] – which translation is correct depends on the context.
“Ya están las hamburguesas.” = “The hamburgers are ready/here now.”
“¡Ya estoy allí!” = “I’m already there!”
“La verdad es que ya quiero salir.” = “Actually, I already want to leave.” / “Actually, I want to leave now.”
To confuse you even further, when “ya” is combined with “que” it means something completely different: “Since…”, “Seeing that…”, “Seeing as how…”, etc. It’s used to mean something like “Well, since ___ has/is already occurred/occurring…”. Here, look at these and see if you get it:
“Ya que comiste mi carro de queso, ¡¿cómo vamos a ir a la casa?!” = “Since you’ve eaten my cheese car, how are we going to get home?!”
“Ya que compraste todo lo que necesitabamos, supongo que podemos ir a casa ahora.” = “Seeing as how you already bought everything we needed, I suppose we can go home now.”
First and foremost the wonderful Spanish speakers I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and talking to over the years, whether that was in person or via Skype. Secondly, my own personal experience based on reading and listening to actual contemporary Spanish-language media (which I can’t recommend enough). Also, the guys over at HTLAL (if you’re not a member you should be), Joseph Keenan’s fantastic Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish, and the Foro de Español forums.
Ok, well that’s it. If you’d like to delve into this even further there’s a list of muletillas (what this stuff is called in Spanish) over on Spanish Wikipedia organized by country, though it’s lacking definitions. If this interested you I can almost guarantee you you’ll be interested in two other similar posts I’ve done:
How to Not Sound Like a Gringo – The 17 Most Common Spanish Errors and How to Avoid Them
Manners in Spanish – The Basics of Being Polite in Spanish-Speaking Cultures
Edit (12/9/2011): Thanks to a commenter below, I can highly recommend this very extensive article (be warned: it’s entirely in Spanish) on muletillas, definitely worth checking out. Thanks, Mijail999.
I await your corrections and questions in the comments (and I do appreciate them, by the way).
Edit (7/15/2013): Many thanks to Jared Romey at Speaking Latino and his wife, Diana, for pointing out several grammatical errors in this article and then being kind enough to put together a whole word document outlining them and how to fix them for me! Fantastic! Additionally, Nélida Kreer at Traducciones-Montevideo was the one who originally caught the errors and mentioned it to Jared.
Guillermo Ãlvarez Guedes, the Cuban comic who made a common Cuban expletive his trademark, died last week in Miami at age 86. Gaston De Cardenas/El Nuevo Herald/MCT via Getty Images hide caption
Guillermo Ãlvarez Guedes, the Cuban comic who made a common Cuban expletive his trademark, died last week in Miami at age 86.Gaston De Cardenas/El Nuevo Herald/MCT via Getty Images
Editor's note:Fair warning — this essay is, in part, about Spanish profanities, and it includes several.
The man who taught me to swear in Cuban died last week.
Guillermo Álvarez Guedes was a foul-mouthed comedian who filled 32 albums with politically incorrect jokes. Álvarez Guedes combined Jackie Mason's self-deprecating humor with the deadpan delivery of Stephen Colbert. Unlike Colbert, Álvarez Guedes didn't just play a conservative on TV. In the '80s, he traveled to Central America to entertain the Contras. The Cuban comedian was a staunch anti-communist, and for half a century he told virulently anti-Castro jokes.
Miami's Cuban exile community loved Álvarez Guedes because they agreed with his politics and couldn't help but laugh at his jokes. They relished his masterful use of Cuban obscenities. He was an important figure, though, for an altogether different reason: Guillermo Álvarez Guedes helped Cuban immigrants and their U.S.-born children make sense of the world and their place in it.
"Carajo," "comemierda" y "coño" were the profane triumvirate of malas palabras (bad words) that drove the humor of Álvarez Guedes.
He was best known for his signature use of "coño." In his one English-language album, the comedian describes "coño" as a sort of force multiplier for any phrase.
"You want to say, 'Why are you so late?' In Spanish it would be, 'Porque llegaste tan tarde?' Now, when you add the word 'coño' to it, it is about five times stronger. It has more meaning. 'Porque coño llegaste tan tarde?'
Cue Cuban laughter. The punch line doesn't make any sense unless you speak Spanish and can therefore appreciate that he was absolutely 100 percent right.
Later, in that same routine, he goes on to say "['coño'] is so strong ... you don't even have to say the whole word. With half of it you express everything you want." He was extolling the virtues of using just the last syllable — "ño" — to convey anger, appreciation or surprise. He offered audiences a Homeric catalog of the different meanings and uses of "ño." It was his calling card.
The only English-language parallel I can draw is the character of Clay Davis in The Wire and his use of "sheeee-it" or Samuel Jackson swearing in his recording of Go the F**k to Sleep. However, Jackson requires four letters to achieve the depth of emotion and passion that took Álvarez Guedes only two letters — ñ and o.
Álvarez Guedes' Cuban accent was most pronounced when he swore. It is almost as if he concentrated all the force of his cubanidad on saying "carajo," "comemierda," and "coño."
You can hear for yourself in this video what he had to say about "carajo" and "comemierda."
The video is NSFW, if your colleagues or boss speak Spanish. Good luck making sense of the jokes, if you don't understand Spanish. We can discuss particulars in the comments, if you like.YouTube
I don't remember many of Álvarez Guedes' jokes being raunchy a la Redd Foxx. But Álvarez Guedes certainly told many jokes at the expense of gays and used "maricón," an anti-gay slur, as a punch line. (Listen to some of his jokes now, and it is impossible to avoid a clear impression of homophobia.) By Cuban standards 30 years ago, his jokes were PG-13.
I must have been close to 13 years old when my prim, proper and judgmental mother from Camagüey would sit and listen to his recordings with me. She would laugh. I'd ask for explanations. At the time, I struggled to follow the Cuban slang. (This was the stage of my youth when she would talk to me in Spanish and I would respond in English.) Listening together to Álvarez Guedes was one way to transmit Cuban culture in the form of humor that a young teenage boy could embrace.
Michigan State University linguist Gabriela Alfaraz had a similar experience. She grew up far from Miami, and her family home served as a de facto hub for Cubans in western Michigan. Alfaraz remembers sitting with her parents and their Cuban friends. "We all listened to Álvarez Guedes swear up a storm. It was funny. At some deep level, he made being Cuban cool ... way cool for those of us who didn't have access to Cuban culture." Alfaraz has shared the same recordings with her teenage son and says, "It is humor, it is not really profanity. It is not offensive, and it is OK. And it was OK to laugh."
According to University of Buffalo linguistics professor Jorge Guitart, Alvarez Guedes' implicit message to his audience was, "You can't be free in Cuba, but you can be free here in America and say 'F - - - you.'" It was foul language in the service of binding Cubans in exile more closely together. It was profane, but much of it was not crass.
A "cultural revolutionary" is how University of Pennsylvania professor Román de la Campa describes Álvarez Guedes. It's a label Álvarez Guedes would have likely hated given his feelings about the Cuban Revolution. But, it is accurate.
He was the first mainstream Cuban comic to incorporate profanity. His jokes, de la Campa says, were structured like short stories. "He made the audience think about the challenges associated with being in between two cultures and two languages," says de la Campa. A challenge that was as real for Álvarez Guedes himself as it was for every member of his Cuban audience in Miami — including me.
Guillermo Álvarez Guedes was a genius at code-switching between American culture and Cuban culture. He toggled masterfully between Spanish and English in midjoke. Of his many albums, my favorite was his 14th recording, the aforementioned How to Defend Yourself From the Cubans. The jokes are told in both languages, but the punch line was generally in Spanish and only easily understood within a Latin cultural context. After all, he wasn't really trying to communicate with an American audience. This was not an attempt at some kind of crossover act. In fact, an English-only listener would probably be baffled. (You can look up "Guillermo Álvarez Guedes 14" on iTunes and listen for yourself.)
In order to appreciate How to Defend Yourself From the Cubans, you had to be bilingual and Cuban, and know and understand Cuban Miami. And make no mistake: At the time there was a Cuban Miami, a black Miami, an Anglo Miami and a Haitian Miami. Each of the four groups kept to themselves, and each felt themselves, with varying degrees of accuracy, to be the victims of discrimination by every other group.
How to Defend Yourself From the Cubans was his best-selling album because it struck a chord with the Cuban exile community, which felt itself under attack at the time. Much to my mother's disappointment, a popular bumper sticker at the time read, "Will the last American to leave Miami please take the flag with him?" The Mariel boatlift was still a very recent phenomenon, and Miami suffered from a record homicide rate so high the city had to rent refrigerated container trucks to store the overflow of bodies.
The murders were the result, mostly, of the raging drug trade. This is the cocaine era captured in the Al Pacino movie Scarface. Deborah Harry's "Rush Rush" provided the background soundtrack to the rampant cocaine trafficking. The wars in Central America raged and hopes soared in Miami that President Ronald Reagan was going to displace communism from Latin America, in general, and Cuba, in particular. Throughout my youth, but especially then, I remember hearing the New Year's Eve toast "Next year in Havana" being said with great conviction.
Cubans were not yet a dominant political force. The local Univision station used to run a public service announcement that said, "Vota para que the respeten." (Vote, in order to be respected.) And into this milieu, How to Defend Yourself From the Cubans landed like balm for the exile soul. Ostensibly, the album was made in order to help Americanos learn crucial bits of Cuban Spanish in order to defend themselves and avoid being overrun by the overwhelming Cuban presence in Miami. But its real purpose was to help Cubans understand how they were perceived by other groups and to help shore up their cubanidad.
Álvarez Guedes turned life on the Cuban-American hyphen into a source of laughter and celebration rather than angst and sadness. De la Campa says he gave meaning to the lives of those navigating between two languages and two cultures. The comedian was a tangible reminder to Cubans that they had a worthy culture and a crazy playful relationship with language — a reminder that came at a time when Cubans in Miami did not enjoy a positive image.
There were many individuals and institutions in Miami that made sure I and others of my generation never forgot our island roots. My mother and the local, Spanish-language media outlets repeated that same message over and over. Ensuring that I embraced my American civic responsibilities was a message hammered home at my Jesuit high school and by others in Miami and elsewhere in the country. But through his humor, Álvarez Guedes was conveying a message distinct from every other one I was hearing.
Álvarez Guedes embodied the one trait that every self-respecting Cuban aspires to possess than anything else — simpático. ("It leads us astray," says Alfaraz.) Savvy. Quick-witted. Think Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo. The kind of guy that makes you break out into a smile from 10 feet away because you know a good laugh is not far behind. The kind of guy that can easily dance back and forth between the Cuban and American cultures. El fulano that enjoys a relaxed and easygoing fluency in English and Spanish. Álvarez Guedes updated the model of simpático for life in exile.
Álvarez Guedes embodied a certain ideal of Cuban-Americanness defined by humor and mixed with cultural and linguistic fluency punctuated with profanity. After all, it is not hard to imagine why a community forced into exile for its political beliefs and separated from their homeland by a lousy 90 miles might have reason to curse aloud — carajo, comemierda and coño.
The man who taught me how to swear in Cuban died last week, and all I can say is ño. Plain ño.