Are you planning a visit Cuba, and don’t you want feel like a complete lost foreigner? Wouldn't it be nice to understand a little bit more of what is going on around you?
Even if you understand some basic Spanish, it can be very hard to make sense of Cuban Spanish . Then, these 10 phrases of Cuban slang might be very useful for you, and help your interacting with the Cubans.
However, take this only as guide lines to help you understand. There is a delicate balance between when it is and isn't appropriate to use most of the phrases. And sometimes the expression can become a lot stronger when a foreigner use them than when Cuban do. As foreigners we might not get the right emphasis in the word or use them in an incorrect context.
So, just a word on caution to be a little careful before you jump out in using the expressions yourself. That said! Let's get started:
1) ¿Qué vola? is a bit like "What's up?" or “how is it going?”
An extremely popular and common greeting in Cuba is to say ¿Qué vola?. It is though very informal, and mostly used among friends. When walking the streets of any Cuban city, you can be certain to hear this phrase many times. ¿Qué vola, hermano?
Nobody is completely sure where it comes from. Thus, several times I heard the explanation that it is a baseball term which somehow got transferred into colloquial Cuban language. The explanation is that at baseball matchs when the ball is flying through the air, the crowd should apparently shout: que voolaa ("how it flies" from the Spanish verb volar).
As most Hispanics don't have a pronounceable difference between how v and b, you might as well see it spelled like qué bola
2) Yuma is foreigner
If you are just half as white as me, you will most likely hear that phrase used about you. For Cubans yuma is another and more common way of saying yankie - or white foreigner.
It doesn’t direct mean anything bad. However, most Cubans are not used to foreigners knowing this slang. So, they might be saying unpleasant things about you using yuma to refer to you. If you come about revealing for them that you actually did understand that they were talking about you, they will mostly likely be very surprised - and possibly a bit ashamed as well.
3) Asere/Acere is friend
Asere is a Cuban way of saying amigo – or friend. It can be spelled both with s or with c.
Oye, asere, ¿Qué vola la yuma esta?
4) Pinga is… Well, a multifunctional word (keep on reading)
Well, well it this is a word with mutual usages and meanings. Literally translated it refers to the male genital organ.
However, conjugated in a wide variety of ways and placed into all sort of different contexts, it can mean anything from "it is horrible" (está de Pinga), "amazing" (empinagado), "what the hell is up with you" (qué Pinga te pasa a tí)… And, well, the list just continues.
If you have bit of more Spanish background knowledge, this video explains almost all the different usages I have heard of while in Cuba:
However, a word of warning: This is a very informal way of expressing one self and mainly used among friends. You should therefore not use it among people that you don't know as it will be taken as rude.
Generally, for a Scandinavian like me, Cubans tend to shout and swear a lot more when they a making fun with each other than I’m used to. But when they are serious and talking quiet there are usually big problems.
5) Candela is to be on fire
Candela basically means candle but it is mostly used as "fire", "on fire" or "flame". When used about persons it can either mean that the person is super-hot or a troublemaker (ella está candela).
You can also hear it in the exclamations: ¡Qué candela! which depending on the context can be either a positive or a negative meaning of "how great" or "how awful".
6) Papaya versus fruta bomba
The fruit that in most other countries is known as papaya, is in Cuba called fruta bomba (the bomb fruit).
Why is that? Well, because in Cuba papaya means... vagina… Now you know, so watch out what you are asking for at the market!
7) Agua is not water – at least not only
True, true, in plain Spanish agua means water. However, in Cuba it is also used as a type of exclamation for something incredible good. ¡Agua!
8) Coger botellas is the Cuban term for hitchhiking
The closest you get to a Cuban term for hitchhiking is coger botellas. It means going to the stoplights to stop cars and ask for a free ride.
In Havana it is not so common anymore due to the many competing taxi whose method of picking people up is basically the same.
9) Ser un mango is to be a mango… No, okay?
To be a mango (ser un mango) is in Cuba used to express that a person is very good looking or hot: la chica es una mango e.g. the girl is hot.
10) Pincha is to work
Pincha means work, and can be used both as a subjective: no hay pincha (e.g. there is no work) and as verb: estoy pinchando (I'm working).