Over the years, I’ve learned much about Cuban culture (and gay culture) through its unique expressions and idioms. The following expressions give you a glimpse into that culture, and the daily struggles Cubans face. It’s not an attempt to list every word that’s used in Cuba — just a sneak preview.
Cubans call their Spanish “cubano” and it’s distinct from “castellano,” which they use to refer to Spanish from Spain.
You can butcher the language and Cubans won't care, which makes it a great place for improving your vocabulary and building confidence. Cubans tend to swallow the “s” at the end of a word; their pronunciation is a little muddy and hard to understand. It’s said that if you can decipher Cuban Spanish, you can understand any Spanish.
According to a local joke, the reason Cubans drop the “s” at the end of their words is because they’re saving them for the Malecón, so they can “pssss” and “tssss” at passing hotties.. Cubans love hearing this joke because it’s so true!
English is not spoken throughout Cuba. In fact, there are many places where no one speaks any English at all. But in all the major hotels, you’ll find many English-speaking Cubans to help you. Cubans get very lively and creative when they need to communicate with you, and as long as they understand what you want, it won’t matter if you make mistakes. Even so, it’s a good idea to bring a little phrase book with you; it’ll make your life a whole lot easier.
Here are some common words and phrases you’re likely to hear. Cubans love it when you turn all Cuban on them and use their expressions; it makes them feel like you’re “one of them.”
Mango, mangón, manguita.
These variations of the word are used for men and women alike. When a guy calls you a “mango” on the street, it means that he finds you sexy and juicy, like a fresh tropical mango. Manguita is directed at a woman only.
It’s telling that pinga, slang equivalent of 'penis,’ is one of the most frequently used words in Cuba. The go-to insult for anyone and his mother—especially his mother— it’s used in about as many different connotations as “f***” is in America. You can eat pinga, talk pinga, or f*** pinga;
Mami/papi, corazón, mi vida, mi amor, preciosa(o), linda(o), princesa, hermosa(o), cariño.
All are expressions of affection for both men and women. Cubans are very warm people and use terms of endearment daily in a way many other Latin Americans do not. Being called “mi vida” [my life] is a casual thing and doesn’t necessarily mean anything too intimate, but it all depends on how it’s said. Then there are preciosa, princesa and lindísima, which are all thrown around casually. But if a guy really notices a woman (or man) and likes the way they carry themself, he’ll say those words with an emotional oomph, so that it really hits the heart. Cubans are indeed masters of seduction.
Cuban men like to call out after women and say sweet things, coming on to them at every street corner. Sometimes they’ll call a woman flaca [thin one] or flaquita, which is the same thing, only sexier and sweeter. Flaquita is also a term in the gay community for a twink, and often you will hear it said among gay friends as a teasing term of endearment.
Means “you have flavor.” Cubans love using this term. You might dress or walk a certain way, and Cubans will openly check you out and say, “Tienes swing, papi.”
A saucy, endearing, and sometimes insulting term for gays that means “little bird.” Even though Cuba is more liberal when it comes to gay people than other Latin American countries, the word maricón (f*g) gets thrown around more than it should, and it’s a good one to avoid using while you’re there.
A foreigner. Usually refers to women rather than men, but the term is interchangeable. Having said that, if I were to call myself a yuma, some Cubans would laugh and others might even be embarrassed. Cubans prefer the term extranjero/a, since yuma is considered street slang and somewhat equivalent to the word gringo in other Spanish-speaking countries. If you listen to Cuban songs, you’ll sometimes hear them sing about the yumas.
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