I’ve traveled all throughout Latin America and each country has its own way to speak. However, Cuban Spanish and especially Cuban slang has been one of the most challenging.
I often joke that Cuban Spanish is like English in Scotland – although I speak English, it is so different in Scotland even I need subtitles to watch Scottish movies. The same is true for the Cuban language.
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But it’s not simply that Cubans, speak quickly or with a Cuban accent. It’s the Cuban slang, and there’s so much of it. And Google Translate doesn’t understand it either.
How is Cuban Spanish Different?
What I have loved about learning Spanish is that every letter is pronounced. I studied French in school and university so it has helped with Spanish.
And I found Spanish easier because I learned I need to pronounce every letter in a word.
Except in Cuba.
The Spanish language of Cubans defies all rules I previously learned. It was time to start over.
Is Cuban Spanish Different From Mexican?
Cuban Spanish is different because it was influenced by the immigrants from the Canary Islands and Andalucia in Spain in the 19th and 20th centuries. If you visit these regions you’ll notice the way they speak is very different from Madrid and other cities in Spain.
In Cuba Spanish isn’t from one region, but a reflection of its history of immigration and slavery. In many ways Cuban Spanish cannot be compared to Mexico or Spain and is most similar to the nearby islands of Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
Why is Cuban Spanish So Hard to Understand?
Cubans often drop letters or replace them with others. They don’t always fully pronounce consonants so it can sound like they are talking with something in their mouth.
For me, sometimes words sound familiar but not completely recognizable.
How Does Cuban Spanish Sound?
- Cubans sometimes pronounce Rs as Ls if it’s at the end of words.
- Vs become Bs so viene is biene
- Often the S in a word isn’t pronounced, like in fresco which becomes freco.,
- If a word ends in ado or ada sometimes the d sound is skipped, cansado becomes cansao.
Many people think Cuba is a small Caribbean country but when it comes to Cuban Spanish there are tons of regionalisms so how people speak in Havana is different from Camaguey. I’ve also heard vosotros, which I’ve only heard in Spain, is used on some parts of the island.
And it makes sense because the history of immigration and slavery has brought people from many cultures that each influenced what Cuban Spanish is today.
Particularly in the East, as there were so many plantations, it has the heaviest concentration of Cubans from African decent as Cuba was a hub for slavery. Here Spanish is more similar to the Dominican Republic than Havana. In western Cuba there was more immigration from Spain and other European countries.
So there is no one Cuban dialect. And as my experience is almost entirely limited to living in Havana I can only speak to what Cuban slang I’ve learned over the last year.
Essential Cuban Slang for Travelers
- Aché: have good luck, someone would tiene un aché.
- Ahorita vs Ahora: Ahora means now, and usually putting the diminutive “ita” on a word means smaller or less. So you’d think ahorita means right now. And it does in other Spanish speak countries.Not true in Cuba or Puerto Rico.I had a few arguments in Cuba because I thought when someone said they’d be over ahorita it meant right away.My friend Rease from Indecisive Traveler also experienced this with Puerto Rican Spanish and she explained to me that “It generally means within the same day, and no more specific than that.” I usually wait 5 hours when someone says they’ll be over ahorita so she’s right on this one.
- Almendrón: The only cars that run as collectivo taxis. The word literally means almond, the shape of these big old American cars.
- Oye: (o-yay) It simply means hey. It’s often used to get someone’s attention.
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- Candela: To be in trouble. The first time I heard estas en candela it was not a good thing because someone had an issue with me. It’s also used as te vas a meter en candela to say you will have a problem.
- Coño: (cone-yo) means, wow or damn. It’s often used to respond to a person who is telling you a crazy story, and the syllables are usually dragged out the more unbelievable the story.
- Chevere: cool, it’s common to hear que chevere. This is also used in Colombian slang.
- Cola: Although it means tail, in Cuban slang it means a line or a queue, so haciendo cola is to form a line. Cubans are one of the few countries in Latin America that actually respect the rules of a line, perhaps because they are always waiting in one.
- Dale: Used in many other countries, no one says dale more than Pitbull. It’s used at the end of a conversation “dale, dale, chao” or it can mean “let’s go” or hurry. It seems always to be used In a rushed conversation and said more than once.
- Guagua: (wa-wa) the public bus, in Cuban Spanish, comes from the Canary Islands. The buses in Cuba are almost always packed to the brim with people busting out.I haven’t taken them often as my friends refuse to use them. Beware there are many pickpockets and women need to be wary of fellow travelers with wandering hands.
- Jamar: the verb to eat, it replaces comer.
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- Fosforera: everyone smokes in Cuba yet no one ever seems to have a lighter. In other countries it’s more common to say encendedor.
- Ratico/Momentico: In a little while, or in a moment. My Cuban friends laugh when I say “momentito,” which is the more common diminuative in other Latin America countries. Cubans understand the “ito” ending but “ico” is more commonly used in Cuba.Like ahorita, ratico basically means something will happen today but who knows whether it’s in an hour or eight.
- Menudo: you may know menudo as a Mexican tripe soup or Ricky Martin’s boyband. But in Cuba, menudo means “small change” and usually moneda nacional.For example a cafecito only costs 1 CUP and when heading to a cafeteria in Havana my friend asked me if I had any menudo. I was confused as to why he was asking if I had soup.
- Pelota: Cuban Spanish for baseball but Cuban Spanish also uses beisbol.
- Pinchar: to work, and la pincha is the job. Far more commonly used than trabajar.
- Por izquierda: to the left, but in Cuban slang it means under the table, specifically referring to the black market, which thrives in Cuba. If you can’t get something in a store a local may be able to get it for you in la calle por izquerida.
- Pulover or ticher – it means t-shirt. Both words influenced by English, the first time I heard ticher I wondered why I needed a teacher. Fortunately my friend Rease, who has spent time in Puerto Rico, knew it was t-shirt not teacher. I also learned chor were shorts, although I thought Cuban Spanish was spelled chorts and they were just not pronouncing the final T and S.
- Que vuelta: how are you.
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- Que bola: While you may say que tal or como estas with friends in other countries, it’s common for friends to ask que bola, or how are you in Cuba. You’re sure to get a few laughs if you drop this with people you know.
- Tareco: This is used when something is broken and cannot be used. If a car is broken down it’s tareco… because it cannot be used and is not good for anything.
- Ultimo: This isn’t really a Cuban slang word but it’s important if you wait in line. And Cuba is all about waiting in line. For everything. Lining up for something in most Latin American countries is chaos.Most locals cutting in front of whomever they can – most often the quiet Canadian girl. However, Cuba has the most civilized process of any country in the world.When you walk toward the back of the line ask who is el ultimo? or the last person. You then become the last. You must remember that person as they may walk away or step aside to talk to friends. But they are still in line. So you go after them. Cubans do not allow cutting in line. You must go to the end.
Cuban Spanish Terms of Endearment
The Cuban language tends to be quite affectionate speaking to people even if they don’t know them well. For example, I go to a nearby hotel to work as it has the best (I think) wifi in Cuba, and one of the servers often refers to me as mi corazon.
She’s not the only one.
I’ve noticed other terms like mi vida when with my friends too. The Cuban culture is a fascinating mix of being quite formal and respectful when it comes to elders, and quite endearing when speaking to strangers.
- Pipo: (pee-po) it’s similar to guy, or che in Argentinean slang. Ironically they don’t use che here even though his face is everywhere.
- Tata/Titi: Similar to honey or sweetie. I was initially concerned when someone I was dating who often called me tata, also called the restaurant waitress tata. What did that mean? Were we as close at this waitress we just met? But as I mentioned above Cubans use these words with everyone, strangers or girlfriend.
- Acere: Only used in Cuba, it comes from Nigerian influence and it’s the equivalent of dude/bro. You could say “Acere, que bola?” when meeting up with friends.
- Amigo mio/amiga mia: Cubans can be very precise in how they explain their relationships with other. They may have acquaintances or friends and both are amigos. But if someone is an amigo mio it is someone they trust.
- Mami: although it technically means mother, in Cuban slang it is more similar to babe. A man only says this to a woman he’s in a relationship with – unless he’s catcalling her on the street.
- Papi: similar to mami, but women say this to men. I just can’t do this, it feels far too weird.
Cuban Spanish to Describe People in a Not-So-Nice-Way
- Yuma: the Cuban equivalent of gringo. The name comes from the movie 3:10 to Yuma, which was shown in Cuba in the late 50s when almost all movies were coming from the USSR. About a fictional town in Arizona, it was so popular that many Cubans refer to the United States as La Yuma.However, Yuma applies to any foreigner or tourist. It is sometimes a derogatory term. However, every once in a while I use it to describe myself when I do something foolish in Havana and friends laugh.
- Tacaño: a person who doesn’t pay. There’s always one of them in a group. They like to come out while everyone is buying rounds but suddenly disappear when it’s their turn.
- Jintero/Jintera: a Cuban looking to scam a tourist, either by getting them to pay for drinks or taking a commission on sending them somewhere. At it’s most extreme this Cuban slang word means prostitute so be wise and don’t call someone this.
- Fula: To describe someone as troublesome, crazy or messed up as esta fula. But, fula also means money so you need to pay attention to the context.
- Monga: Cuban slang for an idiot.
- Papaya: Unlike other Latin American countries, this does not mean the fruit. Instead papaya means vagina. I heard there is a restaurant that offers a “papaya pie” on a tourist menu and servers snicker when yumas order it. If you want the fruit make sure you ask for fruta bomba.
- Joder: to fuck. The verb coger replaces it in other countries and regions in Mexico. But, similar to Spain, in Cuba coger simply means to grab or take everything from a bus to money out of the ATM. You would not say this in Mexico.
How to Curse in Cuban Spanish
These words should be used only amongst friends as they are Cuban swear words. In Cuba you may hear men use these words but it’s not as common for women.
Friends didn’t want to teach me these words as women can be looked down upon for using them. Coming from Canada I found this a bit unfair, so I made the compromise of first only using them in my apartment in Havana with friends.
They all laughed when I texted “que pinga hay una cucaracha in mi renta.” And I find I actually need these words more often as I learn how to live in Havana because nothing is easy.
- Pinga: (ping-a) although it literally means dick. I find people use it more to replace fuck or shit. You could say pinga if you burn your finger or drop a plate.You can also use pinga as a verb, so you may hear Empingado. Esta de pinga means it’s shit. Or que pinga eso. Pinga is my favourite Cuban slang word, I do use it outside my house now but only with friends.
- Despingar: The same message that told me I was en candela, followed up with te voy a despingar. It means I’m going to kick your ass. But don’t worry nothing happened. It was an empty threat and I knew that as there are still penalties for assaulting tourists.
Piropo – The Cuban Spanish Art of Catcalling
I hope I didn’t overwhelm you with too much Cuban slang. But if there’s anything I’ve missed I’d love to hear it in the comments below.