When learning about another culture, one important aspect is communication. It is almost absolutely necessary. Of course reading about a different country is informing as well, but in order to really know it inside and out, there must be direct communication. This can take the form of art, dance, literature, body language as well as speech. As a Spanish major, I was very much interested in Cuban spoken communication, though I also focused on their body language as well. These two factors are vital because without knowing how to speak like a Cuban and act like a Cuban, one can never fully assimilate into their culture. This is my goal in life, to be a cultural chameleon. I want to be able to move from culture to culture and blend in, unnoticed as a foreigner. In order to do so, I need to be able not just to speak their language, but speak it the way they do. To get closer to this goal, I first had to learn about the history of Cuban language.
It was clear that when the Spanish had colonized Cuba, they had brought their Spanish dialect with them. In the late 15th century, Spain discovered Cuba and used it as a prime port to repair their boats on their way to the New World. Even today, on paper, Cubans use the traditional Castilian Spanish. Unlike Spaniards though, Cubans don’t produce the “th” sound in place of ‘s’ or ‘c’ when followed by an ‘e’ or an ‘i’. They do however follow the Spanish tradition in shortening or “eating their words.” In other words, they don’t pronounce many syllables at the end of their words. Plural words oftentimes will seem singular because the ‘s’ at the end has been dropped, in typical Spanish fashion.
Creole, a typical Afro-Cuban language based on French, came to Cuba in a similar way. Their story though, starts in Haiti. Like Cuba, Haiti used an immense slave labor force to work on sugar plantations. The slaves outnumbered the plantation owners and were treated so badly that in 1791 they revolted. During this time, about 30,000 French colonists fled from Haiti to, you guessed it, Cuba. With them, they brought the knowhow and slaves to contribute to Cuba’s sugar production. They also brought over something even sweeter than sugar—their language. The Haitians, who were colonized by the French, brought over Creole, which became Cuba’s second most spoken language.
History is important to know where a culture and language came from, but it’s also critical to know where it stands today. Knowing how to read, write and speak proper Spanish in Cuba is very important. In 2003 their literacy rate was 99.8%, a telltale sign of how prevalent language is to them. Because it is so important to them, the Cuban government puts a high emphasis on education. In Cuba, their schooling is free, and funded through the government. This ensures that everyone has access to a college level degree and people are more than encouraged to take full advantage of that wonderful opportunity.
Learning multiple languages is stressed early on for Cubans. By the time many Americans are just learning the basics of another language, most Cubans have already become bilingual. There are schools dedicated to teaching children a second or even third language. Knowing English is very important because it gives them an edge in their economy. Because their incomes are largely based on tourism, it’s a necessity to know more than just Spanish or Creole. In order to share information about their culture, they have to be able to speak the same language as the tour group they are leading, whether that be Mandarin, Japanese, French, Portuguese, English, etc. The list goes on. Having a tourist-based job is highly sought after in Cuba because the tips that can be earned can be the difference between being able to put enough food on the table or not. Therefore, speaking multiple languages can be of great use when acquiring a job.
I learned all of this firsthand when I went to Cuba and spoke with the natives there. I was able to meet up with a group of college students while in Cuba and we all talked about their schooling experience. Of course they each had their own area of study and interest, but it was surprising how many of them also spoke English. Even though English wasn’t necessarily what their major was, they were already bilingual. Even when they claimed that their English was poor, they still spoke without much difficulty. It’s almost a given that they know a second language. In the near future, with more tourism and travel, I believe that knowing multiple languages will become even more prevalent in Cuban life.
Only just recently have Cubans been allowed to travel outside of their country. The more and more accessible this is to the everyday Cuban, the more and more languages they will encounter and be immersed in. It is one thing to learn French in a classroom, but once they can actually afford to go to France, obtaining the language will come much more natural to them. They already have a head start because they encounter tourists from all over the world, and it is no big stretch to assume that Cuba will become even more of a lingual melting pot. When I spoke with Cubans, they were always genuinely interested in other cultures and other people. Though some were a little shy to use their English, it was still proficient. I believe there excitement and curiosity will push them even more to travel. Because they’ve been prevented from traveling for so long, once they gain the ability to do so, they will with enthusiasm.
Like in the past, contact with other countries will broaden Cuban languages. Whereas before countries had to come to them, soon Cubans will be able to go out on their own and explore the world, picking up languages as they go. Globalization has increased cultural and lingual exchanges, especially for Cubans. With the opportunity to travel tantalizingly close, they will jump at the chance to learn more about others. They too are seeking to be cultural chameleons. They are eager to converse with anyone and everyone. This is the directing the Cuba is going in, full steam ahead.
Spend a couple of days in Cuba and you will begin to notice something strange; there is no commercial advertising. All forms of visual communication are either political, educational, or artistic expression. In place of CocaCola ads, one can find a wide assortment of revolutionary billboards and murals. And in many ways, it’s a refreshing break from a culture where excess and affluence represent social ideals.
A new visual language was developed after the revolution. It is safe to say that this began, it began with photography. Since 1959, photographers turned the revolutionaries into epic heros and icons. One of the reasons that Camilo Cienfuegos tends to be somewhat forgotten is that he died in 1959, before revolution photography that created the countless portraits of Che Guevara, Fidel and Raúl Castro and their combatants really hit Cuba. The style of photographers like Korda, Noval, Salas and Corrales was iconic using high contrast and silhouettes and made for a sting graphic impact. Considered the most famous photo of a person, Alberto Korda’s portrait of Che Guevara as “guerrillero heroico,” became a symbol of revolution, and one of the most widely reproduced icons in the world.
In the July 1969 issue of Cuba Internacional, graphic designer Félix Beltrán eloquently explained Cuban design ideals: “We must bear in mind that a new society is being established in Cuba and graphic art plays an important role in communicating the message to this society…If I were asked what the most important thing in Cuban graphic art is, I would reply that it is the transmission of its content to the people; for it is through Cuban graphic art that we can perceive our social objectives, our ideology, our political and economic perspectives.”
The need to communicate political ideas and information to large audiences gave rise to Cuban poster art. Many organizations used posters as means of reaching the masses. The Cuban Cinema Art and Industry Institute (ICAIC), the Organization of Solidarity With the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America (OSPAAAL), the Cuban Artists and Writers Union (UNEAC), the Casa de las Américas and the Editora Politica, the official propaganda department of the Communist Party all utilized this art form as their primary, and most effective, means of communication. Limited resources and technologies made techniques like silk-screening one of the most popular methods, and this led to a very distinctive style. Much of the messaging and signage in Cuba has a very handmade look, but shows great innovation and creativity.
In her book, The Art of Revolution, Susan Sontag explains the common purpose of all political posters: “Commercial advertising imagery cultivates the capacity to be tempted, the willingness to indulge private desires and liberties. The imagery of political posters cultivates the sense of obligation, the willingness to renounce private desires and liberties… In this revolution, a revolution of consciousness that requires turning the whole country into a school, posters are an important method (among others) of public teaching.”
Sontag also explains the ideals represented in the posters: “The élan and aesthetic self-sufficiency of the Cuban posters seem even more remarkable when one considers that the poster itself is a new art form in Cuba. Before the revolution, the only posters to be seen in Cuba were the most vulgar types of American billboard advertising. Indeed, many of the pre-1959 posters in Havana had English texts, addressing themselves not even to the Cubans but directly to the American tourists whose dollars were a principle source of Cuba’s earnings, and to the American residents, most of them businessmen who controlled and exploited Cuba’s economy…Cuban poster art does not embody radically new values. The values represented in the posters are internationalism, diversity, eclecticism, moral seriousness, commitment to artistic excellence, sensuality—the positive sum of Cuba’s refusal of philistinism or crude utilitarianism.”
In 1961, Castro defined the relationship between art and the Cuban regime: “Within the Revolution, everything; outside the Revolution, nothing.” In 1976, the Cuban constitution incorporated the following statement: “Artistic creation is free as long as its content does not oppose the Revolution. Forms of expression are free…” Since then, rising Cuban artists and designers have had to find their voice and creative identity the dynamic between art and state remains ever-changing. As art historian Antonio Eligio (Tonel) explains, “From the end of the 1960s until the early 1980s, bureaucracy and dogmatic ideology defined the cultural arena. Revolutionary fervor encouraged the ascent of young artists and the marginalization and withdrawal of the major older figures.”
Just as art was used glorify revolutionary ideals, it will be art that defines the future of Cuba. The most effective medium of expressing cultural standards, art will undoubtedly allow the voice of the newer generations to be heard in Cuba. In a country without unfettered social networking media to use a forum for communicating ideals, more creative outlets of communication will persevere.
Posters from left, Top row:
“Cristo guerrillero,” an homage to Camilo Torres, a guerrilla priest, 1969; Alfredo González Rostgaard, designer; OSPAAAL, client.
Design exhibition of Hector Villaverde, 2001; Hector Villaverde, designer; Centro Cultural Pablo de la Torriente, client.
“Granma,” commemorating the 20th anniversary of the rebels’ landing in 1956; Emilio Gómez, designer; Comisión de Orientación Revolucionaria, client.
Exhibition of Cuban Posters in Brazil, 2003; Nelson Ponce, designer; Faculdade Senac de Comunicação e Artes (São Paulo), client.
Cuban film, Memorias del subdesarrollo, 1999; Osmany Torres, designer.
Inaugural graphic design exhibition at UNEAC, 1979. Francisco Masvidal, designer; UNEAC, client.
Masaki Kobayashi’s film Hara Kiri, 1964; Antonio Fernández Reboiro, designer; ICAIC, client.
Anti-smoking campaign, 1970; Ernesto Padrón, designer; Comisión de Orientación Revolucionaria, client.
Homage to African independence fighter Amilcar Cabral, 1974; Olivio Martínez, designer; OSPAAAL, client.
Movie Besos Robados (stolen kisses), 1970; René Azcuy, designer; ICAIC, client.
Self-published commentary about “Paladares,” Cuba’s typical home restaurants, 1997; Pepe Menéndez, designer.
One of Cuban film’s best known posters, for Lucía by director Humberto Solas, 1968; Raúl Martínez, designer; ICAIC, client.