Curious names subvert Cuba's politics of exclusion

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Cuban kids What's a in a name? Roger's has Hollywood roots. He might be a young Cuban man with Spanish and Argentinean blood coursing through his veins; he might have grown up in a communist country ostracised from the rest of the world for most of his lifetime. But Roger's name is curiously English.

'I have a theory for my name,' he says, as we sit eating fish and rice and beans across the river from Old Havana.

'A lot of James Bond movies were popular in the 1970s, and in my neighbourhood we have seven Rogers. I think we were named after Roger Moore.'

Roger has spent the morning helping me to retrace some of the footsteps of the Cuban legend Fidel Castro and the country's adopted sons Che Guevara and Ernest Hemingway. Like every last Cuban I have met, he is a veritable encyclopaedia of knowledge and yet has never left this tiny country's shores.

He is the product of a universal, high-quality education system, he says, by way of explanation. I have my own theory about this: people who are shut out will do anything to explore and understand the realm they've been excluded from. They will read and learn and remember. They will recognise patterns, like the way in which their own history comes alive in the names of its people.

Roger remembers this: before Christopher Columbus arrived in Cuba there were cave people occupying this land, the Siboneyes and the Taino and others. Then came the Arawaks, bringing with them names like Hatvey and Guama and Guarina. When the Conquistadors arrived with their double and triple-barrel names like Diego Velasquez de Quellas they discovered people with long black hair and cinnamon skin, and, thinking they were Indian, named this Caribbean enclave ‘West Indies’.  

The stew grew thicker and richer. Indigenous names were mixed with Spanish names from the Middle Ages, with French offerings like Betancourt and Savingne. The newly-arriving African slaves were not able to contribute to the mishmash, for their identities had been obliterated. Only the names of their beloved orishas were retained, and are still used in Afro-Cuban religious rituals today. The Irish O'Reillys and O'Farrells left their legacy in street names, and the American bankers in the Christian names of newborn babies.

'We started having in Cuba a lot of Jessicas, Williams, Henrys,' Roger explains.

'Then we have the revolution period – everyone started naming their children after heroes of the revolution. We've got Ernestos [after Ernesto 'Che' Guevara], Fidels, Rauls.'

The Soviet incursion into Cuba in the 1960s led to an eruption of Vladimirs, Olgas, Igors – and lots of Alexanders, Roger says. Meanwhile, migrants from Syria, Lebanon and China were transforming the linguistic landscape.

'We have lots of people in Cuba named Ling, Chang, Chong. Lots of Basque names, Galicians, Catalonians. And Arab names like Yadira and Yamila.'

Isolated though it has been for the past five decades, Cuba hasn't escaped the western trend of giving one’s children bespoke names. In the late 80s and 90s, Roger says, the worst of them were unleashed upon Cuba's younger generation: Geisha, Nairobi, Danger – and, in a frightful misreading, Usnavy (pronounced Uhs-nah-vee), the name sighted on the side of a US Navy ship in Guantanamo Bay by a parent-to-be and bestowed upon his unwitting infant daughter – and several other Cuban children since.

But perhaps this strange naming trend is the price Cuba must pay for being part of a global community – and for morphing into the rich, multicultural society that it is today.

'You get every single influence in the world for the last 500 years, mix it, shake it well and you will get one Cuba,' concludes Roger Blanco Morciego, a man whose own name is infused with a rich and absorbing history – and just a touch of Hollywood glamour.

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney based freelance journalist and travel writer. Her recent Cuba article in Fairfax Traveller is here.

Cuban kids image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: catherine marshall, Cuba, travel, naming



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Existing comments

With several friends in Moree and Walgett in western NSW, I was a frequent visitor to those towns during the mid seventies. On my first visits, I was astonished at the number of six and seven year old lads named Lionel running around both places. One family even asked me would it be alright to name their new born daughter Lionel! Had Lionel Shriver been known at the time I could have answered yes and made their day.

Paul | 09 May 2015  

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