Cuban names: Please call me... Canned Meat

Cuban children

In many Latin American countries, traditional names like Jose or Isabel remain popular, but in Cuba anything goes. Parents just love to experiment.

As a journalist in Cuba, posing certain questions can be tricky, but I never thought asking a person's name would be one of them. My problem is, I hardly ever understand the response. And it is not just because I am English. My Cuban colleagues are often just as baffled.

It turns out it is rare to encounter a simple Maria or a Miguel these days - instead, parents choosing a baby's name like to let their imagination run wild.

"You should talk to her," the headmistress laughs, when I wander into a local primary school and tell her I am curious about Cuban names. It is time to go home and children are charging out of the former Spanish mansion, pinafores akimbo and neckerchiefs flying.

Start Quote

My parents' names are Daniel and Deisy, so that makes me Daneisys”

End Quote

The head points across the courtyard to a young teacher perched on a child's stool. Her name, she says, is Daneisys.

"Oh. Sorry. How do you spell that?" I am forced to ask, and she tells me - no doubt well-practised. "It is a combination of my parents' names. They are Daniel and Deisy, so that makes me Daneisys."

There is one pupil in her class called Oldanier - that is her father's name, Reinaldo, in reverse. Another - Zulkary - was named after the star of a long-forgotten foreign soap opera.

It is all getting too much for some. Amongst the statistics, stories about vegetable crops, and baseball scores in Cuba's youth paper, I recently came across an interview with an academic. She was calling on hospital staff to "guide" parents better when naming their newborns, warning that saddling children with a name they are constantly forced to explain risks causing what she called "moral damage".

Immediately after the 1959 revolution there was a surge in the number of Fidels, Rauls and Ernestos.

Cuban originals

  • Usnavi - US Navy
  • Noslenis - Nelson backwards, plus I and S
  • Yaniel - Daniel... but with a Y
  • Oldanier - Reinaldo backwards
  • Dayesi - Yes in Russian (da), English (yes) and Spanish (si)
  • Meylin - brand of canned meat

But in the 1970s, imaginations really began to fly. That's when the letter Y, rarely used in Spanish names, became a hit with parents competing for ever more exotic sounding creations - Yulieski, Yumilis, Yaraleidis. Even so-called normal names were hijacked. Daniel became Yaniel.

It was an intriguing drive to be different in a country where the state controlled everything from education to diet.

Perhaps it was a small assertion of autonomy, or an attempt to cling to some Caribbean colour in an increasingly uniform, communist world.

But one elderly writer I meet sees it as a positive trend. "It was about being original, to match the times," Jaime Sarusky assures me, surrounded by huge piles of sun-stained old books in his flat in the once-smart neighbourhood of Vedado.

The fashion for names with a "Y" faded over the years, but other trends have followed. "There was Dansisy, for instance," Mr Sarusky recalls, dating from the era of distorted foreign words. "That meant they could dance well. Then there was Dayesi: that is Yes in three languages."

From Our Own Correspondent

  • Broadcast on Saturdays at 11:30 BST on BBC Radio 4, and weekdays on BBC World Service

However wild the choices, no-one remembers any interference by the authorities. And as for any "moral damage" now, it seems it is not the pupils who are suffering.

"It is really complicated when you first get the list of names for your class," the young teacher, Daneisys, admits. "You do not always know which are boys and which are girls and then getting the spelling right is a nightmare."

Around the corner from her school, local residents hover in the doorways of their crumbling Old Havana homes, gossiping and crowd-gazing in the hot afternoon sun.

"Eddimary! Come back here," a mother shouts after a little girl who has run off, clutching a paper cone of sugary pastry. At least no other child looks round.

School children chat in the playground at a school in Havana Learning names can be a struggle for teachers

Further on, I meet one man called Pablo and one Ernesto - complete with an Ernesto "Che" Guevara tattoo on his forearm. But such orthodox choices are definitely in the minority now.

"There are people here named after ships that have visited Cuba," a young woman called Yamileisis tells me, approvingly. Usnavi - from US Navy - is the most famous.

And then I meet Noslenis. "It is Nelson - my Dad's name - backwards," she explains, at my raised eyebrows.

"I do not think that is strange," her mother shrugs and I turn, hoping for enlightenment at last. "My own name is Meylin," she says. "My mother named me after the canned meat we Cubans used to get on our ration card."

How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent:

BBC Radio 4: A 30-minute programme on Saturdays, 11:30 BST.

Second 30-minute programme on Thursdays, 11:00 BST (some weeks only).

Listen online or download the podcast

BBC World Service:

Hear daily 10-minute editions Monday to Friday, repeated through the day, also available to listen online.

Read more or explore the archive at the programme website.

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC

Programmes

  • A tankHARDtalk Watch

    The West looks 'really weak' against a 'power drunk' Russia, says a senior Ukrainian diplomat

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.