Cuba’s generation y

Naming can be an act of creative resistance. But, in the Cuban examples here (“Yampier, Yankiel. Yordenis, Yulieski”), this involves resistance to: the new strictures of communism? the old ones of Spanish and “white” domination of the isle? I wonder how much this parallels African-American traditions of bestowing ever-innovative names. (Or the majority-culture tradition of thinking that Jarell and Moesha sound odd but Logan and Madison don’t). The article doesn’t really get at my own theory for the increase of y-names: Cuba has quite a few towns and districts that start with y and even more that contain that letter — atypical for Spanish-speaking lands; I think in many cases those y’s are rooted in indigenous or early-colonial place-names. So it’s not like Cubans had to go to Angola or Moscow to find inspiration for their y’s.

[Cuban philologist-cum-antigovernment blogger Yoani] Sánchez theorizes that in one of the world’s last remaining Stalinist regimes, fashioning a bizarre name from whole cloth has been one safe way of flexing creative muscles without running afoul of the authorities. “Cuba is a country where everything was rationed and controlled except the naming of your children,” she says. “The state would tell you what you would study and where, and creating names was a way of rebelling.” Jaime Suchlicki, a Cuba expert at the University of Miami, says many middle-aged Cubans spent their youth fighting Fidel Castro’s proxy wars in Ethiopia and Angola and may have given their kids African-sounding names in tribute to the continent. Similarly, the preponderance of names starting with the letter Y may reflect the contact Cubans had with Russian advisers sporting names like Yuri and Yevgeny in the years when the Soviet Union was bankrolling Castro’s revolution.

Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits associate the practice with the Communist era. Suchlicki spent his formative years in pre-revolutionary Havana, and says his friends, relatives and neighbors all went by traditional, Spanish-language names. He left the island a year after Castro ousted a U.S.-backed dictator in 1959, and says the growing popularity of unconventional names among his younger countrymen came to his attention only after Castro had consolidated his grip on power. He speculates that this preference for unusual names might signify a denial on some level of the country’s Spanish Roman Catholic heritage. “This may be a rejection of the Spanish past since Cuba is much more black today than it once was,” he says, noting that an estimated 62 percent of all Cubans are of African descent (up from 40 percent 50 years ago).


from “Why Cubans Have Such Unusual Names,” by Joe Contreras, Newsweek.com, 9 August 2008

Originally published at culture-making.com.

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