In Cuba, from Carmelina to Wifredo Lam: Sugar!

In Cuba, from Carmelina to Wifredo Lam: Sugar!
Fecha de publicación: 
15 August 2023
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"Cuban history, culture, and identity are closely related to the sugar culture, because, really, the more one reads, investigates the origins of everything, one realizes that, in Cuba, practically nothing is unrelated to sugar," sentence, without fear of being wrong, Leobel Pérez, president of the Sugar Heritage Commission at Azcuba company.

Listening to him, a legend comes to mind: the sports anchorman Bobby Salamanca, who, in baseball used to say sugar!, or that  refrain that surely you have hummed: "melao de cañae, rica es su dulzura", but Leobel has many other examples that link sugar to our popular culture.

Like Carmelina

«When we see a person who lives very well or who is enjoying life, we say that he "lives like Carmelina", since it’s recorded that Carmelina was José Arrechabala's favorite granddaughter. It’s said that she was a very pretty, intelligent young woman from Cádiz, from high society, who was well liked in the town, was loved by people and, furthermore, possessed huge wealth, wore the best dresses at the time, the best cars, had a house in the country and one in the city, and so many luxuries without working, because everything came from my grandfather's fortune.

Where the monkey whistled

"When it's really cold, we use the phrase 'the monkey whistled.' This has its origin in the batey Macagua, in the municipality of Cifuentes, in Villa Clara. Since the 19th century, the daughters of the sugarmill owner were fond of primates and raised them in a cage in front of the house, in the park of the batey and in front of the mill. The sugar-producing areas are generally very cold, because it’s a condition for the ripening of the cane, and they say that when temperatures dropped drastically, the pets would squeal and people would say that the monkeys had gone crazy. That remained until today in the popular imagination and, 22 years after the Macagua sugar plant, later called Braulio Coronado, was deactivated, the tradition of having a monkey in the batey park is preserved there.

Even the Chinese doctor

«"Not even the Chinese doctor can save you", another popular expression related to sugar cane. Around a hundred thousand Chinese were brought here as laborers for the sugar industry, in semi-slave conditions, between 1863-1874. One of them was Cham Bom Biá (Chang Pon Piang), who became famous because he cured with concoctions, with medicinal plants, and he lived mainly here in Havana and in Cárdenas, province of Matanzas».

Sugar art

As a scholar and in love with the cultural heritage linked to sugar cane, Leobel points out that “sometimes, music and dance events are held, and sugar is not mentioned. We forget that, for example, the rumba was born in the sugar bateys and arose from the mixture between enslaved Africans and Europeans, but also Chinese, Yucatecans, all this mix occurs in the batey.

«Los Van Van, the most famous popular dance music orchestra in Cuba, emerged in the middle of the 1970 harvest, and hence the name, because the motto was "De que van, van", and then they just named the band. It’s in poetry, in literature, it’s in great works like the Cuban Counterpoint of Tobacco and Sugar and in all of Fernando Ortiz's investigations. The first important literary works of Cuba are marked by the sugar theme; This is the case, for example, of Cecilia Valdés.

«In plastic arts, it’s present in La Jungla, by Wifredo Lam, which is a cane plantation. Lam was from Sagua la Grande, Villa Clara, one of the most sugar-producing municipalities in Cuba at the time this artist was born and grew. In Cuba there are no large forests, so, for Wifredo Lam, his jungle, his forest, was a sugarcane field, and there he tries to reflect the fundamental elements of Cuban identity, which are related to the mix, religiosity, peasant beliefs that they have to do with the mystical side...»

Sugar intravenously

But Lam is not the only personality of Cuban culture who carries the sugar tradition in his veins and in his heart. Leobel can list several from memory:

«Reynaldo González, National Literature Award, was administrator of the Stewart sugar mill, renamed Venezuela. We have Enrique Pineda Barnet, filmmaker, screenwriter, poet, one of the most versatile artists in Cuba: at the beginning of the Revolution, Che sent him as administrator of the España Republicana sugar mill in Perico, Matanzas. There’s the case of Pablo Armando Fernández: he worked in the offices of the North Americans at the Delicias sugarmill, later called Antonio Guiteras, in Puerto Padre, since his family was linked to that business.

«Benny Moré was a sugar cane cutter and then an operator, nobody knows him as such, but he was a sugar collector before being the great musician he became. Barbarito Diez, the golden voice of Cuba, was born in Bolondrón, in a sugarmill, and later developed professionally there in Manatí, where he is a god, a personality of the municipality, of Argelia Libre sugarmill. His father was a mechanic at the power station and he inherited the trade, it’s what he did until he was fully dedicated to music.

“Polo Montañés was a farm worker at a sugar cane CAP (Cooperative for Agricultural Production) in San Cristóbal, at José Martí sugar mill, and in the 1970 harvest he was mobilized as a sugarcane cutter in the Uruguay sugar mill, in Jatibonico. The parents of the plastic artist Zaida del Río were sugarcane workers from the Guadalupe batey, between the municipalities of Camajuaní and Remedios,
north of Villa Clara. Cándido Fabré is the son of a Cuban sugar carter...»

Scoops at the stroke of sugarcane

«One of the first radio transmissions in Cuba was made in the batey of the Melanio Hernández mill, formerly Tuinucú, in Sancti Spíritus, by a very famous North American engineer, Frank Jones, who came to work at the mill and was fond of radio.

«We had the first submarine cable between Europe and America, even first than in the United States, because the London stock market was the one that set the price of sugar, and since Cuba was the great sugar producer in the world, it was necessary to know, daily how was the production going?

So now you know: when "the cane is cut in three pieces", you have to admit that yes, indeed, the potaje in Cuba does have a pinch of sugar.

Translated by Amilkal Labañino / CubaSí Translation Staff

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