The Culture of the Street Vendor

Dariela Aquique 

Flower seller. Photo: Caridad

Every morning, the neighborhood where I live becomes a polyphony of cries.  As soon as the sun appears, street vendors take to the streets shouting the names of their products and goods.

It makes their exhausting work less taxing, as they have to walk enormous distances under the beating eastern sun to get buyers to come out onto their balconies and lower down baskets for purchases or come out onto their porches or the sidewalk.

The variety and originality of these exhortations range from simply shouting the name of the product to composing entire tingles or jokes to call attention to what they’re hawking.  That cry is one of the elements that integrate our popular culture, and it’s now one of the characteristics of Cubans.

This pregon (cry or shout) dates back from end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 19th, emerging out of the confluence of so many different immigrant cultures – Chinese, Arabs and Spaniards (Galician, Asturian and Catalan mainly).  Also contributing was the new creole population of blacks and mulattos born in this country, racial mixtures resulting from sex between black African slaves with mainland Spaniards, and these with the relatively few indigenous descendants still remaining by that time.

With the passing of time, mixing among the new expatriates became more common, to the point that today we’re this rich amalgam of customs, beliefs and artistic expressions.  The cry began in plazas and markets created in villages for trade.  Some seller must have announced their food or articles louder than other vendors.

This healthy competition probably began this way in an attempt to please and attract more buyers.  New phrases and words were introduced in the jargon of the populace, making the cry a tradition that has been conserved even to today.

These hawkers bring onto the street all types of foods – root vegetables, spices, fruit, etc.  They also contribute their songs and joy, which is why the residents of Santiago de Cuba annually celebrate the “Festival of the Pregon (Cry).”  This gathering has the historic Tivoli district as its venue, where one can enjoy competitions and exhibits of the most original aspects of this manifestation – and not only from this city, but from other towns as well.

Even popular songs are indebted to the cry: for example El manisero (The Peanut Vendor), immortalized by the great Rita Montaner; El yerberito (The Herb Seller), never sung better than by Celia Cruz; and Las frutas del Caney (The Fruits of Caney), by the Matamoros Brothers, among many examples.

Right now, as I’m sitting here jotting down these notes, I’m prey to the temptation of going outside to meet the hawkers announcing their treats, those that cause my mouth to water.  I’d also have to decide from among the old guy shouting: “Hot saladito, hot peanuts for the afternoon,” or the kid who urges: “Come on, come and get’em…, tasty cupcakes with guava, hot out of the over, come and get’em…”