Cubans are always looking for reasons to celebrate. It doesn’t matter if it’s a birthday or a “non-birthday.” Common reasons for celebration include the victories of sports teams, the birthdays of saints, job promotions or getting together with friends you haven’t seen in a long time.
All that’s necessary to throw a party is more than two persons people, a bottle of rum and some music – which can even be rumba played with a spoon and a box.
There’s almost always dancing in our parties, because dancing is one of our expressions of freedom. I’m not saying that without reason; all one has to do is think back to our indigenous predecessors and their “areito” folk dance celebration, which constituted their most important social event. This included dancing, drinking and singing which merged competition, worship and recreation.
Later there were the parties of the black slaves, who came here with their culture intact and were not willing to give that up to the imposition of their white masters. They soon discovered they could worship their own saints if they referred to them by the names of white gods. Therefore, their parties were charged with a spirit of resistance; these were cathartic, but tolerated by the masters.
Much later, in the 19th century, municipal parties proliferated. At first these were derived from theatrical representations of a religious nature performed by the Spanish at the beginning of their conquest. Processions, partying, conga lines and carnivals were spread throughout the whole year at the initiative of local residents, in whom the spirit of freedom remained latent.
Throughout all of its existence, or at least since the main features of “Cubanness” began to appear, Cubans have loved parties. Our history of poverty, successive economic crises, military intervention, internment and struggles for independence have been defined by a duel tendency that we exhibit in our parties: the longing for freedom in tandem with celebration as a type of trance that frees us from the tension of a non-realized material life.
Living for the moment
If I had to mention one important characteristic of Cuban parties, I’d say that we usually celebrate without caring about the following day; we live for the moment, as if the world was about to end. Consequently, we might spend all the money in our wallet so that later people in the street will say, “So-and-so, yesterday ‘threw the house out the window,’” which is a Cuban saying that means you spent everything and now you don’t have enough left to even buy bread or beans.
With the institutionalization that occurred following the revolutionary victory of 1959, popular parties gradually lost their spontaneous character. They came to depend on the municipal government, the economy, or State organizations.
With the passage of time and the arrival of the Special Period economic crisis of the 90s, throwing a party became exceedingly difficult for most of people —in addition to lacking sense— due to the economic hardships. People drank their shots of rum; they would get together as a family to listen to music and dance, but all with the greatest degree of moderation possible. Nonetheless, after the 90s the instinct for “throwing the house out the window” greatly increased among Cubans.
This was when the government found massive open-air concerts to be a way of pleasing the people a little and greasing its mobilizing machinery for the benefit the Revolution. They hired popular salsa groups such as Van Van, Paulo F.G. or Charanga Habanera, set up one or two beer-keg stands (which the salespeople would “baptize” with large quantities of water), and there you had your party. They were cheap, multipurpose and the impetus for widespread brawling. This was because when large numbers of poor people —neighborhood people who had their own serious problems— got drunk on watery beer, more than a few fights would break out, which in those days were the style.
You could observe that these individuals had very little freedom except for these street fights, through which —in addition to leading to many injuries and deaths— the opponents could blow off a little steam. We are the bearers of a long festive tradition, which defines us and which is defined by other traditions of ours, such as being poor but rebellious.