“Asere” Rings Among Many Cubans

Regina Cano 

Street scene in Old Havana

Protests are heard from time to time over the use of the word “Asere” – presently one in the most popular ways in greeting among ordinary Cubans in informal circumstances.

The Spanish language suffers daily transformation here on the island.  New ways of naming things are discovered by people, as also occurs in other languages.

In the creative search by Cubans to rename things, to hide ideas though within the earshot of other people, to make words more personal or to make them more amusing, occasionally we find other meanings for the same words or we mutate them.

Admittedly, these are not always the best or most positive creations. These new and old words seem like such gibberish that sometimes we ourselves don’t know what’s being referred to.

Take these examples:

Example 1: “the jeba (chick) Me descargó pa´tras.  She told him something that wasn’t what he wanted to hear or the person didn’t come through with what was agreed upon.

Example 2: I told fulana (Ms. so-and-so): guaguaguaguaguagua (bla bla bla), pa´bajo (giving her the lowdown).  “Don’t screw around,” the person questioning her said with surprise.  “And you told her that!” “Yeah, I unloaded on her, bimbam bimbam. I told her a bunch of things.”  And as for me, who was listening, I was left like a pesca´o en tarima (a fish on the platform).

Endowed with inventive humor in the use of phraseology (sometimes only funny to the person who makes it up), these words operate through associations of sounds or by having different meanings.  This transformed language becomes every day, so that when it is used so frequently that it winds up being understood by everyone.

“Asere” came from an expression of greeting in the language used by the Abakuas or Ñañigos, members of a secret male sect whose origins reach back to Africa.   According to what’s remembered, its usage began to permeate street dialogue markedly at the end of the ‘80s, to the point that by the ‘90s it had secured its place in common language.

At the beginning I thought the social structure was putting a brake on its expansion, since those who used it were described as “chabacanos” (vulgar) and the use of chabacanerias (tasteless street talk) could bring one under the suspicion of being a criminal or an underworld type back then.

Others tell me that the appropriation of the greeting by students, many of them university students, allowed it to be introduced to a social stratum closer to the arts and culture, though it was also used as a kind of opposition to “formal manners” at that time (in the ‘80s and perhaps the ‘70s, when “appropriate behavior” distinguished how people were treated by society.).

The fact now is that today “Que Bola Asere!” (“What’s happening man”) is the property of everyone: men, women, teens, children and the maduros (“mature people,” meaning middle-aged people).  There’s no exclusiveness in the word’s use, and on occasion it surpasses the informal context.

None of its users are criminals, and generally few of them are Ñañigo members.

It denotes a certain street character, but something greater within society that has now given it the place it now holds.


* Jeba: Girlfriend or woman.  

* It discharged me pa´tras: he/she told him something that didn’t agree with what he wanted or the person didn’t complete that agreed.  

* Guaguagua: Sound that he/she imitates speaking.  

* Pa´bajo: in this case that apparently told him all that had to tell him.   

* Pesca´o in platform: pesca´o for fish: to be left without understanding.  

* Formal education: It structures verbal very used in the 80´s and perhaps 70´s that it described the form of social treatment, more appropriate behavior.   

* Maduros Mature *: refers to middle-aged people, those who are over 40 but are not recognized as being “old.”  

* Ñañigo: Another name for an Abakua.  

One thought on ““Asere” Rings Among Many Cubans

  • We would have done a better job with the tarima at the harbor

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