The Dying Art of the Cuban Hawker’s Cry

Por Verónica Vega

Peanuts for sale. Photo:Caridad

HAVANA TIMES — There’s a cry that erupts in my neighborhood almost daily: “Yogurt! Natural Yogurt!” It’s so raucous that a neighbor has already admitted to visions of murdering the hawker.

I’m no friend of violence, and noting the youth of the guilty vendor, I mentally resolved the issue by evoking a slogan that they used to print on the nylon bags in the nineties: “Me first”, a phrase which sums up all too well the spirit of the new generations in Cuba.

Those familiar with the hawker tradition recall it as the art of promoting the wares with well-modulated inflections that tempt us more with the power of the word, with the power of the music, like that of the peanut vendor which Moises Simons immortalized through the unparalleled voice of Rita Montaner.

But soon after this, another hawker of a more mature age convinced me that the loss of this tradition has corrupted the collective generational memory.  This one shouts: “Tamalllleees!  Come and get ‘em because I’m about to leave!”  And he continues to threaten his departure in that same impudent tone for an interminable length of time.

To complete the siege of the zone where I live, an ice cream vendor frequently joins in the fray with a tactic undoubtedly meant to recall the “little ice cream trucks” that during the 70s would have us running over with smiles and mouths watering at the sound of that melody from Chopin.

This one advertises his wares by means of a Christmas tune: “Navidad, Navidad, sweet navidad..” that plays over and over at full volume to the point of insanity – naturally through all the months of the year.

At the P11 bus stop located at the corner of G and 29th streets in the Vedado neighborhood a vendor of coconut sweets who is perhaps around 50, is known for mixing his hawker’s cry with a phrase whose inflection falls somewhere between annoyance and reproach: “Gentlemen, buy them!”

Sounds like a trivial matter, doesn’t it?  It is, as long as we don’t have to stand near that peddlar for a long time.  And like good Cubans who make jokes of everything, among friends we often kid about our reactions to these ferocious transgressions of our auditory space.

But, seriously, this is an ill with deep roots.

The economic uncertainty together with the intolerance and official impositions, the civil impotence and the direct encouragement of obedience, as opposed to law, logic, justice, or courtesy over a long period of time has slowly fermented in the foundations of Cuban society.

Years before (I no longer recall how many) if a bad word escaped from a man’s mouth in the presence of a woman, he begged her pardon, and if possible, he intercepted the word as it emerged, replacing it with a euphemism.

This barely ever happens now, and the women themselves (not only the youngest who seem unacquainted with the idea of a blush produced by language), without a shadow of anger, can insert the word “pinga” into the most trivial conversations so many times that I’ve even come to doubt my full understanding of the semantic complexity of that very popular word.

The “Reggaetón” music isn’t an isolated phenomenon, of course, but rather the expression of hedonism as a counterpoint to the imposed austerity and socialist constraints – symmetrical and exact parallels to Christian prudishness. A type of hedonism without a hint of romanticism where only the animal is left, without ethical questions, much less existential ones.

According to Plato in times of the Greek empire, if a banal and stimulating music began to circulate through the population, this was a harbinger of social turbulence.  According to this theory, the expression and acceptance of this music was an indicator of the state of mind and of the predominant morality.

Based on this view of things, what awaits us?  The indications are very visible.  For example, in recent days the director of my son’s pre-University program, failed to understand the phrase “to speak in a hostile tone” and literally demanded: “Speak to me in Spanish.”  Given this, what can we ask of the street vendors?  It doesn’t matter if they are also University graduates, (and many, in fact, may well be).

The current hawkers are, in my opinion, direct descendents of the mass unconscious, fed with empty speeches and furious slogans, vulgarity legitimized in an effort to direct and drive people based on their own ignorance.  This same substance has given birth to Reggaetón.

So, there go today’s hawkers, filling the streets with cries that not only lack any trace of harmony but also the least respect for the potential client.

They are also children of the lost dream, trusting that necessity is much more persuasive and less demanding than whatever (Bourgeois?) remnants of our unproductive upbringing.


One thought on “The Dying Art of the Cuban Hawker’s Cry

  • This is not unique to Cuba. It is a world wide phenomenon [It’s no less irritating in English, btw]. People write article, blogs, and I’d imagine, entire books about the ‘lack of civility’ in modern life.

    I got so tired of hearing a 14 year old neighbor boy shout the same 4 letter word over and over at his step-father, that I told another neighbor I was going to give classes in Creative Swearing. He told me I was too late, his 15 year old daughter was already giving lessons to her younger siblings in the avoidance of euphemisms and repetition. At least his kids keep it in the house instead of going outside to broadcast their every complaint. I had no idea Seraya was so talented.

    The rudeness is bad enough, but the ignorance makes it far worse. You can only hope to live long enough to see their children getting even. Of course, my generation blames it on the Hippies, Women’s Lib, and the sexual revolution. Today’s parents blame the lousy schools, single parent families and Television. The one sure thing is that no matter how loudly we complain, NONE of it is our fault!

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