The Use of “Sir” and “Comrade” in Cuba


By Ernesto Perez Castillo  (Progreso Semanal)

Cuban market. Photo: progreso semanal

HAVANA TIMES — The first time somebody called me “sir” in the middle of the street, I continued to walk on, taking another few steps, as if it wasn’t me they were speaking to, because that “sir” couldn’t be addressed to me, but not stopping immediately almost cost me a fine.

Nobody had ever called me that, ever. The word “sir” didn’t exist in my vocabulary, it had always sounded derogatory to me and was more of an insult than anything else.

It was the early ‘90s and I was wandering around the Habana Libre hotel (but I believe it was called Habana Libre Trip back then, although it has had many different names over the years) and I heard that strange word again behind me, but it was almost a cry, an order and a threat, all of that at the same time.

I turned around and that’s when I saw him: the person calling me “sir” was none other than a policeman. I looked him in the eyes and using the same tone he had almost shouted at me in, I answered: comrade.

This word “comrade” had been the open sesame of every door ever since I was a child, the watchword that explained the world to me, the polite and decent way of calling each other, the easy and simple way of feeling equal among equals, even when this dream of equality was just an illusion. But, it was a good dream and an illusion that was worthwhile.

And as we all know, the only sure thing about dreams, the only thing you can expect, is that you wake up from it at some moment. This is what happened that afternoon: the policeman’s voice and the word “sir” coming out of his mouth was the end of this illusion and it put me slap bang in the middle of a reality that was changing and that would still change a lot, which I had taken a long time to clock onto because I hadn’t wanted to wake up.

Now, everyone, everywhere calls me “sir” all the time. Me and everyone else. At the dentist and at market stalls, at my children’s school and at second-hand clothes stores, at makeshift bars and at the ID card office.

Perhaps there is a kind of theatrical accent, a verbal plot, a fake tone, a kind of emptiness in this new form of addressing people (or maybe it’s just in my head, that I’m reluctant out of habit). As if the kind of market that is going to give you three of everything when it should be giving you four, that is going to charge you nearly double for less than half, knows that it shouldn’t call you “comrade”, that this word doesn’t make sense when they are ripping you off. That we stopped being comrades a while ago.

Even though it might just be circumstantial. A few weeks ago, walking down any old street and smoking quickly like I always do, a young man who was barely 20 years old stopped me and asked me for my lighter so he could light his own cigarette. He said, and I swear he said this to me: can you give me a light, comrade?

Hearing the word “comrade” again, this word that hardly anyone uses anymore, after such a long time, and suddenly hearing it from this young man, made me think that time hadn’t stopped in the ‘90s and that life still goes on. Maybe another awakening is on its way, maybe. At the end of the day, who really knows what is going on anymore?