Maybe you’re one of the 2.5 million tourists descending on Cuba each year for the year-round warm beaches, ropa vieja (shredded beef) and parties.
Or, maybe, as is the case with me, more and more Cubans just seem to be popping into your social circle.
And, if none of that applies, you still need to learn Cuban Spanish, because this little island has some of the best music on the planet.
There’s Cuban son, obviously, but also jazz, soukous, reggaeton, salsa, rumba and more—all of these both originating from and continually reinvented by ongoing exchanges between Africa, Europe and the Americas.
But if you want to understand and discuss all this great stuff, you’re going to need some authentic Cuban slang, as stressed by Habana Abierta (lyrics here) in their great song about communicating from abroad:
¡Acere, qué bolá!—I bet you didn’t learn that one in Spanish class. Read on to discover this slang phrase’s meaning (points one and three below) and other top phrases for communicating in Cuban Spanish just like a local.
Note that I’ve learned all of the following with actual Cubans, and this post was specially crafted to offer a selected lexicon of what we believe are the most fun, useful and interesting words.
It also offers what my Cuban sources assure me are much more accurate descriptions of the meanings of Cuban slang words, and how they’re actually used. It focuses on Cuban Spanish from Havana. Regional and personal differences abound, and spellings and not standardized (notably the question of whether to use B or V and S or C).
Getting a Proper Cuban Accent
As Pedro Luis Ferrer points out in his cheeky “Cómo me gusta hablal [sic!] español” (How I Love to Speak Spanish) Cubans proudly turn their R’s into L’s, particularly at the ends of words.
And as you may have noticed in Habana Abierta’s song above, S’s tend to disappear from Cuban speech—learning to decipher Cuban Spanish is an act of imagination. “Where,” you find yourself asking, “can I insert some S’s into that string of gibberish to make it sound like a proper Spanish sentence?”
You can also check out the authentic videos on FluentU and search for Cuban Spanish for a step-by-step guide to the language. You can also use FluentU to brush up on your general Spanish skills before you head out—after all, what use is knowing slang if you can’t use it in a sentence?
You can use FluentU in your browser or download the app and take it with you on your trip. It’s a great travel buddy that will never stiff you on the bill.
Well, you may never discover the answer to that question. Just hang tight and keep learning! Oh, but definitely start with the following Cuban slang so you can manage the essentials.
51 Colorful Cuban Slang Phrases: Fish, Mangos, Camels, Papayas and More
1. ¿Qué bolá contigo?
What’s up with you? How’s it going? Bolá is also frequently spelled as volá.
2. ¿Qué bolero?/¿Qué bolaita?/¿Qué vuelta?
These are variants of the above for asking someone how they’re doing.
A friend, a dude. This is an informal way of addressing anyone, just like colega or amigo. So, “¿¿Acere, qué bolá??” finally makes perfect sense, right?
This is a word used to describe a foreigner and especially a white or blonde one. It would usually not be used for foreigners from elsewhere in Latin America.
This refers only to a person from the United States. Unlike in some other Latin American countries, this word isn’t used for Europeans.
6. Un mate
A French kiss.
7. ¡Tu maletín!
That’s your problem (literally, your briefcase)!
8. ¡Me resbala!
I don’t care (literally, it slides off me).
9. Mantén tu latón con tapa.
Keep a lid on it (literally, keep the lid on your trash).
10. ¡Chao pescao!
11. ¡Chao pescao!…¡Y a la vuelta picadillo!
This cutesy two-person exchange of expressions is just like, “see you later alligator!” and “after a while crocodile!” It literally means, “goodbye, fish!” and “next time, minced meat!” It comes from the way that the first 15 days’ ration card of the month gives you fish, and the next time it gives you meat.
12. Nos pillamos
This is essentially saying “¡nos vemos!” or “see you later.” This phrase can be sexually suggestive, or not.
13. Tumba eso
Let the subject drop (literally, knock that over).
14. En talla
Literally this means “at the size,” and the closest English equivalent is “it’s a good fit.” It could mean that things literally or figuratively fit, or that people are understanding each other well or are in the know.
15. Me piro
I’m getting going, I’m out of here.
17. Jamar un cable
To be really struggling financially to get by, to be homeless, out of work, etc.
To sleep deeply.
19. El chivo
20. La pincha
To work (literally, to poke or stab).
22. El gao / El gabeto
23. Echar pila
24. Está volao
25. Tipo cuadrao
A square (type of person), someone who’s inflexible (e.g., very communist).
A black person. This word is considered to be more polite than negro.
The odd, beastly buses in Havana have “humps,” so they’re referred to as “camels.” Passengers suffer quite a bit to ride one.
28. Coger botella / Va en botella
This very Cuban mode of transport means going to up to cars at stoplights and asking for a ride in the general direction that you’re headed. A botella (aside from “bottle”) used to mean a good personal connection for getting work, but then became just a connection for a car ride.
The practice is falling out of favor as there are now many competing unofficial taxis. It’s much easier for women, doctors and soldiers to coger botella, so it’s wise to emphasize one of those in your form of dress. The practice was common on motorcycles as well until a helmet law was passed.
A person who gossips or spreads non-official news. Bemba on its own is slang for “lips.”
A creepy, touchy-feely guy.
Papaya. Why don’t they just call it a papaya? Well, because papaya in Cuban slang means something a little different.
Vagina. Yup, I told you so!
To get excited, wound up.
35. Tumbar la guara
To interrupt, to break off an established level of trust and camaraderie.
36. Pégate al agua, Felo
This expression means “don’t leave off the subject” or “let’s come back to the subject at hand.” It’s considered more than a bit insensitive, as it comes from Cubana de Aviación Flight 455, which was bombed, killing 73 people in 1976.
Cuba blamed Cuban exiles and the Venezuelan secret police, with a complicit CIA, for the attack, and has frequently since broadcast the audio recording of the pilots’ last words “pégate al agua, Felo” (land on the water, Felo).
The phrase stirs up hard memories for an older generation, but for younger people it’s just a phrase they’ve heard over and over, and it thus gained its current slang meaning. As a foreigner, you probably shouldn’t risk using it, but it’s interesting to know.
37. Voy a hacer café
Literally, “I’m going to make coffee,” but really this stock phrase is said by a host to indicate to the visitors that it’s time to go. People tend to drop by one’s home unannounced all the time in Cuba, so it’s important to know that serving coffee is how you get rid of them.
38. No te vayas, espera café
If you’re concerned that your visitors might be a bit thick, and you really want to ensure that they leave, use this variant of the phrase above (“Don’t go (yet), wait for the coffee”).
39. No me vayas a dichabar
Dichabar is to betray someone’s confidence by spilling the beans or revealing a secret, so you say this phrase when you want to order someone not to repeat a word of what you’re about to tell them.
40. Deja la singae
Stop bothering me!
Like joder, to fuck.
42. No te rajes
Don’t you just hate it when everyone makes plans and then someone doesn’t follow through? Say this one after making a plan with some friends of acquaintances. It means “don’t abandon the idea” or “don’t ditch the plan.”
43. Te sueno la cara
I hit you in the face.
This can mean either a girl or a girlfriend. So mi jeva is “my girlfriend.”
Hot. As in, “esa jeva es un mango!” (that girl is super hot).
46. Echar un patín
To run. Literally, to throw a skate
47. Mete tremenda muela
This is said about someone who talks a lot or way too much, especially about things that aren’t that interesting. Almost everyone in Cuba chats endlessly about nothing, so if a Cuban says this about another Cuban, you know it’s really someone who will chat your ears off.
48. Se destimbaló
He/she fell down.
49. No dipara un chícharo
She/he is lazy. For example, he doesn’t do anything around the house to help out. Literally, it translates”he doesn’t (even) snap a green bean.” This is a case of the disappearing S mentioned in the introduction, as the formal Spanish spelling of dipara is dispara.
50. Estoy en la fuacata
51. Esqueleto rumbero
Very thin (literally, a dancing skeleton).
That’s quite a list already but, of course, there’s always more to learn. Once source is movie clips on the Internet. This genius has taken to dubbing movie clips into Cuban Spanish for comic effect.
That’s all for now.
And…do you remember the response?
And One More Thing…
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