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Whether you’re visiting Cuba or hanging with your Cuban friends, you’ll likely hear plenty of these Cuban slang words and phrases in conversation.
With my guide, you can learn what they are and what they mean, allowing you to understand the conversation better and even impress your Cuban friends or acquaintances by saying them in conversation – just maybe avoid the phrases with potentially negative connotations!
Cuban Slang Expressions
1 – ¿Qué Bolá?
When Cubans greet each other, the first words you might hear coming out of their mouth are: “¿Qué Bolá?” followed by an excited handshake. It’s an informal way of saying, “what’s up?” or “how’s it going?”.
It’s typically used among friends. It’s meant to be used casually, so Cubans would never say this in a professional setting. In Miami, Florida, where there is a strong Cuban culture, this will often be heard on the daily.
2 – Acere / Asere
Often a follow-up to “¿qué bolá?”, “acere,” sometimes spelled as “asere,” refers to a friend. Once again, as with a lot of Cuban slang, it is not to be used in a formal setting.
So, the next time you’re seeing a friend, greet them with a “¿qué bolá, asere?”!
3 – Chévere
Used to describe something as “cool” or “awesome,” “chévere” is another term that was influenced by the African culture within Cuba. Although many other Latin Americans, like Venezuelans and Colombians, use this term, “chévere” is thought to have gained popularity on the island.
Before Cuba was cut off from the world after the dictatorship took over, it was the first country to have spread so much of that African culture and tradition that today we know as Afro-Cuban culture.
4 – Tipo / Tipa
When you’re trying to refer to a person – and not necessarily in the nicest way – you’ll say, “mira ese tipo” for men and “mira esa tipa” for women. This literally translates to “look at that person” which can be taken either way in English, but for Cubans, it comes with a different intention.
It’s meant for people who aren’t necessarily the nicest, or maybe they have a bad reputation in the neighborhood. Or, for whatever reason, they just do not get along with the person referring to them by “tipo/a”.
5 – Por la Izquierda
When taken for its literal translation, “por la izquierda” means “on the left.” However, among Cubans, when something is done “por la izquierda,” it means that something shady was done in secret by means of a bribe or something illegal.
For instance, if a restaurant employee is being paid “por la izquierda,” it means they’re being paid in cash – not through the legal way of a check with the appropriate taxes withdrawn.
6 – Jamar
When you want to say, “what are we going to eat today,” the Cuban version is: “¿qué vamos a jamar hoy?”. “Jamar” is another way of saying “to eat,” but it’s normally taken in the context of someone who is really hungry.
It doesn’t matter what time of day it is; you can say the word “jamar” for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They sometimes also say, “qué hay de jama?” which is just a faster way of saying it. Cubans love to speak fast and look for the fastest way of saying things!
7 – Dale
“Dale” is one of the terms you’ll probably hear the most often if you ever visit Cuba or Miami. It can refer to so many things, like “alright,” “ok, go,” “catch you later,” and more.
It almost always is said in a friendly manner, but if someone is in an argument and they end up wanting to stomp away, they’ll probably end the conversation with an angry “dale.” So, this one might be a little confusing, but you will certainly hear it a lot.
8 – Tremenda Muela
This is another odd Cuban phrase that has one literal definition completely different from what it’s meant to mean. “Tremenda muela” translates to “tremendous tooth”! In actuality, Cubans say this to someone who is talking way too much.
So, when they’re complaining to their friend about that person that just doesn’t stop chatting, they’ll tell them: “¡Wow, tremenda muela que da!”. That’s certainly one phrase you would have never expected to have such a difference between actual translation and meaning!
9 – Pinchar
Another weird translation (but not as odd as the previous one) is when someone says they are going to “pinchar.” The word means to puncture something, but Cubans use this when they are going to their job or to work.
They could either say, “tengo que pinchar hoy,” which means they “need to work today,” or they could refer to their place of employment as “la pincha.” Cubans certainly have a colorful vocabulary list of slang!
10 – Yuma
This is a term that, depending on what part of Cuba they are from, could mean different things. “Yuma” is most often referring to an American or a foreigner, in a friendly manner. It’s similar to saying “gringo”. For example, when they say, “hay muchos yumas aquí,” they’re saying that “there are a lot of foreigners here.”
It might sound bad, but it isn’t meant in a negative way. Some Cubans say “La Yuma” to refer to the land of the United States. There is a city named Yuma in Arizona that is close to the Mexican border, and it’s believed that this other meaning has come about based on that name.
11 – Maquína
There are many different ways to refer to a car in Spanish, but Cubans often call them “maquínas.” The term translates to “machine,” so there’s one obvious reason as to why they call it that.
Yet, with so many other ways of referring to them, like “carro,” “coche,” and “auto,” one would still wonder why there’s yet another slang term for it – just an addition to the long list of Cuban expressions!
12 – Guagua
Similar to the previous term, “guagua” means “bus” to Cubans. Originating from the Canary Island natives, they prefer to say “guagua” instead of “autobus,” as the Spaniards say.
When they ask, “¿vamos a ir en guagua?” they’re asking, “are we going by bus?”. The way that it is pronounced (wah-wah) makes you wonder what it has to do with buses – it doesn’t sound even the slightest bit relevant to a bus!
13 – Le Ronca el Mango
“Le ronca el mango” is another Cuban phrase that has a rather comical literal translation. The words translate to “the snore of the mango,” but the meaning has nothing to do with mango at all.
It’s typically said when something extreme or annoying occurred. Cubans say it when they’re angry and irritated. So, when you hear this phrase while you’re visiting Cuba or Miami, remember that they are certainly not offering you a mango.
14 – El Chivo
Another Cuban expression that is in the same family as the translations for cars and buses, “el chivo” is used to refer to a bicycle; however, it translates to “the goat.”
A bicycle is a vital means of transportation on the island because many have had their vehicles taken away from them over time due to the dictatorship, and many others are very poor and cannot afford one, so the bicycle deserves its own slang term.
15 – Monstruo
Instead of telling someone, “wow, you are so talented!” or “you are awesome at this,” Cubans will call those people a “monstruo.”
It is meant to be a compliment to someone who just did a job well done or is skilled in a particular task or hobby, and referring to them as a “monster” is common among Cubans. It sounds contradicting, but it’s a fun way to tell someone that they are great at what they do.
16 – Caballito
Cubans sure do like to use terms that are meant for animals or foods and turn their meanings into something completely different! A “caballito” is translated to a “little horse” or a “little pony.”
However, thought to have originated after the dictatorship, Cubans started calling the policemen on motorcycles “caballitos.” It’s possible that Cubans needed some sort of secret word to refer to the policemen who were tracking everyone’s every move after the totalitarian reign began.
17 – No te Rajes
When someone wants to back out of or completely change the plan because they’ve become worried or scared of the outcome, another Cuban will tell them, “¡no te rajes!”
Its literal translation is “don’t crack,” so this is probably one of the few Cuban expressions that are similar to what they actually translate to. So, when a Cuban insists that you “don’t crack,” you’ll know what to do.
18 – Arranca’o / Arranca’a
Depending on whether male or female, “arranca’o” and “arranca’a” is Cuban slang for “broke.” Normally, the term would have a “d” where the apostrophe goes now, but Cubans tend to say their words fast, and they don’t always pronounce certain letters.
The apostrophe is put in place instead to represent the lack of the letter that they won’t be pronouncing (because it’s easier not to). If your Cuban friend is looking through their wallet and saying that they are “arranca’o,” you know they won’t be paying for lunch this time!
19 – Coco
Another term that means something completely different from its original name, “coco” refers to the human head. This one isn’t too hard to guess as to why it’s called the “coco,” though, since the head can be as hard as a coconut.
When they say, “¡tienes el coco duro!” they’re telling you that you are hard-headed or stubborn. It could be said in a playful or serious manner.
20 – Descara’o / Descara’a
When someone is a “descara’o” or “descara’a” (depending on the gender), it could be meant in one of two ways. One form is said in an annoyed or aggressive tone. It can refer to someone who has no shame and is selfish in the way they carry themselves.
Another form is meant in a more loving tone, often referring to a playful child who has just done something mischievous. The meanings are on different ends of the spectrum here!
Cuban Slang Expressions Summary
If you spend a lot of time with Cuban friends or are involved with Cuban communities, I hope my breakdown gives you a little help and insight into some of the common phrases and expressions used.
One final time, here’s the full list of slang and expressions we covered in the article:
- ¿Qué Bolá?
- Acere / Asere
- Tipo / Tipa
- Por la Izquierda
- Tremenda Muela
- Le Ronca el Mango
- El Chivo
- No te Rajes
- Arranca’o / Arranca’a
- Descara’o / Descara’a
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Contributor: Jennifer Martinez is an avid creative writer, with Cuban heritage, passionate about various topics, especially Latin American foods and traditions.