Once upon a time, Vice President Dan Quayle, on his way to Latin America, lamented not having taken Latin in high school to communicate with his hosts in their native language. President Obama, on the other hand, has mastered key Spanish vocabulary for the 6th Cumbre de las Américas, the Hemispheric Summit taking place in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. Most probably he will say: Gracias, Cien años de soledad es una de las mejores novelas de todos los tiempos. Each Head of State will receive a copy of the novel’s new edition celebrating Gabriel García Márquez 85th birthday. Not only that, President Obama will sport a guayabera.
Is the shirt Mexican? Did it originate in the Philippines? Or, as many insist, is as Cuban as a hand-rolled habano? Theories abound. One has it that the first guayabera was made for a wealthy Cuban rancher back in the 1700s. Mexicans argue it was invented by Yucatans, descendants of the Mayas. And Filipinos claim they created a similar shirt, the Baron Taglog, two centuries earlier. In Miami, an octogenarian gentleman, playing dominó in Calle Ocho, pointed out that Mexicans probably copied it from a Cuban traveling to their land, and that Baron Taglog is a different animal all together—without pockets! The basic elements of the guayabera accept no debate: two or four patch pockets and two vertical rows of alforzas (fine, tiny pleats, sewn closely together and running along the front and back of the shirt), and the bottom has three-inch slits on both sides.
What about its etymology? There are two main theories. 1. Guayabera derives from guayaba, guava, a yellowish or pink fruit the size of a pear, usually with a sweet-acid taste, which poets have appropriated to symbolize a woman’s lips in the act of kissing. Guayaba is an Arawak word. The Arawak-language predominated in the Greater Antilles. The Taino, an Arawak subgroup, were the first people Columbus encountered in Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti). 2. From the Cuban Yayayabo River, and nearby residents, the yayaberos.Back to La Cumbre de las Américas, sexy and intelligent Shakira will open it interpreting the Colombian National Anthem. The question is, considering the increasing theatrics of politics and the effect a guayabera can have on the man, will President Obama grab a microphone and venture a verse from Las caderas no mienten, Hips don’t lie: no, cuando te veo caminar, no me puedo controlar…
Raúl Guerrero is a journalist, historian, and writer specializing in women’s struggles and language. He is the author of numerous works, notably the novels INSOLENCE and La dudosa fuga de la cronista LIBERTINA. He lectures frequently in Florida and New York.
Contact him at RGuerrero@salonespanol.com