The Guayabera-Part I

agosto 14, 2010

Origins-Yep! A little bit of history!

But what is the guayabera? The traditional guayabera, originally a campesino or peasant shirt, as we know it today, and as it was finally handed down to us in the first decade of the XX Century, was white and made of fine linen. It was a long-sleeved shirt, with four large pockets, and five rows of very narrow pleats, two running down the front of the shirt and three down the back. The back of the guayabera is said to have been purposely designed to look like the Cuban flag with a triangle resting on the shoulder area and five stripes running down vertically below it. The flaps at waist level on either side, allowed for an easier handling by the campesino of his machete and hunting knife. Finally, if it is a traditional guayabera, it should also include twenty-seven very small mother-of-pearl buttons.

Where did the guayabera come from and is there a history behind it? Most of the time, where it concerns popular history, those who have made a difference in the lives of millions of people were never aware of it, and therefore the facts of whatever they contributed to mankind is lost in the jumble of reality, fiction and, in the case of the guayabera, in the fantasy of romance.

According to research conducted by Cuban journalist Pedro Carballo Bernal, several Andalusian and later Canary Island families that settled in Cuba around the Yayabo River, in Sancti Spiritus, began making shirts that would eventually become the precursors or prototypes of today’s guayaberas. More precisely, as the story goes, the first guayabera was made in 1709, by Encarnación Núñez García, an Andalusian wife from the town of Granada, hoping to please her husband, José Pérez Rodríguez, a potter by trade, who requested that she make him comfortable, loose shirts from a bolt of fine Belgian linen they had received from Spain. These shirts were to be worn over his trousers, have long sleeves, and big, wide front pockets where he could carry, among other things, his smokes or fumas. Since these shirts became popular in the region of the Yayabo River, which flows through Sancti Spiritus, from west to east, they were first called yayaberas, as were the natives of the area, who at the time were identified as yayaberas (women) and yayaberos (men), after the name of the river. Another version of the name guayabera is that men had the habit of filling the wide pockets of their shirts with ripe guayabas or guavas, thus the possible transition of the name from yayabera to guayabera. I tend to disagree with this fact. Ripe guayabas or guavas have a wonderful but penetrating, pungent aroma that fills the environment and can become overpowering. As any tropical fruit, they exude a sugary sap that could stain a shirt and I cannot imagine women of the XVIII and XIX Centuries trying to whiten a guava-stained guayabera without Clorox, Shout, or Wisk. And yet oral tradition around the Sancti Spiritus area supports it:

Y la llaman guayabera
por su nombre tan sencillo
por llenarse los bolsillos,
con guayabas cotorreras.

(And they call it guayabera,
such a very simple name,
since its pockets were filled,
with guayabas cotorreras.)

Very soon, the peasants of the surrounding countryside took to wearing the guayabera and these shirts became popular almost immediately because they were appropriate for work and the hot weather. Townsfolk, however, rejected them as being too coarse and vulgar to be worn by even the lower classes within the town. The fact that this story is so precise seems to diminish its credibility among some historians. I for one believe it could be true since we have no way of knowing what of itself History decides to save, regardless of how trivial future generations of historians might perceive the information to be. Historians also point to the fact that commercial regulations between the Spanish colonies and Spain restricted certain items from being imported into the colonies, linen being one of them. Also, they claim, there were no direct commercial ties between Sancti Spiritus and Spain. But pirates did abound, especially in the Caribbean area, and were quick to offer the shortcut to waiting for the Spanish fleet. Settlers, of course, availed themselves of contraband in order to quickly obtain much needed supplies for their languishing settlements. This could explain the bolt of linen.

Dr. Armando J. Casadevall, however, a native of Sancti Spiritus, in his article “De la chupa a la guayabera universal” (From the chupa to the universal guayabera), published in La voz libre in Miami in 1998, rejects the Sancti Spiritus origins of the guayabera. He cites stories written about Sancti Spritus by Tadeo Martínez-Moles in 1791, and by Rafael F. Pérez Luna in 1860, as well as the 1866 edition of the encyclopedic dictionary compiled by Jacobo de la Pezuela. He did not find any references as to the origins of the guayabera in Sancti Spiritus as claimed by other researchers. He even goes as far as stating that there were no guava fields planted in the area and that the guayabera was definitely not suitable attire to pick them. Casadevall says that the word guayabera was not even used in Sancti Spiritus until after the establishment of the republic in 1902 and that the preferred item of clothing among Cuban men in the XIX Century was the chupa, a short shirt with four flaps beginning at the waist and rather tight sleeves, today considered by many as the precursor of the modern guayabera. He goes on to explain that what we identify today as a guayabera was then made of cotton kaki and called camisilla in the 1920’s, when he was a youngster. His father, who was Cuban and apparently proud of his origins and his Cuban ways, was fond of wearing these chupas or camisillas. Casadevall gives credit to a taylor by the name of Ángel Serrano for having introduced the pure white, fine linen shirt called guayabera to the city of Sancti Spiritus in the 1930’s. Nevertheless, the scale of history seems to tip in favor of the story about the Andalusian couple, Encarnación and Joselillo, mentioned earlier.

These two opposing stories are recorded by history and exist side by side. It is for this reason and for the sake of objectivity that I present them to the reader.


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