The Guayabera-Part II

agosto 29, 2010

The insurgent guayabera
By Hilda Luisa Díaz-Perera. 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Ciro Bianchi Ross, writing in the Cuban government-sponsored magazine Juventud Rebelde, points out that this early, and from his point of view “questionable” story about the Sancti Spiritus origins of the guayabera, if nothing else, marks the recognition of the existence of this special shirt and places it within the Cuban historical timetable. He explains that the guayabera or a description of it is not present in Cuban literature of the XIX Century, until the 1890’s when author Nicolás Heredia writes about it in his Cuban novel, Leonela. Furthermore, Bianchi Ross says that the Cuban peasant did not wear the guayabera, but rather normally donned a loose blue or striped shirt over his trousers, a straw hat or sombrero de yarey, boots, a neckerchief to wipe off his sweat and his machete.

La Condesa de Merlín

Condesa de Merlín

When the Countess of Merlin, (Havana 1789– París 1852), a Cuban aristocrat married to a French count, who is considered the first female Cuban writer, visited Havana in 1840, the guayabera was either not popular yet among the Cuban peasantry around the capital, or it was not known by that name. She does not mention it in any of her well-known writings or in the copious journal she kept of the trip. However, the fact that she does not mention the guayabera, does not mean it did not exist, at least as a prototype.

Guadalupe Yaujar in her article La guayabera cubana, quotes chroniclers of the mid-XIX Century who write that the guayabera existed and was already popular when Narciso López first raised the Cuban flag in the city of Cárdenas on May 19th, 1850. In 1856 or ‘57, Juan Cristóbal Nápoles Fajardo, better known in Cuban literature as “El Cucalambé”, published Rumores del hórmigo, a book of poetry that includes a description of the guayabera and calls it by its present name, establishing him as the first writer on record to acknowledge the existence and use of the guayabera. He became the most quoted and most popular poet of the mid- XIX Century in Cuba, probably helping to disseminate awareness of the guayabera throughout the island. “El Cucalambé” was honored in 1953 by the Cuban government which chose his birthday, July 1, as the official Día de la Guayabera (Guayabera Day).

El Cucalambé

Juan Cristóbal Nápoles Fajardo, El Cucalambé

By 1866, in the town of Güines, political reformer and activist Nicolás Azcárate is elected delegate to the Information Council of the Spanish cortes or parliament. His followers organized a victory celebration in his honor and it is noted by eyewitnesses that the peasants of the surrounding countryside showed up wearing their classical guayaberas and jipijapa or straw hats. The operative word here is classical since it implies time, design, tradition and the conscious acceptance by a social group that an item of clothing clearly identifies them. Other writers agree that when Carlos Manuel de Céspedes rang the bell of his sugarmill La Demajagua on October 10th, 1868, calling for Cuban independence from Spain, some of the men who joined him were wearing, not the military shirt known then as the chamarreta, as Ciro Bianchi insists they did, but rather one very similar to what is known now as the guayabera. I differ from Bianchi Ross on this fact because it seems incongruous that a group of colonial men, ready to fight the mother country for the freedom of their land, would go to do so dressed in the enemy’s uniform. I tend to think that if they were indeed not wearing a guayabera, they had to be wearing something very similar, a regular light colored, long sleeve shirt or camisa, the striped peasant shirt, or some early guayabera prototype.

This puts us right in the middle of an ongoing debate as to whether or not the Cuban army used the guayabera during the fight against Spanish colonialism. Many photos still exist showing the Cuban mambí, the name given to the Cuban insurgents in the wars for independence, men like Generals Enrique Loynaz del Castillo, and Máximo Gómez, Commander-in-Chief of the Cuban Army, wearing a shirt that is indeed very similar to the guayabera.

Los mambises

The mambí/mambises (pl) or Cuban insurgents in the wars for independence against Spain.

The Cuban army had no military uniform and dressed in whatever the men could find. At the start of the last War of Independence in 1895, in his Diario de campaña, Cuban national hero, José Martí, mentions the chamarreta, the military shirt, and not the guayabera. Charito Bolaños, the woman who reputedly sewed for many insurgents during the war, among whom were generals of the stature of Mayía Rodríguez and Mario García Menocal, states that she never sent a guayabera to the manigua, as the rough wilderness where the Cuban army fought against the Spaniards was called. But then, men such as those mentioned above, who could have had clothing sewn especially for them, were probably not going to choose to wear a shirt that was so similar to the one used by the common peasant. It must be remembered that Cuban wars for independence were fought for political independence from Spain, not necessarily for social equality. María Elena Molinet, Cuban costume designer in charge of important historical films that cover this period of Cuban history, such as Baraguá and La primera carga al machete (The First Charge of the Machete), after collecting and studying many such photos, asserts that none of the Cuban rebels is wearing a guayabera. It must be said, however, that the chamarreta had many details that coincided with the design of the guayabera, such as the long sleeves, the four large front pockets and the side flaps to ease it over men’s trousers.

The fact though that the controversy does exists, is an indication that the guayabera was probably already competing favorably against very similar shirts used by Cuban men of the XIX Century. It is also possible that as the century unfolded, and the popularity of the guayabera increased, it underwent important changes that improved its design. This in part explains the variations described as well as assertions made by observers of the time, which, as history has it, lend themselves well to unending controversy.

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