Cuba: Urban Tribes Prowl Havana Nights

(IPS) – A different city emerges on the weekends in Havana. Young people, whose faces are as strange as they are common, take possession of the city and reinvent it. They are the “urban tribes,” a global phenomenon that has made its mark on Cuba.

A stretch of about 700 metres of Calle G, one of Havana’s main avenues, is a meeting site for these informal networks. As described by French sociologist Michel Maffesoli back in 1985, these “tribes” are groups of young people, ages 12 to 20, who create new forms of human relations and establish their own behavioural norms.

In Cuba, it is cultural consumption that differentiates the main tribes, largely based on their musical preferences: the rockers (rockeros) are divided among metalheads (metaleros), new metalheads, punks, hippies and freaks (friques); the “emos,” devotees to the subgenre of dark, emotional rock music; the “mikis,” dedicated to electroacoustic, disco and Cuba’s native-grown trova music; and the “reparteros,” who follow reggaeton, hip hop, rap and timba (often referred to as Cuban salsa).

“Every urban tribe has its sanctuaries and traditions,” states writer and rocker José Miguel Sánchez (Yoss) in the digital magazine “La Isla en Peso.” Nevertheless, Calle G accepts everyone. The street becomes the great unifier, even for those who do not embrace any particular identity.

“There really aren’t many options for young people. Here you run into thousands of people, and they might not have much in common with you, but you build your social life with it,” Max, who had made himself comfortable on a bench on the old Avenida de los Presidents, told IPS. By day, he works for a state-run transport company.

Only a few academics have turned their gaze to this social phenomenon, which grew out of the new identities emerging amongst “a young and adolescent population that needed to differentiate itself,” according to psychologist Daybel Pañellas. A professor at the University of Havana, she led a study about nights on Calle G.

In a debate organised by the Cuban magazine “Temas,” Pañellas said she does not agree with classifying these groups as tribes, “in terms of a solid ideology that mobilises a particular social project,” with the exception of the “rockeros,” a group that has been well established since the 1960s.

Some 2,000 youths swarm the area on weekend nights, Friday to Sunday, and have their spaces marked: first the rockers, then the reparteros and mikis, and ending with the emos, often spurned by the others due to their tendency towards melancholy and sentimentality, men and women alike.

According to the academic study of these groups, based on more than 400 interviews, the mikis, reparteros and emos are united in essence for their aesthetic, musical and entertainment preferences. The rockers, meanwhile, come from years of resistance against official policies. For years the government considered them “ideological deviants” and “counterrevolutionaries.”

“We are different from all the rest: in philosophy, clothing, musical genre, the way we talk and how we behave in society,” Alejandro, a 17-year-old rocker who studies electronics, told IPS. “We now have a calmer philosophy, less conflictive and more centred on ourselves,” he said.

Some of Cuba’s other cities have their own urban tribe phenomena, to varying degrees, including Matanzas (west), Santa Clara (central), and Holguín and Santiago de Cuba (east).

In 2008, Calle G saw a rise of a futuristic aesthetic, with straightened hair — whether black, blonde or red — moulded into a long fringe that covered half the face, and in many cases both eyes. In Cuba, this style is known as “bistec” (beefsteak). However, few people wear the style very long, due to the tropical climate.

Lila, and 18-year-old emo, explained to IPS why she thinks other groups, like the reparteros, reject her “tribe”: “We are based on feelings. We are very united and we make our friendship into a brotherhood. The male emos face more social disapproval because they are seen as ‘flojitos’ (weaklings, suggesting homosexual), but they aren’t at all.”

The emo culture of Europe, dating to the 1980s, is strong on misanthropy and self-inflicted pain, like cutting. But in Cuba it is nuanced by the Caribbean identity of “someone who is happy, optimistic, a little machista, a femme- fatal or Casanova,” according to psychologist Yessabel Gómez Sera.

Gómez Sera, author of “Who Are the Cuban Emos? An Exploratory Study of a Group of Adolescent Emos,” from 2009, stressed that “not all emos cut themselves. They simply scratch themselves, and then quickly realise that they can be emo without it.”

Meanwhile, the mikis in Cuba are similar to those known as “chetos” in other Latin American countries. According to Ángel, a self-identified high-school- aged miki, his “tribe” is characterised by happiness, “having a good time” and “great outlooks for the present and the future.” He doesn’t like that mikis are often seen as materialistic and superficial.

With stronger local roots, the reparteros emerged from timba music, a fast and aggressive type of salsa music from the late 1990s. They listen to “danceable rhythms that are catchy, contagious, and rich… and are closely tied to fashion,” said a young man who didn’t want to give his name.

The reparteros arrived relatively recently on Calle G. “It has to do with humble people, who live in marginal neighbourhoods where there isn’t very much culture,” he said, referring to a tribe often stereotyped as violent and conflictive.

Regardless, the diversity of Cuba’s urban tribal identities is reflected in their aesthetics: borrowing from African styles for the Rastafarians, imposing and dark for the rockeros, irrevocably androgynous for the emos, attention grabbing for the reparteros, and clandestine painting for the graffiti artists.