A mob of shouting men would generally qualify as a social phenomenon to avoid while studying abroad—or, for that matter, while doing pretty much anything. Should you be fortunate enough to find yourself in Havana’s Central Park, however, doublecheck the subject matter of the shouting match before you take a detour. In all likelihood, you’ve stumbled upon something not only innocuous but also surprisingly instructive: it’s La Esquina Caliente (the Hot Corner, baseball jargon for third base), one of dozens of informal public fora throughout Cuba for discussion of the national pastime.
One of the increasing number of Latin American countries in which soccer is not the predominant sport, Cuba has a storied history with baseball that transcends athletics. The game first arrived on the island from the United States in the mid-nineteenth century amidst the burgeoning Cuban independence movement, which formally began in 1868. From its inception, Cuban baseball was a means of resisting the imperial Spanish, who were working to instill bullfighting in their lucrative Caribbean colony, and the sport remains to this day a representation of Cuban sovereignty and nationalism.
That this national symbol of independence was an import from the United States is, perhaps unwittingly, a strikingly honest historical metaphor, as Cuba would spend its first six decades post-“independence” (1898-1959) as a US neo-colony. Moreover, after the revolution, Cuba underwent 30 years as a client state of the Soviet Union (USSR). And in recent years, Cuba has tried to fill some of the vacuum left by the fall of the USSR via a special relationship with Venezuela. Indeed, it seems that the sovereignty of this import-dependent island has always borne an asterisk, making the imported nature of the athletic representation thereof all the more fitting.
Fortunately, politics is not even an undercurrent at the Esquina (corner). Baseball fans come and go as they please to the shady spot in Central Park, weaving through an ebb and flow of impassioned point and counterpoint about the game. Subjects range from the Cuban league to international ball to the majors in the United States. More often than not, the gathering comprises several separate dialogues, each one delving into its own topic. One fan speaks, and the others listen carefully until it is their turn to respond—or, alternatively, until they cannot bear to withhold their interjection any longer. And, happily for me, spectators are as welcome as participants. Unsurprisingly, though, the Esquina is a boys’ club: I have yet to see a woman among its ranks, which is a statement about Cuban society in and of itself.
From what I can tell, the Esquina is less about dialectic than about creating a space for contribution; resolution or agreement is uncommon, but each attendant gets to say his piece. This would be easy for a foreigner to take for granted, but such venues for expression are something of a rarity in a country whose freedom of speech is frequently curtailed. Cubans bask in the opportunity, which gives the well-educated population a chance to flaunt their persuasiveness, analytic depth, and undeniable way with words. (Interestingly, this linguistic dimension makes the Esquina particularly challenging for an international student to grasp: perhaps nowhere is Cubañol—Cuba’s slang-laden, rapidly spoken variant of Spanish with a tendency to truncate words and omit certain sounds—so vibrantly on display.)
Above all, however, La Esquina Caliente is interesting as an exemplar of Cuban social interaction. At least in Havana, private space is often scarce, and potential outlets like bars, clubs, or the internet are financially out of reach for most of the population. Socialization, then, is much more propense to occur in public places—such as Havana’s iconic Malecón, which plays host to throngs of the urban poor who arrive with little more than a bottle of rum to gatherings that are centered on conversation.
Similarly, discussion of sports cannot occur at a sports bar, on a blog or message board, over text messages, or via an ESPN analyst. Instead, Cubans engage each other in person, in a way that is somewhat out of step with American norms of interaction. So, as someone who is accustomed to the internet, smartphones, cable television, and the general decline of face-to-face conversation in my own country, my gut reaction to La Esquina Caliente was that it was an aberration, a singular quirk of Cuban culture that might end up on the front of a postcard. It is better understood, however, as a particularly visible manifestation of a wholly ordinary phenomenon that, like the sport itself, is about more than just baseball.
In the wake of a somewhat surprising World Series, the Cuban season is just beginning, so it’s an exciting time at La Esquina Caliente. Perhaps someday soon I’ll summon the gumption to contribute my own analysis. Until then, I’ll just continue as an observer, endowed with the knowledge that lessons about a new country often derive from the most ostensibly unlikely sources.
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