One can always tell when it’s a foreigner who arrives at a Havana bus stop. From the paradas del camello, to the stops at Copelia, Playa, and el Mercado de Cuatro Caminos, the best one-arm-swinging, loose-strut-having, estilo-de-rumbero-jinitero-fascade of the extranjeros más aplatanados is instantaneously seen through by even the least observant of habaneros. Hasta el más guapo de Holguín is spotted as “un oriental” by the way he approaches the guagua and fails to comply with that “cierta manera” of moving through the urban landscape; a feat which becomes increasingly representative of who fits in where in la sociedad habanera. So what is the trick? Es muy sencillo mi’jo: hay que saber marcar.
“Marcando” (a linguistic, socio-cultural, and even mimed practice) involves a series of coded questions and reponces that establish a rigorous order within even the most chaotic of city bus stops. At the fascinating site of la cola habanera – a fluid place that does not require one’s immediate physical presence but rather, mental awareness and complete devotion to the norm – one must situate themself only after asking one of the following questions, preferably in a loud, shrill tone that demands authority: “¿Último?”, “¿Quién es el último?”, “¿Última persona?”, ¿Quién es la última persona?, or – if you are inclined to repeat the question – a combonation of all four.
The person who is the last on line must then raise his or her hand and (though there are several forms of initiating and responding that will be addressed in the followng paragraph) prepare him or herself with descriptive adjectives and/or refined pointing technique to answer the next question/variants of: “¿Detrás de quién va?”, or simply, “¿Detrás?” Even more remarkable, once the second-to-last-person on line is identified, the new arrival must continue by asking ¿y detrás de quién va él? or ¿y detrás de quién va ella?, either to the former “última persona” or to the person in front of him/her. The search often takes several minutes to realize but once confirmed, everyone knows who they go behind and who the person in front goes behind, and are thus free to “flaneurear”, as Walter Benjamin might call it in Spanish.
As a direct result of not having to physically “hold” one’s spot on line (as in the case of the seemingly relaxed yet down right hostile colas norteamericanas), habaneros are able to engage in a pre-departure, endless moment vibe that could include (but is certinly not limited to) writing an award winning book of poems, getting ice cream (of course, hay que marcar de nuevo), coqueteando, chismeando, and, of course, contemplando la vida. In a study of 200 couples from the capital city that I conducted in 2001, 11.32% of parejas habaneras stated that they had met while on line for la guagua. Of that number, 74% were not directly associated in the ultima persona naming sequence. (Esto es pura bobería, para que sepan.) Needless to say, (and keeping in mind that 98% of the 11.32% had children) the system of marcando has generated certain cultural phenomena that has contributed to rapid population growth and as such, the formación de la nación.
Perhaps what is most interesting is the rise of an alter-lingua that is centered on the normalización del comportamiento guaguino. Now, hip young muchachónes and viejitos alike have innovated the entire system of vocal affirmations and subsequent oral verifying technique to a level of nearly pure miming. Stated simply, one can now arrive at the bus stop and make obvious the fact the he or she is looking for “el último”. This trend has, on the flip side, placed more responsibilty on the “último” as he/she must be aware enough to sense the approach of an oncomming linee and hopefully before any vocalization is necessary. In turn, the former “último/a” has the luxury of merely pointing to the person that he/she goes behind and, in cases of utmost caballería, will now often indicate with extended index finger the individual who is before the person in front of him/her without even the slight insistence of a eye movement. Thus, the entire placement of where one belongs in the line can be carried out without the obstacle of the spoken word and related hinderance on the throat muscles.
The nature of this line system is one small piece of what Antonio Benítez Rojo perceived when he wrote of regularity and complex order inside of Caribbean cultural spaces and muli-layered codes that appear to embody a state of chaos. La cola habanera generates a micro habanero order (complete with accepted linguistic and body performance norms) that sets the scence for yet another pattern through which one can perceive order in the seemingly chaotic inversión del significado del verbo ‘quedarse.’ Thus, the saga of guaguísmos continues…
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