At first sight the business resembles a thriving pottery. In a dusty courtyard women mould clay and water into hundreds of little platters and lay them out to harden under the Caribbean sun. The craftsmanship is rough and the finished products are uneven. But customers do not object. This is Cité Soleil, Haiti’s most notorious slum, and these platters are not to hold food. They are food. Brittle and gritty—and as revolting as they sound—these are “mud cakes”. For years they have been consumed by impoverished pregnant women seeking calcium, a risky and medically unproven supplement, but now the cakes have become a staple for entire families.
It is not for the taste and nutrition—smidgins of salt and margarine do not disguise what is essentially dirt, and the Guardian can testify that the aftertaste lingers - but because they are the cheapest and increasingly only way to fill bellies. “It stops the hunger,” said Marie-Carmelle Baptiste, 35, a producer, eyeing up her stock laid out in rows. She did not embroider their appeal. “You eat them when you have to.”
[Cuban philologist-cum-antigovernment blogger Yoani] Sánchez theorizes that in one of the world’s last remaining Stalinist regimes, fashioning a bizarre name from whole cloth has been one safe way of flexing creative muscles without running afoul of the authorities. “Cuba is a country where everything was rationed and controlled except the naming of your children,” she says. “The state would tell you what you would study and where, and creating names was a way of rebelling.” Jaime Suchlicki, a Cuba expert at the University of Miami, says many middle-aged Cubans spent their youth fighting Fidel Castro’s proxy wars in Ethiopia and Angola and may have given their kids African-sounding names in tribute to the continent. Similarly, the preponderance of names starting with the letter Y may reflect the contact Cubans had with Russian advisers sporting names like Yuri and Yevgeny in the years when the Soviet Union was bankrolling Castro’s revolution.
Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits associate the practice with the Communist era. Suchlicki spent his formative years in pre-revolutionary Havana, and says his friends, relatives and neighbors all went by traditional, Spanish-language names. He left the island a year after Castro ousted a U.S.-backed dictator in 1959, and says the growing popularity of unconventional names among his younger countrymen came to his attention only after Castro had consolidated his grip on power. He speculates that this preference for unusual names might signify a denial on some level of the country’s Spanish Roman Catholic heritage. “This may be a rejection of the Spanish past since Cuba is much more black today than it once was,” he says, noting that an estimated 62 percent of all Cubans are of African descent (up from 40 percent 50 years ago).