There are words that have their moment, while others manage to survive the fads to remain in our everyday lives. The disproportionate presence of certain words contrasts with those that have been condemned to oblivion, to be mentioned only to evoke the past. All these processes of rejection or approximation that occur in our heads are evident in our speech. Hence, the public death of a politician starts when people cease to create nicknames; the crisis of an ideal shows when few make reference to it, and the ideological propaganda falter when no one repeats their Manichean slogans. Language can validate or bury any utopia.
Among the linguistic evidence of our current lack of appetite is the gradual disappearance of the term “compañero.” This formula is used less and less to refer to a lifelong friend or someone we meet for the first time. Having banished—for their petit bourgeoisie inferences—the titles “señor,” “señora” and “señorita,” others came along in order to demonstrate a greater familiarity among Cubans, such as the imported “comrade.” They were used even in tragicomic cases, for example when a person called a bureaucrat, who made them wait six hours for a paper, “compañero,” even though in reality they wanted to insult him.
For years if you addressed someone differently from the “Aye aye, Mate” promulgated by the Party, it could be taken as a deviant ideology. We were all “equal” and even the use of the formal form of “you” disappeared in this false familiarity that often degenerates into disrespect. On opening the island to tourism, one of the first lessons the employees of the hotels learned was to return to the stigmatized “señor’ when dealing with guests. Little by little the titles of the recent past were reduced to the vocabulary of the most loyal, the oldest. So, among the thousands of salutations you hear today on our streets—brother, pal, partner, buddy, friend, mate, pure and simple “pssst”— the sonorous syllables of “compañero” appear less and less.