The ñ is silent now.
Guillermo Alvarez Guedes, the Cuban comic who made a common Cuban expletive his trademark — which he would reduce to its second syllable, ¡ñó! , sometimes pronounced as an explosive single consonant, ¡ ñ! — died Tuesday in Miami at age 86. He had been admitted on July 15 to the intensive care unit of Coral Gables Hospital for stomach problems, but was later allowed to go home, where he died.
An icon of the Cuban exile community, Alvarez Guedes became known throughout Latin America through his recordings of stand-up comedy, where he told jokes in an unmistakable Cuban Spanish that seemed to flow naturally from his native country’s street humor. Thanks to his popularity, a Cuban accent strikes many fellow Latins as full of verve and good cheer and has probably done more for good vibrations between Cubans and other Spanish speakers than any diplomatic venture.
Guillermo Alvarez Guedes was born in Unión de Reyes in the province of Matanzas — a town from where, according to a popular song, hails a legendary and probably fictional rumba king called Malanga. His showbiz career began in his hometown. There, since childhood, he would entertain crowds at parties and fairs by dancing and singing. It was natural that he would travel to Havana, not just the country’s capital but a known entertainment center. In Havana, he worked in theaters and radio shows. But it was in the new medium of television, of which Cuba was the Latin American pioneer, where he made his mark.
In a city known for its nightclub scene, Alvarez Guedes appeared in popular television shows that were set in bars and clubs, in the role of el borracho, the drunkard, where he mixed linguistic humor with a physical comic style reminiscent of American silent movie stars like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. He worked in this medium, as well as the booming club world of 1950s Havana, where he shared billing with such stars as Beny Moré, Olga Guillot and Rita Montaner.
During that decade, the comic also began a cinematic career that would lead to roles in more than 14 movies and the production of three. However, his most disseminated medium was the recorded spoken word. After joining his exile compatriots in 1960, he eventually made his first comedy album in 1973, which would lead to thirty-plus albums over the years. Through them, he became an international star of Spanish-language comedy.
In 1953 he had founded a record label, which would be known as Gema Records, where he would record and often produce artists like Bebo Valdés, Miami’s own Willy Chirino, and the salsa ensemble El Gran Combo, possibly Puerto Rico’s greatest.
Curiously, his own best-selling album is in English — sort of. In his How to Defend Yourself from the Cubans in the mid ’80s, spoken in heavily accented English — and incongruously American-accented Spanish — Alvarez Guedes warns Americans tongue in cheek about the Cuban invasion of their homeland and culture. The humor works doubly with English and Spanish speakers, the latter recognizing the absurdities of their own culture. It is admitted among Cuban-Americans that Alvarez Guedes could call Cubans on their follies without eliciting any rancor from those so exposed.
In that recording and other stand-up routines, Alvarez Guedes patented the use of the expression ¡ñó! Though it stands for a blunt obscenity, Cubans use the word in both the two-syllable original and the abbreviation as a sign of awe, indignation or even reflection, without ever considering its original meaning. It is the ultimate four-letter word. But given how Cuban speech tends to slur pronunciation, the comedian picked up on its shortened version. It became his trademark.