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.
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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.
It’s likely that Guillermo Alvarez Guedes broke the vulgarity barrier in Spanish stand-up. But he did not do so trangressively, like a Lenny Bruce, but in the manner of American ethnic comics like the masters of Jewish shtick, as the natural expression of a people. For most of his career, Alvarez Guedes’ humor was laced with vulgarity and his audiences laughed accordingly. Yet he never told truly off-color jokes. And his comic persona was deadpan and straight, sometimes affecting righteous indignation. He was just talking like any Cuban would.
That was his biggest appeal. He played — some would say he was — the cubanazo, a word well known in Miami. The Big Cuban. Too Cuban For You. Among Cubans, it was the recognition of one’s ethnic idiosyncrasies that enriched his popularity. Among others, it was being granted license to laugh at aspects of Cuban speech and culture they already found funny. As anti-Castro as any of his exile compatriots, Alvarez Guedes summed up his critique of Fidel Castro in a simple vulgarity in Spanish: He was an S.O.B. Most Cuban-Americans would agree.
“My best memories of Cuba make me sad,” he told El Nuevo Herald in 2007. “Cuba is a country that no longer exists, even if I was born there.”
The roots of Alvarez Guedes’ humor are to be found in a Cuban music hall tradition known as teatro bufo, where ethnic types drawn from the Havana barrios acted out comedy skits that were creole versions of comic theater from the Spanish 16th and 17th century. According to the EnCaribe web page, Alvarez Guedes represented both el gallego—– a handlebar-moustached Spanish immigrant, whose physical appearance was that of Alvarez Guedes himself — and el negrito, a street-smart Afro-Cuban who relentlessly mocks el gallego. And his attitude is rooted in choteo, a disregard for any seriousness that Cuban intellectual life identifies as a major component of the island’s culture.
But such academic wonderings would be dismissed by Alvarez Guedes, who in his radio show on Miami’s Clasica 92.3FM would urge his listeners, in the best tradition of choteo, to tirarlo todo a relajo — make a joke of everything.
One would imagine he might not tolerate too much seriousness about his passing, but would find in it material for one last joke.
He is survived by his widow, Elsa Alvarez Guedes; daughters Elsa Alvarez and Idania Dvoran; and grandchildren Carlos Sánchez, Carolina Sánchez, Guillermo Baldoquín and Ian Allen. Funeral arrangements are pending.