Why Cubans Have Such Unusual Names

Dayron. Yampier. Yankiel. Yordenis. Yulieski. Eglis. Idel. These are just some of the stranger given names to be found among the 149 athletes representing Cuba at this year's Summer Olympics in Beijing, and they spotlight a quirky custom practiced by many of the island's 11 million inhabitants: a penchant for giving newborns unusual, custom-made monikers, many of them beginning with the 25th letter of the English alphabet.

This trend goes back years. Among the gold-medal-winning pugilists of Cuba's illustrious Olympic past are heavyweight Odlanier Solís, flyweight Yuriorkis Gamboa and light flyweight Yan Barthelemy. And the phenomenon goes beyond athletics. The island's best-known antigovernment blogger is a 32-year-old philologist named Yoani Sánchez, and the parents of the once famous shipwrecked boy Elián González came up with his handle by fusing their own (Elisabeth and Juan).

Why is this? 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)

The trend is not confined to Cuba within Latin America. Female weight lifter Yudelkis Contreras is one of 23 athletes representing the Dominican Republic in Beijing. And Venezuela's female softball team will include Yaicel Sojo and Yurubi Alicart. But no country in the region comes close to Cuba in the weird-name contest, a fact of life that has bedeviled some of the island's leading sports chroniclers. The legendary Cuban sportswriter and broadcaster Eddy Martín once claimed to have counted 400 baseball players whose given names began with the penultimate letter of the alphabet. "Yuniel, Ynieski, Yulieski, Yolexis, Yusian, Yoanni, Yumiel, Yadel, Yoneiki, Yunior, Yusded, Yinier, Yusnel," a weary Martín once told an interviewer. During live broadcasts he was sometimes known to set the stage for the next batter by muttering "And now to the plate comes another impossible name." Martín died in 2004, but he'd likely be grumbling still today, given the names of the Cuban delegation at this year's Olympics—though at least for onomastic innovation, the Cubans would certainly bring home the gold.