How 3:10 to Yuma changed the way Cubans speak.

Language and how we use it.
Oct. 8 2007 12:21 PM

3:10 to Yuma in Cuba

How a Western changed the way Cubans speak.

(Continued from Page 1)

With Wade's vicious gang at his heels, Evans quickly loses the support of his neighbors—who scurry for cover at the first sign of trouble—as well as his wife, who pleads with him to be sensible and let Wade escape. But Evans turns resolute, and his trek to Yuma becomes a fight for personal honor. "The town drunk gave his life because he believed that people should be able to live in decency and peace together," Evans tells his wife. "Do you think I can do less?" It's not hard to see how Cuban viewers, faced with their own dilemmas of whether to stay or to go—to make their peace with the compromises of life under communism, or to risk everything in leaving for the United States—would read fresh meaning into Evans' principled stand.

With 3:10's return to Cuban theaters, yumasuddenly sprung back into daily usage, and it came loaded with all the implications that a journey north entailed. Legend has it that in 1980, when a desperate Havana bus driver crashed through the gates of the Peruvian Embassy seeking asylum—subsequently sparking the Mariel boatlift that saw over 125,000 Cubans migrate to Miami—his anguished cry was, "I want to go to La Yuma!"

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These days Havana's movie theaters are still filled with crowds for the latest Hollywood blockbusters, all projected off imported DVDs with little regard for the U.S. trade embargo. Accordingly, when the remade James Mangold-helmed 3:10 to Yuma arrives there (if precedent is any guide, it'll be the week after the DVD appears in Miami shops), expect younger Cubans—most of whom have continued using yuma even if they're unclear where the word originated—to ponder the term's implications anew.

For his part, Leonard says he's amazed at the legs his 1953 short story has taken on. During a phone interview, he told me he'd just recently become aware of his historic role in shaping Cuba's slang. He'd settled upon the title Three-Ten to Yuma simply because Yuma was the most notorious prison back in the days of the Old West. Then a struggling writer, he received a whopping $90 for the story from Dime Western magazine (their two-cents-a-word rate was on the high end for pulp fiction), $4,000 for the 1957 screen rights, and the promise of another $2,000 if the picture was ever remade. As for the new 3:10 to Yuma's success, he quipped, "My agent is working on getting me that two grand."

Still, Leonard does intend to return Cuba's linguistic tip of the hat. In his next book, he'll bring back from an earlier novel a Cuban character who left the island in the Mariel boatlift. Speaking over the phone from his Detroit home, Leonard assumed the voice of this Marielito and read me a line from his new manuscript: "When Fidel opened the prisons and sent all the bad dudes to La Yuma for their vacation … "

Thanks to Erik Camayd-Freixas and John Jensen of Florida International University, Tony Kapcia of the University of Nottingham and the University of Havana, Elmore Leonard, Tom Miller of the University of Arizona, Lionel Ruiz Miyares of Cuba's Center of Applied Linguistics, Alejandro Ríos of Miami-Dade College's Cuban Cinema Series, Richard Slotkin of Wesleyan University, and Beatriz Varela of the University of New Orleans.

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