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.

3:10 to Yuma

For most American fans of classic Western cinema, Delmer Davies' 3:10 to Yuma (1957) is simply a cult favorite, one recently rescued from obscurity by the $55 million remake that is packing multiplexes from coast to coast. In Cuba, however, the original 3:10 to Yuma has had a major impact on everyday conversation. Take a walk down any of Havana's main thoroughfares and you'll hear American visitors hailed as yumas, while the United States itself is affectionately dubbed La Yuma. You won't find those phrases in any state-issued dictionary, and Cuban leader Fidel Castro stubbornly opts for the more derisive yanqui in his own public speeches, but outside of bureaucratic circles it's yuma that holds sway.

How on earth did this happen?

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During the late 1950s, American-owned "United" firms such as the United Fruit Company maintained high-profile holdings in Cuba. Since the word united doesn't exactly roll off the tongue in Spanish, Cubans adopted the moniker La Yunay. Likewise, when referring to their neighbor across the Florida Straits, Cubans sometimes opted for a Spanglish version of United StatesYunay Estey—rather than the formal Estados Unidos. When the original 3:10 to Yuma hit Cuban cinemas, it inspired a spin on the already extant yunay, and the new slang term quickly took off.

Yuma held a prominent place in the popular lexicon until shortly after the 1959 revolution, but then it hit a rough patch. As tensions with the U.S. government built to a boil, American pop culture came to be seen by Castro as just another weapon in Uncle Sam's arsenal. Westerns received a particularly harsh drubbing from el presidente: With their often less-than-enlightened portrayal of Native Americans, and genre standard-bearer John Wayne's staunch public support of the U.S. troops in Vietnam, these films were dismissed as imperialism writ large—10-gallon cowboy hats and all. The Cuban government, which controlled (and indeed still controls) all film distribution on the island, eventually pulled most American movies from theaters. And with Communist officials frowning at its social implications, the word yumafell out of use.

Yet while once-beloved films like 3:10 to Yuma may have been banned, they were anything but forgotten. By the late '70s, with audiences weary of a steady diet of didactic Soviet-bloc and Western European art flicks, a powerful nostalgia had developed for classic U.S. cinema. Even new generations of Cuban hipsters, raised without ever seeing an old-school celluloid cowboy, were pining for a glimpse of the censored Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. "We were so fed up with those bad Soviet films," recalled Alejandro Ríos, then a twenty-something Havana movie critic, now a scholar in Miami. "And they weren't the worst of it! You haven't experienced boredom until you've tried to sit through a North Korean film."

Fortunately, by 1978 an ideological thaw inside Cuba's national film institute, ICAIC, permitted the exhibition of once politically incorrect movies. And Westerns, that most forbidden of aesthetic fruits, became the hottest ticket of all.

ICAIC officials dug into their archives and began dusting off copies of films that had arrived before 1959 and, after the revolution, had never been returned to American distributors. 3:10 to Yuma enjoyed the biggest buzz, perhaps because its story line struck a chord with Cuban audiences. Based on a 1953 short story by crime novelist Elmore Leonard, the film is less a conventional shoot 'em-up than a tense psychological drama, focused on a beleaguered cattle rancher (Van Heflin's Dan Evans) and his effort to save his failing farm. Desperate for cash, Evans swears he'll deliver a notorious stagecoach robber (Glenn Ford's Ben Wade) to the 3:10 train bound for the federal prison in Yuma, Ariz., in exchange for a generous bounty.

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!"

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.

Brett Sokol's writing on politics and culture has appeared in the New York Times, New York magazine, and Miami Beach's Ocean Drive magazine, where he is the arts editor. You can reach him at BrettSokol@yahoo.com.