The unique subculture of Cuban punk

Carmen Torre Pérez assembles an online archive to shed light on a subculture that offers an underground perspective of Cuban social history

A young mohawked man with a leather vest featuring a red anarchy symbol styles another young man's hair into a mohawk
Mohawks, tattoos, and piercings are all familiar aspects of the punk aesthetic, setting “los frikis” apart from mainstream society. Image credit: Samuel Reina Calvo, an audiovisual technician and photographer that accompanied Torre Perez during field work.

Often idealized through images of painstakingly restored Chryslers and romantic, backroom rumbas, Cuba has untold subcultures that one graduate student, Carmen Torre Pérez, is analyzing through a social history of Cuban punk.

Torre Pérez, a fourth-year graduate student in the Department of Romance Languages in the School of Arts & Sciences, has built a website as part of her dissertation process. This work is “a notable contribution to Cuban studies and the first all-encompassing examination of punk culture,” says Torre Pérez’s Ph.D. advisor, Odette Casamayor-Cisneros, associate professor of Latin American and Caribbean literatures and cultures. 

This is the first digital archive dedicated to Cuban punk, Torre Pérez says. The website includes filmed videos and interviews, as well as a band directory and map. Each band is pinpointed on the map, with a color-coding system to note its status. Clicking on the dots leads to a band description and list of band members and instruments, as well as sample tracks.

These tracks were often collected by Torre Pérez through music transfers conducted during her research. Cuban punk bands aren’t expecting to get famous or rich, she says. They just want their work out there. 

The crux of punk mentality is “by nature a rebellious and anti-establishment statement,” Torre Pérez says. Originating in Britain in the 1970s in response to both the Conservative Party and a major economic crisis, punk did not arrive in Cuba until the early 1990s. This coincides with the beginning of el Período Especial (the Special Period).

The Special Period, which emerged in Cuba in 1991, was an epoch of profound economic and ideological crisis precipitated by the dissolution of the Soviet bloc. Without foreign subsidies, Cuba struggled to support itself independently. Hunger was widespread. So was repression. 

“Punk emerges in times of great crisis as an alternative way of life, embraced by a generation that feels hopeless about their future and stuck in a present where they don’t belong,” Torre Pérez says. “This was the case in England and the U.S. in the 1970s with the collapse of the Fordist capitalist system, and in Cuba with the start of the Special Period in the early 1990s. Although these crises were in response to different economic, social, and political systems, both had a similar impact in their population, especially the younger generations. 

This project contains testimonies and songs from punk groups while following the counterculture from the 1990s to the present. During this time, Cuba saw the dissolution of the Soviet bloc and the death of Fidel Castro, in addition to a new government that made changes to the economy and impacted inequalities within Cuba, Casamayor-Cisneros says. “The most remarkable aspect of her research is not only that she’s documenting the history of Cuban punk, but she’s dissecting the sociopolitical realities. Through her research we have been able to follow how nonconformist Cubans can interact and counteract. You have to survive within a communist regime but at the same time criticize it, often under censorship.” 

The Cuban punk scene “is very nihilistic in the beginning,” Torre Pérez says. “People have very little agency in their lives. You’re against the system but have very little resources to build something new.” The result was very self-destructive, she says, citing stories of rampant drug use, or Cuban punks who purposefully injected themselves with HIV in order to avoid military service. 

A metal barricade separates the crowd from a guitarist, bassist, drummer, and singer
Punk concerts can be subject to government scrutiny. Lyrics can be censored and events shut down. Here, the band Limalla plays a concert in February 2020 in Santa Clara, Cuba. (Image: Samuel Reina Calvo.)

Los frikis, or punks, were against the system, Torre Pérez says, and “wore long hair, mohawks as a way of protecting their identity.” One band member she interviewed said, “Punk is revolutionary. Not communist!” 

Punks are always “social misfits,” Torre Pérez says, but “in Cuba it was more extreme because the government was against these people, who were considered a threat to social norms.” Profiling was the norm, she says, and police could charge people preemptively or send them to jail because of drugs or alcohol use. “The police would beat you up from just having ripped jeans,” she says. 

The punk aesthetic continued both because of and in spite of this repression, Torre Pérez says, referencing Rewelta Anarkizta, a young Havana band whose members consciously chose piercings and homemade tattoos “to prove that this is their lifestyle,” she says. “Those things, they cannot take them off.

“Punk emerges as a symptom that the socialist project of the revolution has failed,” Torre Pérez says. “Cuba lost its most powerful ally and had to implement capitalist policies, including privatized companies, tourism, and people sending American dollars to family members.” 

This created huge inequalities and the reemergence of racial divides, she says. “Punk exposes this because it’s this group of low-class citizens being oppressed by the state and showing that they’re not happy.” In her dissertation, Torre Pérez will use ethnographic research and punk lyrics to analyze Cuban punk as “an alternative gateway to Cuban history.”

“Even though she’s working on Cuban punk, through Torre Pérez’s analysis we can compare the punk movement to expressions in other socialist and former socialist countries and look at how underground culture plays a role within Latin America dictatorial systems,” Casamayor-Cisneros says. “By using Cuba, she is able to trace the context as well as address Cuban particularities.”

These particularities have evolved and changed during the last 10 years, Torre Pérez says. “People abandoned their nihilistic behavior,” she says. “There are more positives instead of, ‘Yeah, I’m an antisocial person and I will die this way because there’s no future for me.’” 

There are still issues with racism, sexism, and homophobia within Cuban punk, Torre Perez says. “The flaws in the scene also expose major flaws in the system.” 

Woman in shorts and a tank top sits with her arm across an iron bench
Yoselin, of Limalla and Kostra, is one of the few female punk musicians, Torre Perez says. Many others adopt the aesthetic as wives or girlfriends. (Image: Samuel Reina Calvo)

Yoselin, who since 2001 has managed the punk band Limalla in which her husband, Yosmani (known as “Kabeza”), plays, is one of the few female punks. Since the summer of 2019, Yoselin has been working on a new, female-led project called Kostra. She originally wanted to name the band EnKontra (against) but changed it to Kostra out of fear that the government would exclude them from concerts, which can be shut down on a whim, Torre Pérez says.

Like many others, Yoselin has a borderline existence, selling baked goods or carnival masks on the street while receiving her state-sponsored ration. “No one lives off punk,” Torre Pérez says. “No one lives off their state job either; they always need to find something else.”

During the last few years in Cuba, there have been more frequent brownouts, not enough oil for buses, and certain foods that were difficult to obtain, like oil and chicken, Torre Pérez says. “There’s concern that it might be the start of a new special period.” 

This may be one of the reasons that punk, which is on the decline in Spain, still has a vibrant scene in Cuba. Cuban punks range in age from 16 to 60, Torre Pérez says, while in her home region of Cantabria, Spain, “the punk scene is aging out. I’m among the youngest people interested in punk, and I’m 31,” she says. 

Torre Pérez came by her interest honestly. “My parents were involved in the underground scene in Spain. My father was in a metal band and owned a metal bar, so I always saw it at home,” she says. “When I was 14, I was trying to be a normal kid and avoid punk altogether,” she says. Her rebellion was short-lived.  

Torre Pérez’s research was supported by Penn grants and initiatives, including the Price Lab for Digital Humanities, a GAPSA-Provost Fellowship for Interdisciplinary Innovation, a CSERI graduate research grant, and a Latin American and Latino Studies Field Research Grant

In 2019, she also received a Dean's Award for Distinguished Teaching by Graduate Students.