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Playing on the streets of Cuba

Playing on the streets of Cuba

by Ricardo Alberto Pérez

Something I still very fondly remember from my by-now distant childhood days is playing games on the street. It’s a fact that this is a Cuban characteristic and differentiates us from other places; our streets are very colorful because they are constantly being invaded by children and teens playing all kinds of games. Perhaps this is very closely linked to idiosyncrasies and traditions here in Cuba.

In some cases, what we see as we visit different neighborhoods in Havana and in provincial towns are versions of sports that are very popular all over the country. One that I am specifically referring to is baseball, which has given birth to two of the most played games on the Island’s streets: Cuatro Esquinas and Juego del Taco.

Let’s look more closely into the mystery of those Cuatro Esquinas or “four corners” that have delighted so many generations of Cubans. Generally, the game involves four players: one defending first base, another playing second base, yet another at third base and a fourth player located between second and third. The basic rule is to not bat between first and second base. Also, you walk from home plate to first base. After getting to first base, you can either run or walk—however the players agree—and when players go backwards from one base to another, they have to walk. The offense always hits the ball with a closed fist.

Cuatro Esquinas comes in different variations. I used to like the version where you use a brick. A piece of rubber of any size is put on top of it and everything supports the ball which will be hit by the player’s fist. The essence of the game is that every time the ball hits any of the edges of the sidewalk, the offense team gets a run. The playing field is drawn out with chalk and homeruns happen whenever the ball hits the wall at some determined height and three runs are added on. Even though this game is usually played by boys, sometimes girls join in. At moments this game has been so wildly popular that tournaments were organized among Havana municipalities.
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The Juego del Taco is just as popular, but it’s a competition among pairs. You draw a square on a wall to indicate the strike zone. Instead of a ball, you usually use a small wooden block or a small piece of rubber that gets hurled forcefully against the wall in an attempt to strike out the batter. The batter uses an improvised bat or any sort of stick and when he overcomes the defense in the safe zone, he gets a run. The winning team is the one that reaches the number of runs that were previously decided on.

In recent years, following the incredible boom of TV soccer broadcasting in Cuba, the popularity of both Cuatro Esquinas and Juego del Taco has somewhat waned, giving way to a condensed  version of soccer called Fútbol de Tres, also played in the street. But I think that this fad will run its course like many others before it and our beloved old street games will be back in the front ranks again.

Surely the most interesting factor about all these games is the creativity used to adapt any given game so that it can take over places that were originally designed to accommodate pedestrians and vehicular traffic. And they manage to survive at the expense of daily urban mobility. Whenever the improvised locations get reduced in size, the rules automatically get adjusted to cope with the setback.

It is also quite common to find improvised hoops on our streets for unique basketball games. And then other games such as Kimbe y Cuarta get resuscitated from time to time. This game is played with balls having different colors and designs and large groups of kids can participate. A similar game is Bailar el Trompo very often using home-made balls. It’s very interesting to see how the kids use codes and special language as part of the competitions.

But playing in the streets is definitely here to stay.
The streets of Cuba are still a grand playground.

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