Miami History

A History of the Guayabera Shirt You Likely Never Heard About

Guayabera shirt

You never know what you'll find in the pockets of someone's guayabera shirt. With its four pockets, the shirt can carry everything from lottery tickets to business cards, cell phones to handwritten phone numbers, pocket change to a favorite brand of cigar. 

The guayabera blends practicality with panache.

Called "The suit of the Tropics," the jacket-like shirt shows up at formal occasions such as weddings, funerals, and civic ceremonies, but it also fits right in at the cigar lounge or at a domino game with friends. Traditionally made of linen and never tucked in, the roomy top keeps the wearer "cool" in more ways than one. Common features include thin columns of pleats on the front of the shirt and buttons sewn on the triangular details atop its pockets.

The guayabera has longtime significance as a cultural, ethnonational and political symbol, too. The City of Miami created "Guayabera Day" (July 1) in 1979. President Ronald Reagan wore a guayabera shirt when he visited Miami in 1983. And in 2010, Fidel Castro made the guayabera the official shirt of Cuba, requiring all government officials to wear it. 

Known as the chacabana in some Latin American countries, the guayabera is also very popular in the Philippines, the Canary Islands, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Central and South America. Latin Americans and U.S. Hispanics/Latinx flaunt the shirt as evidence of their cultural pride and ethnonational identity. 

What are the stories that people tell about the history of this popular shirt?

Inventing the Image of the Guajiro: Guayabera Origin Legends

In one legend (with many variations), the shirt was invented in around 1896 by the wife of a Cuban farmer. She wanted to make the shirts of her husband more useful for carrying the guavas he had to pick in the fields. In this version, the name of the shirt comes from guayaba, the word for "guava" in Spanish. 

Another Cuban legend describes the shirt as the invention of a Spanish immigrant tailor or seamstress who lived in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba, and who used it to hold the "smoke of the day" as well as other small tools. According to this version, the word “guayabera” comes from the word yayabero, a nickname for people living near the Yayabo River in Sancti Spiritus.

While no one is exactly sure where and how the shirt was "invented," historical evidence points to Cuba and its last war for independence (1895 to 1898), as mentioned in a 2019 HistoryMiami exhibit, "The Guayabera: A Shirt’s Story." Most historians agree that no one person "invented" the guayabera but that it evolved and changed over time.

The Spanish may have brought to Cuba (and other parts of the Caribbean) Chinese jackets obtained in the Philippines, a colony of the Spanish Crown from 1521 to 1898. Yet in the Caribbean, the shirts were linen--not silk, and white.

Photos and paintings of Cuban soldiers in the Liberation Army (fighting the Spanish) show many of the Mambises (as they were called) wearing long-sleeved (and in some cases four- pocketed) white linen jackets with narrow sleeves (looking a lot like guayaberas) over their pants, with belts for holstering machetes or guns strapped around their waists or across their chests. 

Most of these fighters were of African descent, as Cuban plantation owners in eastern Cuba had liberated enslaved blacks to fight against the Spanish, and many free blacks joined the forces, too, inspired by the heroic black general Antonio Maceo. One of the key features of the guayabera shirt are slits on the sides, making it easy to grab a wallet or--as tour guides like to explain--a machete, one of the primary weapons used by the Liberation soldiers.

Mambises guayabera 990x600 - A History of the Guayabera Shirt You Likely Never Heard About
Mambises (Cuban Independence War soldiers), on horses in front of a dwelling, wearing shirts resembling guayaberas. From the University of Miami Cuban Heritage Collection.

Keep in mind that Afro-Cubans dominated the jobs of tailor and seamstress during and after Cuba's decades-long struggle for independence; Chinese immigrants (arriving in Cuba as early as 1837) were also known for their sewing skills. Afro-Cuban tailors who served in the war made clothes for their comrades and taught these skills to others, as one rebel recalled (mentioned in Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886-1912, by historian Aline Helg). It's quite possible that the earliest guayaberas were primarily crafted by Afro-Cubans and Chinese Cubans who never received credit for their contributions to the shirt's design and construction.

In contrast, most tour guides tell legends about the guayabera that conjure an image of its wearers (and "inventors") as rural white and/or Spanish immigrant guajiros (farmers or rural men) picking guava fruits or smoking cigars.

In 1902, after U.S. Occupation of the new Cuban republic, the Cuban government enacted laws to prohibit the migration of black immigrants, while investing more than a million dollars to entice Spaniards and other European immigrants to move to the island. The idea behind this political blanqueamiento (whitening) was to whiten the nation (and the voting population).

In the 1920s, Cuban intellectual and politician Ramiro Guerra popularized the image of the white Cuban colono (an upper-class rural man) wearing his guayabera shirt, sitting astride his magnificent horse, and attending cockfights -- a kind of image romanticized in murals and paintings of the guajiro found in Little Havana's souvenir shops and galleries to this day.

Although many free men of color lived and ran farms in Cuba's countryside, the stereotype of the fair-skinned, guayabera-wearing guajiro continues to reemerge in stories about the guayabera's origins, erasing the presence and history of free black Cuban farmers (black guajiros), Afro-Cuban patriots, and Chinese and Lebanese immigrants.

The Lebanese Immigrant Who Helped Make the Guayabera Famous

In "La Guayabera en Cuba," a 1954 brochure, Pedro Carballo Bernal says his father--Said (Eugenio) Selman Hussein--popularized Cuba's guayabera with his innovative, custom-made styles. His father was a Lebanese immigrant, born in Habbuch, in southern Lebanon and arriving in Cuba in 1914. Between 1860 and 1920, many Arabs were migrating to Cuba to escape turmoil in the Ottoman empire, most of them Christians from what are now Lebanon, Palestine and Syria.

Hussein lived and set up shop in Cardenás and later Santa Clara (where he founded the Lebanese Society of Santa Clara). By the 1940s, he had earned a loyal following at his tailor's shop in Cárdenas. Clients nicknamed him "the king of the guayaberas" or "the Moor of Cárdenas." Well-known figures from across Cuba--and around the world--visited his shop to choose from 12 varieties of elegant guayaberas he had designed. 

Hussein invented and combined seven types of pockets, added sport and dress collars (and 23 mother-of-pearl buttons), and offered his shirts with long or short sleeves. He eliminated pieces of fabric sewn onto the shirt, instead making changes to the fabric itself. Behind the scenes, the person making most of these guayaberas was his daughter, Inés, however. Perhaps she was the true innovator!

By 1950, the famous Havana department store, El Encanto, hired Hussein to make their shirts, and celebrities from radio, television and film purchased his famous guayaberas. Hussein decided to return to his former shop in Cardenas in 1952, however, recovering all of his clients within a year.

Tailors and seamstresses of many racial, ethnic, and national backgrounds likely added features that are now popular in today's guayaberas, but the common myths about the shirt imply otherwise. Consider pulling these lesser-known stories out of the pocket of your guayabera shirt and sharing them with a friend...or a stranger.

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