The Real History of Guava (Island)

guava island

Last Sunday, Donald Glover answered my longtime question: why was he hanging out with Rihanna in Cuba and can I come? His response–besides no, you cannot– was Guava Island, a “tropical thriller,” filmed in Cuba and initially released at Coachella on April 11th.

Guava Island details the story of a dangerous musical protest accompanied by a sweet love story. Glover plays Deni Maroon a silly, floral pattern wearing musician. Rihanna plays his love Kofi Novia so well you fall in love with her the second you hear her voice. Also, I am pretty sure the color blue exists solely for Rihanna. Just watch the movie–you’ll see. I am happy to report that on Sunday, I left my bed like a sleepy zombie just to sign into Amazon dot com and watch all of Guava Island. After 55 minutes of artfully coordinated visuals and Rihanna’s dreamy smile, I had one thought–I could really go for some guava.

Growing up in Florida, my Cuban ass got real spoiled. There, fresh guava products are a plenty. Guava pastelitos, a soft, but crispy pastry stuffed with guava that solves all problems- are never hard to find in Miami. At this point, pastelitos are among the ranks of classic Cuban desserts and are a staple at Cuban birthday parties.

While they are not impossible to find on Long Island, it is a lot harder. So, instead of scrolling through the only Cuban menu on Seamless and crying myself to sleep, I went on a guava history tour through the internet. I was curious to find out how one of my favorite fruits ended up with such a heavy significance in Cuban and Cuban-American culture.

The History of Guava Production

The seeds of the guava fruit, or guayaba in Spanish, originated in Central America and Mexico. Brought to Cuba and Florida by both your cute and friendly birds and your not-so-cute-and-friendly Spanish colonizers, guayaba began to work its way into Cuban food and culture.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the current Cuban fruit industry focuses mainly on catering to domestic consumers. In the 1990s, as the Cuban economy collapsed, tropical fruit production dropped in direct result of a decline in guava production. However, government programs that worked to promote eco-friendly farming techniques increased domestic food production in the late 1990s.

A video published by Taste of Cuba in 2004 shows the process Cuban workers go through in production factories to turn guayaba fruit into a candied paste called “matahambre.” After crushing the guayaba to smithereens, workers boil the fruit down with sugar, freeze it in huge baking sheets, and slice it up for packaging and consumption- probably by the island’s domestic consumers.

As recently as 2014, guayaba made headlines when the U.S embargo once again affected Cuba’s economy by interrupting the level of technology Cuba could acquire for its factories. Onil Beltran, a Guava farmer on the island, expressed that he does not mind selling his crop yield to the Cuban government- as it guarantees him and his workers a steady income. However, Beltran has complained in regard to the U.S embargo, explaining its removal could expose him to better technologies, and thus a higher surplus of profit.

Guava in Cuban Diasporic Culture

Guava was first brought to Florida in the mid-1800s by Col. H.V Snell. Its introduction to now United States territory matched the settling of native land by Spanish and American colonists. Entering the 20th century, the white Merrick family traveled from Massachusetts to settle in Florida where they established the Coral Gables Plantation. The site quickly became one of the most economically prosperous providers of guayaba in the United States. Guayaba production has continued steadily into 2019, depending on the severe demand of this sweet fruit from desperate Floridians- many of whom have Cuban heritage.

In Florida, the Cuban diaspora is eating guayaba in all forms as a way of connecting to Cuban culture. Cuban-American restaurants are incomplete without integrating guayaba into their menu in some form. A staple of visiting Little Havana- the city with the largest Cuban population outside of Cuba- is to stuff your face with a crispy pastelito and shoot it back with a cortadito that is way too hot for the weather, but still delicious.

Even tourists obsess over plastering lists like “Top 10 Best Cuban Pastelito Bakeries” everywhere on Celia Cruz’s website. Me? I just obsess over eating them. These pastelitos and the guayaba that fills them taste like home. They are the Miami bakeries I now miss living in New York and the island I dream to visit.

Watching Guava Island made me hungry and happy. Feeling the connection between food and culture almost surpasses my annoyance concerning how often the politics between the United States and Cuba affect my life as a Cuban-American. Learning about the history of such a delicious fruit in relation to my identity and culture was a fascinating journey. Getting to witness sneak peaks of Cuba behind Rihanna’s sassy glares didn’t exactly hurt the experience either.

Cover image via The Atlantic