I had always thought of Spain as so far away and distinct from the Caribbean. I could close my eyes and still know that I was walking along those narrow, winding Madrid streets when I heard those constant “thetheo” and harsh jota sounds. But then when I went to the Canary Islands, the way the people around me spoke made me feel like I was back stateside in Miami or New York. It made me second guess whether I was actually in Spain. Although they’re 3,000 miles away, the Caribbean and Canaries have more cultural, linguistic, and gastronomic similarities than you might think. Here’s what I discovered.
Caribeño o Canario?
While setters from all over Spain moved to the Caribbean Islands in the colonial era, many Caribbean settlers were specifically canarios. Starting in the late 1600s and surging in the economic crisis of the 19th century, many scholars believe the Canaries accounted for the majority of Spanish immigrants to Puerto Rico. While still a whopping 3,000 miles away from the Caribbean, the Canaries served as a logical stopping point for ships to refuel before establishing settlements farther west. No surprise then why canarios might look and sound more like caribeños than their northern compatriots in Madrid.
Did I hear that right?
The day I headed into La Palma—the capital of the most densely populated of the Canary Islands, Gran Canaria—I had to stop for a second and do a google search. I couldn’t believe the sign I saw before my eyes: Estación de guaguas. Along with words like wepa or vaina, I would say guagua is as much at the core of Caribbean Spanish as you can get. While there is some controversy over the origin of the word, many believe that it actually originated in Cuba, and came back to the Canaries with waves of reverse migration in the twentieth century. The Canaries’ accent drops the signature Spanish jota and ceceo, with its own unique vocabulary that is seen reflected in the Caribbean dialect.
A Caribbean Foodie’s Paradise
I’m all for the signature Spanish bocadillo, but more often than not you will end up with a single slice of jamón ibérico on a white fluffy baguette that will leave you wanting to order another copa — the bar’s trick to getting you to hand over more of those euros. But in the Canaries, you’ll find food options similar to what you might find in the Caribbean, and quite distinct from the rest of Spain. You might even find my fave Puerto Rican comfort food—ropa vieja—all the way in España!
The super grain gofio is something canarios brought with them as they first migrated to the Caribbean and is still popular in both places. When you see its enriching vitamins and minerals, you might want to think twice before resigning yourself to order another ham sandwich at tapas time. And it’s enjoyed in lots of different forms from Punta Cana to Las Palmas.
Gofio can be a bit dry, which is what mojo is for! You might better recognize this as your favorite dipping sauce for fried plantains, but in the Canaries it’s a staple often used to spice up different kinds of gofio. And on the Spanish side of the ocean, you can look forward to many more variants of this delectable garlic sauce. Quite a far cry from Madrid, where you can find yourself in a crisis if you’re looking for any kind of flavorful and spicy sauce.
Things get really interesting with sancocho—while this food is popular both in the Caribbean and the Canaries, the dish itself is totally different in both places. In the Canaries, it’s a salted fish dish served with sweet potatoes as well as gofio and mojo. On the Caribbean side, you might recognize this as your favorite meat stew that you might rely on after a crippling hangover.
So don’t wait—investigate for yourself. The more obvious similarities on these islands speak for themselves… think #beach, #cocktails, #music, and #fiesta. Just another reason why if you’re looking for a slight deviation to that Puerto Rican beach vacay, you might want to try out a trip the Mediterranean next time. The Canaries will make you feel like you’re in a world that’s not quite Spanish, yet not quite Caribbean either.