Guayabera Shirts and Bandits: Fashion Choice for ‘Cuban Robin Hood’
Donning a guayabera shirt may bring back memories of their heyday in 1970s America, but their history is actually much richer than that. It’s also a bit more dangerous. Guayabera shirts were a must-have staple for bandits in 17th century Cuba, especially for the notorious Manuel Garcia.
Manuel Garcia: King of Cuba’s Countryside
The son of Spanish immigrants, Manuel Garcia was born into poverty in Cuba 1851. But as the book “El rey de los campos de Cuba” reports, he rose to heights great enough to proclaim himself the “King of Cuba’s Countryside” Quite a king he was indeed, reigning over the sparsely populated country with a mission that left him revered or reviled, depending on whom was asked.
Even The New York Times called him “amiable,” while many others loved him, either openly or secretly, throughout his mother country. The love came from Garcia’s penchant for stealing from the rich and giving to the poor in the manner of a kind of Latin Robin Hood. He was also known to give money to the cause of Cuban independence, to free the small land from the big yoke of Spain.
While his theory of stealing from the rich to give to those in need may have been amiable, his methods of doing so were often not. Kidnapping was high on his list, with the The Pittsburg Press outlining one of his more lucrative victims. Antonio Fernandez de Castro, owner of a huge Cuban estate, eventually netted Garcia a $20,000 ransom in gold.
The Press reported that some said “Garcia was a humane man, and treated his captives with distinguished courtesy,” although reports from actual captives said otherwise. Many captives never made it out alive, due to Garcia’s habit of killing victims whose ransom demands were not met. The Press said these killings should prove he was “a brutal and cold-blooded murderer.”
Cruel as they may have been, Garcia’s actions mirrored those common in the cold and brutal Cuba of the times. Armed groups of bandits ran rampant, abducting people, stealing cattle and engaging in a slew of other illegal activities. “A Cuban Bandit’s Audacity,” a Times headline shouted, “Manuel Garcia does about as he pleases.”
Garcia enjoyed at least a 20-year run as Cuba’s top bandit, an “astonishingly successful career” The Press said. But as all things come to an end, Garcia was finally reported killed in the March 8, 1895, edition of The Press. He was reportedly slain by a band of soldiers that had been hunting him for at least four months, propelled onward by the government’s $10,000 price tag attached to Garcia’s head.
A Final Fashion Statement
While it was not reported if Garcia was wearing a guayabera shirt when he was ultimately tracked down and killed, an excerpt from the book “Los bandidos de Cuba” notes the shirt did show up as a final fashion statement on at least one occasion. Public hanging was the norm in the late 1800s, especially for people such as bandits, and many met their fate that way.
One of the main bandits is depicted as being hung while outfitted in the traditional garb of his sort. He wore dark linen pants, black shoes, a Panama hat, and the must-have bandit fashion statement of the day: a guayabera shirt.
So the next time you put on your guayabera shirt, keep in mind you are putting on a piece of history that stretches deep enough into the past to connect with the so-called Latin Robin Hood.
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