The word malecón is Spanish, meaning a breakwater or esplanade. Many Latin American cities such as Lima, Peru, Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico have them. But I suspect that when most people hear the word, especially when it is preceded by a definite article and expressed as a proper noun, they think of the one found in Havana, Cuba.
Here,“The Malecón” is the name given to the multi-lane road, walkway, and thick concrete seawall that parallel each other beginning in Havana Bay and extending about five miles along the city's waterfront to the mouth of the Almendares River. The United States began building it in 1901 during our occupation of the country, and it was finished by Cuba after it became an independent nation.
It is meant to protect the city from the Florida Straits, and on calm days it does. But when a hurricane visits the island, or a strong storm crosses the Gulf of Mexico from Texas as one did recently, the waves crash over the seawall, making the otherwise pleasant place dangerous to pedestrians and drivers, and it is closed by the police. I walk to the end of an intersecting street where I am waved away by a motorcycle officer. When I ask if I can stand in Antonio Maceo park across the street to take pictures, he literally draws a line on the ground with his boot, behind which he tells me to stay.
Although the original purpose of the Malecón was to keep land and water in their respective places, over the years its importance to the commerce of the city has grown. It is an efficient way to travel between Habana Vieja, Centro Habana, and on into the Vedado neighborhood. Cruise ships dock in the bay where it begins, and taxistas in their pink Cadillacs compete for tourists here. Vendors selling tropical drinks and TuKola, the island-produced version of Coca Cola, do a brisk business. Further on in a poorly-lit section, exotically beautiful young women and men offer less reputable services to foreigners who, by chance or design, venture here after dark.
But by day, the seawall is a place to catch fish. Along its length I see young boys and old men casting lines into the water, some using expensive-looking rods and reels while others simply throw baited hooks by hand, anchoring the free end of their lines with a convenient piece of broken concrete. Some of these pescadores (fishermen) make a living this way. I find one being supervised by his wife as he sorts a nice catch of pargo rojo, the local name for red snapper, likely destined for a local restaurant. After considering what a recent deluge had washed down the storm sewers and into the bay where some of these are caught, I decide against fish for tonight's dinner. But many feed their families this way, and are unable to be as particular as me.
One afternoon I hear the incessant honking of a car horn and turn to find a girl dressed in a fine gown, sitting atop the rear seat of a classic American convertible. She is celebrating her quinceañera, an important milestone marking the fifteenth birthday of a latina. This is one of the few times that I see Cubans riding in a car purely for pleasure. The adjoining walkway and seawall is a place where Habaneros can go to just relax and enjoy themselves. Entire families from grandparents to small children walk together. Groups of teenaged Cubanos laugh and mug for selfies with their newly-acquired smartphones. Lovers lean into one another atop the seawall and gaze out into the gulf stream. To these people, I think that providing a brief respite from the challenges of living in Cuba is the most vital function of the Malecón.