I visited Havana, Cuba in April 2014 as part of a people-to-people tour, sponsored by KJAZZ, the music station that broadcasts from California State University, Long Beach. Travel to Cuba from the United States is possible due to a federal government licensing program known as people-to-people travel. A number of companies who have obtained this license conduct guided group tours of Havana and other parts of Cuba.
Prior to this visit, I was interviewed by an Associated Press journalist living in Havana who was researching information about twins and twin births. The article he was planning concerned an area in the western part of the city that has come to be called ‘The Street of Twins’. A total of 12 twin pairs and their families live in this two-block neighborhood. The journalist wondered if this number of twins was unusually high, given that only 224 residents lived there. I told him that it was, based on the current Western twinning rate of 1/30 births. Also prior to my visit, I recalled reading an informative article describing the Cuban Twin Registry (CTR) in the special 2012 registry issue of Twin Research and Human Genetics. The large size of the registry and the considerable amount of twin data available are impressive.
When I was in Havana, I was fortunate to have met informally with Dr Beatriz Marcheco-Teruel who established and directs the registry. I invited her to provide an update on the CTR, which appears below. I was also able to meet three of the twin pairs who live on the famous street, as well as their parents. I also took part in an unplanned meeting with parents of identical twin sons who live in an unusual neighborhood outside the main part of Havana.
According to journalist Andrea Rodriguez (Reference Rodriguez2013), the 12 twin pairs include 10 MZ sets and 2 DZ sets. The twins are as young as 6 and as old as 65 years of age. None of the mothers had taken fertility treatments. The families are naturally quite curious as to why a concentration of multiple births occurs in their small area. One of the fathers claimed that there are more than 40 twin pairs living in the 600 square meters surrounding their two streets, but that has not been confirmed.
Some Cuban people believe that honey from the guira, the green fruit of the Siguaroya tree, is responsible for fertility in general, and multiple births, in particular. This particular: A Siguaroya tree stands in the yard of one of the young twin pairs, Karla and Kamila, whom I met. Their mother Sureya does not believe this story, but noted that there are many twins in her family, and that her own mother miscarried a pair. Interestingly, most of the twins that have drawn so much attention are MZ, the type of twinning that is not commonly linked to genetic factors. However, it is possible that a subset of MZ twinning has a genetic component. Evidence to support this idea was discussed by Dr. Bruno Reversade at the 2012 International Society of Twin Studies Congress, held in Florence, Italy (see Segal, Reference Segal2012 for a summary of highlights from that meeting).
In addition to Karla and Kamila, I met young MZ twins Ashley and Ashlen and their mother Tamara. Tamara was originally left-handed, but her handedness was switched as a young child. An association between parental left-handedness and twinning has been reported (Boklage, Reference Boklage1981). I was also introduced to young DZ twin boys, Arian and Adrian, and their parents, Alma Lidia and Ramon. Photos of the twins are shown in Figures 1 and 2.
FIGURE 1 Two sets of MZ female twins living on the ‘Street of Twins’ in Hanava, Cuba. Photo credit: Nancy L. Segal.
FIGURE 2 A set of DZ male twins living on the ‘Street of Twins’ in Havana, Cuba. Photo credit: Nancy L. Segal.
Everyone had gathered at the home of Karla and Kamila and seemed to know one another well. Ramon commented that families with twins share a special connection with one another, and that was apparent. This is a quality I have observed among multiple birth families everywhere, one that most likely comes from the rearing and financial challenges these parents face. However, the twins in Havana were unique in that they were living so closely together. Unfortunately, support groups such as Mothers of Twins Clubs do not exist in Cuba.
Toward the end of my visit, our group traveled to Jaimanitas, a fishing town on the northwestern edge of Havana (Academic Arrangements Abroad, 2014). An area of this small city, known as ‘Fusterlandia’, is the site of the studio and home of the distinguished Cuban artist, José Rodriguez Fuster. Fuster has been described as the ‘Picasso of the Caribbean’ because of his extraordinary ceramic murals and domes that decorate the homes and buildings of the town. The designs differ greatly and are crafted specifically to match the tastes and preferences of the residents. Fusterlandia is a very popular tourist attraction.
While wondering the colorful streets, I noticed a wooden arch with the words, ‘Los Jimaguas’. The arch stood over a wall on which the words ‘Aiki Ju Jutsu’ were written. Below the words were two matching painted human figures with the universal ying/yang symbol where the faces should be; this symbol embodies the Chinese concept of the harmony of opposites. The figures seemed ‘twin-like’ and it turned out that they were — a local resident explained that Los Jimaguas means a woman with more than one baby in her womb. Other sources indicate that the term means identical twins. This neighborhood scene is displayed in Figure 3.
FIGURE 3 Twin-like figures on a wall next to the home of identical male twins in the ‘Fusterlandia’ neighborhood of Jaimanitas, Cuba. Photo credit: Nancy L. Segal.
Fortunately, there was an opportunity to learn more about the family who was living there. A man and woman suddenly exited the home that was adjacent to the wall and we learned that they were the parents of identical twin sons. The twins, now young adults, were at work, but we were able to see several family photos. The couple also indicated that both their sons practice martial arts, explaining to the artwork on their wall. It is of great interest to discover the ways in which twinship is depicted and celebrated almost everywhere around the world.