My Cuba

Luis Silva: Being Panfilo

Luis Silva satirises everyday life in Cuba through his popular comic persona – an old man called Panfilo.

Luis Silva, 37, spends much of his time in character as Panfilo Epifanio, a 78-year-old man.

Panfilo is the protagonist of Vivir del Cuento, which roughly translates as “surviving by your wits”, a sitcom regularly voted the most popular programme on state-operated Cuban television for its humorous take on the struggles of life in Cuba.

Even President Barack Obama wanted to meet Silva’s much-loved Panfilo; they filmed a sketch together in Havana during Obama’s historic visit to Cuba in March.

Cuban audiences tune in each week to watch Panfilo’s skits about the changes and realities of daily life in the country.

A Cuban can be up against the wall, on his last breath with a rope around his neck and he’ll be able to laugh, turn it into a joke.

by Luis Silva, comedian

“Will this character make people laugh? Maybe he’ll make them cry, because the issues he raises can really make you cry,” says Silva about his character’s social criticism.

“I try to give Panfilo small misfortunes, ups and downs, constant problems with bread, with the ration book, with groceries, with potholes. I try to approach it in a funny way, in a way that you can say, he is bringing this issue to light,” Silva says.

“We Cubans laugh at our problems.”

A former mathematics professor at the University of Havana, Silva now performs stand-up routines nearly every night at local nightclubs.

The stage name, Panfilo, comes the word “pan”,  or bread, and grew out of jokes with friends about the poor state of the daily bread Cubans receive with their ration books. 

In a country in which celebrity endorsement is a still nascent concept, Silva’s brother is launching a line of Don Panfilo peanut bars, while his mother makes meringues under the same brand.

From his nightclub performances to his home, from the everyday locations where he films skits for Vivir del Cuento, to the baseball pitch where he plays with a team of comedians- “frustrated baseball players”, he explains, who happen to have found success in theatre – Silva takes us into his dual world to show us how Panfilo pushes the envelope to critique Cuban society – one joke at a time. 

See more from Al Jazeera English’s My Cuba series here