Wifredo Lam was born in the town of Sagua la Grande, Cuba, in 1902. The country had only just become independent, in the aftermath of the 1898 Spanish-American War, and its complex cultural history was reflected in Lam’s own heritage. His father Enrique Lam-Yam (c.1820–1926) had emigrated from China, while his mother Ana Serafina Castilla (1862–1944) was descended from Spanish conquistadors as well as African slaves. Lam’s godmother, Ma’Antoñica Wilson, was a Santería priestess.
From an early age Lam’s family supported his desire to be an artist. He studied at the Escuela Profesional de Pintura y Escultura de San Alejandro in Havana from 1918 to 1923. After a solo exhibition in Sagua, he received a modest scholarship that allowed him to continue his studies in Madrid, at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. His early works in Spain reflect his training under the academic portraitist Fernando Álvarez de Sotomayor as well as his visits to the Prado Museum, where he encountered the works of Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Goya.