Wifredo Lam was born in Sagua la Grande, a small Cuban town, in 1902. He was of mixed ancestry: his father was Chinese and his mother was of African, Spanish and Native-Cuban descent. He showed some artistic talent as a young man so when he went to Havana to study law, he also learned painting at the Academy of San Alejandro. In 1923, he went to Madrid in order to further his artist studies. There he married Eva Piriz in 1929 but both she and their young son died in 1931 of Tuberculosis. He was in Madrid during the Spanish civil war in which he sided with the Republic.
In 1937, he went to Paris and became close friends with Pablo Picasso. It was through Picasso that he met many of the leading artists in Paris at the time. With the threat of German invasion in World War II, he left Paris in 1940 and went to Marseille. There, through Varian Fry he became friends with André Breton and formed close ties with the Surrealist movement. In 1941, he returned to Cuba and stayed there until 1946. He then lived in various places including Paris, New York and Havana. He married Helena Holzer in 1944. They were divorced in 1950. In 1960, he married Lou Laurin with whom he had three children.