The origin of ropa vieja is from the Canary Islands (Spain), which were the last place ships from Spain would stop on the way to the Americas. They were also the first place that Spanish ships coming from the Americas would stop en route back to Spain. Due to this, Canarian culture is very similar to the Caribbean as well as Spain. The Canarian Spanish dialect of Spanish spoken there is very similar to the Caribbean and sounds extremely close to the Cuban dialect, due to heavy and continuous immigration to the Caribbean, especially Cuba. This is how ropa vieja arrived in the Caribbean; with the Canarian immigrants. The original version of Ropa Vieja contained leftovers, but later became a shredded meat dish with garbanzo beans and potatoes in the Canary Islands.
Some versions in the Canary Islands contain beef or chicken or pork, or a combination of any of the three. Ropa vieja is widely prepared in the Caribbean today also. International travelers or internet surfers should not be surprised to see "ropa vieja" listed among traditional Panamanian cuisine as well as Cuban cuisine, Dominican cuisine. The dish is a national feature of Cuba, and does not have garbanzo beans or potatoes in Cuba; it is just the shredded meat in sauce. This shredded meat in sauce version is prepared in Venezuela and is called carne mechada. This is a part of the Venezuelan national dish, pabellon criollo, which includes the carne mechada, carotas negras (black beans), platano maduro frito (fried plantains), arroz blanco, (white rice), and sometimes arepitas (small arepas).
There are many theories as to how the dish was named. One of the more popular ones is a story about a man whose family was coming to his home for dinner. Being very poor, the man could not buy them enough food when they came. To remedy his situation, he went to his closet, gathered some old clothes (ropa vieja en español) and imbibed them with his love. When he cooked the clothes, his love for his family turned them into a wonderful beef stew. This story is Canarian Folklore and is one of the more popular stories for how the dish is named.