Being a Dandy is Now an Official Trade in Cuba / Iván García

Photo: Andry Bracey, Flickr

On the streets of Havana you can see older men dressed like dandies, which used to be seen as an eccentricity. Not anymore. It is one of the 178 activities the government has authorized for self-employment.

It is one of the most striking, but not unique. The activities also include fortune teller, and the “Havana woman,” as they have decided to call those women, almost all of the black, who in recent times can be found in the colonial areas of the city: colorfully dressed, smoking cigars, selling flowers, or giving spiritual consultations to distracted tourists.

Novelties aside, the fact is that hundreds of jobs were eliminated in Cuba after the arrival of the Castro brothers. In their place others grew up, creations of necessity.

One of them — and with this name, at least, it doesn’t appear on the list issued on September 24 — is that of debris collector. Jose, 53, unemployed, charges 100 Cuban pesos (4 dollars) for each sack of bricks, stones, pipes, pieces of wood, and leftovers from home repairs. “I put the sack on a cart and empty it in the first vacant lot I find.”

Luisa, 64, retired, works cleaning rice at home. For each pound she charges two Cuban pesos (ten cents on a dollar). “I already have an established customer base. I earn about 100 to 200 pesos a week and with that I can buy pork and food at the farmers market.”

Although not included in the official list, such work already forms a part of the native landscape. Older people sell “jabitas” (nylon bags), newspapers, single cigarettes, peanuts and homemade candy. Others, younger, prefer to refill cigarette lighters. Yes, the same ones that in other countries are thrown away.

After 1959, the wearing of suits, collars and ties went out of style in Cuba. The Mao style prevailed.

Men dressed alike, thick cotton, opaque colors and Russian boots. That’s when the tailors started their decline.

Lacking material, the dressmakers became “patchworkers.” Thanks to Rosa, 71, many neighbors can cover themselves with sheets and dry themselves with towels that are more or less decent.

As a patchwork specialist, Rosa cuts out the worn parts of a sheet or towel and on her old Singer sewing machine, joins them with pieces in better condition. “I don’t trash the worn out bits, I throw them in a box and give them to a relative who uses them as wadding to stuff mattresses.”

If there is a trade in high demand in Cuba in 2010 it is mattress repair. And the same for the private shoe repairers, plumbers and electricians. Although no one is as well as paid as the car mechanics, charged with keeping the ancient American cars rolling.

With or without a license, for a long time one has been able to hire clowns for children’s party, and photographers, who have become experts in photo-montages or Photoshop work for weddings, baptisms and birthdays. One of the most successful private businesses is the legion of specialists in quinceañeras — the celebrations for girls when they turn 15 — from gown rentals to the choreography and editing of the party video.

Unlike seamstresses and refillers of lighters and mattresses, this sort of trade in a luxury in a country full of shortages. Similar is everything relating to dogs, an activity that is emerging from the closet of illegality. Orlando, 39 and gay, alternates giving ladies haircuts in their homes with the attention and care of their dogs. “The little tame dogs, I bathe them and do their hair. If the owner pays me I make clothes for them. For the big fierce ones, I don’t want to know,” he says, laughing.

Those are for a braver race of men among whom we find Manuel, 43, who pocketed almost two thousand Cuban pesos (80 dollars) in a month — four times his salary — training German shepherds.

Perhaps they don’t earn as much, but the dandies are more picturesque. At least they don’t have to tramp around the city selling peanuts, cigarettes and newspapers.

October 3, 2010