Occupations (?) You Can Find in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

recoge-todo-lo-que-se-encuentra-en-la-calle-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, Havana, 4 May 2015 — In a wide, dusty, half-paved alleyway very near an old slaughterhouse with a faded sign that reads “Socialism or Death,” lives Reinerio, a gentleman who, in addition to repairing zippers and umbrellas, also sells earthworms.

In the corner of a dark room, with a piano in need of tuning and a molting parrot who reluctantly drinks water from a soda can cut in half, sits a mountain of umbrellas, pants and handbags, all thrown into a pile, waiting to be repaired. Wearing crudely made eyeglasses, Reinerio expertly unlocks the zipper of a purse.

“Professions like mine are typical in poor countries where people have to recycle things out of necessity and extend their use beyond what would normally be possible. It seems foolish but many handbags, umbrellas and pants cannot be used once the zipper is broken or the parasol’s spring clip splits,” he explains.

He is a man who knows a little about everything. Reinerio makes a living solving people’s problems. “A few pesos here, a few there, but I take pride in repairing things that would normally be tossed in the trash,” he says while handing over half a kilogram of earthworms to some neighborhood kids.

On the streets of Republican Cuba, a legion of vendors — among them knife and scissor grinders, tamale makers, ice-cream sellers — hawked their wares with inventive sounds and cries.

In 1968 Fidel Castro outlawed informal small businesses by decree. No longer to be heard were the cries of street vendors and cobblers, who were forced to go underground.

With the collapse of communism in Russia, however, the island saw the return of old-fashioned professions which extended the lives of cigarette lighters and disposable razors.

Havana has more in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ fictional Macondo than with a modern metropolis. Daniel, who repairs cigarette lighters in the city’s Tenth of October neighborhood, explains, “A friend who lives in Costa Rica sends me compressed natural gas and flints. When a disposable lighter is empty, I make a tiny, microscopic hole in the bottom and refill it. Then it’s as good as new.”

Remberto restores plastic disposable razors. “With a special file I sharpen the edges of the razor blades. People thank me, remember that a package of these little razors costs up to 11 CUC.”

Wherever you look in the national geography, you find people whose “business” is the purchase of empty glass containers, plastic bottles, used clothing or gold jewelry, be it a piece of a chain or a single earring. Also, mattresses repairers, sellers of saints and plaster figures, or of ice cream scoops.

Jose sells bags of ice for five pesos apiece. “Almost everyone has a refrigerator and a lot of people like to buy ice to make milkshakes, fix drinks or treat an inflammation,” he notes.

Teresa, a half-blind hunched-backed old woman, supplements her meager monthly pension of $8 selling fruit popsicles for two Cuban pesos. “The children buy an incredible amount from me. In this frightful heat a popsicle is always welcome.”

Rosa, a former seamstress, collects old towels and sheets. After cutting out the most worn parts, she takes the best pieces remaining and with her old Singer machine constructs a towel or blanket. “I try to combine fabrics and colors. I don’t throw away what’s left over, I sell it to a mattress repairer who uses it as padding “.

For a while, Luisa cleaned rice at home. “She charged two Cuban pesos for every pound of rice. Now I devote myself to washing and trimming dogs, the price ranges between 50 and 100 Cuban pesos.”

But none are as popular as Magalis. Though her face was not shown, she became famous on January 9, 2009 when the online edition of Cubaencuentro published a photo of  a window in her home with a sign that read, “Fleas and ticks removed. Magalis.”

It is likely there are “lice removal experts” in all the captial’s neighborhoods if not in the rest of the country. Keep in mind that in Cuba high temperatures, a shortage of water and shampoo, and poor scalp hygiene have led to the proliferation of these insects.

Havana looks like a giant bazaar of bizarre trades. In the corners, there are carts with avocados, sweet potatoes and bananas. And everywhere, old men are selling roasted peanuts and single cigarettes.

An interest in the occult has led to an explosion in the number of Cubans adopting Santeria. Dunier quit his first year of university studies to sell animals that babaloas, or priests, use in their rituals.

In a multi-colored dress Eulalia has made a living through tarot cards. She uses them to consult with passers-by on busy Obispo Street in the old section of the city.

“People want to hear good news, that they will come into some money, that they will travel overseas or hook up with a yuma (foreigner). A glimpse into the future costs twenty pesos, or two CUC (fifty pesos) for tourists.” And with the agility of a professional poker player, she then lays out a deck of cards.

It has also become common in the capital to see middlemen known as buquenques, referred to as “travel managers” by government bureaucrats. These are guys who organize lines of people waiting for privately owned taxis. Reinaldo earns 200 pesos a day on Acosta Avenue, hawking and soliciting customers for the Viper-Vedado route.

A water shortage in many Havana neighborhoods has led to the proliferation of aguateros or water vendors. Niosber is one of them. He came to Havana six years ago, fleeing from rural poverty and a bleak future in a mountain hamlet in Santiago de Cuba.

“It’s a job I inherited. My father worked as a waterboy on the sugar plantations and now my oldest son and I are in the business of selling water,” he explains while seated  outside a convenience store.

Niosber’s tool is a primitive contraption with ball bearing wheels and two blue plastic tanks that were originally cooking oil containers but which have been recycled to carry water.

“At five in the morning I get to an old sports complex in La Vibora and hook my machine up to a spigot on the side of the building. I walk three or four kilometers every day from the building where I live. I can’t keep up with the demand,” he says.

It would be a stretch to describe those who survive by working in informal occupations, whether secretly or legally, as small business people.

It would be a stretch to describe those who survive by working in informal occupations, whether secretly or legally, as small business people.

Throughout Havana there are swarms of street musicians serenading tourists having dinner. Or guys like Reinerio who fix zippers and umbrellas. Or those who treat lice like Magalis.

Ivan Garcia

Photo: In Cuba many people live off what they find in the trash and on the street, including plastic bottles, empty soda and beer cans, or old clothing and underwear, such as this man, photographed by Juan Suarez for an article on the collection of raw materials published in Havana Times.