Woman Watchmaker, Yes, Why Not / Ileana Álvarez

Maria del Carmen, a woman watchmaker. Photography by Yaudel Estenoz

Alas Tensas/Tremenda Notas, Ileana Alvarez, 6 April 2018 — Fixing something in Cuba is difficult. You know you can’t throw anything away because tomorrow you may need it. As the days pass you are filling your room or drawers with these castoffs. Until the moment comes when need impels you to try to fix what is broken, even if it takes you all day.

Libertad Street is one of the main roads in the city of Ciego de Ávila, and there is a sign: “Watchmaker,” with the word in the feminine form. Yes, relojera, ending in “A” not relojero ending in “O,” as the people you ask for directions will tell you.

Six women are waiting in line: most of the customers are women. Maria del Carmen, the owner of the watch repair business, is the one who fixes the watches, the eyeglasses, the shoes… and perhaps it is also that men don’t trust women very much when they perform trades traditionally seen as men’s.

Maria del Carmen has a deep voice and large hands. While she works classical music plays in the background. She is one of the more than 150,000 self-employed women in Cuba. According to the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), one out of three self-employed people in Cuba are women, although it is estimated, in the absence of official data, that few are the owners of the businesses they run.

Maria del Carmen, now past 50, has been a watchmaker for less than three years, since her cousin Idalia taught her the business. She entered this world with her cousin and liked it so much that she believes she has far exceeded her teacher: “My teacher was Idalia, and I already have more customers than she does.”

It is not common to be a female watchmaker. It is not a tradition. Many people here tell you that it is strange, that they always ask her when the watchmaker will arrive. María del Carmen loves her job: “I’m passionate.” She gets enough to survive day-to-day, not much, but enough for her daily needs.

The problem is the lack of certainty, the scarcity of the raw materials is a great hindrance. She has to look for the parts, find a supplier, someone who travels and brings back what she needs, because in Cuba there is often no place to buy these things. This is a major inconvenience and costs her a lot of time.

Although, given the quality of service she provides, it seems that, at least until now, there is no shortage of customers. She works until 1:00 in the afternoon and says, “Sometimes when it’s quitting time I have to tell those waiting to come back tomorrow because I have to close.”

She is not teaching any other women. So far there isn’t anyone. “My descendants were my niece, and she left the country, like so many others. I would love to teach other women.”

And the taxes? “I am in the simplified regime, that is, the one where you do not have to pay ten percent.” She does not pay social security because she also works with the State as a consultant to ANEC [National Association of Economists and Accountants of Cuba], where she has a salary and provides services in economic consulting. She has a degree in Accounting and Finance, and also one in Chemistry. She learned the watchmaking trade separately.

There is a cheerful atmosphere at the watchmakers. (Yaudel Estenoz)

She would like to see more women performing jobs dominated by men. “Of course! Why not! To defend our gender, they already criticize us so much, and so they see that we capable of doing anything.”

Supposedly there is no discrimination, but indeed there is, and what there is, “I have suffered first hand.” To think that a woman can’t be a good watchmaker is also discrimination, in fact a great discrimination, because there are good female watchmakers, including some who are better than many men.

Maria has been told that she is one of these. You can see how women practice this profession with great care. Women’s ability to do the work with great patience, and to put so much love into it, is a great help in performing as watchmakers.

“We pay attention to details. We think long term. Look at these two watches that are ready now, but this on here isn’t fixed, it got damp and the whole mechanism is rusted. In any event, we don’t throw it away. You know, we can’t throw anything away. Also, it is very beautiful and perhaps we can fix it with the workings of another watch that isn’t as beautiful.”