Adventures for a Pair of Jeans in Cuba

By Nike

HAVANA TIMES – In the 1970s and 1980s, getting your hands on a pair of jeans in Cuba meant seeing yourself get mixed up in a spy movie with plots and twists that could leave your nerves shot and even personality disorders.

To tell you the truth, this didn’t just apply to anyone who wanted to wear a pair of blue jeans or pitusa, as we say here in Cuba. Back then, shortages of clothes promoted a shady retail network that ranged from secret houses where clothes were sold, to dark stairways and hallways in buildings where poor customers were often scammed.

A “pitusa”

It’s no easy task to explain the hoops buyers had to jump through; the elaborate tricks that scammers would prepare or the level of secrecy which those supply houses operated with. Meanwhile, the State’s supply neither satisfied the demand for blue jeans, nor were they to the taste of young people at the time, but they insisted on the absurd premise that wearing imported clothes was straying from their ideology.

At that time, the dollar had been banned and having dollars in your possession could put you behind bars for years. However, there were stores where you could only buy in dollars. They were a kind of ghost store wrapped in a mysterious mist. This mystery was real; all of these stores would cover up their windows with curtains or wooden panels to stop people from looking inside. They were known as diplotiendas or diplomercados. Almost everything that would then end up on the black market came from these stores. Any resemblance to today’s reality is pure coincidence, that’s just how things were back in my teenage years.

Out of all the clothes, pitusas or blue jeans were the garments every young person longed for. Different scam stories were embroidered on them. The most common scam was meeting somebody on the street who would offer you a pitusa under their breath. Then, you’d go to a staircase, and they’d show you one. When you paid for it, the seller would warn about the dangers of being caught by the police and would wrap up the jeans in some paper. When you got home and opened the package, you’d discover that they’d put in old clothes or rags and there was nothing you could do about it.

As I’m writing this article, my husband is telling me how there is a building in Central Havana that has an entrance on Lealtad street and another entrance on Neptuno street, and that at that time, it was common to see young people waiting for their pair of blue jeans at one of these entrances, while the seller would take off running with the money via the other exit.  There were young people waiting at both entrances. A pitusa would cost you 150 Cuban pesos.

But buying them didn’t always end in a scam. A friend of mine at the time had bought a pitusa on the street and they fit him so well that he never wanted to take them off, not even to sleep. One day, the jeans went with him to the coast, and he folded them and placed them between piles of his friends’ clothes. When he got out of the water, the jeans were no longer there. A few days later, he went to a movie theater in Old Havana and ran into a young man from our neighborhood who had the nickname “Tony the bandit”, who was wearing my friend’s jeans. My friend immediately called out to a policeman. That’s how he got his pitusa back.

As my friend saw that it was his jeans, it’s a mystery that could well fit in an episode of “The X Files”. I see it as the degree of the relationship a pitusa can have with its owner.

In 1980, my mother and I went with my brother to a house in Vedado where they were selling clothes. When we got to the address, we waited a little while on the corner until we were given the sign from a balcony to say we could go up. It was a modern building from the 1950s, in really good shape. As I relive the moment we walked up the stairs, my memory automatically plays “The X Files” music. An open door was waiting for us. We went into the large, cool and well-lit apartment with natural light. But we didn’t see anyone. That music keeps replaying in my head.

It was just us three inside, the door closed and out popped a woman from behind it, who welcomed us with a smile. The mystery immediately vanished, and an atmosphere of trust was created. With a kindness I’d never received before, the woman took us into a room and showed us several wardrobes full of clothes and pitusas of the most famous brands back then: “Lee”, “Lois” and “Levi Strauss”.

While my brother picked out his pitusa, the woman showed us all kinds of things with a politeness I wasn’t used to. I especially remember the perfumes and a selection of underwear that I had never imagined, and the woman was so patient and friendly with us that my mother and I ended up buying something.

I’ve never told this to anyone, but when things in the present remind us of the past, memories come flooding back.    

Read more from Nike here on Havana Times.

Nike

I was born in Havana, Cuba. All my life I have had the sea as a landscape. I like being close to it, feeling its breeze, its smell, as well as swimming and enjoying the wonders it gives us. Thanks to the manual skill that I inherited from my parents, I have been able to live off crafts. I work primarily papier-mâché, making puppets for children. I write for Havana Times for the possibility of sharing with the world the life of my country and my people.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *