Cuba’s San Jose Foundries

Coffee and more: Parallel Cuban solutions

Regina Cano

From the documentary film "+600º"

A few months ago I saw a documentary titled +600º, which deals with coffee and the screw on coffee makers that can explode.

The work is based on research for a master’s degree in anthropology (University of Havana) by Yoel Rodriguez, the young social communications graduate who produced and appeared in the film.

The documentary addresses the disappearance of the metallurgic foundries in San Jose de Las Lajas, a municipality south of the capital.  At the plant there exists a nearly 100-year tradition of metal working, a custom that is valued as an “element of the identity that distinguishes the town.”

Nothing better than the voices of this village’s own people could tell their…


It started with “a family who other people thought were Catalans, but in reality they were Valencians… who brought the trade of metal working to San Jose in 1919.”
“At the time, casting was very important not only for San Jose, but for Cuba as a whole … they produced lampposts, benches, sewer grates and ornamental grills, fittings for public lighting in ‘Parque Fraternidad and ‘Paseo Marti’ (Havana’s Prado esplanade) in 1928”… “and also” “… for the water, sewerage and sanitation systems, in addition to hardware materials for … the Palacio de Comunicaciones, the Palacio de Justicia, the Marti Monument, the Naval Hospital …, the bar at La Tropical, Hotel Vedado, the Electrico and the Alta-Habana neighborhoods, and the Focsa building.”  In short, all the representative capital locations.
“These smelters were the pioneers in producing sewage pipes in Cuba, which were previously imported from the United States.”

From the documentary film +600º

“In 1957 there were a total of 12 foundries.”  “At time of the triumph of the Revolution (1959) there were five or six in San Jose … that were taken over (by the State) in 1961 but continued to function” … “Later… there were two foundry firms: ferrous metals and non-ferrous metals … they were gradually consolidating the smelters.”

“The revolution brought improvements … … modernization, expansion and renovation … pay rates. For the first time there was talk about social security … improved working conditions: lighting, tools, better hygienic conditions and food, protective equipment.  Production was planned, thereby ensuring workers year-round employment.”

“Medical care was guaranteed in all foundries.” “Hardships were a part of the culture of work, given the exposure of workers to harmful chemicals and the exorbitant effort required for this work … which caused deformities and chronic suffering.”

“Economically it was a benefit…for the city… People from Havana worked here, as did folks from San Jose and nearby towns …”


“But in the Special Period [the economic crisis of the 1990’s in Cuba] foundries began a decline until all of them shut down”:  “They were dismantled in different years: 1995, 2003,1987.” “In one they had bought… three new cranes.” “The first was closed … for an overhaul, as were others, and the workers were relocated… to other places: to fill sandbags, to pick coffee.  This went on for almost two years, but they never re-opened.  They were demolished.”

From the documentary film +600º

But “the foundry never ceased in San Jose de Las Lajas.  Today many people cast metal in their homes, clandestinely and on a small scale … according to the needs that come along, “because” … “it’s a problem getting things out of here.  They’ll catch you, give you a fine and take away your goods.  It’s hellish!”

“It’s all handmade, there’s no die or nothin.’  It doesn’t depend on any technology; rather, it’s about what a man is capable of doing…   Resources?  People collect old aluminum from all over.  We buy it.  Junk …”  “… Each article goes through molding or stamping, casting, machining, polishing, assembly and marketing.  One or more people are involved.”

“In these ‘underground’ facilities there’s evidenced an enviable optimization of time and productivity, self-management in each of its stages … efficient… with quality products, they constantly renew their stock in relation to the demands and needs of the public.”


“At the beginning of the Special Period… there wasn’t ….a coffee maker craftsman.”  But later, although “they ‘gave’ us”…kettles, rice cookers … the famous screw on coffee espresso makers hadn’t arrived, though everyone here drinks coffee… They were sold by independent chinchaleros (owner of a small space used as a workshop and sales point), because the coffeepots sold in the state-run stores were expensive.”

“Around here they’ll make you coffee makers … the shower heads (for hot water), motor handles, bicycle-taxi wheels… sinks, windows, doors.  Russian blender pitchers … parts for aluminum fans.”  “Little springs, ashtrays, mortars for mashin’ garlic…”

From the documentary film +600º

“Those who supplied the public were these independent chinchales craftspeople.  There was even an agreement with stores that all these artisans could deposit their goods in these shops and stores would sell them on consignment.“They produced…” “sifas…dairy grates…irons (for clothing) … grills, frames, manhole covers and the surrounding frames… street drains (which don’t exist anymore)” … “shuckers for shelling corn and grinders for coffee … pressure cookers, orange and lemon juicers, toasters, pans, buckets (for water)” … “charcoal burners, boilers, elbow joints, arms and bases for scales, grills for charcoal stoves, water tanks … anvils for shoemakers”.. “electrical registers, water meters, parts for the auto industry …”

“Before the Special Period they allowed licenses for the self-processing of aluminum, lead, brass and low temperature metals” … “legal work and legal sales.  All this was done here in the 90’s but, well, overnight they began taking away people’s licenses so they couldn’t process metals.”

“Now they’ve started coming out with permits … but no license qualifies you to work metals.”

“Now you can’t find these kinds of cauldrons, iron ones … good for frying, for cooking meat.”


“In the eighties there were five foundries …and then … the lowest number of workers at any of them was about two hundred… they provided a significant amount of jobs, it wasn’t easy” “…they closed only two times a year, fifteen days for repairs” … “Most elderly people (here today) worked in foundries.”

“I know older workers, I saw them die, suffering to see the destruction where they had put in their whole lives working: Folks, look how much the foundry’s gave us, so much that we fight for them and look what it has all become.”

“The foundry was a cultural event” … “One can cite cases of dynasties in foundries. The great-grandfather worked in the foundry, the grandfather, the father, the son … the trade passed from father to son, staying foundry workers.”   “The school was the land itself.  Stooped over or down on all fours.”

From the documentary film +600º

“…All these people spent 40 years in foundries, they’ve put in their whole lives… they’re the ones who have the practical experience, because it’s not only a science.”  “The young people don’t know how to do any of this.  And this here is what half the town knows.  I’m tellin’ you, when they didn’t work in the foundries they had a chinchalito at home.”

“I believe that within twenty years there won’t be a single smelter left… they’re all old now.”
“…These people are experiencing a feeling of having lost a tradition…”  “…these men tried to find other jobs, ones that required less effort or were better paid.”  “Here there are lots of casters … oven workers… willing to work in foundries, because they know the work … because they like it.”

“… There are many young people working in these mills (underground) who are sons or nephews, cousins, grandchildren, relatives or neighbors … This is what could guarantee the knowledge of this craft not becoming lost.”

“…We’re at the gates of chaos … people are losing what gives their lives sense… a former smelter worker can turn to crime, or leave the country.  In fact, there are smelter workers who have been and are linked to overseas foundries.”

“…If in worse times for our government this functioned, it has to function now… with a little effort anything can be done”  “…an aluminum plant can be restored and made to function, in one way or another” … “if there are clandestine foundries… why can’t a foundry be created … where we can be located and not have to hide?”

“It was a historic site, and now what remains is an empty space…”



Regina Cano

Regina Cano: I have lived my entire life in Havana, Cuba – the island from which I’ve still never left, and which I love. I was born on September 9, and my parents chose my name out of superstition, but my mother raised me outside the religion professed by her family. I studied accounting and finance at the University of Havana, a profession that I’m not engaged in for the time being, and that I substituted for doing crafts, some ceramics, and studying a little English and about painting. Ah! – concerning my picture: I identify with Rastafarian principles, but I am not one of them. I wear this cap from time to time, but I assure you I just didn't have a better picture.

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