A Not So Typical Cuban Street Vendor

By Ivett de las Mercedes

HAVANA TIMES — Laura* (43 years old) is a sculptor and photographer and has exhibited her work at several galleries in Havana, but from Monday to Friday, she works at a company belonging to the Cerro municipality where she is a secretary and on the side she has another job that the majority of Cubans know: she’s a street seller.

HT: Having artistic abilities is something you are born with and that you then refine. How do you juggle your work as a secretary, artistic creations and being a street seller?

Laura: It’s hard, every job demands a lot of me. Sometimes, I need there to be more than 24 hours in a day. Being a secretary and waiting for the phone to ring for eight hours is exhausting. Sculpting has been something I’ve done ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always been attracted to drawing and painting. I have taken part in several exhibitions, both individual and group exhibitions, and it pains me to sell my sculptures because they are priceless to me, so I try to hold onto them or to give them to people who really appreciate them.

Being a street seller or something like a peddler is very demanding for me, it all has to do with the quality of what you are selling, how you display it and the publicity I give it. I have never spoken to a street seller about how to learn this craft; the important thing here is to sell. It was hard in the beginning because I didn’t have a lot of money to invest, but I have slowly been learning the dynamic. You start off with a little bit and then over time you increase it.

HT: When do you sell things?

L: I go out to sell in the afternoon when I get off work. It takes me approximately two hours to get home most of the time because transport becomes unbearable. When I get home, my mother is already busy getting dinner ready. She gets worried when I go out to sell and I take longer to come home, anything can happen. I sell personal hygiene products that are in great demand and everybody knows where the raw materials come from; but I always try not to attract any negative attention.

I never thought that my body could bear the burden I have to carry on my back, not only because of how heavy the backpack is but also because of the situation that surviving creates. Sometimes, I go out with a cart which helps me not to carry all of this weight on me. Having a basic monthly salary is beneficial just for a few days, I earn 375 pesos (18.75 USD) and that isn’t enough. Sometimes I ask myself what people who earn the minimum wage of 225 pesos per month do. I imagine that they do something like me.

HT: Hawking is an art form. Do you do it to sell your products?

L: No, I don’t have a license. I go to people’s homes who are already waiting for me, other times I leave the merchandise with a friend who knows the business and she sells it, she gives me the money back in the long run. Sometimes, I come home with the backpack still full. I don’t normally complain about what I do because everything implies some kind of sacrifice, God is always with me and I thank him every day. I know that the heavy backpack is affecting my health, my parents and my friends tell me. Cervical pain is regular, I won’t be good for anything in the future, but I’ll have to deal with that when the time comes. Right now, the present is what’s important.

HT: Are you embarrassed to go out and sell on the street?

L: In the beginning yes, because a lot of people in my neighborhood know me as a creator and not as a seller, so I would feel sad trying to sell things, but I have looked for ways over time, especially about how to publicize a product. A lot of people already know me and I don’t doubt that I have a nickname among customers.

HT: I imagine you don’t have enough hours in the day. When do you take photos and work on your sculptures?

L: I always walk around with my camera in my bag, my photos deal with social issues, but also racial issues and old age. Good photos appear everyday on the street, Cerro’s landscape is full of many intriguing images. I continue to sculpt wood, especially on the weekend.

HT: Have you ever had any problems with customers or the police?

L: With the police not up until now, luckily. Once I had to give money back to a hairdresser who had bought several hair dyes from me and she said that they weren’t any good. I was extremely sad, but hey, that doesn’t depend on me.

HT: So, you a seller out of necessity. What do you think about this profession?

L: It’s like every other job as long as you do it with humility. I have met many people with great needs in the city and I always try to help them out but giving away some of the things I sell. My profits are quite small but it’s more important to do a good deed, God will provide, there’s a saying that we say here… I always try to have a little bit of money saved up in case there’s an emergency, especially because my parents are elderly. When I don’t go out onto the street with my backpack because my health stops me or because there isn’t anything to sell, something else always appears. Perseverance is the key.

*Laura is a fictitious name.


2 thoughts on “A Not So Typical Cuban Street Vendor

  • Brien, we’re not citizens of Cuba so as much as I agree with your comment best to give a bravo to Ivett.

  • Some photos of her actual sculptures would have helped both her and us readers.

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