Knife Sharpeners in Cuba: Still a Living Tradition

A typical Cuban knife sharpener.

By Ivett de las Mercedes

HAVANA TIMES – The knife sharpening profession in Cuba has become a tradition. When developed countries create machines to substitute people in different job roles, old professions are rescued in Cuba to survive. 

Regino Alvarez, 56, tells us about the entrance of knife sharpeners in Havana’s neighborhoods, with the unmistakable notes of their pan flute. I stopped him for a few minutes from his tireless work. I invite him to have a chat and he accepts with pleasure, while different people come up to him with a knife in their hand.

HT: Every job has a learning process, how were your early steps?

Regino Alvarez: A neighbor taught me when I was a kid. After a fracture that never healed completely and left him crippled, I began to push the peddles for him, he had fitted the sharpening stone into the frame of the bike. Then, I began to go with him down Güira de Melena’s streets. I felt really safe when Julio – that was his name – he asked me to sharpen his clients’ knives, but the first time I decided to do this job on my own, I had my doubts. In this job, if you don’t pay too much attention, you can lose a finger or people leave without paying.  The rest is learning to listen without taking your eyes off your work. 

A pan flute

HT: The whistle sound is characteristic of knife sharpeners.

RA: Julio gave me this pan flute, that’s what it’s called. I look after it with a lot of love. I try to keep my children away from playing with it because I run the risk of it breaking.  It’s not only a working instrument, it’s a reminder of my origins.  Plus, I don’t need to hawk, the whistle is enough.

HT: Do you pay for your self-employment license as a knife-sharpener?

RA: Yes, I pay 40 pesos per month, on top of my social security contribution. I was working at first illegally and was at high risk. Not only because they could confiscate my bike and the sharpening stones, my entire life wouldn’t be enough to pay a fine.

A knife sharpener

HT: How did you announce your presence then?

RA: I had to impose my presence without the whistle or hawking. You know: be clean, cheerful, chatty and even a little bit cunning; it came easily to me, I just had to be myself. Lots of the time, I’d go into a neighborhood and start talking to somebody, the rest was just waiting for clients to come.

HT: Do you go back to the same neighborhood?

RA: Of course, although I take my time. After the working day, I go home and write the name of the neighborhoods I went to that day into a notebook, and I even write the name of people interested. My clients include several carpenters and some young sculptors who I see more regularly. They don’t forget the quality of my work and a pleasant conversation. There is always someone who asks about the flute, who invites me to a coffee or offers me water. Sometimes, time passes by and people remember me on the street. A woman recently shouted out to me in the middle of the street: “niñoooo, if I have to keep waiting for you, I won’t be eating cassava!”

HT: I imagine you’ve had some bad days.

RA: I never have a bad day.  I might have had a weak day or maybe my bike breaks. I’m a positive guy generally. I’ve learned that with my work. If you go out with a smile on your face to conquer the world, every door opens for you. Let me tell you about the time a few years ago when I was coming home without having made a single peso, when a woman gave me a sign from a second floor apartment. I was dead tired and covered in sweat, but I didn’t give it a second thought. I picked up my bike and went up the stairs. Do you know what I found behind that door? A manicure salon. Can you imagine?!! I sharpened all of her clippers and scissors, very carefully of course. When I finished, she asked for my phone number and she called me a few days later and gave me the phone number of two manicure salons in Playa. I have fixed customers every week. 

HT: How much do you charge to sharpen knives, tweezers and clippers?

RA: I’ve set the price at up to 50 pesos per piece, this also depends on the wear of every item. Plus, doing a good job gives me room to get a tip from a lot of my clients. At the moment, 50 pesos isn’t a high price, 100 pesos wouldn’t surprise anyone either. 

HT: Is it hard to find the materials you need to work?

RA: Everything is really hard right now. Sharpening stones can’t be found in stores anymore and they are super expensive on the illicit market. I can’t afford bike tires and inner tubes.  Even if I wanted to save up for them, I couldn’t. Not even with little extra jobs.

HT: What are these little extra jobs?

RA: Well, everyone knows how expensive life is right now.  You could get by with a bit of sacrifice, three or four years ago. But now it’s impossible. So, I’m always up for any plumbing and building job. Here in my neighborhood, I always help people out. Only now, this helping out needs to come with a small payment.

HT: It’s very hot at this time of year, do you protect yourself from the sun and rain on the street?

RA: This heat really knackers me out and even more so when I have to cycle long distances. That’s why I have to control my visits and working hours.  When I get caught in the rain, I have no other choice but to wait it out in a doorway or corridor. I don’t always know the clients for them to take me into their homes. It’s harmful to me because I stay outside, but I don’t really see anything wrong with it, I understand, it’s better to be careful.

HT: There aren’t many knife sharpeners around anymore, do you think this profession will be lost?

RA: No, I don’t think it will disappear. There is always someone who wants to sharpen something. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to throw out a pair of scissors and knives when they lose their sharpness and buy new ones. Here in Cuba, there will be knife sharpeners for a while. I’m sure of it.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.

5 thoughts on “Knife Sharpeners in Cuba: Still a Living Tradition

  • Stephen,
    I totally take on board your points.
    Life most certainly isn’t easy for Regino. He just gets on with it and I respect that. And he retains his decency and honesty which I respect immensely.
    Comparisons in Capitalist countries?
    Somebody with a comparative job in a country such as India for example – without any of the healthcare and subsidised food basics that they have in Cuba?
    Are they better off with that infinitesimally small prospect of getting themselves up the capitalist ladder and joining the moneyed classes?
    I’m not suggesting Cuba is better than capitalist countries where swathes of the populace are on the very bottom rungs of the ladder. But is Regino worse off than a comparable knife sharpener elsewhere?
    I most certainly wouldn’t claim to have any kinda conclusive answer to these great conundrums.

  • Nick,
    I understand full well your sentiments regarding the knife sharpener, Regino Alvarez, particularly the fact that you actually met him and interacted with him. That makes your contribution that more pertinent.

    Like you, I really enjoyed the article and empathized with Regino, especially when he stated that no matter how hard he works his trade and even if he takes on a second job, he still does not have the financial resources to purchase bicycle tires and tubes for his bicycle. That hurts.

    You know as well as I that the most common means of transportation in Cuba is the bicycle for those who can purchase one and maintain it. How many Cubans have I met who like Regino when the bike tires wear out, and they do wear out very, very, quickly with the poor, broken, un-maintained, gravel, rocky conditions of most roads, Cubans do not have funds to purchase new tires and tubes, if these items are even available for sale. Most often than not, tires and tubes are unavailable. They are only available on the black market.

    Here I thought, even if Regino made decent wages in Cuban pesos, and why wouldn’t he as a well respected skilled craftsman in his neighborhood, how much would he really make in terms of American dollars to buy those much needed tires and other basic necessities only sold in MLC dollar stores.

    As inflation is exploding all over the world, I brought into my discussion what the inflationary situation looks like in Cuba today and put Regino’s paltry wage – though in his economic sphere totally competitive – in comparison to what he and his compatriot skilled craftsmen are up against vis – a – vis the American dollar.

    As you know to live a comfortable life in Cuba today a life without too much worry about the cost of necessities a Cuban definitely needs financial help from the outside world, that is, foreign currency remittances. I assumed Regino has no access to such financial help and, unfortunately, many Cubans like him do not. Therefore, to pile insult to injury not only is his meager salary depreciating rapidly but the cost of those tires and other necessities he so desperately needs keep inflating.

    Unlike in Western countries, I speak of Canada, where the Canadian government helps financially those Canadians at the bottom of the economic totem pole with a boost to their social security cheques, plus every Canadian community has a viable food bank that distributes food at no cost to the poor overworked and underpaid person. Canadians have nothing to complain about, though many, particularly those tourists visiting Cuba and staying in all inclusive resort hotels, many of them do not know the extreme hardships run of the mill Cubans like Regino must endure daily with absolutely no government help whatsoever.

    Like you, I have seen these skilled craftsmen on city streets shielded from the sweltering sun in very hot and humid conditions be it shining shoes, repairing and/or refilling BIC lighters, sewing handbags, sewing shoes or selling popcorn on the streets. These types of laborious labor do not exist in Canada.

    Regarding those BIC lighters, in Canada, one only has to walk down any street and find BIC lighters strewn on the streets thrown away by cigarette smokers who after the lighter fails to flick, it is tossed. Not so in Cuba. It is repaired and/or refilled to flick into the future.

    I totally agree with you those hardworking Cuban craftsmen are decent people only trying to make a living under very harsh economic conditions with a government totally disconnected from workers’ reality. These craftsmen and women no doubt are some of the most respectful people I have met, like you, with genuine smiles and laughter in their place of work totally engrossed in their seemingly enjoyable daily craft.

  • Stephen,
    You make very good points as always. You have a different and more analytical take on the article to mine.
    There is absolutely nothing in your comment that I would disagree with.
    The knife sharpener who is the subject of the article is a man who I respect and he’s a man who I’ve met. I’ve taken the knives from the kitchen down for sharpening when he’s blown his flute.
    The people in my house would always say:
    ‘Nick….. Chico……. Don’t let him overcharge just because you are extranjero’
    But this man wouldn’t ever try to overcharge anyone due to their accent. Because he is fundamentally decent.
    There are a billion people all over the world who work for low wages. People who are exploited in this world of ours dominated by the prevailing hard-assed capitalist reality. Including the poor folks in those sweat shops who make the clothes that we stand up in.
    I’ve had the pleasure of meeting this man. He’s sharpened our knives.
    He ain’t ever going to be a millionaire.
    But I can vouch for the fact that he works hard. And that he’s a decent man.
    That’s all I know.

  • One has to admire and empathize with Cubans like Regino Alvarez and all Cuban workers like him who must toil daily for extremely meager wages in order to earn a living. Regino was asked how much he charges for his skilled service.

    His reply: “I’ve set the price at up to 50 pesos per piece, this also depends on the wear of every item. Plus, doing a good job gives me room to get a tip from a lot of my clients. At the moment, 50 pesos isn’t a high price, 100 pesos wouldn’t surprise anyone either.” In Cuba in order to live decently one has to purchase some American dollars to buy necessities. Those necessities do not exist in common corner food stalls. The Cuban needs to access an MLC store which operates only in American dollars. So, let’s do some math.

    Regino charges 50 pesos per piece and because as Regino says he does a good job so he receives 10 pesos tip for a grand total of 60 pesos per piece. Great. He now is looking to exchange that 60 pesos to American dollars to purchase some daily necessities. What is the exchange rate pesos to dollars?

    The Minister of Economy, “Alejandro Gil specified that the purchase would be based on an exchange rate five times higher than the official one — from 24 Cuban pesos (CUP) to the dollar, established in the Ordering Task — at levels similar to those of the informal market at the time (around 120 CUP)”

    Regino needs to sharpen two pieces (60 x 2 = 120) to make the equivalent of one American dollar. The bank began selling American dollars – limit of 100 USA – per Cuban like Regino but eventually the Cadecas, unfortunately for hard workers like Regino . . . “ the dollars the government sells were running out early, and the dollar and other hard currencies began to rise like foam on the informal market.” (Cuba: Dollar Hits a Historic Record on the Informal Market, October 2, 2022).

    In fact, in reality, today, “The exchange rate in the informal market in Cuba is about to break the barrier of 200 Cuban pesos (CUP) per dollar, and without expectations that the national currency will stop depreciating, according to economists consulted by EFE” (Cuba: Dollar Hits a Historic Record on the Informal Market, October 2, 2022).

    Hard workers like Regino and all Cubans like him have hit an inflationary wall. Now, Regino needs to double his output in order to purchase the same necessities he required to purchase a few weeks ago. To now purchase that elusive American dollar worth 200 Cuban pesos and rising, for simplicity sake, Regino needs to work twice as hard (50 pesos x 4 pieces = 200).

    Regino the knife sharpener, those other Cubans also on the street refilling BIC lighters, the skilled craftsman repairing purses, sewing handbags, repairing leather shoes with an archaic Singer sewing machine, all these hard workers labor daily for the love of their trade but with very little financial reward to even purchase absolute necessities.

    Regino, and most Cubans like him, relies on a bicycle to get to and from his place of work. Yet, with his meager wages, Regino reports: “I can’t afford bike tires and inner tubes. Even if I wanted to save up for them, I couldn’t. Not even with little extra jobs.” The cost of living, in most places in the world, has risen exorbitantly such that many individuals find it extremely hard to get by, but, none more so than the majority of poor Cubans like amicable Regino.

  • This article is just wonderful. And it’s a rare example of positivity on HT. And none of that endless bullsh*t about this or that politics.
    This hard working guy with a positive mindset just going out and doing his business.
    The mention of the sound of that flute takes me right back there.
    Heard it outside my window a thousand times.
    Makes me smile.

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