HAVANA TIMES, May 5 – Julia Cabrera is a happy woman this Monday morning. It’s a quarter till eight in the morning, but she has the luxury of taking her time walking slowly along with the man of her life because she knows she’ll still be getting to work early. She has no economic problems; in her country the wages of the workers are enough to live decently, discrimination doesn’t exist and all citizens are entitled to the same.
This was not taken from the scene of a movie or a dream. It was the Cuba of the 1980s; distant but real. Those of us who experienced those days recall them with nostalgia – and those who don’t do too.
When seeing this tall, svelte, elegant woman with perfect proportions, anyone would think that she was a model – and they would be right. She was a model at the most important house of fashions in Cuba, La Maisón, but she also worked in a dressmaker’s shop, which was where her compañero was taking her in his car. Suddenly they saw a blue van appear on the right side and Julia ducked down quickly, just in time. In that van was a worker from La Maisón, and if he had seen her it would have been the end of her career.
Relationships with foreigners only if married
Julia was aware that she was committing a serious infraction: she was having a relationship with a foreigner without being married to him. That shouldn’t have been a problem in a society in which all unions between men and women are considered legitimate, whether the couple is married or not. Likewise, all children are entitled to the same things, whether they’re born inside a marriage or not.
Nor should it have been a problem that this man was married. Another model at La Maisón was involved with a married man (a Cuban) who was also one of the country’s public figures, but she was never called to the carpet over this. Nonetheless, every night, at the end of each show, Julia would walk alone several blocks in the darkness afraid, with guilt, looking over her shoulder, until she saw the car where the foreigner was waiting.
Relationships with foreigners were not allowed without there being a matrimonial knot, because that could have given the image that prostitution was accepted and even promoted by the government. Nor were models allowed to buy items in the boutique at the La Maisón, because these were geared toward foreigners and were sold in dollars. The holding of dollars back then was penalized. In fact, when the models traveled to other countries they had to spend all the money they were paid before returning to Cuba.
Once having crossed the tunnel leading in to the Vedado neighborhood, Julia would feel more secure. But before getting there she saw a car on her right driven by a woman staring at her intently. Could she have been a friend of her lover’s wife, or was it someone who had seen her on television or in some magazine? She still didn’t know why, but she was bothered and made the gesture that Cubans understand as “What the hell are you looking at?”
They drove on past that car and finally crossed the tunnel. Julia, however, was not able to feel the security she’d hoped for. She had a premonition that was confirmed when she got home in the afternoon: The phone rang and someone from the Human Resources Department at La Maisón told her they’d “no longer be requiring her services.”
At this point, many readers might be bored with my interest in the runway when there are much more important things than the fact that a model was fired from La Maisón in the 80s for such a reason. In addition, as I’ve mentioned, she had another job to fall back on, because among the rights that a person has in my country is included the right to study and work.
I admit that sometimes I don’t understand the spell that is cast on people by this profession; it’s as if they can’t keep from feeling the desire to look perfect and be admired. Perhaps we all have a little bit of that thirst. Few people could resist the opportunity to be a model if they met the physical requirements, even if it was for only a short time – except perhaps those who are unsusceptible to attention and flattery. Since I was not above either of the two, I tried to be model in the 1990s. This was how I met Julia, though by then she was retired. However, she spoke to me about that incident only recently.
The 90s were another world
By the 1990s, wages in Cuba no longer allowed workers to live decently. The dollar ceased being penalized and was greatly sought after. Our constitution continued prohibiting discrimination of any type, yet Cubans could not enter tourist facilities in their own country.
These days, people complain that they earn only between $15 and $20 a month – the ingrates. In the 90s, wages ranged between $2 and $4 dollars a month because the dollar was valued at 120 Cuban pesos. A ham-and-cheese sandwich and a can of soda were luxuries, without exaggerating, and these were the luxuries given to models as snacks in the places where they worked.
The best thing that could happen to one of them was to be in a fashion show in a hotel. This was what one young woman told me who had taken a modeling course at ACAA (the Cuban Association of Artisans and Artists).
My head was still in the clouds thinking about how magical it would be to be a model; it would be a chance to wear beautiful clothes, for people to admire me, to enter places that would be forbidden to me in other circumstances.
As I was just 17 years old, the young woman mistook my intentions and advised me, “By modeling in a hotel you can “mesmerize” a yuma (a foreigner) who can get you out of here.” Many models thought this way a decade after Julia Cabrera was dismissed from the La Maisón for her romantic relationship with a foreigner.
The man in Julia’s story was a solid supporter of the Cuban Revolution. Nonetheless, her former compañeras at La Maisón would look at her as if she were repulsive when they ran into her at some fashion-related event. She would then drop her head in shame.
Nonetheless, those who worked with me when I was a model talked about their hopes with the greatest ease. They were young and didn’t want to spend the rest of their lives stuck in a country that didn’t seem to have any future. They had fathers and mothers who had killed themselves working to end up with nothing, and who aspired to give their children a better life.
I simply listened to them. I didn’t dare criticize them or feel above them, though I don’t know if this was out of pity or respect. I don’t know if they were worse off or better than me. My parents had also killed themselves working; in fact they still do so that my sister and I can study. However, I never crossed my mind to me to be with someone I didn’t like, foreigner or not, so that he could provide us a better life. I studied for a university degree so my destiny would be different.
I remember on one occasion when I went to see a fashion show at the “Roparrampa” and got there late. I was outside talking with a friend when an Italian approached me trying to speak with me and inviting me to leave with him. I tried not to be rude, but I slipped on into the Roparrampa to get rid of him. My friend didn’t understand my reaction, neither did the man. In fact, he followed us inside and continued insisting until I finally just left. My friend told me a week later that one of the models had seen the whole incident and he had asked her: “Who does your friend think she is rejecting a foreigner?” What was worse was that girl was a university graduate.
In the 80s, Julia didn’t need a foreigner to buy herself clothes, shoes or makeup. Her two salaries were enough to cover any of hers needs and whatever whim. A decade later, my parents continued giving me all that they could, but what they were able to provide was not enough to go to each show wearing something different. Plus, you couldn’t wear just any clothes; they had to be brand name outfits with shoes that cost thirty dollars or more (many times their salaries).
By this time models and everyone else in the country could go into the boutique at La Maisón or to any other store to buy whatever they wanted. The products were available not only to foreigners and sailors, but to anyone who had dollars, though I didn’t have any. The little money they paid me for each fashion show at the Puntex was in domestic currency. But I was still fortunate; in some places they didn’t pay the models anything.
Currently, a model at La Maisón makes 10 CUCs [about $12 USD] for each fashion show. An insignificant amount compared to what they pay models abroad, but with two shows you can earn the monthly salary of a doctor or an engineer here on the island.
Show me the money
On one occasion, on a corner in Vedado, I ran into a model with whom I got along well. It was 1996 and I had been able to work at La Maisón. If you were going to be a model in Cuba, the best place was La Maisón. The young woman greeted me warmly and told me that she wanted to introduce me to her friends, foreigners who wanted to go out with Cuban women.
“Well, if you’re looking for a little money, you have to buy yourself some blouses and shoes that are better than those.” Somehow I managed to tell her that the invitation wasn’t necessary, but I think I was more embarrassed than Julia Cabrera when they kicked her out of La Maisón for her relationship with a foreigner.
Over the three months that I was model of La Maisón, I met several young women and men who had foreign partners. It was no secret to anyone, nor did it constitute grounds for criticism or firing…or for shame.
Indeed, many things have changed since those idyllic years of the 80s; so much so that sometimes the things that are alright and those that are fading become confused. In 1994, I met a man who had been imprisoned for the criminal possession of dollars. Even though the possession of dollars had been decriminalized while he was in jail, he still had to complete his sentence to the end. We were only peons of the times and circumstances. What’s bad today can be good tomorrow; and vice versa. Who are we to judge?
Should Julia have put her career above the man she loved? Should she have kept in mind that she could have been putting the image of the country at risk? Nothing seems to be eternal however. Fortunately, her discharge from the La Maisón lasted only a year. Her relationship extended a little more, but it too eventually came to an end.
Of those young women I knew when I was model, not all were interested in latching onto a foreigner to improve their lives. Many live here, married and single; some have children. We bump into each other from time to time and recall those days. We discover that we were able to be happy back then. That it was our moment. And it’s gone.
Of those who hoped to get a foreign husband, many succeeded and left the country. It was their escape route. From some I have heard that things have gone very well for them, I hope the same for the others.
Should I have followed their example? Perhaps by this point I would have had my own house, a car, a computer. I would have gotten to know more than one country. I would have been able to help my family out economically. But would I have been happy? Would I have felt satisfied for myself? For that, I don’t have an answer.