My Mother and I Become Entrepreneurs in Cuba

Yasmin S. Portales Machado

Our Singer sewing machine.
Our Singer sewing machine.

HAVANA TIMES — This past Tuesday, my mother and I went to get a Self-Employment License. We’re going to bring together investment and talent, quitting our professions (she’s a teacher and I’m in theater), to make a little money and contribute to the country’s GDP. There are plenty of forms, seals and stuffy offices ahead of us.

It all started back in July, when my mom decided she would not be going back to the classroom.

More than a profession, teaching is a calling for my mother. She is the kind of teacher that makes up didactic games while she does the dishes. She’s been at it since she was a kid (since the Literacy Campaign of 1961) and has seen the ups and downs of her trade. There are former students of hers in nearly all fields and (I imagine) many different countries.

Until June, this 5-foot-tall woman controlled the classroom with her powerful voice, good eyesight and scathing retorts to teenage cheek. She’s not quitting because young people are lost these days (even though she believes they are), but because of the stifling red-tape that saddles teachers.

During the summer, she realized that A (a teacher’s retirement isn’t enough to live on) + B (sitting at home looking after a grandchild is tantamount to mental suicide) is always equal to C (either one finds something else to do or goes insane). She recalled that, when she was 7, she had made a dress out of crepe paper all by herself, quickly becoming the apprentice of the neighborhood dressmaker because of it. Those lessons were the basis of a veritable trade for her. I sometimes think my mother could well have been a fashion designer instead of a teacher.

Camisa escolar en proceso.
School shirt in process.

I remember the weekends in which my mother woke up feeling “inspired.” She would sit in front of the sewing machine – an unwieldy contraption from East Germany, quite possibly designed in 1945 – and would only get up to get a glass of water or go to the bathroom. The food would be made and delivered from the floor below us (where my grandparents lived), and I knew the clatter of the machine would end only when it was time to try on the pieces she had sown.

That is how we were able to dodge the horrible industrial designs of the 80s, the empty stores of the 90s, and the return of bad designs (at impossible prices) in the dawn of the new millennium, with my mother’s elegant, homemade garments.

They say the key to success in the market is finding a niche. My mother found it by chance, while we were discussing at dinner how difficult it is for a parent to find a school uniform that will fit their kid, State uniforms being generally “too large.”

Then we started a bitter socio-economic reflection on how Cuba’s textile industry had gone to seed and the fact State stores are full of ugly designs and cheap fabrics brought from China. Then, someone remembered that a relative of ours, an architect, designed the industrial textile complex in Santa Clara, a glorious dinosaur from the time of the COMECON which, they say, is going to be transformed into a sweat shop by the Chinese.

We continue to rave about the former Soviet Union and today’s Cuban Communist Party, with intellectual refinement and numerous quotations from the classics of Marxism, but the Party doesn’t listen – it’s already had its epiphany. Since time immemorial, Cuba’s textile industry delivers its uniforms late, the sizes don’t fit anyone and the quota of one or two shirts per person do not cover the needs imposed by our climate and hygienic requirements. Thus, my mother decided she would start to make school uniforms.

Mi licencia.
My license.

She bought the fabrics, tracked down the buttons like a hound following its prey. We got the word around with our neighbors and the mothers of kids in primary school. The orders have begun coming in, and my mother is happy because it’s almost like being in school still – the uniforms, the adrenalin of the school year, childhood – only without the bureaucrats and behind the shield afforded by her sowing machine (an ancient and quiet Singer).

Having verified the profitability of this market niche and the financial feasability of the enterprise, we went on to invest in a new sewing machine, a license and an ad in Cuba’s Revolico classifieds page.

As I am technically unemployed – since I am not a member of the Association of Cuban Writers and Artists and haven’t published a book, I do not pay taxes – joining my mother in this sowing enterprise is the only easy way of paying for social security. It seems absurd to me, of course, but, until the Ministry of Culture ceases to administer the payment of taxes on the basis of “prestige” and begins to base them rather on each individual’s “productivity”, I will have to play hide-and-seek with the National Tax Administration Office (ONAT).

Next Wednesday, I will hold a license that will make me a certified capitalist of the textile industry. On top of things, I will have to hire my mother, because…well, you don’t really want to know.

Wish us luck.

14 thoughts on “My Mother and I Become Entrepreneurs in Cuba

  • September 23, 2014 at 9:10 am

    Mr. MacDuff, Again, read the content, when I said China started 35 years earlier, I was talking about economic reform that just started in Cuba.

    By the way, Geely owns Volvo now and if it was not because GM’s fought against it so hard and was willing to give up all their investment in Saab, Geely would have own Saab too. So feel free to make fun of Geely now, but 10 years from now, you never know who is laughing then…

  • September 16, 2014 at 7:45 pm

    Yes Maureen! I take clothes for relatives including the two children of a niece one of whom is my Godchild and many of those clothes are of Chinese manufacture. Also, my wife purchases some clothes when in Canada, again some of Chinese manufacture. Only today I purchased a set of cotton bedsheets (top sheet, fitted sheet, two pillow covers) with a 400 thread count to take with me when I go home in the near future.

  • September 16, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    So I guess if I bring articles “made in China” to Cuba from Canada, the recipients will be quite happy with the quality.

  • September 14, 2014 at 9:33 pm

    The justified reason for the comment by Yasmin Portales Machado, is the quality of Chinese clothes offered in Cuba, she is not making a mistake. As I pointed out below, my wife as a Cuban was amazed by the difference in the quality of Chinese products offered in the UK and Canada compared with that offered in Cuba. The obvious reason is that the government purchasing agency in Cuba purchases the cheapest product possible, knowing that they are for a market where average income is just over $20 per month – well below the poverty line of a dollar a day used by the UN. Cubans selling clothes from their front doors frequently have obtained them from visitors from other countries who were until recently (September 1) able to bring in suitcases filled with clothes for their relatives to sell. The regime has now tightened up having realised that it was losing revenue. Having viewed the quality of Chinese products in both Cuba and Canada the difference isn’t even debatable. It’s the difference between a Geely and a Jaguar and similarly the prices are different.

  • September 14, 2014 at 3:49 pm

    Great initiative! Best of luck!

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