(Photographs by Gonzalo Vidal)
What do you do with a hole in your shoe, or if the sole is flapping loose? When your heel comes off, do you throw the shoes away and go shopping for some new ones, or just put them to one side and use instead one of the many other pairs that are lurking in your closet?
Most Cubans do not have that luxury, so taken for granted by most inhabitants of wealthier countries, where even if you have a low income you can go to a factory outlet or bargain shoe warehouse, to at least make sure that you need not go barefooted. There are shoe shops in the island, but they are few, generally to be found in the city centres. And when the prices are compared to the average income of an average Cuban, they are clearly beyond the reach of most. A pair of shoes sold in the shops costs several months’ wages; and with the cost of living, including food, on the rise, only those with access to hard currency earnings, or remittances from outside, can really aspire to replace what they wear on their feet. Most people wear shoes that were brought to them by family and friends, visiting Cuba or returning from journeys to other countries.
There was a time when the State gave everybody the possibility of obtaining a new pair of shoes every year, for a reduced price. They may not have been pretty, and in many cases were downright uncomfortable, but thanks to rationing they could at least ensure that no Cuban need go with bare feet. Then with the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and the ongoing economic blockade of the island by the United States, Cuba was plunged into economic crisis in the 1990s: the so-called ‘Special Period’. Rationing became reduced to a bare, and barely if that, nutritional minimum, with little by way of manufactured products. Hard currency shops became the only way to acquire such goods, and that was outside the possibilities of most.
But necessity being the mother of invention, solutions can always be found, and Cubans have had a lot of practice in solving problems in a myriad of creative ways. Shoe repairs are a good example, and they are not a new phenomenon. In a country where most of the population has always struggled to make ends meet, there is a deeply engrained culture of making your possessions last, and repairing when broken.
Frank has been mending shoes for twenty-two years. He began in the trade in the first years of Special Period, and since then has been helping to keep the shoes on the feet of the inhabitants of Alamar. But then the laws changed, and it became possible for him to set up his own small business.
Frank rents a tiny workshop space from the State, to which he also pays for a licence that permits him to carry on his trade legally, and a tax on his profits. Despite these costs, business is good. What he offers is not a luxury only for the well off. His clients are the working men and women of the neighbourhood. The service he provides is a necsesity, and there is never a shortage of people coming to him with their broken shoes, seeking repairs that will enable them to squeeze a few more years out of them. Like the many vintage cars that are miraculously kept going on Cuba’s streets, so too the footwear of many Cubans has been patched and restuck, nailed and repolished, multiple times.
Trade is so good, and demand so high, that Frank employs an assistant. Together they work in the tiny, windowless space, surrounded by all manner of footwear. Conditions are rough, and the heat stifling. But Frank will always do what he can to keep your shoes going for a little while longer.