Postcard From Cuba

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In Cuba, many try to make ends meet by selling home-made goods or special skills. Official salaries are so low that it's the only way some people get by. Most vendors sing a sales pitch to advertise their wares.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

If you think our economy is bad, try making a buck in Cuba. Official wages are so low that many Cubans become small-time entrepreneurs to make ends meet. So while Havana may be the capital of the socialist country, it is also a giant marketplace.

And to reporter Nick Miroff, one set of vendors stands out.

Ms. TERESA DIAZ(ph): Caliente.

NICK MIROFF: In Cuba's state-run economy, you'd be hard pressed to find a fresh tamale at a government store or snack bar. But every few days in this tree-lined Havana neighborhood, the small savory corncakes come rolling up the street in a white cart pulled by Teresa Diaz. Tamales. Hot tamales, she says, casting her voice through the open windows of crowded homes and apartment buildings.

Ms. TERESA DIAZ: (Singing foreign language)

MIROFF: Diaz is a pregonera, a singing vendor who walks the city selling her wares with a musical sales pitch known as a pregon.

Ms. DIAZ: (Through translator) Tamales are like coconuts. They spoil easily. I don't stop doing my pregon until I have sold everything because I will not try to sell the leftover tamales the next day.

MIROFF: With cornmeal, spices and a bit of pork, Diaz makes the tamales in the kitchen of her tiny rooftop apartment. She'll prepare a batch of 40, wrapping each one in a corn husk, then she heads out into the street, selling them for about 20 cents apiece.

Ms. DIAZ: (Through translator) Ever since I was a child, I've always had a powerful voice, and all my life, from the time I was a little girl, people have told me to be quiet. They say my voice bothers them. So this is the only time in my life that I have been able to use my vocal chords without anyone trying to silence me.

MIROFF: In Havana, there are pregoneros selling almost anything: flowers, fruit, even mattress repair services. Technically, it's illegal to sell items in the street without a permit, but the practice is so ingrained in Cuban culture that authorities tend to look the other way.

(Soundbite of gate opening)

MIROFF: On this Sunday morning, Michael Rondon(ph) filled his backpack with fresh garlic cloves and caught a ride into Havana from his home in the countryside. As he walked along a quiet, residential street, Rondon's pregon announced that his garlic was already stripped into big, loose cloves.

Mr. MICHAEL RONDON: (Through translator) If I don't say anything and don't use my pregon, what's the point? I mean, if I walk by here and don't say a word, how would you know that I'm selling garlic?

MIROFF: Like many of the Havana area's poorest residents, Rondon is a migrant from Eastern Cuba, and he still talks with that region's lilting, rural accent. If he lived in the big city, Rondon said he might have been able to make it as a professional singer, but he wasn't talking about popular Cuban salsa or reggaeton. While growing up riding horses and herding cattle, he fell in love with Mexican cowboy music.

Mr. RONDON: (Through translator) My dream is to go to Mexico. I've always wanted to go. I love rodeos and bull riding. My nickname is The Mexican. And when I have two or three beers, I start singing Mexican songs and put on a whole show. And when I finish selling for the day, I go home singing to myself.

MIROFF: With that, Rondon put down his tattered backpack full of garlic, closed his eyes, and began belting out Mexican ballads right there on the sidewalk. Someone in a nearby apartment building shouted that they wanted to buy some garlic, but Rondon just kept on singing.

Mr. RONDON: (Singing foreign language)

MIROFF: For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.

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