Daisann McLane | The Havana Hat Ladies
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The Havana Hat Ladies

 

I flew to Havana from Miami four times between 1993 and 1995. Each trip was an unforgettable, intense, emotional and bizarre undertaking, from the tears, lines and chaos at the Miami Airport, to the experience of trying to move through a city where, in 1994, everyone was surviving on 1,000 calories a day.

In this swirl of hardship and sadness, a bright detail drew me in. I took some snapshots, showed them to an editor and voila!–article. Sadly, the marvelous photos taken of the hat ladies by Karen Kuehn (in a studio she set up in a corner of Miami International Airport!) aren’t archived with my story. Three of them are above.
by Daisann McLane

SOMBREROS DE FIESTA,” REPLIED ONE OF THE HAT LADIES WITH A smile and a wink when I asked her to explain why she’d fastened 18 pairs of dime store earrings, several faux sunflowers and eight plastic beaded hair clips to her straw boater.

Since this was my first Miami-Havana voyage, I figured that the party hats were a Cuban style statement, a badge of the cosmopolitan similar to the American college insignia T-shirts worn in pre-glasnost Eastern Europe. But in Cuba, I didn’t see a single person wearing a sombrero de fiesta. After customs, these collisions of Cuban baroque and Woolworth’s bricolage evaporate instantly, like Cinderella’s finery.

My second trip down, a lady in a sequinned bonnet let me in on the hat trick: Charter companies flying the jam-packed Miami-Havana run impose a baggage limit of 44 pounds per person. But they cannot set a limit on how much the passenger weighs. So Cubans and Cuban-Americans load themselves with whatever won’t fit into the regulation duffel bag: socks, jeans, underwear, shirts worn in layers. Packages of rice, coffee, flour stuffed into the linings of crinolines; rolls of United States dollars pinned into pockets. And, to top it off, the hats, lovingly bedecked with little gifts for family and friends.

Incredible stories abound: There was the women whose hat was confiscated only to reveal her hair rolled up in sausages; the woman who marched up, ticket in hand, wearing a helmet made from a pressure cooker. I first dismissed these as Caribbean tall tales, but then I saw a woman with a colander dangling from the brim of her Miami Dolphins cap.

“This is not fashion; this is necessity,” a Cuban-American woman said as she sent her mother back home to a Havana that is shrinking daily on a ration of five pounds of rice a month and little else. Cuba’s economy, buffetted by the end of the Soviet Union’s subsidies and the United States embargo, is at crisis point. These flights represent a trickle of relief for Cubans lucky enough to have family abroad. Even so, the flights are controversial in the politicized Cuban-American community. But while husbands and fathers debate whether bringing goods to needy relatives represents “traitorous” support of Castro, their wives, sisters and daughters pack their bags, and themselves, and put on their hats. Like modern galleons, bursting with small treasures from Taiwan and Hong Kong, they sail majestically across a gulf of politics, machismo and pride.