They’re called los colchoneros, the mattress men, and there’s one in every Havana neighborhood. When your bedding begins to sag, or a coil punctures the worn cotton cover, you bring your mattress to him. He lays it on a wooden table or cart like a patient, often on the sidewalks or narrow alleys of the sprawling Cuban capital, and brings it back to life.
You could buy a new mattress, but the average monthly income in Cuba is $20; the cheapest new mattresses cost $150 or more. So you will most likely do what near everyone else does and hire the local colchonero to fix your old mattress, which may be a patched-up, discolored, vintage thing, possibly an American model manufactured during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. There’s a fair chance the same mattress was once worked on by your colchonero’s father or uncle, many years ago. Or maybe your same local guy first repaired the bed in 1965 and he’s still working. Many colchoneros are old, with steady hands and eyes still sharp enough to work with wires and pliers.
In Barrio Azul, a quiet neighborhood in southeast Havana where donkey carts are almost as common as cars, the colchonero is known as Carlito “El Grande” — Big Little Carlos. A slight and fit 47-year-old, Carlito has been around coils and cotton since he was a boy.
“When I was little, I watched my uncles work on mattresses, and they learned the trade from their fathers and uncles,” he told me. “My family has been doing this since at least the 1920s.”
Carlito was prepping a job when I met him on a recent afternoon. A man in the neighborhood had fallen asleep with a cigarette in his hand, lighting his bed on fire. Carlito dated the smoke-blackened specimen laid out on his porch to 1960, the year the U.S. imposed the trade embargo that continues today. That was the year imports from the U.S. stopped arriving. By necessity, Cubans learned to carefully maintain their pre-embargo stock of goods, from cars to beds. Just when “planned obsolescence” began to accelerate consumption cycles in the U.S., Cubans downshifted in the direction of repair and reuse.
Examining the mid-20th-century piece, Carlito said it would require a complete rebuild. He cut open the lining and stripped the burnt guata, or cotton filling, and rattled off the steps involved.
“After I clear the guata, I’ll remove all of the broken springs and wiring,” he said. “I know a man who makes and sells new springs for three pesos [eight cents]. I’ll put in a new wire frame. Replace the old coiling. When the skeleton is finished, I’ll stuff it with fresh cotton and use a needle to sow a new cloth covering. When I’m finished, it will be like new.”
The job will take him a long afternoon, for which he’ll charge his upper limit of $35.
Looking at the twisted, rusted-out carcass of a mattress that was manufactured when Desi Arnaz was the popular Cuban co-star of I Love Lucy, I wonder why his compatriots never abandoned the metal-spring model, and opted instead for a Japanese-style all-cotton filling. But I keep my mouth shut. Carlito and his fellow colchoneros are proud craftsmen with deep roots in the local economies of Havana’s neighborhoods. I suspect he would find the question strange, if not insulting. Cubans clearly like their coils, however old and — as this reporter can attest — uncomfortable they may be.
But something else is at work. The Cuban appreciation for durable things mixes with a kind of national pride in having made them work for as long as they have. This appreciation is evident in the 50s-era cars that are the backbone of the city’s private taxi fleet. Get a Havana cabbie talking about his car, and he’ll slap the huge dashboard with affection and say something like, “This Dodge is a tank, a warhorse. If you know how to take care of it, it will run forever.”
There is something similar in Carlito’s voice when he describes a 62-year-old U.S.-made mattress recently delivered to his door for repair.
“Sixty-two-years-old — and guess how many springs were broken? Only one! I don’t have much experience with the newer models. But I don’t think they are so good. These old beds were very well made. They’re strong, good mattresses.”
Carlito does not think his business will suffer from improving relations between the U.S. and Cuba, which many believe will result before long in the elimination of the 55-year-old embargo. Even with the resumption of imports from the U.S., he says, most Cubans will be unable to afford new mattresses. The next generation of colchoneros agrees with him: Carlito’s teenage apprentices are learning the craft on some of the same mattresses Carlito learned on in the 1970s.
When I ask Carlito if he can imagine a day when there are no colchoneros on the streets of Havana, he frowns and shakes his head.
“There will always be a need for us," he says.