Cuba is famous for the classic cars still operating on its street, particularly in La Habana. These cars provide a vital source of income for many owners either as taxis particulares (private taxis) or for tourist trips. Often handed down through generations, their maintenance provides a number of challenges, not least of which are the impact of the ongoing US embargo and lack of spare parts for these ageing vehicles. Owners often carry entire toolkits and essential spares in the boot (trunk). As well as routine self-maintenance they rely on an army of specialist repairers and technicians. On the Western outskirts of La Habana is La Lisa, and a small community of these specialist repairers.
Down a dark narrow, shoulder-width alley way, just off 158th and 57th Street in La Lisa, is the workshop of Silvio. There is no sign. It’s found through local knowledge and word of mouth. To the left is a large guard dog pawing at the chain-link fence, to the right a workshop entrance is fenced off and padlocked. Inside, in the half-light, Silvio sits amongst the clutter, a collection of salvage, spare parts, testing equipment and tools. He is the local specialist for repairing car starter motors. He has been doing this all his working life. He is handed a motor acquired second-hand and is asked to test it. It works fine, it turns, and with plenty of torque. The new owner is happy. It had been scavenged from another vehicle and was a bargain. Silvio epitomises the repair culture in and around La Lisa and in wider Cuba. A self-taught specialist, he relies on a combination of scavenged parts, a few imported spares and above all his ingenuity to provide a repair service and help Cubans keep their cars on the road. His customer equally epitomises the Cuban culture of keeping things going; working on a car passed down to him from his father and grand-father and using whatever means to give their vehicles a never-ending life. Silvio is just one of hundreds in and around the area, all specialising in aspect of repair. Just down the road, Titi repairs car radiators. His work area in his back garden, he skilfully re-brazes a leaking radiator and tests it. Not far away Néstor, together with Rainel and Michel, repair car transmissions and rebuild wheels, often changing the entire central hub, so it can be re-used on a different vehicle.
These car repair yards are sometimes more than just places to work on cars, they provide a centre for social activity, for bird keeping, cooking and sleeping.
The concentration of car repair businesses in La Lisa, is mirrored elsewhere in La Habana, with similar collections of workshops along Monte and the road to Cerro. Rarely visited by tourists, these centres provide the foundation to keep the vintage cars running.