There's a weird glamour-meets-gutter factor on the street in Cuba. One minute, you pass dead roosters, one-legged men and barefoot kids splashing in sewer water. Then you round a corner in Central Havana, Vedado or Cienfuegos, and boom, it's Hipsterville. A group of twenty-somethings is blasting Queen from a $300 smartphone, rocking full sleeve tattoos and shiny new Chuck Taylors brought in from outside the country.
They have lip piercings and popped collars, blue hair and side-tilted Yankees caps, vintage bikes and American flag muscle pants. They could pass for Brooklyn trust fund hipsters, except they're not being ironic. Of the dozen young Cubans I spoke to, most were earnestly saying they love America and American fashion. They were mimicking styles they recently discovered, thanks to the country's newly loosened internet restrictions.
For some Cuban cool kids, it's possible to plug into up-to-date global fashion trends for the first time ever. Those that can pay to browse the full internet at wifi hotspots on the island are learning how the rest of the world sees them, through Facebook and YouTube, and tweaking their styles accordingly. It's one example of how the country's warming relationship with America under Raul Castro, as well as new legal computer sales, rising cellphone use and lifted restrictions on private business, is playing out in everyday life.
To some Cubans, style is a political statement. "It's our way of showing we're free from the government," said Gille Mesa Valdes, a tattoo artist who imports clothes, ink and needles from France. He rakes in roughly $50 per tattoo—more than most Cuban doctors earn in a month—at his off-the-books home "studio," which helps him afford American-brand skater punk gear like Vans and flannel, which he buys in Paris.
Wearing clothes that "look rich" is also one way millennials are rebelling against their parents' socialist values, they told me. To them, America represents the ultimate in capitalism, which is "cool" because it's the forbidden fruit. (Sort of how trendy American celebs made some folks mad by wearing Che Guevara T-shirts.)
Valdes's friend said he bought his Ralph Lauren Polo shirt in Italy using tip money he made by hauling American and European tourists around by pedicab. "We go to other countries and when we come back we bring back American gear," he said proudly, adding that it's a status symbol because it's harder to get.
Cubans without side-hustles have fewer fashion options. They must rely on state-run clothing stores, hand-me-downs and smaller shops with only Cuban-made threads. Some Cubans ask friends and relatives to bring them name-brand clothing, piercing guns and hair dye from other countries when they visit. Those items exist on the island, but are harder to find because the country's commerce system is sluggishly slow and stuck in another era.
In Cienfuegos, the ninth largest city in Cuba, several teenagers wear American shopping mall brands like Aeropostale and Abercrombie and Fitch. Men sport giant wolf tattoos and T-shirts that read "Brooklyn," which is arguably its own geographic brand of hipsterness. Some fashion statements gets lost in translation, even with loosened internet restrictions. A 25-year-old woman in a rainbow-striped "I love my boyfriend" T-shirt had no clue it was designed for a gay man to wear at a pride parade.
"They're a lot like American 'hipsters,' only they're still 50 years behind in some ways," said Andy Gomez, a former University of Miami professor specializing in Cuban youth. Cubans without money and connections have to be craftier about style. And many take health risks to pull it off, Gomez said. Some even dye their hair with shoe polish and the insides of batteries.
"They're taking a risk because it's toxic," he said. "But desperation is a powerful thing. Looking in the mirror and feeling hip, attractive—and free—is an escape from the world they live in."