Theses Doctoral

Aural economies and precarious labor: Street-vendor songs in Cuba

García Molina, Andrés Jacobo

This dissertation examines the economic, aesthetic, and affective significance of the resurgence of street vendors and their song in Cuba after nearly five decades of silence following the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Their temporary disappearance came hand in hand with the banishment of private modes of labor and entrepreneurship on the island. From colonial times until 1959, street vendors and their songs were a central component of everyday sociality and street economies in Cuba, as well as an integral part of a transnational popular music repertoire. Their recent resurgence overturns prior labor and economic policies in a general context of precarity and accumulated scarcity originating from Cuba’s complex historical position in the global reconstitution of Cold War politics. Since 2010, the Cuban state has sanctioned economic reforms that reintroduce massive forms of self-employment. Significantly, the majority of these can only be exercised through ambulatory vending. As such, the very notions of self-employment, entrepreneurship, and consumption that arise in contemporary Cuba depend, to a large extent, on the mutual circulation of sound and goods. For many self-employed Cubans, no transaction is possible without potential listeners.

This research is based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Cuba between 2015 and 2019, focusing on questions that emerge in the interaction between vendors, consumers, and the state, as mediated by vocal practices, listening techniques, and the circulation of sound within the particular architectural configuration of Havana. Throughout the dissertation, I develop the term, aural economy, as encompassing the ways in which sound enables modes of exchange as much as sound itself becomes an object of transaction and regulation. I argue that the aural economies arising in contemporary Cuba provide a central way to understand how Cubans negotiate a life worth living under precarious conditions, proposing ways in which to interrogate the unique relationship between aurality and the economy currently reconfiguring the Cuban public sphere.
The first chapter examines the aural and racial imaginaries of internal migration from Cuba’s Eastern provinces to the capital, interrogating forms of storytelling that in turn theorize the relationship between notions of song, labor, and dwelling. The second chapter examines the life and labor of a famous peanut vendor in Havana’s old town, interrogating the complex and unequal relationships that unfold between Cuban workers and tourists. The third chapter examines artistic interventions that interrogate the nature of street-vendor songs and approach them as objects of aesthetic experimentation, raising questions about how race, gender, and music hierarchies are linked through questions of labor on the island. The fourth chapter presents a contrastive case study around the aural economy of “el paquete,” an alternative mode of internet consumption in Cuba that circumvents limited access in the island. Taken together, these chapters approach sound as an entry point into the multiple ways in which the mutual relationships between work and life are articulated and contested in contemporary Cuba, linking the affective and the aesthetic with the economic and the infrastructural.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Ochoa Gautier, Ana M.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 17, 2020