Bringing the original ‘makers’ from Cuba to Miami

Cubans’ ability to adapt to perennial scarcity, perhaps most iconically illustrated with the “Frankenstein” cars that make loops around Havana as shared taxis, has become a defining characteristic of the national character — the resolver mindset.

So when the Miami Mini Maker Faire team began organizing year’s event, happening this weekend, it seemed the perfect time to invite some Cuban colleagues adept at making a lot with very little.

“I saw a clear parallel between the sort of ingenuity that Cuban entrepreneurs display in a lot of the work they do on the island … and the values the Maker Faire promotes,” said Ric Herrero, the lead producer of Miami Maker Faire.

The maker movement has burgeoned across the country in the last few years, driven by a desire to get back to the basics, to stop purchasing a replacement every time something breaks instead of fixing it, and to build more locally, Herrero said. With South Florida right at the top of the Kauffman Index’s list of places with the most startup activity, the DIY attitude is strong here.

Few countries encapsulate that better than Cuba, where the US trade embargo has made scarcity a constant facet of life there.  

“You basically have a grassroots, needs-based maker movement. A lot of the activity you see in the larger maker movement has been happening in Cuba for a long time,” Herrero said, himself a Cuban-American whose work promotes stronger US engagement with Cuba.

“One of the things folks here can learn from Cubans is having the mindset and resourcefulness to create social and economic value using less resources — doing more with less, essentially.”

The chairs displayed by Jose Antonio Villa and Raiko Valladares, both 28 and two of the 11 “makers” invited to Miami for the event, are the perfect illustration.

Made of steel pipe and brightly colored PVC rope — the stuff jump ropes are made out of — their VIBRA chairs were originally designed in May for a music event in Havana and meant to mimic sound waves.

The chairs by Villa and Vallares are made of steel pipe and PVC rope, more commonly used for clotheslines and gas piping in homes.

“The idea was to create innovative furniture with the kind of materials we could find in Cuba,” Villa said.

They wanted to make something new out of materials that are usually disparaged. Valladares added, “There was a negative association on the use of this material because it’s been used for all sorts of quick fixes and to make poorly designed furniture, and so we wanted to do something much more innovative to break that impression.”

Today, they sell for $400 each to the Cuban elite, mostly composed of artists, along with international buyers.

But what the two young men said they envy most about the entrepreneur scene in Miami is not the how plentiful materials are or the cutting edge machines (although when asked which machines they most want in Cuba, they laughingly said “all of them”). It is our plethora of coworking spaces. They’ve spent the last week working at the Industrial Arts Complex and have also visited The LAB.

Under the Cuban political system, spaces with multiple owners and memberships that bring even more people together are illegal. The closest thing they have is La Fabrica de Arte Cubana (the Cuban Art Factory), a former peanut oil factory, which is part movie theater, part studio, part playhouse, part dance club, and part gallery. Its complex ownership structure manages to keep it just on the right side of the law. That’s where Herrero met Villa and Valladares and many other entrepreneurs pushing the expanding political and artistic boundaries in Cuba.

“We think its something that is much needed to foster greater creativity and entrepreneurship,” Valladares said.

The two men are joined by nine other “makers,” including Nelson Ponce, a graphic designer known worldwide for his iconic movie posters. They’ll all be displaying their work together on a pavilion at the event and joined by four Cuban performers.

This year also includes a speaker from Buenos Aires, and Herrero hopes to grow the number of participants from beyond the United States.

According to Herrero, “Starting this year, we are beginning to position the fair as the Maker Faire of the Americas.”