Sacred Gowns

Eusebio Escobar may dream of a career as a fashion designer, but his current line is doing well: Haute couture Santería

Growing up in Pinar del Rio, Escobar knew little of Afro-Cuban religion. His family did not practice the syncretic rituals of Santería, nor were they Catholics. His father was a "cumminist," Escobar explains, mispronouncing the English word. He believed only in the revolution. The elder Escobar worked for the police and held various positions in the local government that to this day his son knows little about.

Escobar frequently disagreed with his father, and instead favored his maternal grandfather, an artist who attended the esteemed San Alejandro Academy in Havana. His mother also studied painting in school but gave it up to raise Eusebio and his four siblings. Like his mother he was always captivated by art, and was especially interested in the spectacle of theater and dance. He began attending local productions at a young age and decided to enroll in the city's arts school to study ballet. "But my father wouldn't let me," he sighs, scratching his bristly goatee. "He said art school was for maricones ["faggots"]. Well, I didn't go to the art school, but I'm still gay."

After high school he got a job as a window dresser at a government department store, then started sewing at a state-run bridal studio. (Without the means to buy or make a wedding dress, brides-to-be in contemporary Cuba rent their gowns from such establishments, found in towns across the island.) "It was nice work but a little boring for me," recalls Escobar. "Everything was white, white, white, and I love color."

Escobar in his workshop
Escobar in his workshop

Taking the advice of a friend who was a dancer at the Cabaret Criollo, he applied for a job as a costume designer, and was contracted to conceive and create the outfits for the club's productions. He was paid ten pesos an hour, and his earnings per month were worth less than a dollar at the time. After a year he moved to another cabaret in Pinar del Rio, the Rumbavana. His salary was about the same. "I worked for nothing, really," he says. "But I loved it."

To make extra cash, he designed sexy party dresses for the dancers, sewing in his room at his mother's house (his parents had divorced) on an ancient pedal-powered machine that had belonged to his grandmother. His couture line was so successful that near the holiday season he had to turn away some girls and discourage new customers by telling them the machine was broken, using the excuse of shortages in Cuba to pretend it couldn't be fixed. "They'd be running all over town searching for a screw or something," chuckles Escobar. "Of course they'd never find it."

The intrepid designer also created naif landscape paintings and sold them as souvenirs to tourists he met at the cabaret. His new foreign friends enchanted him with stories of the elaborate productions staged in theaters in Europe and the United States. In 1995 Escobar entered the lottery for a U.S. visa and to his surprise, he won. He called several of the foreigners he had befriended at the nightclub, who sent him enough money for a plane ticket. When he arrived in this country, the Immigration and Naturalization Service relocated him to Las Vegas. To Escobar it seemed like kismet.

"I thought, with my skills in the cabaret, I'll find work here," he remembers. "But you know, life in the United States is very different, so different. I didn't know anybody. I spoke a little English, so I started looking for work."

He'd hoped to land a job sewing dancers' costumes like the ones he made in Pinar del Rio, but he had no luck penetrating Las Vegas's nightlife industry. Finally he met someone who had a contact at a company that produced casino revues. He set up an appointment for an interview, and spent days sketching so he'd have a portfolio to show. "The problem was I couldn't arrive on time," recalls Escobar. He hadn't yet learned to drive, so he tried to use the public bus system, but he was so delayed in getting to the office it had already closed for the day. Humiliated, he gave up on his dream and took a job as baggage handler at the airport. He then went to work in a plastics factory. He didn't last long.

After about a year in Las Vegas, Escobar decided to come to Miami. Like most Cubans, he knew people here. The father of a childhood friend gave him a place to stay. "He was a santero," Escobar says. "He was very involved in the religion, making clothes." Escobar, of course, was a natural at sewing the satin garments, and began working for his landlord, who introduced him to the basic tenets of Santería.

"When I started doing this I didn't know anything about the religion," he recalls. "When you're working for the cabaret, you don't have rules. Only that the costumes have to go with the number and be comfortable for the choreography. You can combine colors and use your imagination. But if you're making an outfit for Shangó, he has to be red and not blue. Oshún has to be yellow; she can't be red. You can create, but always within the rules, or else you're disrespecting your religion."

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