Jan 13, 2016

Eduvigis Respall, A Well-Connected Businesswoman

Everyone in the blocks around Pepe Prats’ tienda, and at city hall, everyone knew Eduvigis. More importantly, Eduvigis knew everyone and what they were up to. She could keep a confidence, or spread news instantly with her connections. She wasn’t a gossip, but she was the go-to person when you wanted to know something about someone else. Until the government changed in 1959 she would lobby politicians to support worthy causes, or just to get a pothole fixed, or to put pressure on a landlord to fix someone’s roof. She was not political, she just knew how to navigate and cajole the bureaucracy on someone’s behalf.

Lady of the House:
Madam, no one except you is interested in the
well-being of your daughter. The Academy of Sewing
at No. 4 Avellaneda Street of Mrs. Eduvigis Respall
is offering a new classes in Sewing, Painting,
Sewing Machine Work, Typing and Artificial Flower
Arranging, in all levels.
This Academy awards Diplomas that can be acquired
in a short time.

Awaiting the favor of your welcome visit,
and your enrollment in these new classes,
I remain yours attentively,
Eduvigis R. de Prats, Director

Remember that Flowers are the Femenine
Adornment par excelence.
She did all this while raising a family, helping her husband with the grocery shop next door, and teaching classes at her home. She taught typing, stenography, and a range of sewing classes including creating garments from patterns, garment fitting and construction, and the use of the sewing machine. It was not one-on-one classes; her classes were multiple student classes. 

She even had a school song for her sewing classes. 

Her son Benito was her mechanic, fixing up and maintaining typewriters and sewing machines she acquired second-hand or in a pawn, and setting them up before class time. Surprisingly, she herself did not sew that much and did not know how to type, she just knew how to teach and taught very well according to testimonials from her students. She used commericially available books of lessons and would modify the course to match her students’ circumstances and capabilities. Students, mostly girls and young women, came from all over the city to take her courses. Benito admitted to a few crushes in his youth.

And she ran an unofficial pawn shop (casa de empeño) from the shop. It started naturally when a customer at the store could not come up with the money to pay their tab and offered to put up collateral until next pay day. She would determine its value and hold it. And she would explain that if it was not retrieved in a certain time she had the right to sell it to satisfy the debt. When it became generally known that Eduvigis would make loans in exchange for an object, people would discreetly check in with her when they needed cash. A sewing machine or typewriter pawned meant one more student could be added to a class. Jewelry and other items not redeemed were traded for cash elsewhere, including with family she had in Havana. She was not only a teacher but she was also a business woman.

Singer Featherweight
In his late eighties Eduvigis’ son
Benito cleaned and oiled a Feather-
weight for a daughter-in-law and told
her that some of the sewing machines
at his mother’s academy
were Singer Featherweights
Eduvigis had a large number of Respall cousins in Havana, and she kept in touch. They would occasionally drop by and she would put them up while they conducted business in town.  I’m sure Pepe Prats would also take the opportunity to question them on what new things were in style at the capital that he should get into his shop ahead of his competitors.  One day, Eduvigis got a telegram from a cousin letting her know that his stage show was a success in Havana and they would like to take it on tour.  If she could inquire about renting a theatre and a piano for them in Camaguey they would appreciate it.

She made the arrangements, but also she made sure that her cousins wired money for down payments, permits, and all out-of-pocket expenses like tickets and handbill printing costs. She was no fool, she knew you only fronted money for family if you could afford to lose it.  She also talked up this latest revue direct from Havana to her many acquaintances and sold advance tickets to the show. 

The relatives and their troupe arrived on the overnight train from Havana the day of the first performance. Opening night came and she was all dolled up in a front-row seat. But she left before the end of the first act! She was mortified! Her cousins had neglected to let her know that their stage show was burlesque in drag, and with risqué jokes and lyrics! Men dressed as women may have been nothing special at the capital, but here in the provinces it was just not done!  She was a respectable woman! And she herself had sold tickets to her friends and neighbors!  The shame! Her son Benito, who told me this story, said she made apologies and laid low for a few weeks until the scandal blew over.

Eduvigis was a very thrifty woman, sometimes verging on tight. At the same time she was very generous, forgiving debt handing out free groceries when someone truly could not pay, and giving odd jobs to down-on-their-luck people. And she was very loyal to those that were loyal to her. It was common in that era to hire servants to help around the house cooking, cleaning, taking care of children, running errands. She employed one and would throw a fit whenever they gave her notice they were quitting, which happened more often that it should, and always about money. “How could you leave me after all I’ve done for you!” “But madam, they are offering me more money.” “You came here not knowing how to do anything and I taught you how to do it all. Have you no loyalty?” “But madam, I asked you for a raise last week and you said no. I would be pleased to stay if you could raise my pay.” “What?  Absolutely not! I’m paying you more than you’re worth. Don’t bother with the week’s notice, you need to leave right now!”

She had to be thrifty because the Prats were not rich. The store and her classes let them get by comfortably enough because of their hard work.  Her children Benito and Olga had a happy childhood and got a good education and were successful in their careers. The Prats Respall family, which included Rufina Pereira, Eduvigis’ mother  —everyone called her Paita—  and Paita’s grandniece Bertha, who lived with her, were very close. Pepe Prats had died before Benito left Camaguey for Maryland with his family, but Benito left behind his mother, Bertha and Paita, and Olga and her family. He had no way of knowing how long he was going to be away, and he certainly did not think it was going to be for the rest of his life, but that is how it worked out. Eduvigis, like her mother Paita, lived a long and energetic life, dying at 93 at home with her family.

Eduvigis Respall Pereira and her husband
José Prats Amat
Top Row: Eduvigis Respall, Benito Prats, Olga Prats, José Prats
Second Row: Rufina Pereira, her brother-in-law Pablo Respall
and his wife Aurora Hidalgo
By the time of this photograph, Rufina was a widow. Her husband was named Casimirio Respall and he had been a shopkeeper. Rufina's and Casimirio's son Porfirio Respall was was a surgeon, most likely in Mexico City when the photograph was taken. He would return and be killed in cold blood, but that's another story. Pablo and Aurora's son Raul Respall was also a medical doctor. Benito followed in his cousins’ footsteps.

In the 1980s: Eduvigis and her young neighbor, Fidelito