Fernando’s Footsteps

by Tony Carreño

 

Ignacio handed his two curved knives to one of the sharpeners. Fernando noticed that they were very impressive looking, with beautiful hardwood handles. Ignacio turned toward his old friend.

"Estas se llaman 'chavetas'. Son las herramientas más importantes para nosotros que hacemos puros a mano. Se usa para cortar las hojas de tabaco en una manera muy precisa. Tienes que siempre mantenerlas muy bien afiladas, y nadie puede hacerlo mejor que los gallegos."

Zapato explained to Gaitero that these cutting tools were called "chavetas". They were used by the cigar rollers to cut the tobacco leaves in a very precise manner. It was crucial that they always be well-sharpened, and no one could do this better than the Galicians.

As Ignacio retrieved his two chavetas, he placed some coins in a wooden cigar box attached to the wheelbarrow of his sharpener. The Galician smiled and tipped his black beret in appreciation. He then explained to Fernando that these men made a decent living utilizing their skills in Tampa. In addition to keeping the chavetas in proper form, they would wander the streets of Ybor City and West Tampa offering their services to households and restaurants. Each man had a type of whistle that they would blow, making their presence known. Curiously, they were also known to repair umbrellas....an unusual combination. Ignacio elaborated further.

"También sirven como un periódico porque saben todo lo que está pasando en el barrio. Mientras sus clientes esperan, los afiladores les dan todos los chismes y noticias. 'Fulano se casa con tal fulanita'...'El hijo de Casimira regresa a españa'....'La pescaría siciliana en La Séptima tiene pargo a la venta hoy'"....etc.

Most interestingly, Ignacio went on to explain that the sharpeners also served as a type of newspaper or town crier...informing everyone as to the local news and gossip. Who's marrying whom, who is returning to Spain, what's on sale at the Sicilian fish market, etc.

Fernando was intrigued by this. He had seen the sharpeners on the streets in Havana, but didn't realize the unique role they played in the community.

"Zapato, explícame más cómo encuentras tu trabajo, como son las fábricas de puros? Que clase de trabajo puedo conseguir en ellas?"

Fernando had asked Ignacio to explain more about working in a cigar factory. What is it like? What kind of work might he find in them? Though he had lived in Cuba for four years, he knew little about the subject since he had been a stevedore.

Ignacio reminded him that Tampa was emerging as a world center of cigar manufacturing. The political stability and low import duties on Cuban tobacco had served the manufacturers well. The city, eager to lure new industry, had promised the factory owners protection from labor strife. Factories were relocating from other cities at a rapid rate...from New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Atlanta, and others. The future looked promising for an ambitious young man who was interested in learning the business.

 Zapato went on to elaborate on what could be expected. There were many different jobs in the factories. These included menial labor such as unloading bales of tobacco, the shipping of completed boxes of cigars, etc. "Strippers" removed stems from the leaves. "Banders" would place the signature foil bands on completed cigars, and "sorters" would place cigars in boxes to maximize the visual appeal. This means clustering by similar size and color. The most valued jobs, after supervisors and foremen, were the "selectors". After the tobacco leaves were stripped, they would sort them by quality. Ignacio proudly told Fernando that he had worked his way up to being a master cigar roller....a valued and well-paid position in the factory. The highest quality tobacco leaves were reserved for him and his fellow master rollers.

Fernando was learning that the cigar industry was not unlike the wine or jewelry business. It produces desirable products of variable quality and had a following of aficionados. It seems to be a subculture onto itself.

"Gaitero, voy a mi trabajo cada día vestido con camisa blanca, con mangas largas, y una corbata. Lo que hago es una arte...y me gusta muchísimo. Tengo mucho orgullo en lo que he logrado. Tengo una vida muy buena aquí en Tampa. Te deseo lo mismo, hermano."

Ignacio told Fernando that he went to work every day dressed in a white, long-sleeved shirt, with a tie. His work was considered an art, and he was very proud of what he had accomplished. He lived well in Tampa and wished the same for his best friend.

Fernando had a new appreciation for the industry that was drawing so many immigrants to Tampa and propelling its incredible growth. He found himself anxious for Monday to arrive.

"Zapato, me puedes enseñar ahora mismo cómo hacer un buen puro de mano?"

Gaitero had asked Ignacio if he could show him right now how to roll a fine cigar. The response was a look of surprise, with a broad smile.

"Paciencia, mi amigo..paciencia."

"Patience, my friend...patience" was Ignacio's reply.

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This is a work of fiction. With the exception of references to known and publicly documented historical entities, the following apply:

Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. ©Tony Carreño 2020