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The Slow & Graceful Decline of the Tobacco Leaf: Part 1
Paolo Renteria saved every telegram and letter he received in an old cedar cigar box. His wife Mabell urged him to dispose of the useless scraps. Burn them, throw them in the garbage, toss them in the water. What good could they do? Paolo insisted they may prove useful later on. There could be a small piece of information he would need to recall, or a name or a date. Plus, he liked to sort through them every now and again to recall the memories each message evoked. They were part of his history and his person, and they were hidden away in a cigar box out of sight where Mabell would never notice them, thank you very much.
This latest message was from Tampa and would certainly be something he would hold onto for a very long time. He locked himself in his dark study on the top floor of the mansion, with a glass of even darker rum beside him at the table, his legs crossed on the couch while he contemplated the impact of the message. He looked at the telegram for possibly the seventh or eighth time, he wasn’t counting. The words informed him that his brother Armando was dead and that the Vasquez factory had burned to the ground.
A citywide cigar workers’ strike that lasted for months ended with a fire that destroyed nearly half of Ybor City, the workers’ enclave and home to hundreds of cigar factories. Armando and the Vasquez factory had apparently been casualties of the violence.
Paolo poured half the rum into his mouth, and tilted his head back to let the warm liquid sting the back of his throat as he swallowed. He lit a Vasquez and Company Don Florentino, his top buyer’s signature label, and began to plan his next move.
Paolo had owned the tobacco and his brother Armando owned the cigar factories where their leaves were rolled into the world’s best cigars. With Armando now dead, Paolo’s biggest source of revenue had died along with him. Outside, the Renteria family tobacco farm stretched acres in every direction surrounding the stone mansion that had stood for almost a hundred years. The structure had been built by slave labor and maintained by Cubans and Spaniards to whom Renteria paid mere pesos, but it symbolized the family wealth that stretched from Cuba to Jacksonville, Florida. The decline of the tobacco leaf symbolized its undoing.
Paolo had no idea how his brother died, but his gut told him that the Vasquez factory fire was an act of revenge that evoked the Cuban bandit mantra of “the machete and the torch.”
Paolo would find new buyers for his tobacco. The industry was strong and cigar manufacturers were always in search of quality raw material. The bigger loss was Armando and more importantly, his brother’s vast revenue stream. Armando owned shares in several cigar factories and retail outlets but his chief source of income was Tampa’s bolita, a weekly lottery played with fervor by the city’s thousands of cigar makers. The game was not officially sanctioned. It was run by the underworld culture, a world of intimidation and secret payoffs to police who looked the other way. Paolo always worried his brother would get mixed up in the seedy practices of the illegal game, and had a feeling the game may have finally caught up to Armando.
Paolo placed the telegram in his cedar box along with a stack of old letters and telegrams: business correspondence, old love letters from Mabell, and the last letter his mother had written to him. He sipped his rum and puffed his Don Florentino. With Armando dead and the Vasquez factory burned to the ground, what was he to do now?
Paolo picked up a scratch pad and jotted some arithmetic. The loss of the Vasquez revenue stream was dire, but his bank account was healthy and there were enough receivables on his books to stay afloat as long as he found a new buyer within thirty days. But who?
Paolo finished his rum and began to pace across his study. He looked through the curtains to his tobacco plantation outside. “No life form on this planet undergoes such a slow and graceful death as the tobacco leaf,” he muttered. The harvest was underway, which means the plantation workers would soon rotate fresh leaves into storage where aged leaves were being packaged and prepared for shipping to Tampa. Most were stamped with the Vasquez factory address but now Paolo would need to delay that shipment. A trip to Tampa would be necessary.
Paolo needed to travel north to recover his brother’s body. While he was there he would meet with the Cigar Trust, Tampa’s organization of cigar manufacturers formed in reaction to the cigar workers’ union. The violent and prolonged general strike had already consumed the city of Tampa in recent months, while the newspapers reported of shootings, kidnappings and riots, all results of a complicated labor dispute that could not be resolved by negotiation. Suspecting Armando’s death was connected to the strike, Paolo wanted to get to the bottom of how his brother had died and he would try to find his answers in Tampa.
Outside the mansion the workers packed cured tobacco leaves onto horse-drawn carts for transportation to Havana, where they would be loaded onto a ship for Tampa. Paolo grabbed a tobacco knife and a harvester’s sack from the tool house and walked towards the endless rows of green tobacco leaves. He liked to work in the field among his men. Cutting the stalks of his plants was meditative and gave him time to sort out his thoughts. He lost himself in the fields, working for hours cutting tobacco plants and carrying them in his sack to unload in a nearby cart. He worked until sundown, when the supervisor, a lanky Cuban named Raul, rang a bell and called the workers back.
Paolo placed the last of his cut tobacco plants onto the cart and put away his tools. After a quick and quiet meal with Mabell, Paolo retired to bed.
The next morning he kissed his wife goodbye and hitched a ride on a wagon bound for Havana. Along with him in the cart were two hogsheads of tobacco leaves: a trio of giant wooden barrels 48 inches tall packed deep with Renteria family tobacco leaves, each barrel weighing close to 1000 pounds, enough for tens of thousands of cigars, and enough to keep Paolo’s plantation running for another year. If only he had a buyer.
Juan Gonzalez, owner of the Gonzalez Funeral Home in Ybor City stood beside the coffin with his clasped hands hanging reverently before him.
“He endured multiple stab wounds to the body before the assailant cut his throat,” said Gonzalez, “He’s been cleaned and prepped for burial but I’d warn against viewing the body. I did what I could to mask the neck wound, but unfortunately the cut is unmistakable.”
Knowing he needed to see his brother one last time, despite the state of the body. Paolo stepped toward the closed coffin and nodded to Señor Gonzalez to open the casket.
Paolo exhaled a sigh of relief. His brother looked better than he had expected. Fortunately, Armando’s black beard almost completely covered his neck. Paolo could barely see the ends of the cut extending from underneath each side of the black shelf of hair. The body was clothed in a suit, eyes closed, and the hands were clasped over its belly. Armando looked peaceful, and Paolo took comfort seeing his brother at rest.
After saying a brief prayer, Paolo nodded to the funeral director. “Thank you, Señor Gonzalez. I will take him and bury him back home in Cuba.”
“Murdered. Stabbed multiple times before his throat was cut. Armando had fought hard,” thought Paolo. “Surely, he must have landed some blows of his own, but eventually lost and died alone covered in his own blood.” Paolo wasn’t as angry as he thought he should be. All he wanted were answers.
“Perhaps the police can help you,” said Señor Gonzalez, seeming to read Paolo’s mind. The tobacco baron nodded and shook Gonzalez’s hand.
“I will return soon to take Armando. Thank you for everything you’ve done.”
Paolo’s next stop was to meet with McGrath, the Chief of Police, who had agreed to discuss Armando. They met at the Black Bean Café where they sipped coffee and ate pastries. McGrath drank his coffee quickly and seemed to be short on time, so Paolo got to the point.
“How did my brother die?”
“He was murdered.”
“I know that but what are the details? Who was this man who killed him?”
“More of a bandit than a cigar maker. A renowned troublemaker. Someone who had been expelled from this town twice but always found his way back. The man later received justice and died a death worse than the one he inflicted.”
“What was his name?”
“Juan Carlos Alvarez.”
They were quiet for a moment. McGrath wiped his mouth with a napkin. “I’m sorry for your loss, Señor Renteria. Your brother was an important man in this town, a vital piece of the economy which sadly made him a target for the less-fortunate.”
“He had a wife, at one time, but no children.”
“Is there anything else I can do?” McGrath asked.
“No, Mr. Chief. Thank you for your time.”
McGrath stood, shook Paolo’s hand and left the café. Paolo dipped the last bite of the pastry’s flaky dough and finished it while pondering how his conversation with Vasquez would go.
The cigar manufacturer was in an undesirable position, having cashed in the insurance policy on his factory to pay off debt just days before the fire consumed nearly all of his corporate assets, leaving Vasquez without a company and Paolo without a customer. Nevertheless, Paolo wanted to meet with the man whose family had partnered with the Renteria family for decades.
First, Vasquez took Paolo to the former site of the Vasquez factory on 22nd Street. It was nothing but an empty brick shell of a building with windows and doorways stained by soot. Mounds of rubble and debris surrounded the building; the charred insides had already been taken down and piled-up for removal.
“My lifelong empire,” Vasquez lamented. “My father’s empire. Gone.”
They were silent as they stood over the ashes.
Vasquez said, “This business of tobacco has always been a family affair.”
“And where will this business take your family now?”
Vasquez turned away from the crumbled ruins. “To the La Paz factory, where I will begin work as their foreman. It’s quite a step down from ownership, but it keeps me in the business, and a roof over my family.”
“I have almost two tons of the best tobacco in Cuba.”
“And I wish it were mine,” Vasquez smirked. “But alas, I am in no position to buy it.”
“What about the La Paz factory?”
Vasquez shook his head. “Eduardo La Paz has been buying his leaves from the Herrera plantation for years.”
Paolo nodded. Antonio Vasquez had confirmed his fears – his days of doing business with Vasquez and Company were over.
“I’m sorry, Paolo,” Vasquez said. “And I’m sorry about your brother. He was a vital component of Tampa commerce.” Vasquez never told Paolo that he was happy to be free of the Renteria family. That Armando had been a manipulative menace to the family business and had continuously marginalized Vasquez’s authority. Paolo would never know that his brother Armando had actually conspired, and failed, to have Vasquez killed.
“Thank you, Don Antonio,” Paolo said as they shook hands. It was time to move on.
Next, Paolo ventured to his brother’s apartment on Eighth Avenue, just a block from Centro Español, a local social club comprised of predominantly Spanish members. The landlord unlocked the door to Armando’s apartment and Paolo entered the dark foyer; the room smelled of lingering tobacco and stale rum. Paolo walked further into the apartment and smiled when we saw how Armando kept his possessions in order, just as he always had, even as a boy. The books were aligned neatly on the shelves, the desk had only one stack of papers and a small wooden fountain pen case. He also noticed that the floor had been swept and the lampshades dusted. It was so clean Paolo wondered if the landlord had stepped in to straighten up before Armando’s family arrived.
Paolo felt a little strange sifting through his brother’s possessions, but it was his duty to gather Armando’s things and return them home. He noticed a humidor near Armando’s leather couch and out of curiosity lifted the lid and looked inside. A total of six sticks: three Vasquez and Company maduros, a pair of shorties from the Cienfuegos factory, and a thin light-colored cigar with no label. Paolo lifted that mysterious cigar and held it to his nose for a quick whiff. A slight vanilla smell but also a musty staleness that told Paolo the cigar had been in Armando’s possession for some time. He put it back in place and closed the humidor.
Paolo sat at the desk and started shuffling through Armando’s papers. Bank statements, advertisements and fliers Armando had likely picked up from street-corner distributors and an agreement from the American Tobacco Company.
Paolo set the rest of the papers aside and quickly started reading the agreement. It was an offer to purchase Armando’s share in several cigar companies throughout Tampa. It seemed his brother was cashing out his interest in all cigar factories. “Why would he do that?” Paolo wondered. There was definitely a good reason why his brother was walking away from the business, and Paolo suspected it had something to do with his murder and that strike that preceded it.
Then it hit him. Paolo snapped his fingers. Of course-it was so simple! He’d form a partnership with the American Tobacco Company. American capital would then move south to take over the industry after supplanting Spain’s ownership of Cuba. Business was business and a partnership with American money was a sure bet.
There was a typewriter at a small writing table by the desk. Paolo brought the agreement with him as he moved to the typewriter and began typing a letter to the American Tobacco Company. He tried to suppress his grin, as if the spirit of his brother would frown at Paolo’s glee; the discovery that he could partner with the American firm.
Old world traditions had been dying for years. Tobacco was no longer a family affair. Paolo knew the industry was moving towards efficient means of production using quotas and tobacco weight restrictions. The workforce had unionized and expected to be paid benefits and incentives. Competition was robust and no longer could a tobacconist rely on the traditional means of operating. It was time to modernize, and Paolo would eagerly adapt.
He pulled the letter from the typewriter and signed his name to the bottom. Two days later he handed off three barrels of Cuban tobacco leaves to the American Tobacco Company in exchange for an attractive cashier’s check. Paolo looked at the amount and smiled as he pocketed the check. The boat ride back to Cuba was a mixture of serene reflection and giddy satisfaction. His brother’s coffin was aboard, and with it, all of Armando’s possessions. But Paolo’s tobacco leaves had successfully been delivered to Tampa and he was headed home to supervise the next harvest.
To be continued. . .
Next month: The American Tobacco Company buys the La Paz cigar factory while Antonio Vasquez supervises the conversion of Renteria family tobacco from leaf to finished cigars. For more background on the characters and situations check out The Cigar Maker, the award winning novel by Mark McGinty.