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May 28, 2010

The Cigar Maker by Mark Carlos McGinty

Reviewed by L. Gregory Graham

The book follows the life of Salvador Ortiz, his friends, and his family as they struggle against first the Spanish repression and occupation of Cuba at the turn of the twentieth century, and then the economic repression of the Cuban expatriots in Tampa. In Florida, the story centers on the cigar making industry, and its fight to unionize against the wishes of the factory owners and white society in general. I am probably making the book sound tamer than it really is. There are desperados, kidnappings, cane fields set afire, riots, arson, stabbings, strikes, mercy killings, and desperate treks through tropical jungles. Through it all, Salvador is a modern day Odysseus desiring nothing more than home and family as the world sets one sinister obstacle after another before him.

Before reading this book, I knew three facts about this era. I knew that the battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor precipitating the Spanish American War, I knew that Teddy Roosevelt gained fame charging up San Juan Hill, and I knew that cigar makers used to have men read to them at work while they made their cigars.

This book fills in all the blanks. It details the Ten Years War for independence in Cuba before the Spanish American War allowing us to understand the bitterness of the Cubans against their Spanish overlords, it takes us into the mind set of Cuban immigrants learning to adapt and thrive in a sometimes hostile, sometimes merely uncaring United States, and it leads us deep into the conditions that brought on the very first attempts at unionizing industry. The book also tells of the lectors. The men who read to the cigar workers as they worked turning the workers into educated, motivated men despite their illiteracy, and inability to speak English.

At the center of it all, Salvador, a poor native Cuban and his wife Olympia, the daughter of Spanish landed gentry raise three sons and a daughter fighting poverty, and disease first in Havana and then in Tampa.
Salvador is the best drawn of all the characters. He is a poor Cuban peasant far wiser than he realizes. Olympia, a child of luxury, becomes his wife after she is driven from her family when they discover that she is pregnant. An insurgent raped her while she was being held for ransom. Together they form an unlikely family that moves to Florida to make better lives for themselves and their children repeating the journey that all our families have made.

What I enjoyed most about the book is Salvador’s family life. Like most families, they fight, disagree, quarrel, love and celebrate. We get beautiful glimpses of Cuban culture, and Cuban society. We learn of the common people who never lead charges, build skyscrapers, or become captains of industry, and yet are quietly heroic as they sacrifice for their families and their children’s future. The story here is about a Cuban American family, but in a real sense, it is about every immigrant family that dared to risk everything in the hope of making a better life.

The book is a little long. In some respects I wish it were two books. The first book devoted to how Salvador transitioned from peasant insurrectionist to cigar maker in Cuba, and the second book devoted to their life in Tampa’s Ybor City adapting to American ways and the changing cigar industry. I’d recommend it to anyone like myself who enjoys probing into the neglected corners of history, and to those who wish to understand Cuban expatriots in south Florida and their curious love/hate relationship with Cuba.

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