MACHETES AND POETRY READINGS
If you ask connoisseurs why Havana cigars are the most desired and expensive in the world, they will mention a small tract of reddish clay soil near the town of Vuelta Abajo, outside Havana. "It's the area that grows the best tobacco in Cuba, and probably in all the world," says Doris Sommer, professor of Romance languages and literatures. "Tobacco is fussy about where it will grow: you can't have enormous tobacco plantations. The plant has to be cultivated often--tended, weeded, caressed. And there's skill in harvesting tobacco: you have to cut the leaves in the right place, and pile them so they are not creased and cracked, or they won't make good cigars."
Rolling cigars also requires trained labor. "Cigar production is an industry that typically did not use machinery," says Sommer. "Instead, skilled workers sat around tables in large, quiet rooms, de-veining tobacco leaves and rolling cigars. Since it was quiet, the workers could hire readers to read aloud to them as they worked--newspapers, novels, poetry, political tracts. There grew up a class of workers who might be illiterate, but were intellectually sophisticated, who knew what was happening, and were even conversant with Marx and Engels."
In part because these cigar rollers were not easily replaceable, Cuban tobacco workers had notable success in organizing labor unions. In fact, Samuel Gompers, who became the first president of the American Federation of Labor, got his start in the 1860s among cigar workers in New York City, including many who had emigrated from the Caribbean.
In her research and her course Spanish 186, "Tobacco and Sugar," Sommer explores such aspects of tobacco culture, and contrasts them with the culture of sugar, which produced starkly different results in Latin America.
Unlike finicky tobacco, sugarcane grows like a weed. It requires little tending, and sugarcane plantations can be huge. "Sugar meant concentrated wealth, slave labor, and violence, a system of dominance rather than democracy," Sommer says. "On these plantations, there was large-scale production and unskilled, undifferentiated labor. All you needed was a good arm with a machete for chopping cane in the hot sun. The slave owners could predict that a good worker would last seven years--and then die of mistreatment, from torture and overwork. Sugar culture was also a magnet for foreign investment and, consequently, foreign interventions."
Both crops were grown in Cuba, which stimulated Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz to contrast them in his 1940 work Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azúcar (The Cuban counterpoint of tobacco and sugar), a key inspiration for Sommer's research into the connection between agriculture and culture. She has extended Ortiz's insights into the humanities, collecting and organizing Latin American literature that reflects characteristic traits of "tobacco culture" and "sugar culture." ("It's seductive anthropology," Sommer admits. "Reading some of these books makes you want to light up a cigar and smoke it.")
Largely because of black slavery on sugar plantations, blacks are more involved in the sugar aesthetic in Latin America, and whites in tobacco culture, Ortiz argued. In her course, Sommer analyzes books like El reino de este mundo (The kingdom of this world) by the Cuban Alejo Carpentier, a novel published in 1949 that explores the Haitian uprisings of the 1790s, after exploitation on the sugar plantations had pushed Haitian society to the breaking point. According to Sommer, the novel shows that after the revolution, "the structures of oppression proved to be so deep that they repeated themselves under black leadership."
In contrast, a tobacco story like Juan Bosch's 1936 novel La mañosa portrays the life of a tobacco grower in the Dominican Republic, of which Bosch later became president. Significantly, the story is set in the center of the country. Coastal regions grew sugar and had strong business ties to the United States, but the tobacco farmers of the interior had stronger links to Germany and France, and were consequently more independent of American interests. The novel, set amid the prolonged civil wars in the Dominican Republic before 1920, concerns the cordial relations, the easy social continuities, among small tobacco growers and their respected workers. It evokes a period that ended with the takeover by American-backed dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo in 1930.
The links between literature and cash crops fascinate Sommer, who cautions, nevertheless, that botany is not destiny. Historical context matters: in North America, tobacco was grown with slave labor long before cotton became king. But wherever they are cultivated, the economic potency of tobacco and sugar grows from their status as tastes that have developed into needs, if not outright addictions. "In cross-cultural perspective, tobacco and sugar do not define cultural practices as completely as lore suggests," Sommer says. "Yet the Spanish Caribbean as an area defines its cultural history through these two products."
~ Craig Lambert