emmanuel martinez one day cigar roller panama caribbean

One Day in the Life of Emmanuel Martinez

For Emmanuel Martinez, there’s no time to spare in the morning. Every second is accounted for. As the neighborhood he lives in awakes to the sound of barking dogs and crowing roosters, he gets up, takes a shower, gets dressed and leaves. All within 15 minutes. Yet he leaves the house a very well-groomed young man.


emmanuel martinez panama caribbean cigar factory

Photo: Fredrik Svensson

We exit the front door of the almost mansion-like, unfinished home he shares with his two brothers and which, for some reason, features an abundance of Mexican souvenirs and posters from Alaska on the living room walls. Colorful hats and maracas share the vertical space in the house with pictures of seals, bears and bald eagles.

We walk down towards the Pan-American Highway as outside patio lights are still lit all around the area. Emmanuel says hello to everyone he passes with a suspicious pride, and right before 6.30am we arrive at the bus stop. “Every day I’m here at the same time,” he says and smiles. “It’s all calculated down to the last second.”

The 24-year-old started working as a roller at the Panama Caribbean Cigar Factory, one of very few, if not the only, serious factories in the country, four years ago. Since cigar culture in Panama is nowhere near as prominent as in many of its neighboring countries, Emmanuel knew nothing about cigars before he started there. “Absolutely nothing, and it’s the same with basically all my colleagues. I don’t even know anyone who smokes cigars.”

It takes a long time to put on the final wrapper of a torpedo.

He used to work on his parents’ farm, growing corn, but then this job was recommended to him, and the reason he took it was to pay for university. At the moment he studies English, so three nights a week, the factory owner, David Reynaga, drives Emmanuel to the nearby city of David to attend a five-hour English class, which means that he gets home at around eleven o’clock. “I’ve been doing this for a couple of months now and I’d like to work in tourism, like on the Panama Canal or as a tourist guide at a hotel. A lot of foreigners visit this country, so there are more opportunities if you know English. It’s just easier to get a job that pays well.”

Time Efficiency in the Morning

A couple of minutes later a mini bus arrives and we embark. “There are buses that come down my way, but they’re always filled with students, so I walk up here,” he explains. Indeed, the bus is not that full of people, and ten minutes later, we get off near a square in the center of La Concepción.

emmanuel martinez portrait rolling panama caribbean cigar factory

Photo: Fredrik Svensson

“This is where I buy my breakfast every day,” Emmanuel says as he orders coffee, a grilled pork chop and some sort of deep fried corn dough at a small food cart on the corner. “I eat it at the first break at 9.30am.” We walk back to the bus stop and take the same bus, which for some reason hasn’t left yet, up to the factory. The time is 7 o’ clock, on the dot, when we arrive. “See, always on time,” he says, and another charming smile breaks out.

After punching in, he immediately sits down and starts working. Headphones are put on and the rolling begins. The interaction between co-workers is limited at first and Emmanuel, like every one else, seems to get straight to his duties. “When the buncher passes me a cigar I check it to see that the edges are fine. If not, I pass it back to the buncher for him to fix it. Then I apply the wrapper, which ultimately makes the presentation of the cigar.”

According to him, the most difficult part of his job is rolling a torpedo. “It takes a long time to put on the final wrapper, since you have to make the cone at the end,” he explains while making a circle on the tip with a little piece of wrapper to finish up a proper torpedoshaped specimen. The ambience in the factory is very relaxed.

A fan provides a well-needed breeze in an otherwise humid environment, and cracks in the polystyrene ceiling reveal the unused upper floor in this former textile factory. In a big storage space at the back part of the factory lie tobaccos and discarded cigars amongst scattered cardboard boxes and some old machinery.

The owner moseys along while the employees chat quietly, listen to music and generally just seem to get on well. “They’re all good people. We all live in different places so we don’t really hang out outside of work, but they’re like my second family,” Emmanuel says.

God is Everything

At the end of the day the conversation volume gets louder. The heat and humidity has increased and it’s obvious the day is coming to an end. At four o’clock Emmanuel punches out, but before that, David Reynaga asks us to take a photo of his staff. They all walk outside and pose in front of the factory, making the atmosphere even more jovial and relaxed than before.

emmanuel martinez portrait home from work panama caribbean cigar factory

Photo: Fredrik Svensson

We take a nice, 15-minute walk through a colorful and heavily vegetated residential area that has a Caribbean vibe to it, down to the center of town. Two short stops at a shoe store and a hardware store later, we take the bus back to his neighborhood, Veinti Enero, which means January 20.

“I don’t know why it’s called that, to be honest. It must be an important date,” he explains with the typical selective interest of a young man. Monday to Wednesday means English classes, but this is Thursday, which means time to relax. “Sometimes I stop by a friend’s house to hang out for a while; other times I just go straight home and spend time with my brothers.”

emmanuel martinez relaxing at home panama caribbean cigar factory

Photo: Fredrik Svensson

Friday and Saturday, however, means church. Emmanuel belongs to the Evangelical church, and it’s a very important part of his life, to say the least. “God is everything. Without him we are nothing, and we have to thank him for our home and family. I’m a calm person and I don’t have any vices. I don’t smoke and I’m respectful to other people.”

He picks up some soda, meat and a few other items before we head back to his house, which could have been featured in any form of scary B-movie if it were only a bit bigger.

The exterior is only half finished, and inside, wires are hanging from the ceiling. One of the rooms upstairs partly lacks a floor, proving it to be a perfect setting for the final showdown of a Hitchcock movie. Still, it’s a very nice house, owned by a third brother. “When it’s done, it’s going to be great,” Emmanuel says.

“Where is my Antenna?”

His brothers are at home watching TV when we enter the house. Emmanuel goes into the kitchen and pours us some soda before he sits down on a flowery couch and slouches there for a while, next to his brothers and a visiting friend of the family’s. After a while, Leonardo, the third brother and house owner, comes in. It turns out he speaks English and has worked on a cruise ship. Suddenly the many Alaska posters and travel souvenirs make sense, and it’s pretty obvious where Emmanuel gets his inspiration and urge to study English.

Every night I lie down and listen to Christian music.

He shows us his bedroom, where he spends some time relaxing before actually going to bed. It has started to rain and the chickens in the backyard are taking shelter as the rain drops hitting the tiled roof make the rain sound much heavier than it is.

“Where is my antenna?” he says, looking around the room. “Every night I lie down and listen to Christian music and pray for a while before I go to sleep.” In one corner, his clothes are hung up on a line that goes from one wall to the adjacent one.

emmanuel martinez relaxing at home dream of alaska

Photo: Fredrik Svensson

“Oh here it is!” he exclaims, as he finds a coat hanger underneath the bed. He jams it into a small radio and turns it on. Christian music fills the room. “And this is my Bible,“ he continues, showing us a tiny book with a homemade cover, featuring a little girl, which looks like it has been cut out of a children’s book.

“Every day I give thanks to the Lord for me and my family and for giving us another day. If you sometimes feel bad in your search for God, he comforts you and you feel better in God’s care.”

We say our good-byes as Emmanuel gets ready for bed and a good night’s sleep, overseen by a higher power, before another 15-minute morning of time precision and routine behavior prepares him for another day at work.

All in a pursuit of an English-speaking job, perhaps on a cruise ship going to Alaska? Only God knows.


This article was published in the Cigar Journal Spring Edition 2014. Read more

Since graduating with an engineering degree in surveying in 2005, Simon Lundh has preferred to follow a profession in journalism. He stumbled upon the cigar world while working for a non-governmental organization in Estelí, Nicaragua, and is now mainly making a living writing about cigars, metal music, tattoos, and travel.


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