It’s easy to get lost in the endless rows of rollers and bunchers in Tabacalera de García, whose almost 5,000 employees comprise the biggest single cigar-factory workforce in the world. About 1,500 of them make handmade cigars, for example VegaFina, and at the very back of one of the big rooms sits one of the best. Above his head is a pennant that reads “ganador,” winner, and his red vest sports a badge that says “Expert Buncher.” But we’ll get back to that.
The enormous room is bustling with movement and sounds. Everywhere, people are squeezing past each other in the aisles narrowed by desks, supervisors and stacks of molds. Manuel Mota started working in this almost symphonic, out-of-tune, mechanical mixture of Kraftwerk and Verdi in 1996, when he was almost exactly 20 years old. “My first day was actually the day after my 20th birthday,” he says with a smile. “My brother, who had started working here three months earlier, told me to apply.”
Manuel’s supervisors saw something in him, more or less from the start. “I’ve never found this to be a hard job and I think they noticed that. My cigars were of good quality and I had a good flow, so whenever there were new products, they started with me. That was very motivating for me.” But it’s not always easy. “As the biggest cigar factory in the world, we have many clients. What they want us to do, we have to do. That could change from day to day and we have to adapt to that.”
Over the years, Manuel, now 40, has done so well that he was selected for the so-called master’s program in 2013. Through that, he became a certified roller, in addition to his former skills, and now he’s one of the company’s roughly 40 to 50 maestros. “ The colleagues nominate you, so I’m very thankful for them giving me this chance. In the first phase of the program we became ‘expert bunchers’ or ‘expert rollers,’ depending on what your position is. The second phase was learning the other part, in my case rolling. We spent six months taking courses and workshops, learning how to finish a cigar. Finally we became ‘cigar masters.’
” But Manuel didn’t just learn how to become a roller. “We got to see and learn about every step of the production, stuff that we didn’t know before, since you generally just know your own area. We visited the tobacco fields in Santiago. We learned etiquette, work ethics, protocol, and a little bit of English and how to express ourselves. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be able to be so relaxed with you now.”
It was also helpful when he was sent to represent the VegaFina brand in Spain a year ago. For two months he went from town to town rolling cigars at different events. “It felt like we almost covered the whole country. I rolled cigars and answered people’s questions, and in Seville the customers even got to roll their own cigars. Overall, I really enjoyed it. Spain is very similar to the Dominican in many ways. We speak the same language and we’re happy people whotry not to stress out too much.” But there were also differences. “They’re more organized and respectful. If there’s someone in front of you at the store, you wait your turn; cars don’t run red lights, and in parks, people with dogs even bring bags to pick up the dog poop.”
Despite working most of the time, there was also time for leisure, like in Bilbao, where he got to experience a football game. “Athletic Bilbao played Sporting Gijónand the atmosphere was crazy. There were 50,000 people in red and white and a lot of them even with painted faces. People’s reaction when they scored was incredible. You don’t see that at baseball games here. One goal in football is more emotional than 10 home runs in baseball. In the end, they won 3-0, and I even have a pin now,” he says and shows me his Athletic Bilbao memorabilia, placed slightly above his “Expert Buncher” badge. At 4.30pm Manuel finds his motorbike among the hundreds of others in the parking lot outside the railed exit lanes that remind me of the ones used at football stadiums. He puts on his bright red helmet and we take off back to his house in the center of La Romana, the city outside which Tabacalera de García is located.
We cruise through traffic, and the closer to the city we get, the more intense it becomes. Motorbikes weave in between cars; they’re all driving way too fast for my idea of law- abiding traffic behavior – not to mention for my poor and obviously fragile heart. Manuel’s neighborhood is the epitome of intensity, with street vendors, small fruit stands and stores everywhere.
“There are three major bus lines operating on this street,” he explains later. We turn into a small, narrow alley, lined with small pastel-colored houses; adults are sitting along the sides and shirtless kids are playing in the street. It has that Seventies Harlem feel to it that you see in movies. All that’s lacking is a leaking fire hydrant and a boom box playing Grand- master Flash.
We pull up to a small, bright yellow house next to a corner shop. “I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 20 years,” he tells me. “I’m comfortable here. It’s not a 10-pointer, and you see the occasional brawl between drunk people, but I know my neighbors, and it’s pretty calm.” He lives alone, but all his children live nearby with their respective mothers. We sit in the tiny kitchen when his youngest son, 11-year-old Emmanuel, comes in. “He’s really smart,” Manuel says proudly as his son looks slightly uncomfortable. “I have three kids with three different women, but I have a good relationship with all of them. I can go see my children whenever I want, or they come visit me.”
When he’s not spending time with his children, he practices the two most Dominican of hobbies, the first being softball. “It’s in our blood. We play it on weekends, mostly for fun, but sometimes there are tournaments. There are many fields with lights, but it’s so popular you have to sign up to play and they give you a date when the field is available.” The other hobby is dominoes. “On weekends, I often play with my co- workers, but that’s harder during the week since we have different hours. It’s a sport that creates friendships. Sometimes you play with people you don’t know, and afterward you have a new friend.”
It’s pitch dark when we meet up with Manuel the next morning. All the traffic from yesterday is gone. Only a few motorbikes and the occasional small truck pass us along the way. A few food vendors have made their way out to their respective street corners early, with plastic baskets and towels covering whatever’s under there. The alley is almost deserted, except for two men hanging out by the corner shop next to Manuel’s house, and the streetlights don’t work. I find Manuel in the kitchen. “I more or less just get up, go to the bathroom and go to work,” he says. “I eat breakfast at the factory and I almost never cook at home. As a man, it’s just some- thing I don’t really know how to do.”
We take o into the non-existent 6-am-traffic and it’s not until we hit the bigger street leading to Tabacalera de García that we see signs of life. We find ourselves in a string of single headlights and brake lights, almost all heading towards one of the biggest employers in the city. At the entrance, the guards have opened the yellow gates just enough for two-wheelers to pass through. Next to them, lining up in front of a small building, there’s a large group of unemployed people – trying to stop being just that.
A trading of places occurs when a cluster of people enter the factory compound at the same time as the night-shift workers are leaving. Around the factory, employees are getting ready to face another workday. Manuel organizes his area, taking out a wooden tobacco holder with steel-netted compartments that looks like a row of open cages for very small rodents or birds. He chit-chats with his colleagues around him and seems generally comfortable. “Besides being able to make a good living for my family, I also know that our clients value our work very much,” he says proudly. “In Spain I worked closely with the customers and I could see how much they appreciated our products. That makes me want to make them even better.”
But being happy with his work and accomplishments thus far doesn’t stop Manuel from aiming higher. “I want to get my high school diploma. I have three years left and I know I missed a good opportunity when I dropped out of school. I’d like to become an industrial engineer, or something that can open up doors in my line of work. There are even more opportunities at Tabacalera de García if you have an education.”
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Winter Edition 2016. Read more