If you want to know anything about tobacco cultivation, Felipe Lopes Meza is the man for you. Nothing happens in the Turrent family’s fields without his knowing about it.
Thirty-five years ago, with an engineering degree in agronomy, Felipe Lopes Meza made the big decision to move away from his large family in the state of Nayarit to start a career in tobacco in San Andrés. He worked for Tabamex, the state-owned Mexican tobacco company, before he joined the staff at Tabacalera Alberto Turrent 25 years ago.
We’re out in one of the fields surrounding the town, where the Turrent family grows their tobacco. The town is set on a hillside in the northern most tropical forest in Latin America. The now-59-year-old is responsible for field operations, and he never seems to run out of things to talk about, especially when it comes to tobacco.
“In this field right now we have to pick the smallest leaves, the so-called ‘children,’ on the top of the plants in order to leave more space for the bigger leaves to grow,” he explains. “The children also steal nutrients and we don’t want that.”
Early morning rain, mist, the topography, and, to top it off, a complete rainbow, create an almost mystical ambience as we drive from field to field to inspect the presence of workers this morning. Tabacalera Alberto Turrent hires field workers on a daily basis, so you never know what it’s going to look like from day to day. “If it’s raining, less people will show up, or if there’s been a party the day before, like a wedding or a quinceañera [traditional celebration of a girl’s fifteenth birthday], where people have been drinking.”
He receives the number of attendance from a co-worker and looks at the sheet, comparing it to the previous days. “Today there are 199 people in the fields, which is nine less than yesterday. That’s ok. If it had been a difference of 30 or 40, then it would have been a problem. If we’re short, we always prioritize the picking.”
We continue on to the next stop, where four guys with horses are plowing the field. “Here we turn the soil upside down so it can breathe,” he explains. At 8:30 am we drive back to his house for breakfast before round two begins.
While driving, he unfolds a large piece of paper displaying information about every field, from the time of harvest to the amount of tobacco leaves, explaining to me every column while continuing to drive.
I keep my eyes on the road even more than before as if to compensate for his temporary lack of driving focus. We arrive at the house, where his wife, Maricella, is preparing the food. Two hours earlier, Felipe’s working day started with an assembly of today’s workers outside his office at one of the squares in town. The sun hadn’t even risen as he began the day by delegating work among the team leaders.
“We go through what needs to be done that day with the team leaders and drivers. The team leaders then take a group of people to do their assigned task.” Felipe takes a few minutes to freshen up as Maricella serves the breakfast. They met not long after he arrived in San Andrés.
“What year did we get married again?” he asks his wife, smiling somewhat shamefully. “I always forget.” “You came in 1980, so we got married two years later, in 1982,” she replies routinely. Soon after their first son, Felipe, arrived. He’s followed in his father’s footsteps and now works for the city as an agronomist.
Three years after that, their second son, Salvador, who works as a chemist at a hospital, first saw the light of day. “I always wanted more for my sons than what I see people doing in the fields every day, and, thanks to God, they succeeded. One day I will retire and maybe my son will take my place with the Turrent family.”
Sunday is also time for church. Felipe is Catholic and has seen signs that God exists, he tells me. “When things happen in my life I turn to San Judas Tadeo [Judas Thaddeus*]. I grow beans, for instance, and, one year at harvest it started raining. It’s not good for the beans to get wet but every year we pray and sing to him, and because of that devotion it didn’t rain on my lot when it rained on other fields. They say that faith can move mountains, and I have a lot of faith.”
As it turns out, Felipe is somewhat of a saint as well, or maybe a guardian angel for non-swimmers.
“I love swimming, and I’ve saved at least four people from drowning. Recently I saw a person struggling in a river and no one did anything so I jumped in. There was also a boy who went into a pool and never emerged again. I was about 30 meters away, so I swam over quickly to get him out.”
Round two finishes before lunch, and round three around 3:30 pm. When the workers are done for the day, Felipe drives back to the office to make up the plans for tomorrow.
A whiteboard filled with scribbles displays about the same information I had been shown earlier, mid-driving. “This is a compilation of all the tasks performed during the day: the date; what was planted in how many hectares; whether it’s Sumatra, San Andrés or Habano wrappers; when the soil was fertilized, and so on,” he explains again.
After work, we drive back to his house, where he normally rests and watches TV before dinner is served. After 34 years, San Andrés is, of course, now his home, but it’s obvious he still misses the place where he grew up and his entire family still lives. When he talks about it he always refers to it as mi tierra, my land.
When I ask him what he misses about his tierra, food is the first thing he mentions. “Where I come from, we have a lot of seafood, like shrimp cocktails, ceviche, zarandeado [a way of marinating fish, meaning “shaken”] and pozole [traditional Mexican soup] with shrimp.”
“Of course you miss that. The birria [Mexican stew, traditionally made with goat or mutton] is also different. Fortunately, my mom gave my wife some recipes.” Felipe is a middle child in a family of nine kids, and the only one who decided to go to university. His father was a farmer and the family didn’t have a lot of money, so in order to do be able to study Felipe had to work. “My dad had 11 mouths to feed, so, I sold gum and polished shoes. All my siblings worked. I was the only one who left home, but it’s been worth it. I’ve achieved a lot and …”
Suddenly he chokes up.
He stops talking and looks away.
After a while he looks at me and pounds the left side of his chest with his right fist. It takes me a couple of seconds before I realize that he’s referring to his family always being with him in his heart. “He’s getting sentimental talking about old times,” I hear his wife shouting from the kitchen. Felipe looks away again, up at the ceiling. His eyes are watery and it takes him a while before he can start talking again.
I’m proud of my family.
“I’m proud of my family,” he continues after a while. “I get emotional.” Even though he loves his job he hasn’t got much time left doing it. Next year he might retire.
“It can be stressful when there’s staff missing. If there’s no one hanging up the leaves we can’t harvest and so on. It’s a lot of responsibility. I want to retire to make way for my son to take over, but if I retire now, I only get 65 percent of my salary. At 65 you get a 100 percent. On the other hand, that’s five more years and you want to be able to enjoy your life too. I want to grow my corn and beans, or tobacco. Maybe I’ll start a seafood restaurant. I don’t know. Some people get sick from just resting so you’ve got to keep active.”
* Judas Thaddeus is one of the 12 Apostles and is considered by Mexicans to be a savior in difficult and desperate situations. Due to the economic situation and criminality in the country, he has been attributed special veneration, especially in recent years. (Source: www.heiligenlexikon.de)
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Winter Edition 2015. Read more