It’s pitch dark when I arrive at Rafael Barrera’s house in the Santiago suburb of Tamboril at six o’clock in the morning. The road that leads up to his home is straight, and the side roads indicate an ongoing residential project that hasn’t developed much yet. His is the only house on this street, and most of the properties along the road are still covered in dense, wild-grown vegetation.
An occasional motorbike passes by, as well as some pedestrians on their way to work. There are no street lights, so the only light exposing their faces and the surrounding palm trees and banana plants in his future neighbors’ lots come from the moon and his house, which is by far the fanciest home of a tobacco worker I’ve ever seen.
This has its explanation. One year ago his oldest son, then-18-year-old Luís, signed a 450,000 Dollar deal with the major league baseball team, Oakland Athletics. “It has changed our lives very much,” Rafael says. “We live much more comfortably now. We used to live with my mother in the house where I grew up, but now we have this.” Rafael bought the house a year ago and he lives there with his wife, Miledys Herrera, and their three children, still including Luís, who is currently at a training camp with his new employer.
As we leave the house for Rafael’s five-minute walk to work, a pinkish, almost red shimmer of light across the sky announces the rising of today’s sun. In the distance, dogs are barking, roosters are crowing, and the weather is pleasant. We walk down a road with an abandoned industrial bakery on one side and a long, grey wall with barbed wire that encloses a hardware store on the other.
We turn right onto the main road in town and as we approach the La Flor Dominicana factory, more and more people wearing the identical black company t-shirt with the word “crew” on the back disembark from mini buses or pass us on motorbikes. At work, even the president, Litto Gómez, and his son, vice-president, Antonio Gómez, wear the same t-shirts. It’s truly a family-style company with a big heart.
“A lot of my co-workers live close to me, so we often meet up and have a beer or eat dinner outside of work,” he says. Not surprisingly, many of the conversations at these meetings revolve around cigars. “You talk about what kind of cigar you’re making at the moment, and how you make it, because maybe you’re doing the same one. We do talk about other things as well, though,” he says and laughs.
It takes time and character to make one.
The sense of family becomes even more apparent when I find out that Litto Gómez even played a big part in Luís’ athletic success. “He’s helped me out a lot with my boys. I could never have done this on my own. Whenever I asked him to help me with sports equipment and such he’s always done it. Not once has he refused me. And I’ve asked for a lot of help.” La Flor Dominicana opened its factory in Tamboril in 1996. The facilities are open and full of light, and in the center of this former night club, the old octagonal dance floor with its pyramid glass ceiling still remains, now all covered with boxes of cigars as well as chairs and a table with the ubiquitous giant ashtray.
Rafael is assigned his spot for the day, so, after signing in, he hauls his chair and tools over from yesterday’s workbench. The supervisors all walk around and shake the hands of every employee, and, even if the clock hasn’t struck seven yet, cigars are already being made. I instantly notice that Rafael works very fast and intensely.
“It depends on what kind of cigar you do, how fast you can work. I do six or seven different ones, and my specialty is the Mysterioso, which is more complicated than most cigars. A colleague and I are the only ones who can do it here, and it takes time and character to make one.” At eight o’clock it’s time for breakfast. As the horn sounds you almost expect Fred Flintstone to come sliding down a dinosaur’s tail.
Some of the employees take a short walk to the main road, some eat what they’ve brought from home, but the majority, including Rafael, seem to take an even shorter walk to the little food stand across the street from the factory gates, ordering a tostada (hot sandwich) and fresh fruit juice. For lunch he often goes home to eat and relax, though. “I normally take a nap in my house for half an hour before I return to work after lunch. It’s really nice living this close to the factory,” he says with a contented smile. Rafael is now 38 years old and he has worked at La Flor Dominicana for 16 years, almost from the start, but before he got into that business he actually worked in a pastry factory. “I was seven or eight years old when I started there. I handled the flour and I was there until I turned 14 or 15.”
It’s truly a family-style company with a big heart.
That’s when he got a job at a small Swiss cigar factory. “Tobacco is the biggest industry here. My dad didn’t make cigars but he was in the business as well, in maintenance, and I have two brothers working at other factories. My third brother, who’s passed away, also made cigars. It’s a city of tobacco, so I dedicated myself to that.” After a couple of years at the Swiss factory, Rafael started working at Fuente, where he stayed for two years before he moved on to La Flor Dominicana, at the age of 21. “One of my brothers worked here and I knew the boss, so I told them I wanted to work here as well, which they gave me the opportunity to do. It’s a lot better for me, since the Fuente factory is a 40-minute bus ride away. And again, we’re all like a big family here.”
All in all, he’s happy with his choice of workplace and with his career. “We get health insurance and some of us get paid more than some people with an education. You can have an academic degree and still not earn more than 20,000 Pesos (about USD 460/month), and some of us earn more than that.”
At a quarter past four, the workday ends and we go back to his temporarily empty house. The kids aren’t back from school yet, and his wife, who’s also a roller, hasn’t come back from work, either. She works at a factory called Dominica Believe. “It’s a small factory, the owner of which used to work with me in La Flor Dominicana,” Rafael explains. “Actually, Miledys and I met at Fuente when we both worked there.”
The intimate cigar world that is Tamboril exposes itself once more, and later they both smile evasively when I ask them if there’s any rivalry between them. When the follow-up question of who’s the better roller comes up, the answer, however, is unanimous. “It’s him,” Miledys says with a preserved smile from the preceding enquiry, while Rafael shamelessly points to himself with an equally long-lasting air of amusement. “But she’s very fast as well,” he is quick to add.
“Do you want to go over to my mom’s house and see how we lived before?” Rafael asks me. “This is where most of my co-workers live, as well as my brothers,” Rafael says as we enter the neighborhood where they used to reside.
Our lives have changed very much.
“A lot of people who live here work with me or at other factories, like Davidoff or La Aurora.” It’s a lot livelier than where he lives now. Honking motorcycles and cars try to pass each other on narrow streets crowded with people sitting on chairs and curbs, socializing in the warm, humid afternoon, while loud Latin rhythms escape from the vehicles. His mother sits outside and says little as Rafael gives me the grand tour of the kind of home I’m more used to seeing in this context. The openplan kitchen-slash-living room with the adjoining bedrooms. “Yes, they are my trophies,” he says, half embarrassed when I ask him about the prizes standing on a wall dividing the main area in the house.
“And here are some more by the wall. On Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings, we’re a bunch of guys who play softball. We’ve got different teams, and set up leagues.” Although he’s played baseball and softball his entire life, and despite all the prizes, Rafael didn’t quite make it to the same level as his son. “No, I never became that good,” he says with a smile.
”But that’s how Luís got interested. As a little kid he used to come with me, and when he got older he told me he wanted to start practicing. I told him to play as much as he wanted as long as it didn’t interfere with this studies.”
Maybe Rafael and his wife still have to work to make ends meet, but they will do it without the financial stress that many families in the Dominican Republic experience. Luís has made it to the big leagues, and by signing this contract, he might just have secured his family’s future.
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Winter Edition 2014. Read more