The dim light from the only two working light bulbs inside the house do not suffice to replace the quickly fading sunlight on the galería, what the Dominicans call a patio barred up under a roof.
This is where Ramón Emilio Cruz relaxes after a day’s work as quality inspector at the Davidoff factory in Villa González, outside the country’s second largest city and cigar capital, Santiago de Los Caballeros. “Not a bad place to relax, right?” He asks me.
I live a quiet life and really enjoy it.
“I live a quiet life and really enjoy it. I don’t drink, except for a little shot every now and then. I smoke cigars and drink Coke.” It turns out Ramón has other hobbies, though, but we’ll get to that later. He fetches two Davidoff Nicaragua Toros from the house and we light them while his grandchildren scurry around us. Despite the bars on the windows and patio, the area in which he lives is not a bad one.
In some parts of Latin America you wouldn’t be able to keep your doors open at night like he does, but the suburb of Tamboril, where Ramón grew up and has always lived, seems like a fairly quiet and safe one.
He and his family are very close to their neighbors. “They may have a different last name, but we’re all family,” he says, looking over at the lady next door, who is poking around in her flowers.
“What?” she asks, noticing that Ramón has raised his voice and looked her way. “They’re doing an interview about my life,” he explains to her, “and I was just saying that we have different last names, but we are all family”. “Okay, yes, of course,” she responds with a smile.
Although the sound of motorbikes passing on the street outside is constant, it is still not as frequent as on many other Dominican city streets. On the other side of the asphalt runs an almost dried-out brook, filled with more plastic waste than water at this time.
15 Years of World Travel, 15 Years in the same Home.
Ramón turns back to me and smiles, something this humble 55-year-old does often throughout my stay. He’s clearly happy where he is. For the past 15 years, he has been one of four Davidoff representatives that travel around the world showing visitors at different Davidoff events how cigars are made. “I don’t know how many countries I’ve been to, but it’s almost all of Europe; the US, China, Russia, Malaysia, Dubai, Macao and many others.
When I was 16 or 17, I started smoking cigars.
I love being able to experience different cultures. The strangest one has got to be in Ukraine, where the women walked around with dresses that had small bags or something on the shoulders. It’s the same thing in Japan; they wear tuxedos with little backpacks on them. And in China there are so many people in the streets that you really have to stick to your group so as not to get lost. Because if you do, no one cares. I like Macao, though, with the casinos and the women.”
During these 15 years of travel, Ramón has lived in the same house; he’s lived in the same neighborhood all his life. When he moved out of his mother’s house, Ramón only moved 200 meters down the road; all but one of his nine siblings live in Tamboril.
Ramón has six children, aged between 21 and 32. Five of the six, including one grandchild, still live with him and his wife of 32 years in their three-bedroom house. One of his daughters lives with her family in a small house out back, where a son also has a small apartment.
“My wife was more or less pregnant for ten years straight,” Ramón says with a smile. “I live a very social life. I don’t see my relatives every weekend, but very often.” Four or five times a year, when he travels, Ramón is away for three weeks at a time, which means that he leaves his wife alone, sometimes with six kids. It would put a strain on any relationship. “Of course it makes her tired,” Ramón says, “but she also understands that it’s a very important income for the family. All our children have gone to school, so she’s good with it.”
Tobacco in the Blood
Tamboril is very much a city of tobacco; it always has been. According to Ramón, 80 percent of the employable inhabitants work in the industry. Companies like La Aurora and La Flor Dominicana opened factories here because of the renowned skill of the people. Tobacco is in the blood of the residents; it is in Ramón’s blood. As a third-generation tobacco worker he has been surrounded by tobacco all his life. “My grandfather sold cigars of lesser quality,” Ramón says. “It was a very different thing back then. He had an acre or two where he grew and harvested tobacco, and, as a kid, I helped him harvest. I cut and collected the green leaves. He always smoked. He used to take the dried tobacco and roll a cigarillo. He didn’t let me smoke, though, because I was too young, but when I was 16 or 17, I started smoking cigars. Are you hungry?”
While we’ve been chatting, Ramón’s wife has been preparing dinner. We enter the aforementioned dimly lit house to dine on fried eggs, yuca, rice, beans, fried plantains and homemade pork sausage. The dining area is connected to the living room, which is divided into a TV and sitting area by a shelf filled with stuffed animals and other miscellaneous objects. On the wall above the kitchen hangs a photo of Ramón and Bill Clinton.“HevisitedoneofoureventsinGermany,”he recalls. “Unfortunately I didn’t talk much to him. He only knew a few words in Spanish. Still, I bet not many cigar workers have the privilege of meeting a former US president during their work lives.”
“I’m embarrassed,” he says suddenly as we’re sitting down. “Why?” I ask. “That I can’t offer you something better.” He looks down at his plate as I observe the dishes piled up in the kitchen and take a bite out of one of the best tasting sausages I’ve ever had. I assure him repeatedly that he’s just being silly.
Although I’m not a big fan of Dominican cuisine – I grow tired of meat, rice and plantains in only about two days – I am truly honest when it comes to the sausage, and this makes him light up. “It’s made by a local butcher here in Tamboril,” he explains proudly. Every night, the entire family sits down to eat together. “One of my daughters is a doctor. She works different hours, so sometimes she can’t join us, but otherwise it’s the whole family.”
A Childhood Hobby
Just before Ramón kicks off his shoes and sits down in the galería each night there is something he has to do. He takes me through the house into a wild-grown backyard. Our arrival stirs up some excitement among many of the animals living back there. In a cage next to a pig sty that holds two pigs a dog barks, while chicken and roosters flee to the comfort of the banana plants, either on foot or through constrained attempts at flying.
This is the champion. He’s won two fights in a row.
In one corner of the garden, there’s a row of cages and coops, both outside and inside a shed. He walks into the insanely humid shed and takes out one of his twelve combative roosters. Ramón’s hobby since childhood is cock fighting. “This is the champion,” he says with a proud smile. “He’s won two fights in a row.” While many of his compatriots, including his own family, attend church on Sundays, Ramón’s weekend is often spent at cock fighting arenas. “I believe in God, but not a Catholic or Mormon god, for example. It’s hard to explain, but I don’t pray or participate in religious events.
My wife and kids are Catholic and I don’t mind that, but that’s not who I am. When they’re in church I relax, go to cock fights or play dominoes.” He sits down on a cushion-free couch and starts stroking the rooster under its wings.
“Every day I have to do this with every rooster. I stroke their skin with a certain type of tobacco called andullo. From this, the bird absorbs calories so that it feels ready to fight.”
When I point out what people think of cock fighting in Europe and the United States he smiles again.
“They’re going to fight anyway. It’s a cruel sport and only legal here, in Puerto Rico and Mexico, and I know it’s frowned upon in civilized countries, but it’s also entertaining,” he concludes.
He holds up his champion and shows me its back claw. It is cut off for humane reasons.
“You put on a fake one so the roosters don’t get hurt and then you have to wait for it to grow back before you cut it again, so after a fight, a bird can’t fight for another couple of weeks.”
Long Commute but better Working Conditions
Every morning Ramón gets up at 5 a.m. An hour later, he catches the company bus to the factory in Villa González. He started working at Davidoff 26 years ago after having worked at two different companies in Tamboril for a couple of years. Even though there are other companies located much closer, Ramón chose a daily commute of an hour and twenty minutes, one way.
The conditions are so good here, that I don’t ever have to think about leaving.
“To be completely honest, I didn’t want to leave MATASA, which is where I worked before Davidoff,” he explains “but I was offered better working conditions, like better pay and more rights. I also wanted to work for the best company, and that’s Davidoff.”
Up until a year ago he was a cigar maker, working as both buncher and roller, but now, somewhat unwillingly it seems, he works as a quality inspector. “I never wanted to be an inspector, since I was used to working until the end of the working day and no longer. When the clock struck five you went home, but the company needed me, so I accepted, and it also pays more. I’m actually both supervisor and inspector and I’m in charge of checking the texture of the cigars.”
He sits up front in the factory, overlooking the whole rolling area. The atmosphere is busy and relaxed at the same time. The room is light, people are chit-chatting and smiling, and hanging over one of the work places is a “Happy Birthday” banner.
Due to his employment at Davidoff, Ramón can also worry less about the thing that worries this otherwise worry-free person the most, his own health. When he was ten years old, he found out he had diabetes; his employment makes it much easier and affordable to obtain medication and treatment.
“All employees have insurance, and there’s a medical center on the premises, with one fully employed doctor and different specialists visiting every week,” he explains. “It means I can visit the doctor every week if I have to. If you have insurance, you can also visit every hospital in the country, and the company will pay 80 percent of the cost.”
Tradition in the Family
In ten years’ time Ramón might be retired, but the family tradition will live on. As well as all of his siblings being tobacco workers, two of Ramon’s sons have also chosen the same occupation. “My oldest son also works at Davidoff, and the other one works at a factory here in Tamboril. This makes us four generations of cigar workers.”
It’s the end of the day and the room is emptying out as Ramón counts his last batches. He won’t be going home at five o’clock tonight.
One by one, the employees leave as the birthday banner is moved to a different work place.
Tomorrow is someone else’s birthday, and life goes on in the factory. Just as Ramón wants it.
“The conditions are so good here,” he repeats, “that I don’t ever have to think about leaving. I will probably die here.”
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Summer Edition 2014. Read more