National Geographic : 1947 Jan
Cuba-American Sugar Bowl standing around a huge ceiba. From the seed pods of these bulbous trees, which look as if they had elephantiasis, comes the silky kapok for life belts, cushions, and mattresses. Farmers in Cuba, especially the Negroes, revere the great trees and seldom cut one down, even if it occupies choice tobacco land. "All the tobacco grown and smoked around the world is descended from the tobacco Columbus found in the New World in 1492," Jacinto Argudin, manager of the finca (planta tion), told me. "Columbus's men found the Indians smoking 'tabacos,' which still is the Cuban word for cigars. The Indians took a handful of leaves, rolled them into a cone, stuffed them in a hollow reed, and then in haled the smoke through the nose. "During the last 75 years we have produced our best tobacco here in the Vuelta Abajo sec tion with the help of irrigation. The texture of our leaf is due to soil and climatic condi tions. Plants from our seeds, grown else where, do not have the same quality." Tobacco Seed Like Brown Pepper Mr. Argudin produced a small vial of brown tobacco seed. It was as fine as coarsely ground pepper. A tablespoonful will plant 6/2 acres. Cultivation and curing of tobacco are much the same throughout the world. In Pinar del Rio the tiny seeds are planted about Septem ber 19, and then at 15-day intervals, in covered seedbeds. The plants grow rapidly, reaching 10 to 12 inches in height in 40 days. A mechanical planter opens the furrows, sprinkles water, and covers the seedlings, but it does not plant them. Two men or women sit on low chairs extending out from the rear of the machine. As it moves along, they deftly drop the plants into the furrow. All wrapper tobacco for top-grade cigars is grown under cover to protect delicate leaves from the hot sun and insects. Workers culti vate it, fight natural enemies, trim unwanted shoots, and top the plants so strength will go to leaves, not flowers. Tobacco is harvested, leaf by leaf, for sev eral weeks. The lowest leaf, called No. 1, is "primed," or picked, first. The second pick ing of the 5 or 6 middle leaves makes the best cigar wrapper. The upper leaves produce dark covers. Everybody helps on the plantation during the growing season. Mr. Argudin employs 2,000 people-men, women, and children. After cutting, leaves go to the curing sheds, where they are dried slowly until they rustle on the lancewood poles and vivid green has turned to rich brown. Then they are piled in "bulks," leaf on leaf, to ferment. This is called "sweating." The same skill is required here as in aging fine wines. Next, the leaves go to the grading room, where they are moistened under a misty spray. In the grading room I visited, 250 men and women were patting and smoothing each leaf and comparing it with the others. The best leaves were put aside to wrap the finest cigars; the imperfect ones, to serve as fillers. Not a word was spoken; the only sound was the faint rustle of the tobacco (Plate XI). One young woman grader handed me a per fect leaf. "Press your finger into it. See how thin it is-like rubbery silk," she said. "Note its tiny vein and its rich brown color, not golden." After grading, the leaves are gathered in "hands" and packed in palm-frond covers. These bales are sent to Havana cigar fac tories or to the United States. Driving back to town, we were charged by a large herd of cattle coming down the high way. A farmer on an ox called to the animals and they separated, giving us a passage. The driver was smoking a cigar of finest quality. In New York, cigars made of that tobacco might sell for 50 cents. Cockfights Replace Movies "Have you ever been to a cockfight?" a friend asked. "Then you must see one, for cockfights take the place of movies and the theater for Cuban countryfolk." A chorus of crowing greeted us as we walked into the fighting cocks' clean whitewashed room. They were strange-looking creatures. Their bodies were plucked bare as a chicken on a grocery counter. Their legs were bright red. "Sunburn," the caretaker said (page 7). Twenty-five of the roosters were purchased in Spain, the owner told me, at $50 each. Gallos are never allowed to see a hen during their fighting careers. The best ones, the winners of, say, five or six bouts, are turned out with the hens for breeding. We joined the crowd of men in the round cockpit. All were seated on benches in tiers around the sawdust-covered floor. The roosters were put inside two small cages in the center. At a signal the cages were hoisted, and instantly the gallos flew at each other, striking out with rapierlike spurs. One cock aimed at the other's eyes. Soon it was evident this bird was done for. I asked the attendant if he were going to separate them. "No, we must let them fight to the finish," he said. "But one bird has lost an eye," I replied. "He can't possibly win."