Fernando’s Footsteps

by Tony Carreño

 

"Señor Suárez, la junta directiva está organizando una reunión a las tres y media. Dicen que su presencia es obligatorio. Me parece que es sobre algo muy importante."

Fernando's secretary, Miss Valdés, advised him that the board of directors had just called for a meeting, and that his presence was obligatory. She elaborated that it seemed to her that it was about something extremely important. Fernando glanced at his watch. He had about forty-five minutes to wonder about what it might concern.

As the assistant to the general manager of Sanchez y Haya, Fernando was usually privy to matters of concern to the factory. He had noticed, over the past several days, that several of the owners and board members from New York had come to Tampa. Ignacio Haya died in 1906, twenty-three years earlier. After that, the factory grew quickly, along with Tampa's cigar industry in general. The factory, after several moves, was now located in a massive four story building on 13th Ave. and 21st St. The 1920s, quickly coming to a close, had been a decade of incredible prosperity in the United States. This certainly extended to Tampa, which had become the undisputed "Cigar Capital of the World", as often proclaimed in advertising material. As 1929 was drawing to a close, several cigar industry journals were forecasting that Tampa's 287 cigar factories were on track to set a new record. The forecast was for more than 500 million hand-rolled cigars in 1929, far exceeding that of Havana. Fernando, benefiting from his literacy, had personally prospered as well. After Mr. Castañeda retired, Fernando was promoted, replacing him. Fernando completed several courses in business practices and accounting. Several private Spanish language business schools operated in or near Ybor City. Additionally, he had taken advantage of free English classes offered at the Centro Asturiano, and had attained a limited, but functional, proficiency in the language. 

It was shortly before 3:00 pm and Fernando made his way to the meeting room. The room was filled to capacity, something Fernando had never seen. Only men were present. The air was so thick with cigar smoke that it was difficult to breathe. Though Fernando's livelihood depended upon cigars, he was not a smoker. He felt very uncomfortable, but declined to comment. It was particularly hot for late October, which only added to the problem. Mercifully, one of the few other non-smokers began opening some of the windows. Though Fernando knew many of those in the room, there were several unfamiliar faces. He assumed they were board members from New York. 

Shortly after three o'clock, one of the gentlemen, Mr. Pons, called the meeting to order. He wasted no time in getting straight to the point. Early in this afternoon of October 29, 1929, the US stock market essentially collapsed. The downward trend had begun over a week prior, with daily declines causing widespread concern. Many of the directors present had varied business interests and had probably sustained major financial losses. For many, Sanchez y Haya, Inc. represented a large portion of their portfolio. The purpose of the meeting was to announce that there would be immediate and drastic cost-cutting measures put into place at the factory. This would include a major reduction in the number of employees. Many of the men present also had investments in other cigar factories, both in Tampa and elsewhere. Cigars were considered an expensive and non-essential indulgence. The fear was that the cigar industry would be negatively affected early and significantly. It appeared that the boom years of the 1920s were about to come to a screeching halt.

"También, hemos notado que en Nueva York hace unos meses que hay interés, entre los obreros tabaqueros, en el comunismo. Los sindicatos están promoviendo ideas peligrosas. En el caso de los obreros tabaqueros, estas ideas vienen de los lectores. Recomiendo que empezemos el proceso de quitar estos agitadores de las fábricas de Tampa. Pueden ser la ruina de la industria, o lo que va quedar de la industria."

Mr. Pons had advised the others that there was concern about general labor unrest. He and others had noted that in New York, labor unions were promoting dangerous ideas, a flirtation with communism. Concern about the stock market had been circulating in that largest of our US cities for some time. Many activists felt that capitalism was beginning to fail, and attention was turning to the Russian revolution, a mere 13 years prior. Mr. Pons, continuing, said that in the case of the tobacco workers, these ideas were strongly promoted via the lectores ("readers") in the factories. That, along with the fact that the cigar workers in Tampa were highly unionized, gave him cause for great concern. He recommended that they begin the process of removing the readers from the factories of Tampa.

Fernando was growing increasingly concerned. Mr. Pons was well known throughout Tampa as a reasonable man, one not prone to hyperbole. The desperation in his voice added to the already tense atmosphere. In addition to owning one of the larger cigar factories in Tampa, Mr. Pons also owned interests in many others, including some in New York. Because of the vast number of cigar factories in Tampa, there had emerged a consortium of owners and investors which wielded significant influence and power. This was the group in which Fernando found himself. As Mr. Pons finished talking, the room was filled with the clamor of a collective angst; many were shouting out questions, others walked out, clearly agitated. Fernando knew that any attempt at removing the readers would be met with strong resistance. They had become not only a source of news and entertainment, but a cultural fixture onto themselves. The workers had developed a special bond with the readers. Fernando felt that suddenly, his professional future was no longer secure, and that the world as he knew it was about to change. 

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This is a work of fiction. With the exception of references to known and publicly documented historical entities, the following apply:

Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. ©Tony Carreño 2020