Soon after we arrived in the United States, in 1960, a relative sent my parents a photograph of my great-grandparents taken in Liberty, New York, 50 years earlier. In a letter the relative explained that my great-grandfather had been suffering from tuberculosis and his Cuban doctor suggested that the clean air and pristine waters of the Catskills were just what he needed. Cleaner than the air and waters of Cuba, you may ask? It appears that even in illness, everything was better up north.

On their way to Liberty, Antonio and Rosalía stayed at a rooming house in Brooklyn owned by María Mantilla, the daughter of Carmen Miyares and José Martí, the great Cuban poet and patriot, whose verses I had memorized as a child. Marté had lived the last 15 years of his life in New York, where we too would settle in our exile. Mantilla would marry a man surnamed Romero and give birth to a son, César, who would become a famous Hollywood actor. That Romero was my great-grandmother’s maiden name was a coincidence, I am sure, but as a teenage boy I liked to fantasize that César and I were somehow related.

That photograph arrived when I was 12, and it established a connection between family and history that made the city of New York a little less daunting and North American society a little less formidable. The way had been charted. People, our people, had been here before us, leaving markers and stories that pointed somehow to me.

So I kept my eyes open everywhere I went for points of contact between Cuba and the United States. I discovered, for example, that many Cuban musicians settled in New Orleans toward the end of the 19th century and influenced the development of ragtime and jazz. When Leadbelly used the term “Spanish tinge” to describe early jazz compositions, he was referring to the Cuban presence in that most fundamental of American musical forms. I had a personal connection to New Orleans, too: another great-grandfather, Miguel Medina, had traveled to that city in the 1920s after divorcing my great-grandmother. He lived there with an American wife until his death in 1947.

All these apparently random American-Cuban connections consoled and delighted me as a boy, but it was in Florida that they manifested themselves as a history, with waves of migration that transformed settlers and communities alike. Until a railroad was built linking it to the rest of Florida, Key West was populated mostly by Cubans, who moved to and from the island with extraordinary ease. Besides fishing, the primary industry in Key West in those days was cigar manufacturing. Cuban leaf was brought up from Havana, and the cigars were rolled in factories in the island town. But taking the finished product to the markets up north was an arduous enterprise and had to be done by boat through Jacksonville, where the closest northward rail line was located. Key West was hardly the ideal location for a thriving industry.

In 1885 cigar manufacturers discovered that Tampa, then a small village of fewer than 800 people, satisfied three of their basic needs: it was less than a day’s travel by ship from Cuba, it was part of the mainland and therefore offered plenty of room for growth, and a recently built rail line connected it to Jacksonville. By 1886 Vicente Martínez Ybor had built his first factory near Tampa and had founded the cigar town of Ybor City. Offering cheap housing, steady work, and good wages, Martínez Ybor’s factory—and others soon built around it—drew laborers by the thousands. In 1887 Tampa annexed Ybor City, and by 1890 its population had grown to 5,000. While significant numbers of Spaniards and some Sicilians settled there, the vast majority of the new residents were Cubans. Cuban culture became so entrenched that old-time residents of Tampa proper began referring to the cigar town as “little Havana.”

Imagine my surprise when I learned about Ybor City. Here was a place where Cubans had settled en masse 73 years before the beginning of my exile. And not only had they settled, they had thrived, changing the cultural landscape of the Tampa area and making it familiar territory to Cubans from the island. I began researching the city more than 20 years ago; it was in this milieu that I decided to base my novel The Cigar Roller.

I had planned to write a historical novel. After all, my subject matter brought together three topics—the Cuban independence movement of the 19th century, the labor struggles within the cigar industry, and the question of exile—that could only be explored using the broad canvas that history provides.

I began The Cigar Roller with the main character, Amadeo Terra, strapped to a chair facing a window. Felled by a massive stroke, he is unable to move or speak, but his mind is sound; he can think and remember his past. Once I had immobilized Amadeo, the book began to take a shape very different from the one I had originally intended. The focus of the writing narrowed. Character took over and history fell to the background. I could no longer think in terms of broad arcs of time, nor would the narrative be able to follow the traditional chronological structures that historical novels require. Instead, a relationship began to evolve between Amadeo Terra and the events and people that surrounded him throughout his life, between present stasis and past activity, between caprice and responsibility.

A man’s daimon, or character, is his fate, Heraklitos told us, but character (and fate) can only be revealed through actions and words. Amadeo had been a man of enormous appetites and equally enormous flaws; now, in his nursing-home room, he is a creature of unsatisfied desires who, moreover, must daily confront the consequences of his flaws. To tell Amadeo’s story I was compelled to rely on his memories, incomplete and disjointed as they naturally are, and on Amadeo’s tenuous relationships with the people who care for him. Memory is both conduit and mirror; it offers a way into the self and simultaneously reflects the self in context. Amadeo remembers his childhood; he remembers learning to roll cigars; he remembers his wife and children, his friends, his lovers, his cities, and the one experience he wishes to forget but cannot quite suppress—the death of his youngest son. The totality of his memory, coming to him in disordered chunks, sets him face to face with his daimon and therefore his fate, reduced as it is by the simple finality of death. Remorse comes too late for Amadeo. He cannot change his fate; he can only know it.

During most of the writing of The Cigar Roller I was hidden away in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. With winter came snows and darkness. I began to experience loneliness such as I had never felt before. More than once I considered abandoning my solitude for the crowds and noise of the city. But I stayed and kept writing. Looking back on it now, I realize that to complete the book I had to remain isolated, as isolated as Amadeo is in his hospital room. And to survive the isolation I had to keep writing. Amadeo became my constant companion. He and I shared thoughts, fantasies, appetites, fears, and unsatisfied longing, the mark of true exile.

The result was a short novel of 187 pages, not the saga I had painstakingly planned out. What happened to the more than 20 years I spent researching Ybor, the cigar industry, the labor struggles within it, and the politics of the Cuban independence movement? I believe it is all there, under the surface, inside Amadeo, making its presence felt through his daimon, revealed to him through his memories and in his responses to the people who care for him. I began writing a book about history; I wound up writing a book about fate. When they meet in an individual, the two are inextricable.


• • •

Excerpt from The Cigar Roller

People are always leaving Santa Gertrudis and Amadeo knows perfectly well what that means. First, there was Chinese Lady. Then out went Arialdo, who hated women. He would ride the wheelchair into Amadeo’s room and tell him all the despicable things his mother used to do to him when he was a child. He rolled up his sleeves and showed Amadeo the multiple scars on his arms, the consequences of his mother’s peculiar love. Round face, sharply pointed eyebrows, bulging sleepy eyes. Frying onions made him swoon, perfume made him choke. He disappeared the first year of Amadeo’s stay, when he still believed that patients left Santa Gertrudis because they got better. There was Apollonia, who walked around with a constant headache and whose face was always broken out in hives—she was allergic to life—and Garrido whom he has not seen in some time, and others, nameless mostly, who passed by his room or whom he saw in the common hall when Nurse still took him there. Just before he falls asleep he remembers a vast expanse of sugar cane, he remembers the still air, the sun beating down on the red earth and far off in the distance a ceiba tree that was haunted by the spirits of murdered slaves. Summer stillness, summer heat, time at a standstill, a loud buzzing in his ear. He remembers turning around, he remembers a hummingbird hovering inches from his nose.

©2005 by Pablo Medina. Published by Grove Press. All rights reserved.