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The Cigar Maker
The Cigar City. The year is 1898. Young Cuban rebel Salvador Ortiz and his family have escaped the hardship of war-torn Cuba, but the union halls, cigar factories, and dark alleys of Tampa are filled with violence and vendetta. Salvador must defy constant labor strife and deadly corruption in a one-industry town filled with backroom cockfights, street thugs, late-night abductions and mass production of the world’s best hand-rolled stogies. An ideological battle for control of the cigar industry tests Salvador’s self-respect and love of hard work as he fights to abandon his rambunctious, outlaw past and lead his proud Cuban family through a colorful immigrant society. His wish for a peaceful life as a husband, a father, and a man of dignity is threatened by a lawless underworld and a cultural conflict with a dangerous, bloody history.
Salvador was learning the farming trade, but his father quickly gave him an education in politics. “Spain is draining Cuba of its natural resources,” Ernesto told his son. “They are giving nothing back. All the wealth generated by Cubans is feeding the Spanish. They own our government and our property and leave us no opportunity for self-determination. Shouldn’t every man have the right to decide who enjoys the fruit of his own labor?”
One morning Ernesto’s lessons abruptly ended, and Salvador was forced into the world to find his own education. When shots rang out in the distance and the sound of approaching horses grew louder and louder, Ernesto frantically woke his only child and ordered him to run across the fields and hide in the forest. “Go now, boy! Step lively and don’t look back!”
Those were Ernesto’s last words to Salvador.
The boy ran until he was hidden by a giant Ceiba tree. Watching from afar as Spanish soldiers on horseback trampled through the village and set the modest bohio homes ablaze, Salvador saw the fragile shelters of wood and palm fronds collapse into flaming piles as many of the villagers, including Salvador’s mother and father, were captured by the soldiers and executed by their rifles.
The image of his mother and father on their knees before a gang of Spanish troops, with his sobbing mother begging God’s mercy before rifles exploded, became seared into his memory. Salvador fled into the forest carrying nothing but his father’s rusty dagger and a hatred and complete mistrust of anything Spanish.
When he finally made it to the city of Pinar del Rio, and met Juan Carlos on the streets begging for food, it became easy for them to steal from the aristocrats responsible for their plight. For Juan Carlos had also lost his father and a brother at the hands of Spanish soldiers. Young, vengeful Carlito carried a pistol and a machete in a canvas duffle bag and hoped to join a band of rebels but had little luck finding an army that would lead him into battle against the Spanish.
“I like you, Ortiz,” Juan Carlos told him the day the teenagers met on the street. “Your story is like mine. It seems as though we’re the last of a dying breed.” The truth was that Juan Carlos could use another man to help him rob a local Spanish bookkeeper he had been watching for over a week.
“You have a knife, I have a gun and this man is a Spaniard. Not only that but he has money. I have been watching him for many days now. Every night after he locks his office, he walks down the block to the Spanish bakery where he has a cup of coffee and a pastry before heading home. We go in right before he locks up and split our earnings right down the middle. If we’re successful, we rob the bakery tomorrow.”
Salvador, as if transfixed with the unending memory of his mother’s head being blown apart by a Spanish rifle, nodded and gripped the wooden handle of his knife. Normally he wouldn’t consider stealing, and would rather work for his daily meals, but he had been numbed by grief.
“Yes, we are stealing,” Juan Carlos said. “But we are stealing back little pieces of our own country. We are reclaiming what is ours.”
Salvador thought of his father’s blood, spilled on Cuban dirt. “Let’s go.”
On Carlito’s signal the boys entered the bookkeeper’s office and less than a minute later were running from the scene with enough pesos to eat for several days. It was easier than Salvador thought it would be. The bookkeeper was a man used to the confines of his office and did not compare to the menacing Spanish soldiers Salvador had eluded in the countryside. “You’ve got guts,” Juan Carlos seemed to admit later on, as they divided their money in a secluded alley. “If you were afraid, the bookkeeper couldn’t tell.” Juan Carlos was satisfied that he had found a partner and the duo spent the next weeks robbing aristocrats, begging for food and eluding the authorities. When he decided it was getting too hot for them in the city, he introduced Salvador to Victoriano Machín, the charismatic young ruffian who would eventually become the legendary bandit El Matón.
Dianne K. Salerni, Author of We Hear the Dead, Sourcebooks, April 2010
From the mountains of 19th century Cuba, where bandits and revolutionaries fought to overthrow Spanish dominance, to the floors of the cigar factories in Ybor City, Florida, where labor leaders sought to defend Cuban workers from exploitation by Spanish business owners, The Cigar Maker delivers a riveting, little-known chapter in the history of Latino-Americans in the US southeast.
Celia Hayes, Blogger News Network
One of the joys of reading historical novels is that the reader is afforded the opportunity to open a window into another dimension, to venture into places, people and events – and as nearly as possible and given a writer of sufficient skill and imagination – to explore and experience them at first hand. There is even a bonus, when the author like Mark McGinty takes up the story of his ancestors, weaving together the many threads of the vibrant and lively community they lived in: the Cuban community of Ybor City – now part of Tampa, Florida - at the turn of the last century. In basing a story on actual recorded historical incidents and real people, the reader is blessed with a narrative more incredible and fantastic than anything a writer could create of whole cloth – such as the incident that opens the story. Did it really happen, the loosing bird in a cockfight in Ybor City, eleven decades ago, having it’s head bitten off by it’s humiliated owner? The writer’s grandfather insisted that it did – and thereby opens the tale, of Salvador Ortiz, one-time rebel and bandit, and his fiercely proud and independent wife Olympia. Salvador is now a cigar maker, a man with a particular and valuable skill – but Cuba is torn by war and ravaged by epidemics. For the sake of their children, they move to Florida; not quite an out of the pot and into the cook-fire move, but not without perils and dangers. At first Ybor City is a safe refuge for the Ortiz family – an escape from violence and famine and disease. Alas, they have exchanged one set of challenges and risks for another set, only slightly less challenging. In the next few years, Ybor City and the cigar-making industry will be racked by strikes and violent confrontations between the cigar workers, the factory owners and the Anglo establishment. Salvador Ortiz – a modest man of flinty integrity, soft-spoken and yet capable of decisive action when the necessity calls for it– will almost by accident become a leader among his coworkers. He struck me as being the most fully-developed character, the moral center of a world filled with either well-intentioned characters without the courage to act on their good intentions, or amoral barbarians all too eager to act on their bad ones. Salvador is an immensely appealing character, not least to his wife, Olympia; the daughter of an aristocrat who nonetheless saw something worthy in a man several degrees lower than she on the social scale.
The working-class Cuban émigré world of Ybor City, in the first years of the 20th century is lovingly detailed; the vigorous personalities, customs and conversation, the foods and festivals, the work-day world of the cigar factories, and the recreations – cockfights and bolita games being only a small part of the entertainments brought by the Cuban cigar workers. I had never realized that there was a substantial Cuban community in Florida that early on; I had assumed that Castro’s Revolution was largely responsible for the current Cuban Diaspora. For a window into an unexpected and fascinating world – the Cigar Maker is recommended. The book will be available in May, pre-orders are being taken at Amazon.com and at the author’s website.
Steve Marsh, Emmy Award Winning Writer
The Cigar Maker is a saga, a buddy picture with escapes on horseback and union riots and illegitimate children and even some illegal cockfighting. Despite being set in a time and place you've never been before--Tampa's Ybor City in 1899--you'll recognize sweet notes of George Lucas and dusky Mario Puzo undertones. But one thing is certain: Mark C. McGinty rolls his own.
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