I left Boston Logan Airport on a humid August afternoon to board a shuttle for Wellesley College. I was 17, alone, and lugged two suitcases full of clothes that wouldn’t be warm enough for the frigid Northeast winter. I sat next to a young woman named Erica, who was from Ontario, California. Her parents were pleasantly surprised to find out that I was from Michoacan, Mexico, which is where they visit family sometimes.
I didn’t have many Latina friends in college, but meeting Erica was a sign. I was destined to latch onto the Latin@ community for the first time in my life because they understood what it was like to figure out the intricacies and politics of being a first-generation student at the country’s most challenging women’s college.
I asked Erica what she wanted to study, as first years do. “Economics, and maybe concentrate in international relations,” she replied confidently. My high school didn’t offer either of those fields, so I was lost. She seemed so much more prepared than I. I just thought I was going to study history because history was my favorite subject and AP History the only class I was able to get a 107% in.
During our junior year, I was 30 pounds heavier than I am now from drinking regrettable amounts of Bailey’s and having an unlimited supply of blondies (why white people need white versions of brownies, I’ll never know). I had awkwardly grown out my short hair to a chin-length, massive mane. I dyed a streak of hair behind my neck a bright red.
One night, some friends and I drunkenly walked me home after a party to Mcafee, the farthest dungeon—I mean dorm, of all. They lived on the opposite side of campus, so they gladly handed me off to Erica, who had just gotten off the bus back from Boston. Erica grabbed me and walked me up to my room, and I blurted out “Erica, you’re my Mexican sister!” before she helped me take off my shoes and tucked me in bed. We’ve had our ups and downs like sisters, but I’m so happy we’re friends—and that I no longer dye my hair bright-red-skunk-style.
This Spring Break, Erica took time off from her PhD in literacy program at Penn State to visit me. I was thrilled to fill her in on my life here after two years apart! I took her to the warm, clean waters of the Apoyo Lagoon, where she treated me to a massage. I enjoyed swimming in my favorite crater lake, but I wanted to see something new as well.
We went to the northern city of Esteli, which is a jumping-off point for the Miraflor Nature Reserve. I’d hear great things about Miraflor’s clean air, hiking paths, and haunted swamps. Esteli is a clean, shiny city with a horrific history. Since it was a hotbed of Sandinista activity in the 1970’s, Somoza (Nicaragua’s former dictator) carpet-bombed the city. Thousands of civilians were killed or injured in Somoza’s desperate attempt to maintain his chokehold on the country. In Nahuatl, Estelí means “river of blood,” which was an unfortunately accurate way of describing the city. Somoza fled for Miami with his family and the remains of his murdered father in July of 1979.
Today, Esteli is a more relaxed, commercial city off of the Pan American highway. It’s one of only a handful of Nicaraguan cities with a cinema. It’s also nestled in the middle of tobacco country. After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, wealthy tobacco growers fled Cuba and relocated to the fertile soils here and now tourists from all over come to visit the factories and take home high-quality cigars that would cost five times as much back home. I had no interest in touring a cigar factory, since I was set on seeing the Miraflor.
Erica and I went to the tourism office by our hostel, Hostal Luna ($9 a night for dorm beds), and found out from a tall, curly-haired guide that we wouldn’t make it in time to Miraflor. Erica had a flight to catch the next day and I had to teach English classes to Nicaraguan English teachers the next day. I was frustrated with the situation, but living here has taught me to get over my impatience and to be flexible. The guide offered an artistic alternative: “If you sign up for the cigar factory tour, then I’ll show you on a map where the murals are so you won’t have to do the mural tour.” We agreed to see the murals ourselves and take the cigar tour at 2 PM.
I’m a painter, and I haven’t found much of an artist community at all in this country, so I was eager to see the murals along the streets. We didn’t go hiking, but we still enjoyed the urban outdoors by snapping photos with and of the murals. Some paintings were confusing in the most thought-provoking ways. Other murals had Mesoamerican warriors painted in bright blues and with gold jewelry.
I felt more at ease walking with Erica than I would have felt alone. The people assumed Erica was from there, so they didn’t approach us as much and men didn’t harass much at all that day. When I’m walking alone there, I face a lot comments, whistles, and hisses there, just like most women do here. I was reluctant to do the mural tour because of this harassment, but exploring the city on foot ended up being fine for once.
At 2 PM, we paid $8 for our cigar tour and took a taxi with our guide, Julio, a friendly, short man with a black Nike baseball cap and long, black eyelashes. We got out at the Santiago Cigar Factory. The thought of entering a factory made me nervous to see people toiling away miserably for hours on end. I felt guilty for supporting this sort of labor. We entered a room where men crafted the wooden boxes for the cigars. Julio had worked her before, and they smiled as we walked in. The smell of sawdust hit us. We saw the screen-printing process for making the labels for the boxes, then we moved on.
Next was the tobacco fermentation room. I couldn’t stand the smell at first—it was putrid and incredibly strong. Erica chatted with Julio about the months it takes to ferment the leaves while I coughed, covered my mouth, and stepped outside. Before I knew it, I had gotten used to the smell and felt light-headed. Shirtless Nicaraguan men in aprons swept the floor and gently moved the leaves from the shelves.
We moved on to where the women were—in the leaf selection room. Since the cigars are made completely from the tobacco leaves, the women worked under bright lights to calmly clean the leaves up and remove the main vein from them. The women smiled politely at us. One of them played ranchera music from her cell phone. They worked at a leisurely yet effective pace, and didn’t seem as miserable as I’d anticipated. It was just another day at work for them. I wondered what the health effects of the smell of tobacco leaves were on them, though.
Next were the cigar rolling stations. Rollers, both men and women, sat at their desks, rolling away. Some of the men smoked as they rolled, while a female secretary sat at her desk on the phone while she “tested” a cigar out. I don’t think this would be allowed in the states, but we weren’t in the states. One woman showed us how she took a leaf, cut it with an exacto knife, then rolled it into a perfect cigar. She helped Erica and I roll our own. I took about a minute longer than the woman did, but it was all in fun. I thought I’d let her take a break and laugh at my sub-par cigar rolling skills.
We went into the cigar storage room, and by this time, I was more than used to the smell. Julio and Erica laughed at the buzzed look on my face. I had smoked a cigar once before and thought it tasted like a mouthful of dirt, and I certainly didn’t intend to buy one, but once I took a whiff of a vanilla-scented cigar, I changed my mind.The three of us shared an immense cigar on our way to the cashier’s desk.
After having seen the process and stood in a room full of fermenting tobacco leaves, I came to appreciate the earthy, spicy taste of the tobacco. It’s a much more natural taste than the chemical-laden bitterness of a cigarette. Is it healthy? Hell no.
The smell reminded me of the “puros” my witty, tall grandfather Samuel would smoke in his home when my family would visit him in Sherman, Texas, where he would commute from Morelia, Michoacan. The smoke of his cigars is as fleeting as the confusing and distant past I inhabited, especially now that my parents have been divorced for over ten years. I only passively stay in touch with my father’s side of the family through facebook. My cousin, Carol, and aunts Carmen and Monica are the ones I stay in touch with the most.
The last time I visited m father, I ended up staying for one night in his house because he told me that “I needed to focus on my career instead of traveling so much,” among a barrage of other critiques. My aunt Yoyoy picked me up the next morning and took me to her house to stay, kindly reminding me on the way back that the Johnson men have always been critical. “That’s just how they are,” she reminded me. “Don’t take it personally. I’ve learned not to.” As soon as we got to her house, we had a drink together. She opened a bottle of Modelo Especial for me and told me this would help to “olvidar las penas (forget one’s worries).” I squeezed a lime wedge into it and felt resigned yet grateful for her. This was in 2011 and I haven’t been back to Morelia since.
The sense of smell is the strongest when it comes to provoking memories, and today Esteli stirred up nostalgia for the past that I didn’t even know I’d harbored. I’ve had so much time in the Peace Corps to reflect on my past and present, but I didn’t expect so much from a cigar factory tour I’d been reluctant to take. The factory churned out cigars as much as it rekindled my dormant memories.
No he olvidado las penas, pero no las dejará controlar mi futuro.
I haven’ forgotten my worries, but I won’t let them control my future.