The New York Times Bestseller 'Extraordinary . . . stunning' Elizabeth Macneal, author of The Doll Factory 'Vivid details, visceral prose and strong willful women' Angie Cruz, author of Dominicana 'Vivid, engrossing, luminous' Sharlene Teo, author of Ponti
Five generations of women, linked by blood and circumstance, by the secrets they share, and by a single book passed down through a family, with an affirmation scrawled in its margins: We are force. We are more than we think we are.
1866, Cuba: María Isabel is the only woman employed at a cigar factory, where each day the workers find strength in daily readings of Victor Hugo. But these are dangerous political times, and as María begins to see marriage and motherhood as her only options, the sounds of war are approaching.
1959, Cuba: Dolores watches her husband make for the mountains in answer to Fidel Castro’s call to arms. What Dolores knows, though, is that to survive, she must win her own war, and commit an act of violence that threatens to destroy her daughter Carmen’s world.
2016, Miami: Carmen, still wrestling with the trauma of displacement, is shocked when her daughter Jeanette announces her plans to travel to Cuba to see her grandmother Dolores. In the walls of her crumbling home lies a secret, one that will link Jeanette to her past, and to this fearless line of women.
From nineteenth-century cigar factories to present-day detention centres, from Cuba to the United States to Mexico, Gabriela Garcia’s Of Women and Salt follows Latina women of fierce pride, bound by the stories passed between them. It is a haunting meditation on the choices of mothers and the tenacity of women who choose to tell their truth despite those who wish to silence them. For fans of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, this audio edition includes a bonus conversation between Gabriela Garcia and Roxane Gay.
April 6, 2021
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At six thirty, when all the cigar rollers sat at their desks before their piles of leaves and the foreman rang the bell, María Isabel bent her head, traced a sign of the cross over her shoulders, and took the first leaf in her hands. The lector did the same from his platform over the workers, except in his hands he held not browned leaves but a folded newspaper.
“Gentlemen of the workshop,” he said, “we begin today with a letter of great import from the esteemed editors of La Aurora. These men of letters express a warm fondness for workers whose aspirations to such knowledge—science, literature, and moral principle—fuel Cuba’s progress.”
María Isabel ran her tongue along another leaf’s gummy underside, the earthy bitterness as familiar a taste by now as if it were born of her. She placed the softened leaf on the layers that preceded it, the long veins in a pile beside. Rollers, allowed as many cigars as they liked, struck matches and took fat puffs with hands tented over flames. The air thickened. María Isabel had by then breathed so much tobacco dust she developed regular nosebleeds, but the foreman didn’t permit workers to open the window slats more than a sliver—sunlight would dry the cigars. So she hid her cough. She was the only woman in the workshop. She didn’t want to appear weak.
The factory wasn’t large, by Cuban standards: only a hundred or so workers, enough to roll for one plantation a mile away. A wooden silo at the center held its sun-dried leaves, darkened, papery slivers the rollers would carry to their stations. Next to the silo, a ladder flanked the chair where Antonio, the lector, sat.
He cleared his throat as he raised the newspaper. “La Aurora, Friday, first of June, 1866,” he began. “‘The order and good morals observed by our cigar makers in the workshops, and the enthusiasm for learning—are these not obvious proof that we are advancing?’”
María Isabel picked through her stack of leaves, setting aside those of lesser quality for filler.
“‘… Just go into a workshop that employs two hundred, and you will be astonished to observe the utmost order, you see that all are encouraged by a common goal: to fulfill their obligations…’”
Already a prickling warmth spread across María Isabel’s shoulders. The ache would grow into a throb as the hours passed so that, by the end of the workday, she could barely lift her head. To fulfill their obligations, to fulfill their obligations. Her hands moved of their own accord. The bell would ring and she’d look at the pile of cigars, smooth as clay, surprised she’d rolled them all. She imagined the layers of brown melding into one another endlessly—desks becoming walls, leaves becoming eyes, and sprouting arms moving in succession until everything and everyone were part of the same physical poetry, the same song made of sweat. Lunchtime. She was tired.
* * *
A single dirt road in this town led past the factory’s gate and continued on to the sugar plantation a mile down, both owned by a creole family, the Porteños. María Isabel walked this path home, one that snaked through the shadows and gave her brief reprieves from the punishing sun. She thought of Antonio’s words: Study has become a habit among them; today they leave behind the cockfight in order to read a newspaper or book; now they scorn the bullring; today it is the theater, the library, and the centers of good association where they are seen in constant attendance.
True that since La Aurora had expounded the uncivilized nature of cock- and bullfighting, the number of participants had diminished. But it wasn’t just the newspaper’s recommendation that convinced them to give up blood sport. There were also preoccupations. Other workers talked about rebel groups rising up against Spanish loyalists. About men training in groups to join others headed west toward La Habana. María Isabel had been too hardened by her father’s recent death, from a demonic yellow fever that consumed him within weeks, to notice at first, to care much. But then it was all anyone would talk about.
Though by the time rumors of guerrilla fighting had spread to their side of the island, so, too, had stories of infighting. Generals of the militias came and went, supplanted when their ideals became a liability. La Habana, with its manor after manor of Spanish families, looked toward the revolt with indifference, and it appeared more and more likely that the Queen would come down hard on any rebellion. For María Isabel, a scorching anxiety had long replaced those lofty early notions: freedom, liberty. She hated the unknowing. She hated that her own survival depended on a shadowy political future she could hardly envision.
Home. María Isabel’s mother sat on the ground, back against the cool mud of the bohío. Aurelia had returned from work herself, from the fields.
“Mamá?” María Isabel alarmed to find her in such a way, an unusual blush spreading up Aurelia’s face to the tips of her ears.
“Estoy bien,” she said. “Just faint from the walk. You know I am less and less capable.”
“That isn’t true.”
María Isabel helped Aurelia steady herself with one hand to the wall.
“Mamá.” María Isabel touched Aurelia’s forehead with the back of her hand, which gave off such a stench of tobacco juice that her mother winced. “Stay out in the breeze and rest in the hamaca, won’t you? I’ll prepare lunch.”
Aurelia patted María Isabel’s arm. “You are a good daughter,” she said.
They walked to a hammock knotted between palms.
María Isabel’s mother, worn down by decades of loss, hard work, nonetheless retained a certain elegance. Her skin was smooth, with hardly a line, her teeth neat rows unstained. After her husband’s death, Aurelia had many callers, men with missing teeth and sun-weathered, papery skin who presented little in the way of wealth—a donkey, a small plot of mango and plantain trees—but offered care that she brushed off. “A woman does not abandon love of God, nor of country, nor of family,” she’d said in those days, before the men stopped seeking her out. “I will die a widow, such is my fate in life.”
But her mother grew weaker, María Isabel could see. Finding her daughter a husband had become an aggressive devotion. María Isabel protested: she was happiest in the workshop, in the fields, sweating over fire, peeling yucas and plantains and tossing them into a cast-iron cazuela of boiling water with her sleeves bunched to her elbows, catching pig’s blood in a steel bucket to make shiny-black sausage, hacking open a water-pregnant coconut with a machete. True that cigar rolling was a coveted, respectable job—she’d apprenticed for nearly a year prior to working for a wage. Yet the factory paid her by the piece, half of what the men earned, and she was the only woman in the shop, knew the men resented her. They’d heard about this new invention, in La Habana—a mold that made it easy for almost anyone to roll a tight cigar—and feared María Isabel a harbinger of what would come: unskilled, loose women and grubby children taking their jobs for almost nothing. Suggested she might earn better keep “entertaining” the men herself. Took a greater share of her wages to pay the lector.
There were moments, like now, watching her mother lie red faced in the hammock through the window, when she pictured a world in which Aurelia wouldn’t have to work, in which she spent her time caring for her mother instead of rolling tobacco with the men. And she knew with resignation that she’d say yes to any man who offered easier days. Such was her fate.