When the union man came in to the factory with el patrón and pulled Vladimir Martinez de Vega — the lowliest and least skilled of tabaqueros — from his table for stealing the squirrel from in front of the Tampa Hotel, we all knew it wasn’t because he did it — it was because his uncle the lector, who we called La Voz, held more of our loyalty than el patrón himself. For months La Voz told us, in his ways, what was right and just and what was not about our working conditions and the working conditions of our compadres in other factories around Ybor. And for months, our patrón’s blood boiled like a good café cubano every time he caught La Voz straying from the words written in War and Peace or Fortunata y Jacinta, and to issues he knew would rile us up. But we had power, us tabaqueros. We paid the lector, not the patrón. And that was the difference: for us it was about pride; for the patrón, his factory was just a sea of tobacco leaves and stained hands, row after row of white shirts, of faceless men whose lives held less value than that of even one burro perdido.
So when Vladi was pulled up by his elbow, doe-eyed and stupid-looking as he always looked, we all mostly stopped what we were doing and listened, because of course Vladi’s uncle stopped talking about the wages in other places, syndicalism, strikes, impending walk-outs and god knows what else, jumped down from his tribuna (which always looked like half a prison to me), and marched right over to el patrón, who was standing there with some angry gringo from the hotel. We all knew one of us might have to wedge between the two to stop them from slicing each other’s guts with their chavetas, because while the patrón was the patrón and Vladi’s uncle was the lector, they’d both been tabaqueros at one time and, probably out of habit, kept their chavetas for protection — the patrón to protect against the thieves who knew he was the patrón, and Vladi’s uncle because he was more café and less leche, and the police often got confused when they believed they’d caught him socializando in the wrong club.
Funny enough, the gringo did all the talking while the patrón backed up, eyeing the rest of us with an anger so strong you could taste it.
“Why?” the gringo said. “You’re asking me why? Well, I’ll tell you. Because we don’t tolerate theft in my hotel, and we don’t tolerate thieves in this city. That’s why.”
“Pero I… I.” But Vladi stuttered horrendously in Spanish, and in English, man oh man he was as painful to watch as he was to listen to. “But I… I… didn’t take anything,” he said. “Ni un squirrel, ni un… un…” But he didn’t finish what he was saying before the police came and did what the gringo wanted them to do, which was drag Vladi out of the factory, past the patrón’s automobile, and off down the dusty road in their patrol wagon.
“I’ll come get you,” Vladi’s uncle yelled as they drove away, nearly knocking down the old cafetero, who was just then walking in to bring us our cafés. “No te preoccupas. Don’t worry!” Which he said, as always, in the same beautiful voice he told us stories in, and all the while face to sweaty face with the patrón, who in his own right was a man with a history but one not nearly as heavy as Vladi’s uncle, who we all knew fought in the war, though no one knew quite for certain for which side.
The patrón turned to walk to his office, but looked back (out of fear, we were sure, but under the guise of throwing a final remark) and said, “I had nothing to do with it. Te lo juro,” and continued on, leaving Vladi’s uncle to return to his platform to read a passage from Don Quixote, which we all knew held some clandestine secret for us all, and which if we didn’t know he so artfully implied by glancing at us as he was accustomed to, nodding in his heavy way: “I shall never be fool enough to turn knight-errant… to do as they did in the olden days…” which at least I, if not a few of us, would ask him to expound upon later on.
Later that night, in one of the back rooms of El Círculo Cubano, where we all went to proclaim our brotherly love and all that to each other but really went to play bolita and get a chance at some real money, Vladi’s uncle showed up with a scuffed-up but in-one-piece Vladi.