This is Paco. He’s an 82 year old Cuban farmer who I met on a visit to his farm in the Valley of Viñales on the western side of the island.
Paco was happy to sit down and discuss la vida como granjero over breakfast which was, for him, coffee and a cigar, before heading out into the fields for another long day of labour under the Cuban sun.
Born on this same farm, he has barely left it save for journeys into town to sell at the local market and pick up his rations. Cubans are issued with a monthly ration card which they use for essential items such as rice, eggs, cooking oil, sugar, rum and cigars- yes, rum and cigars- and bread. Everything else he and his family eat, they grow themselves.
This includes tobacco, 90% of which he is obliged to give to the government, and the smell of the drying leaves winds its way up to the farmhouse from the drying shed that sits at the bottom of the small slope where the house has been built.
The farm house itself is older than him, he tells me through an interpreter (he has no English and my Spanish is laughable). “Mi padre lo construyó”– My father built it. A chipped, battered weatherboard construction it is, kitchen in an adjoining building and without plumbing, and if the walls were ever straight they certainly aren’t now. Paco now lives there with his wife and two of his brothers who also work the farm. One of 11 siblings, all of the brothers and sisters are involved in farming. In fact, one of Paco’s brothers, who I meet later that same day, runs the neighbouring farm. Like him, they all started early. In Paco’s case this was at the age of 14 and he’s hardly had a break since.
This past year has been hard. A farmer’s prosperity depends largely on the weather and it hasn’t been kind recently. With little rain over the past wet season and now heading into dry season, the immediate future is looking bleak. Lately there hasn’t been enough to eat. The sweet potato and sugar cane haven’t yielded as hoped, and the already dry red soil doesn’t bode well for the next planting.
“How do you survive?” I ask him. “Why do you stay?”. He gives a slight shrug, palms facing upwards, corners of his mouth downwards, “Aquí es donde siempre hemos estado.”– This is where we have always been.
It seems that the sense of home outweighs the hardship. Would he leave his farm behind for an easier life if he could, I wonder? Paco considers this, before rising slowly having finished his coffee and ready to start another day’s toil. “Esto es casa,” he says to me as he trudges off down a red dirt track, cigar in mouth and horse bridle in hand.
This is home.