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Family Matters—The Perez Tobacco Growers

For the Perez family of Miami's A.S.P. Enterprises Inc., tobacco growing is more than just a career—it's in the genes.
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

(continued from page 1)

Growing up in Miami, Alfredo attended high school and worked part time as a counter man in a cafeteria before becoming a butcher. All the while he was attending school and watching his father toiling away at unrewarding work.

Then, ironically, the dictatorship that compelled the Perezes to leave Cuba was indirectly responsible for putting Silvio back in the cigar business that he loved. Because of the embargo against Cuba, there was a need to produce candela wrapper in the United States, says Alfredo. One of the gentlemen with whom my father worked in Cuba, he was contacted by Edgar Cullman [of Cullman Bros., which later became General Cigar]. Cullman was looking for people who could help him grow candela in Connecticut. Silvio Perez was a natural choice.

Leaving behind his son, Silvio embarked on the long drive north from Miami to Cullman's farm near Hartford, Connecticut, in May 1962. The operation was modern and big-budgeted, a far cry from the more primitive farms in Cuba. It was a big learning experience for my father, says Alfredo. Farmers harvested tobacco differently in Cuba. There they used the middle of the plant first, even though the tobacco starts ripening at the bottom. The idea in Cuba was to protect the [more valuable] wrapper, which comes from the middle of the plant. In Connecticut they harvested from the bottom on up. The fertilization in Connecticut was more advanced and so were the seeds.

Things began looking up for Silvio. Not only was he working with tobacco again, but he also found himself in the company of Puerto Rican field hands with whom he could communicate in his mother tongue. Nevertheless, the Cullmans encouraged him to learn English, insisting that knowing the language was mandatory for success in the United States. Every night when I went to school, sitting at a little desk, having to learn the language, I would think [horrible thoughts] about Castro, recalls Silvio, only half-joking.

Once the candela season ended, the Cullmans offered Silvio a full-time position. He accepted the offer and brought Olga and their daughter, Silvia (now A.S.P.'s executive secretary), to Connecticut, where they shared an employee's house on the farm; Alfredo, who was only 15 at the time, remained in Miami. He lived on his own, attending high school and working as a butcher. He'd wake up at 4 a.m. and go to the slaughterhouses to select beef that would go to the shop, then he'd attend classes during the day, and deliver meat until 11 p.m. For breakfast, lunch and dinner, Alfredo ate steak and drank milk, thinking that the combination would provide strength for the long days. But the hard work (and, says Alfredo, spending too much time in meat freezers) took its toll, and in 1962 he contracted pneumonia.

Concerned for their son, Silvio and Olga drove to Miami in October 1962 and brought Alfredo to Connecticut. It was right in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis, Alfredo recalls. My father saw all these military trucks heading south and he said, 'I don't know why we are going to Connecticut. Maybe we ought to be heading back to Cuba.' But the Perezes's destiny had already been set in motion.

His health restored, Alfredo continued his education at Hartford High. After school each day, his father encouraged him to learn the family business. [Cullman Bros.] vice president Joe Prinsky asked me if I really wanted to have my son working as a field hand, recalls Silvio, leaving the impression that Prinsky felt the position would be too lowly for a Perez. Joe said, 'He'll have to do everything.' I said, 'OK. Let him do it.'

The job was the equivalent of a first year in college for anybody desiring a career in tobacco. I had some background from going to the farm [in Cuba] with my father, Alfredo recalls. But I really learned how to do everything in Connecticut. As a field worker you seed the tobacco in the ground, you pick it, carry it, string it, cure it.

But after graduating from high school in 1965, Alfredo received a tempting offer. Nearby Whitney Aircraft offered him $3.40 an hour to work in its factory, which was $2 more than he could earn on the farm. It was a big temptation to jump, Alfredo admits. But Joe Prinsky took me aside and asked, 'You want to run a machine all of your life? Or do you want to be a tobacco man?' I decided he was right. I stayed.

In January 1966, Alfredo married a woman named Dorothea, whom he had met in Simsbury, Connecticut, and they began raising a family. During that period he graduated from field hand to head of a Cullman farm and warehouse; at the time Silvio headed up a warehouse of his own, and there was a sense of settlement to their lives. But it was not to last.

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