Travels May 2003

Carbonaro and Primavera

With gasoline prices in Cuba going up and up, it is once again an excellent time to have—and to be—an ox.

One thing will never change: Carbonaro must always be on the right. Five years from now, ten years, even twenty, if all goes well, Carbonaro will still be on the right and Primavera on the left, the two of them yoked together, pulling a spindly plough across the loamy fields in the hills outside Cienfuegos. Oxen are like that: absolutely rigid in their habits, intractable once they have learned their ways. Even when a working pair is out of harness and is being led to water or to a fresh spot to graze, the two animals must be aligned just as they are accustomed or they will bolt, or at the very least dig in and refuse to go any farther until order is restored, each ox in its place.

Carbonaro and Primavera were not always a pair. Twenty years ago Primavera was matched up and trained with an ox named Cimarrón. They worked side by side for two decades. But Cimarrón was a glutton, and he broke into the feed one day and ate himself sick, dying happy with incurable colic. It was an enormous loss. An ox costs thousands of pesos and must be babied along until the age of two and then requires at least a year of training before he can be put to work. It is especially difficult to lose half of a working pair: you have to find a new partner who fits the temperament and strength of your animal, and above all, you have to find an ox who can work on the now vacant side. Primavera would work only on the left. He could be matched only with a partner who was used to working on the right. It was a lucky thing to find Carbonaro, a right-sider and a pretty good match in terms of size, although to this day he is a little afraid of Primavera and hangs back just a bit.

Anyway, it was a lucky thing to find an ox at all. For a while oxen had seemed part of the Cuban landscape—huge, heavy-bodied creatures, with necks rising in a lump of muscle, their gigantic heads tapering into teacup-sized muzzles; homely animals with improbably slim legs and a light tread, their whip-thin tails flicking in a kind of staccato rhythm, the rest of their being unmoving, imperturbable, still. But then cheap Soviet oil came to Cuba, and chemical fertilizers, and, most important, tractors. In fact, during the 1960s and 1970s so many tractors were being sent to Cuba that there were more than the farmers could use. Sometimes when the Agriculture Ministry called the cooperatives to announce the arrival of more tractors, no one even bothered to go to the port to pick them up. During that time hardly anyone wanted oxen. With a heavy tractor a farmer could rip through a field at five or six times the speed he could with a team. It was, or it seemed, so much more modern, and so much simpler, than dealing with the complicated politics of a flesh-and-blood team. Hardly anyone was raising or training oxen. With such a windfall of tractors, no one imagined that oxen would ever again be anything other than a quaint anachronism.

Even during the time of abounding tractors Humberto Quesada preferred using Primavera and Cimarrón—and then, of course, Carbonaro—but Humberto is an independent sort of man. His grandfather was brought to Cuba as a slave and was put to work on a sugar plantation of 70,000 rich acres owned by a Massachusetts family. Humberto's father was a slave there too, and Humberto as a child worked beside him in the fields, so that he could learn how to do what he assumed he'd grow up to do. Although the Quesadas were slaves, they were mavericks. Humberto's sister Ramona, a tiny woman with tight curls and a dry laugh, married the son of white farmers down the road—a scandal at the time, but one that yielded a happy fifty-year marriage that became the warm center of the joined families. And of course Humberto went his own way. After the Castro revolution he became a truck driver, but he kept a hand in farming. It was different, because he was farming his own land, a piece of the old plantation. "The land is the foundation of everything," he told me not long ago. "If you have land, you always have something." He was encouraged to join a cooperative, but like many Cuban farmers, he chose to work alone. "There's always a lazy person in a group, so I don't like being part of groups," he explained. Moreover, he resisted each time the government tried to cut back a little bit of his land. Recently the government wanted to build a health clinic on a piece of his property, but once the official in charge of the appropriation realized that the magnificent sweet potatoes he regularly enjoyed were from Humberto's farm, he changed his mind and said Humberto should have more land, not less.

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