Since 1944, the rhythms of daily life in the small rural town of La Conchita in Cuba’s western province of Pinar del Río have been tied to a bell that chimes at 7:50 am, noon, 12:50 pm, and 5 pm. This is the bell of the food-processing factory La Conchita, which has chimed regularly for over 70 years to alert the workers and their families to starting and closing times and the lunch break. The factory, which preserves and cans guava paste, pineapple chunks, bonito fish, tomato puree, and local produce, employs 20 percent of the town’s population. Local residents work as machine operators, assembly-line workers, food technologists, and mechanics, jobs that span a range of skills and qualifications.
The factory was the lifeblood of the community, but it was making the workers and their families sick. The old Soviet-era machinery and obsolete technology produced excess waste that clogged the nearby river with black sludge. The chimneys emitted thick plumes of smoke that caused respiratory problems such as asthma for residents and workers. There were high rates of cancer among community residents, particularly elderly people and children. In 2015, Cuban national environmental authorities announced the temporary closure of the factory. The announcement was devastating to a town that depended on the factory for its livelihood and existence.
In response to this decision, a group of local children between 8 and 14 years old made a documentary to record the history of the factory and show why it should be remodeled to reduce contamination rather than simply shut down. They named their film Siete Y 50 (Seven 50), after the factory’s morning bell, which had served as a point of reference for the community. The girls and boys had received training in audio-visual production through a project known as Cámara Chica (Little Camera). Under the tutelage of Juan Carlos Baños Fernández, a producer at the local station Provincial TV, the children spent six months researching the history of the factory; interviewing their mothers, fathers, and grandparents who worked in it; and documenting the environmental impact. The project serves as an exemplar of socially engaged activism among a younger generation in Cuba who are finding new tools to tell their stories in a period of greater uncertainty and change.
The factory is an artifact of Cuban history and a symbol of the utopian vision of industrialism as progress. In the film, we see interviews with former directors, retired factory workers, and a local historian. La Conchita was inaugurated in 1944 by the two sons of the magnate Pío Ferro, one of whom later became a senator of the republic. During a new postwar era of mass consumption influenced by North American market culture, the factory turned Cuba’s agricultural products into easily consumed commodities for middle-class households. After the revolution, the Ferro brothers left the country and on October 14, 1960, the factory was nationalized and expanded its export production. In the film, retired workers and former directors speak about the attempts to build worker-led management and a collective consciousness through popular assemblies and cultural activities. They recall Che Guevara’s visit to the factory. A carnival in La Conchita brought a thousand people from the town together for a night of food and dancing.