Dia de los Muertos Feature
June 2, 2010
This was the feature story in the special edition “Dia de los Muertos” of Cigar Press Magazine. Written by Kellen Gorbett and Thor Nielsen. “To live in the hearts of those we leave behind, is not to die.”
A shadow of doubt from an entire industry was cast over Carlos Fuente, Jr., in the autumn of 1995. Bland, mediocre cigars hastily rolled together and quickly distributed were a sign of the times, as the cigar boom was well under way. He wanted no part of that new ideology.
Carlos, Jr., or Carlito, was already established in the cigar industry for not accepting the status quo and instead asking, “Why not?” In this particular instance, the common thought among cigar makers was that Dominican Republic tobacco leaf couldn’t be used for the cigar wrapper. Despite doubt from the competition, after several attempts he was ready to release his new Dominican wrapper cigar.
But before the release, his dad, who worked on the development of the new cigar, instructed him to not ship the cigars until his late grandfather’s birthday. “We’ll need his help,” said his father.
Nearly 15 years later, the Fuente Fuente Opus X is still one the most celebrated and sought after cigars in the world. And though it constituted Carlito’s legendary standing in the industry, it was his grandfather, Arturo Fuente that endured hardships to establish the Fuente family as the greatest cigar family of all time.
Just as Carlito learned from his father, and Carlos, Sr. learned from his father, Arturo Fuente learned the art of cigar making from his father. Born in 1887 in Cuba, he learned at a young age how to cultivate and choose high-grade tobacco. Also an expert roller, in 1906 Fuente immigrated to Key West in search of the American dream. When he arrived, he found a job in a cigar factory, where he put his skills as a roller to work.
Six years later, Fuente made a decision that would alter his family for generations to come. At the age of 25, he moved his family to Florida’s Ybor City, the cigar capital of the world, and the Arturo Fuente cigar was born. One of the first cigars A. Fuente and Co. produced would be the Arturo Fuente Fancy Tales. These cigars were made in a classic Cuban Perfecto shape, and were quite difficult to roll. Seventy years later, at a time when the shape was a lost art, these cigars were reintroduced as the Fuente Hemingway Series. Today, many other cigar makers produce similar shapes.
During one of his many visits to inspect the tobacco in Cuba every year, Fuente’s factory caught on fire. It was 1924, and without enough money to continue, he had no choice but to go to work for another cigar company. His dream was only briefly delayed. In the 1940s, he reopened his business. Though he began by selling cigars out of the back of his house, he quickly made enough money to move into a factory.
Many cigar makers claim to have been born into the cigar industry, but for Fuente’s son, Carlos, Sr., that claim should be taken literally. Fuente’s first cigar factory also served as the home Carlos, Sr. would grow up in. When he arrived home from school every day, he would learn about making cigars, and eventually the business would be passed to him.
The decades to come would bring more hardship and change. After moving the factory to Nicaragua, it was burned down by rebel Sandinistas. The factory burned down once again, this time two months after moving to Honduras. Finally finding a home in the Dominican Republic, the Fuente family would prevail and create Chateau de la Fuente. Decades after his death, the Fuente’s would become the family they are today by following the precedent of dedication and perseverance set by the great Arturo Fuente.
Perhaps the most famous Cuban tobacco expert of all time was born in 1906 in Kiev, Russia; over 6,000 miles from Havana. Never the less, Zino Davidoff would spend his entire youth around tobacco. His father, Henri, was a Jewish tobacco merchant, and his family rolled Turkish cigarettes inside a small tobacco shop. When Davidoff was five, his family fled the political turmoil and anti-Semitism of Russia (present day Ukraine) for Geneva, Switzerland. After the nearly three month journey to Geneva, Henri opened up another tobacco shop. Among the Davidoff shops first customers was Vladimir Lenin, who would eventually leave Switzerland to lead the Communist revolution.
By age 19, Davidoff was well versed in blending tobacco, but his experience was limited to pipes and cigarettes. Seeking a greater knowledge of tobacco, and perhaps a little adventure, he left for South America, where his lifelong passion would quickly be discovered. Upon arrival, he spent time in the tobacco fields of Brazil and Argentina. His co-workers quickly recognized his gift in the art of cigars, and suggested he take his learning to another level by moving to Cuba. Fortunately for cigar smokers everywhere, he heeded their advice.
Davidoff spent two years in Cuba. In that short period of time, he went from a knowledgeable tobacco worker to a Cuban cigar expert. Throughout Davidoff’s life, his confident and charismatic personality would allow him to gain the respect of even those he barely knew. Cuba was no different. Taught by the best Cuban farmers in the world, he learned the harvesting, fermenting, blending and rolling process. He also learned the tasting process, and at 23, Davidoff was ready to move back to Geneva and begin his empire.
He took little time displaying his expertise at his father’s shop in Geneva. Having learned the storing process in Cuba, he built a climate controlled basement in the shop. Controlled at 70-percent humidity, this basement kept cigars fresh, and was the first cigar humidor in Europe and perhaps the world.
Davidoff committed himself to the Havana puro. Even during the Great Depression, the shop’s reputation continued to emerge as the premier location to find Cuban cigars in Europe. For a time during WWII, Davidoff’s relationship with the Cubans allowed the shop to be the only supplier of Cuban cigars. Wealthy European cigar smokers constantly looked to the Davidoff shop for their Cuban inventory.
The shop continued to thrive as a Cuban cigar retailer after the war, but manufacturers from Germany, Holland and Switzerland still controlled most of the market. Realizing the limitless potential of Cubans, Davidoff went back to work. In 1946, he released the legendary Chateau Series, named after the popular Grand Cru wines from Bordeaux. From then on, the world of cigars would never be the same, and Cubans would receive the recognition that they still carry today.
Davidoff shared his passion and expertise in the 1967 release of “The Connoisseur’s Book of the Cigar.” Selling over 200,000 copies in several languages, today the book is acknowledged as the premiere guide book for cigars. In honor of his contributions to Cuban cigars, in 1969 Cubatabaco, who controlled all cigars in Cuba, launched the Davidoff line. Under the direction of Davidoff, the brand consisted of the No. 1, No. 2, and Ambassadrice. The El Laguito factory in Havana, which also rolled the Cohiba line, produced the cigars. Along with Cohiba cigars made at the time, Davidoff Cuban cigars are considered some of the best cigars ever made.
Around that time, he decided to sell the tobacco shop to his longtime friend Ernst Schneider. Schneider viewed Davidoff not as a shop, but as a brand, and began marketing worldwide. Davidoff remained the face of the brand for the rest of his life, using his charisma, story, and passion for tobacco to spread the love of cigars.
Even in his later years, Davidoff contributed more to the cigar industry than most men could in a lifetime. He was instrumental in the transfer of Davidoff cigars from Cuba to the Dominican Republic, where they remain to this day. He also regularly fought anti-cigar lobbyists, arguing that cigars in moderation can have a positive influence on health. Living to the age of 87 certainly helped his case. The man that said a good cigar is “a moment of pure dreaming” died in 1994, but will never be forgotten as a transcendent man that dedicated his life to providing the world with transcendent cigars.
Memory contributed by Hendrik Kelner, Sr.:
What placed Zino Davidoff among the greats in the tobacco world was not his profound knowledge of the leaf, but his passion for it. It’s not because he elevated the pleasure of smoking to an art form, but because he wasn’t exclusive in his refinement, and instead made us all part of it. It’s not that he was recognized as the world’s cigar ambassador, but because he committed all of us into that civilizing crusade. In a world of self proclaimed experts, I always remember what Zino said – “The best cigar is the one you like.” This simple line demystified experts and supported all aficionados in a unified gathering that made us all one big family. I will never forget his insistent recommendation: “We must always offer the same cigar. This is the most important thing.” Your best friends are the ones that do not change, no matter where you are in the world. If you visit a Davidoff Shop, you can rest assured that the cigar will be the same, too. Zino didn’t develop a worldwide distribution to become globally known, but to offer anyone in the world that same friend. Today we remember all you did, and I just want to say thank you, Zino.
He reached New York penniless. It was 1964, and he was accompanied by his wife and the clothes on their backs. He worked the tobacco fields of Connecticut, while she found a job in the glassware department at Bloomingdales. Of course, this was nothing new. Millions of poor immigrants have entered New York City since the late 1800s. But the story of Ramon Cifuentes was different. He had nothing to show for it upon arrival, so his noble past was impossible to see. Yet despairing cries of his nation would be heard for decades to come, and Cifuentes’ transcendent future would change an industry.
Only a few years earlier in Cuba, Cifuentes was the most well-known mind in the cigar industry. He was also wealthy. He learned the art of cigar-making from his father, Ramon Cifuentes Llano, who purchased the Partagas brand at the beginning of twentieth century. Together they turned Partagas into one the world’s leading Cuban cigars. When his father died, the brand was passed on to Cifuentes and his two brothers. In their hands, the business continued to grow. But like most Cuban at the time, success would only last so long.
On New Year’s Day, 1959, Castro took over Cuba, and with Cuba came the cigar factories. The barns and tobacco fields. The workers. Castro seized everything, and allowed owners to take nothing. After portraying a bleak future for Cifuentes and his family, the government offered him the job of a lifetime: Control of the every cigar company in Cuba.
Along with the job of a lifetime, to most men it would be the temptation of a lifetime. Make more money and become head of one of Cuba’s largest exports, or leave behind his country and successful family business that took decades to build? With no faith in where his beloved nation was headed, the choice was clear. Under the impression that the new government would not last long, Cifuentes quickly left for New York.
While in the fertile Connecticut River Valley, Cifuentes’ artful tobacco skills were quickly noticed by the owners of General Cigar Co. For the second time in his life, he worked his way up through the company. After a couple years, he was sent to General’s cigar factory in Jamaica to instruct and oversee operations. There, he once again became known as one of the world’s most knowledgeable cigar men.
In the mid-1970s, and there the non-Cuban Partagas brand was born. Under the guidance of Cifuentes, General used Dominican, Mexican and Cameroon tobacco to manufacture and distribute this new cigar. He also spent years in the Dominican teaching rollers, which today are some of the best in the world.
Though the Partagas building is the most famous cigar factory in Cuba, Cifuentes never reached his dream of returning there. Cifuentes stayed with General into his eighties, helping Partagas become one of the best-selling cigars in the United States. He was also instrumental in the development of world-renowned General cigars like Macanudo. Another one of us his great contributions to the cigar world was the road he paved for generations to come, teaching future leaders in the industry like Edgar Cullman and Daniel Nunez, his protégé and eventual successor. Cifuentes achieved more than most men could in two lifetimes, and in a sense, did live to lifetimes – one in Cuba and one out.
Memory Contributed by Benji Menendez:
Ramon Cifuentes was one of the great cigar masters of Cuba. To me, he was a living legend and a dear friend. Although we began as competitors in Cuba, Ramon taught me how to incorporate cigar molds into my family’s cigar making facilities. Molds allowed the older cigar rollers to keep working, and Ramon was passionate about ensuring a future for Cuba’s cigar rollers. After Ramon fled Cuba, he eventually began making Partagas cigars in Jamaica. He was relentless in his pursuit of quality and excellence and his standards were exacting. His legacy continues to influence the way we care for our tobacco and our commitment to tradition to this day. I will be forever grateful to him for encouraging me to join General Cigar and am blessed for having had the opportunity to work with him and to know him as a person. I am certainly a better tobacco man for having learned from him.
At the turn of the 20th century, there were 40,000 cigar manufacturing companies in the United States. For years, these cigar makers prospered, and together they sold around three billion cigars a year. But solely surviving through depressions, wars, cigarettes, and taxes was nearly impossible. Slowly, 39,999 manufacturers were forced to close or sell their business. Today, only one, the J.C. Newman Cigar Co., remains owned by its founding family. Perhaps because only one had Stanford Newman. But even fascinating numbers like this can’t capture Newman’s passion for family, business, and of course, tobacco.
During college at age 22, Newman began working with cigars. It was 1938, in Cleveland, Ohio. Until he died in 2006, his only break from cigars would be his years serving in WWII. He learned a true dedication to cigars from his father, the founder and company’s namesake, who began making cigars when he was 14 years old.
Returning from the war, Newman oversaw the manufacturing process of cigars, and his brother managed the sales department. Though cigarettes brought down cigar sales, the company thrived when the 1940s saw a boom in retail cigar stores. As the years went by, Newman eventually became the decision maker of the company. In 1958, just before his father passed away, Newman purchased the world famous Cuesta-Rey brand. A few years later, Newman would receive his first test as head of his father’s now nearly 70 year old company.
Like every cigar manufacturer rolling Cuban puros in 1962, the tobacco quickly began to run out. Companies desperately sought to sell their companies, but Newman looked elsewhere. Eventually, his search brought him to European cigar makers, who utilized Cameroon tobacco in their wrappers. With the unlimited access of Cuban tobacco, there had never been a need for tobacco that nearly doubled the price of Cuban. But Newman recognized the unique sweetness of the delicate Cameroon leaf, and became the first cigar maker to use it in the United States. The Cameroon leaf was wrapped around the Cuesta-Rey #95, and it became the largest selling premium cigar in the United States. The tobacco that essentially saved the J.C. Newman Cigar Co. is now widely acclaimed throughout the world.
The next decade brought in a third generation of Newman family cigar makers, as his sons Eric and Bobby worked in manufacturing, sales, and marketing. For the next fifteen years, Newman would teach his sons to be experts in the industry, and together they would help to continue and grow the company.
He introduced not only a new brand in 1986, but a new concept to the cigar world, releasing the first brand of premium cigars offered in bundles, instead of boxes. The cigar, named La Unica, was a brand he acquired when purchasing Cuesta-Rey. La Unica brought a quality product to cigar smokers without the additional price needed to cover boxes, which at times are more expensive than the cigar itself. The cigars remain one of the largest selling bundled cigars in the world.
That same year, Newman joined his old friends, the Fuente family, who recently moved to the Dominican Republic. Carlos Fuente became the manufacturer of the Cuesta-Rey and La Unica brands, and eventually the Fuentes and Newman’s would combine to form the ‘Cigar Family.’ Over fifty years after joining his father, Newman added one more cigar to his line – The Diamond Crown. This was a super-premium, thicker ring gauge cigar also made by the Fuentes.
Today, led Newman’s two sons, the Cuesta-Rey, La Unica, and Diamond Crown brands thrive, the Cigar Family donates millions of dollars to those in need, and 115 years later, the Newman family is still just as passionate about their cigars.
Memory contributed by Eric Newman:
“When Mr. Webster came up with the word “gentlemen” for his dictionary, Dad must have been his inspiration. Dad was the kindest, nicest, most generous and thoughtful person I have ever known. Dad was truly a “gentle” man. The other thought that comes to mind was Dad’s passion for innovation and quality. When his competitors were more concerned about costs than quality, Dad had a knack, desire and a real passion for producing a quality cigar regardless of cost. When other cigar manufacturers packed their cigars in cardboard boxes, Dad believed that putting them in wood boxes, regardless of the increased cost, would enhance the brand image. And when they other guys wanted to use the cheaper printed gold for their 5 packs, Dad went with the more costly but fancier gold foil for his packs.And when it came to getting quality tobacco for his Cuesta-Rey cigars, Dad was in a league by himself. After the Cuban embargo in 1961, most of the other Tampa cigar manufacturers closed their doors because they could not find an affordable substitute for Cuban leaf. Dad, on the other hand, experimented with the tasty but very expensive Cameroon tobacco for his cigars, and this quest for getting the very best tobacco available regardless of cost must have worked – Dad was one of only a few cigar manufactures to survive the embargo. I (somewhat) fondly recall arguing with Dad the night before the Cameroon auction in Paris that he we was preparing to offer too much money for his favorite tobacco. But Dad didn’t care, he knew that getting the best quality grades of Cameroon was essential for his business. And now, after all these years, I see he was right on.”
Memory contributed by Bobby Newman:
“There are so many “favorite” memories of Dad – I think about him all the time – whether it be when I am traveling for business, in a tobacconist, or at home or in the office. I had the honor to work side by side with him for 31 years – a rarity today! Perhaps what I remember the most about Dad was his gentle nature, but tough interior. He always felt that when he did a business deal with a customer…and all his (ours) customers and suppliers were his friends, that the deal – whether selling cigars or selling an idea – that it be good for both sides. Dad was the most un-selfish person I ever met. He had the innate ability to “see over the horizon” to see the next trend, and the ability to separate a fad from a trend. He was the first person to bring a “replacement” wrapper into the United States for the Cuban tobacco we all lost to the JFK Embargo – Cameroon. It saved our company. And one of Dad’s favorite statements was that we have to be innovative – if we copy someone else, we don’t deserve to be successful.”
ANGEL OLIVA SR.
It didn’t take long for Angel Oliva to understand the concept of hard work in Cuba. At six years old, he would arrive home from school to collect manure in bags with his father. The bags sold for two cents apiece. Not long after, Oliva quit school to help put food on the table for his family that included 11 brothers and sisters. Instead of school, he was paid $.40 a day to keep chickens out of the crops. He also collected tobacco seeds for an additional $5 per 25 pound bag. In 1919, at age 12, he began work at a general store. For two years, he worked, slept and ate in the store. “There was no money, no toys, no time to play,” Oliva recalled. It was not a fun childhood, but when he left for Tampa, Fl., at 18, the responsibility and work ethic that would lead to a tobacco empire was already instilled in him.
Oliva arrived at the beginning of the Great Depression, and quickly failed in his attempt to start a laundry business. Like many at the time, life was a struggle. Unlike many, he remained positive. “You are here and this land is yours to conquer,” Oliva told himself. Though still adjusting to culture and language in the U.S., he married and not long after launched what would become the Oliva Tobacco Co.
His youngest brother and father came from Cuba to assist him, and together they collected and sold some of Pinar Del Rio’s finest tobacco leaf. His wife, Meca, worked hard as well, working in the warehouse when she wasn’t cooking for them. Business did well, and they were able to continue through WWII, where Oliva guarded the U.S. coastline.
After his tobacco grower retired, Oliva and Meca spent two weeks a month in Cuba making contacts in the industry. These trips allowed Oliva to develop solid relationships with Cuban farmers, and soon his company took off. He provided large amounts of the popular ‘Candela’ wrapper from the San Luis area of Cuba. By 1950, his contacts were spread throughout the tobacco growing areas of Cuba, and the Oliva Tobacco Co. supplied nearly every cigar manufacturer with Cuban tobacco. With one eye on his tobacco, he carefully watched a charismatic Cuban rebel promising change and hope.
“I am proud to say he never fooled me,” said Oliva. Castro came to power, and Oliva immediately began searching for a new country to produce quality tobacco. In 1960, he committed to purchasing the entire crop of Cuban tobacco. The tobacco equaled nearly 4 million pounds and was the last Cuban tobacco to be legally sold in the U.S. The purchase allowed him the opportunity to significantly raise prices on the coveted tobacco. He refused. Perhaps integrity was learned in his early days of bagging manure. Or maybe he found the true meaning of loyalty during his failures upon arriving to Tampa as a young man. Whatever the reason, he possessed these virtues, and opted to charge fair prices to his customers. The profound gesture forever earned him the respect and trust of the entire cigar industry.
By the time Kennedy signed the Cuban embargo, Oliva had established tobacco farms throughout Central America. The foresight allowed Oliva to provide cigar manufacturers with tobacco from Honduras, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Ecuador when no one else could. Over the next few years, the large investments in these countries paid off as demand for quality tobacco increased. Oliva’s work ethic never slowed down.
His youngest son John joined the company in the 1970s. Recently graduating from college as a computer engineer, John had no desire to work with his father, or tobacco. To convince him otherwise, Oliva led John to believe the company would be sold if he didn’t join him. The charade worked perfectly. “He was a better actor than I am … it was the best decision I ever made,” said John.
Ashton, Drew Estate, Arturo Fuente, Rocky Patel. Perdomo. La Flor Dominicana. Tatuaje. 601, La Gloria Cubana, Romeo y Julieta, Montecristo, and Don Pepin Garcia. There’s a pretty good chance that if a cigars being smoked, it has tobacco from Oliva Tobacco, Co. They employ thousands of Central Americans, and own hundreds of acres in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Ecuador. The company also contributes financially to The University of Tampa, The Boys and Girls Club, The Children’s Home, and provides scholarships to students in the U.S. and Central America.
Before Oliva died on Aug. 31, 1996, he guaranteed future success in his company by teaching John the virtues he learned in Cuba. Today, John runs the Oliva Tobacco Co., and his son, John, Jr., is learning those same lessons so that one day, he, too, can carry honor of the Oliva family.
Memory contributed by John Oliva, Jr.:
My earliest memory of tobacco with my grandfather would have to be the first trip I ever took with him to Ecuador. I never had any intentions of going into the tobacco business at that time, but I think he thought it would be a good idea for me to see what put our family’s food on the table. We arrived in Ecuador and after touring the operation and checking the crops we proceeded to look at candela wrappers. For anybody that doesn’t know candela wrappers are the green wrappers that one see’s mostly on machine made cigars now a days, but at that time there was still a decent premium market for them. It’s a very lucrative wrapper to grow for tobacco farmers because it’s relatively easy to grow and the turnaround time on it is quick. In any event, we start looking at this wrapper from eight in the morning until seven at night. This went on for four straight days of a six day trip. I thought I was going to go batshit crazy looking at these damned green wrappers! They all looked the same! I kept thinking to myself “where are all the pretty brown wrappers everybody keeps talking about. Don’t we grow any of that?” Finally I worked up the nerve to ask him what he was seeing in the wrappers that differentiated one grade from another because I sure as hell couldn’t see it. It was then that he gave me a dissertation on the nuances of candela wrapper and what to look for that separated one grade from another. I then asked him, “Abuelo who the hell smokes this shit” and without batting an eye he shot back “The people who feed you.”
I learned two important lessons that day. I learned the nuances of candela wrappers no matter how mundane and, more importantly, that any wrapper you can sell is a good wrapper.
CARLOS TORANO SR.
The mistake is all too easy. After all, post-revolution photos coerce dreams of cruising 1950s Cadillac’s down ancient city streets. Whimsical scents of nomadic tobacco smoke gliding from one cigar valley to another elicit neglect for the truth. Tales of redemption for Cuban cigar companies in the Dominican Republic compels disregard for what actually happened in 1959. So do legends of deliverance and triumph in Nicaragua. So do new generations of accomplished cigar makers in Honduras.
But Carlos Toraño, Jr. always remembers. He knows for every story that lends images of Cuban romance and adventure, millions more live under Castro with no hope. He understands that for every successful cigar family that escaped Cuba, thousands of other cigar makers lost everything. The recently released Toraño Exodus 50 Years cigar commemorates – never celebrates – the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution.
If, for some reason, Carlos Jr. ever found himself seduced by the temptations of Cuba’s past glory, he would need to look no further than the memory of his father. There a recollection of darker, bleaker, accurate times could be found. Carlos Toraño, Sr. was one of four brothers, and they learned tobacco from their father at a very young age. Enamored with the art of cigars, in the 1930s each brother produced tobacco in different regions of Cuba. Toraño spent most his time in the Vuelta Abajo and Pinar del Rio regions, specializing in Corojo seed, shade-grown wrapper. He began with a single tobacco crop, but in only a few years he had acquired or built hundreds of acres and 17 tobacco farms.
One reason for Toraño’s success was his close friends in the tobacco industry. His brother-in-law was Ramón Cifuentes, the owner of Partagas, and he had solid relationships with Stanford Newman, the owner of the J.C. Newman Cigar Co. He also had a relationship with General Cigar Co., which would help him in the years ahead. These close connections allowed him to sell tobacco to some of the largest cigar companies in the world. Keeping food on the table for a Cuban family in the early 1900s usually meant appointing work as first priority. In the 1930s, the situation was no different for Toraño. At times, his hard work and busy schedule in the tobacco fields caused relationships with his family to suffer. With two houses – one in Havana and one near the tobacco fields – he would go long periods of time without seeing his wife and kids. When he wasn’t immersing himself in shade wrapper, he was a tenor at nights. Tobacco and singing were his passions. Life wasn’t perfect, but it was good. He thought it could be better.
The chance for a reformed, democratic system was impossible for Toraño to resist. A time to re-establish the nation he loved so much. A new hope for Cuba. So he donated millions into Fidel Castro’s Revolution. Other cigar makers and friends warned him of the potential consequences, but Toraño was steadfast in his support. While other wealthy Cubans transferred their money to other nations, his remained in the banks of Cuba. After the revolution, Castro’s continued promises kept Toraño on the island while most of his friends and family left. By the time he realized that his vision was not reality, it was too late. Everything in his life was depleted. Castro had taken over the banks, and Toraño’s assets were frozen. He was allowed to withdraw $100. Because it was one of the most important industries in Cuba, the tobacco fields were seized immediately. Heartbroken and as forsaken as his once flourishing crops, Toraño left the country he loved before it was too late to get out. With help from General Cigar Co., he eventually landed in the Dominican Republic. With his family now spread all over Latin America and the United States, he gave all his focus to tobacco. He found the Dominican soil to be surprisingly similar to Cuba, and the next few years became instrumental in promoting tobacco growing in the country. Perhaps his greatest contribution was introducing the Cuban seed to the Dominican, and teaching farmers to grow what is today known as ‘Piloto Cubano’. He mainly sold candela wrapper, a popular wrapper for cigars in the 1960s. Once again, life was good, and he began to love the Dominican Republic.
Only eight years after the Cuban embargo, in 1970, Toraño passed away. On a hot day outside of Santiago, he walked in on sleeping employees that were supposed to be watching the tobacco. This was an important job, as the heat could potentially cause the tobacco to catch fire. He became so enraged at the neglect of his tobacco that he fell to the ground, and, at only 57, died before they could get him to a hospital. Carlos, Jr. eventually transferred tobacco growing in the Dominican to cigar making in Nicaragua. Today his son, Charlie, leads the company into their fourth generation in the cigar industry, and he thrives on always remembering his family’s history and love of tobacco. The company now has eleven lines, and their most popular brand is, fittingly, the Toraño Exodus 1959.
Memory Contributed by Carlos Torano:
One of my greatest regrets is that I do not remember meeting my grandfather, Carlos Toraño. I was only three years old when he passed away in the Dominican Republic. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, the truth is that I spent precious little time thinking about a man I never met. However, since my decision to join my father in the tobacco business over a decade ago, I have come to know, love and respect my grandfather in ways I never thought possible. Throughout the cigar and tobacco industry, I have met scores of people that knew and worked alongside my grandfather. They share with me his incredible knowledge and passion for tobacco growing; they tell me that he was dedicated to sharing his knowledge of tobacco with others; they tell me that he was tough but fair and honest; and they tell me that after a hard day at work in the fields, he would enjoy a good cigar and sing (he was a tenor) to anyone who would listen. Carlos Toraño was a man completely dedicated to the tobacco business. Although I don’t remember him, I miss him and I’m honored to carry on his legacy through our Carlos Toraño cigars.
Paul Hernandez was a well-known cigar-rep and co-owner of Aromas of Havana in North Miami Beach, FL, Paul represented many brands including Tatuaje, Xikar, Casa Magna, Fonseca and as well as Lotus lighters. Paul was best known for his outgoing personality. He always had a smile on his face and an upbeat attitude. He had genuine character and was always the first to lend a helpful hand and go the extra mile for those he knew and worked with.
Memory contributed by Peter Hernandez: When I was asked to write my best memory of with Paul, it brought back so many amazing memories. I was able to share lots of Paul’s first times. When we were kids I took Paul everywhere with me. To single out one memory is like choosing one great meal, or a great movie. When we were kids he was 7 and I was 11 our parents sent us to the Dominican Republic for the summer we had an awesome time. When he was 19 I would love to run into him in nightclubs on south beach. You would think my best memory was a milestone or a life changing experience but it isn’t. My favorite memories were all the holidays sitting in the backyard smoking great cigars and telling stories. I miss him mostly on Sundays that’s when we would meet at moms house for a swim in the pool, he always brought the greatest sticks. I feel very fortunate to have had him in my life and I’m glad that I told him how proud I was and how much I loved him. Paul and I never had a problem that a go fuck yourself couldn’t fix. We should all be so lucky to live like Paul Hernandez he was able to squeeze 50 years of life into 37 years. He traveled he eat at the best restaurants, he drank the best scotch and smoked the best cigars. He left us a thriving cigar distribution, the hottest cigar bar in Miami, a beautiful nephew, and he left his mark on anyone he met.
Contribution by Steven Hernandez: When I was asked to write about a memory I have of my brother Paul, a plethora of memories came to mind and I found it difficult to think of a specific one because there are so many great ones. One that stands out in my mind took place August of 2005 during the tobacco trade show in New Orleans and it truly depicts Paul’s genuine charm and charisma. I remember it vividly because it was two weeks prior to hurricane Katrina’s destruction and devastation. After a typical cigar salesman dinner about twenty of us decided to go let off some steam in the French quarter. There was a concert at The House of Blues and we all desperately wanted to get in but to our dismay it was completely sold out. No amount of money at that point would get us tickets and that’s when I remember Paul saying, “Don’t worry, I got this.” No more than five minutes had passed when I turn and notice that Paul had met the road manager of the tour who happened to be an avid cigar smoker. Somehow, with two cigars and a cigar lighter, Paul charmed the guy and subsequently we were all invited in to the venue and treated like celebrities. This was a truly special moment because this was the epitome of his personality and how he stood out in the crowd. Paul connected with many people on many levels and this was one of those moments. Needless to say, this was one of the best night’s of my life and I couldn’t have been prouder of being Paul’s brother . He has left an everlasting mark on my life, those who were lucky enough to meet him and the cigar industry. Paul, with a lack of a better word, was my best friend and mentor. I share this one memory of many in hopes of expressing what Paul meant to me.
Contribution by Carmen Hernandez: “One of my favorite memories of my husband is that he was a fantastic cook. He was the master at grilling almost anything. Having a family barbeque with Paul as the chef was always a special treat.”
Tributes to men of distinguished honor – men worthy of the written accounts chronicling their lives – often compel us to ponder our own mortality. About what we’re doing here, about what purpose we serve. For some, entire lifetimes are spent searching for purpose. For others, life is too short, and it’s never realized.
Before the life of Alfredo Perez abruptly ended in the spring of 2000, he had already found love, determination, loyalty, passion, excellence in his chosen career, and several reasons to be alive – including two sons and several grandchildren. But only months before his death, one of the many purposes for his life still had yet to be brought to fruition.
Out of a desire to pass his father’s company, A.S.P Enterprises, into the next generations of the Perez family, one of his final contributions was re-gaining complete control of it. Out of necessity, the Perez family had sold 50% of their company nearly 10 years ago. At the time, A.S.P needed more working capital in preparation for the looming cigar boom. Selling the company reassured that, while also allowing them to also own new tobacco farms. The move solidified them as one of the premier tobacco sellers in the world.
A dream he had since it was originally sold, complete control of A.S.P. allowed Perez to rest the company in the hands of a fifth generation of the Perez family. Thanks to Perez, even family that has yet to be born will be brought up into a successful family.This was not the first time tough decisions by Perez had been decided simply by passion. Even in his 20s, he allowed his heart to solve questions. After graduating from high school, he was offered a job that doubled the amount he made working in tobacco. At the time, he worked for his father, Silvio, as a lowly farmhand, but still turned down the job offer to continue his work the tobacco fields. There, he learned firsthand how to make quality tobacco. The decision paid off in 1971, when he joined his father in Nicaragua to grow candela wrapper. They used their tobacco growing expertise to conduct soil analysis and experiment with different kinds of seeds never before seen in Nicaragua. Perez is also often credited with finding new strands of disease-resistant tobacco seeds. Eventually the attention to detail and research led to some of the best tobacco in the world at the time. Business thrived.
When Nicaraguan rebels overtook the factories, the Perez family moved back to Miami, and began looking for new tobacco growing regions. Still going back and forth from Miami and Nicaragua, ASP also began selling Mexican and Ecuadorian tobacco. The business continued to expand, until the cigar boom finally solidified them as one of the top tobacco sellers in the world. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the tobacco industry was raising his sons to carry on the legacy of providing quality tobacco for cigar makers. But he also taught them through example. Through his life, they learned to follow their passions, and of course, to live with a purpose.
Memory Contributed by David Alfred Perez:
The fondest memories of my father, there were many, but the ones that stand out are all the hours of quality time I got to spend with my father, riding around with him in the Jeep…He use to take me with him when we lived in Nicaragua, since I was around 3 years old. While my brothers where in school he instilled in me work ethics and the need to listen to both the client and the Farm workers……He would say “ You can’t grow a crop by yourself, you need the clients to want to buy it and the workers to do their best to produce the quality crops ASP is known for. To do that he treated everyone like they were Family and was a man of his word. The business was built around dinners at our home and there too I had the privilege to listen and learn from two expert tobacco men. My Pa (as we called him) and my grandfather, Silvio, who learned the art of tobacco growing from his grandfather….My brothers and I are the fifth generation and hopefully my son David Junior will be the tobacco man of tomorrow. He always said that he was building this business not so much for himself but to leave a legacy for his boys and the grandkids and great grandkids…He was a visionary in many aspects of this business having learned from the seed production to the final cigar. Always with new ideas to improve the product…improve the seeds…improve the working conditions. He was very concerned that everything was good for all involved in the process to produce a high quality cigar.
Sundays at our home in Nicaragua we would often go out and check the experimental seed production. We had as many as 120 varieties at one time…Ours was truly a family affair as my mother worked on the seed crossbreeding …and on Sundays, the only free time he had he would make a day of it taking a picnic lunch and we would play with our go-cart or pony. I, however, had an interest in knowing about everything, so he was patient in showing me from a very early age. My parents showed me how to cross breed a plant when I was in kindergarten…..he emphasized that we always had to come up with different and better seeds. For others working seven days a week and almost 24 hours in the day during the harvest (checking sheds thru out the night) would seem like a chore…but he enjoyed his work and always said he would do it even if he didn’t get paid. It was both his work and his hobby! Coming up with new disease-resistant varieties was a challenge and a pleasure. He was very much the family man so when he was home he tried to spend time with us.
He sent me to various companies during my school breaks to learn every aspect of the business you cannot learn from a book…I had the privilege and the pleasure to learn from the best. He said I needed to be able to do every job to become a good boss, because an employer has to be able to do the job himself, or show others how to do it correctly. He never seemed to tire or show it…by the time I was twenty and he was forty six…he could outwork me and I would be tired and he showered and dressed and went out to dinner with clients…What I remember and miss the most is that we spoke every day since I started working for ASP. He would tell me, “to make the company grow, you must trust yourself and your instincts enough to invest all your money and your heart.” This is what he did! I value the time I spent with him and all the knowledge I was able to obtain before his too short life ended….My last memory I want to have of him is not that of him in a hospital bed, but that of him holding my 3 week old son the day before he went into the hospital… “I am holding the next generation of Perez tobacco men,” he said.
Evelio Oviedo Dominguez was born on February 23, 1923, in the town of Union de Reyes, Province of Matanzas, Cuba. As a small child he helped his father in their cigar factory of 3-4 employees, which was typical of the many family-owned factories in Cuba, that because of their small size, were nicknamed “chinchal.”
Evelio first learned all pre-industrial aspects of growing, harvesting, curing and preparing tobacco leafs before moving on to deveining and preparing the leafs for manufacturing, thereafter learning the fine craftsmanship of rolling and wrapping cigars in his family’s chinchal.
At the age of 15, he moved to the city of Havana, the nation’s capital, where he worked as a tobacconist in a number of small factories, but as hisexperience grew so did his talent, for which he was eventually recognized and promoted to become part of a select-group of tobacconists, at the prestigious H.Upman Cigar Factory, where he eventually becomes recognized not only as an excellent Tobacconist, but as a Master Blender. Evelio’s continued recognition in the industry led him to become an active participant and in the formation of the Cuban Tobacconists’ Labor Syndicate and a member of the National Tobacconists’ Retirement Board.
As a highly respected member of his profession, and known as a just and equitable man, he later became a Labor Mediator between factories’ management and the Tobacconists union, enabling him to reach numerous satisfactory negotiations for both sides. In July of 1961, he left Cuba in route to the Canary Islands (Spain), sponsored by his previous employers, in order to reorganize a factory in exile. During the next 10 years he managed to develop a factory that achieved great international prestige, “La Insular Tabacalera”. As a Master Blender and famed Tobacconist, he successfully managed to bring to market one of the best selling brands, Montecruz, manufactured by the generations of tobacconists trained by him.
After just a few years of absence from the tobacco industry, while living in New York and Miami, Evelio joined the Plasencia Family in 1995 and was tasked to develop the operational capabilities of the various family-owned factories in Honduras and Nicaragua, as well as to assume the roll of Master Blender for the numerous brands that the Plasencia factories were manufacturing. In addition, he represented the Plasencia Group of farms and factories at numerous and various types of International Tobacco events throughout Europe and the Americas.
Regrettably, Evelio passed away on April 8, 2009 in Miami, FL, at the age of 86, surrounded by his immediate family members. But we are comforted by the knowledge that through his example, his practices and his teachings, he has left us an invaluable legacy that will long last beyond us, to the many who already have as well as those who have yet to join, the fine art and craftsmanship that is the manufacturing of premium hand-made cigars.
The above written on Evelio Dominguez is a contextual translation from Spanish to English of a brief text written by Evelio’s long-time friends and colleagues, Mr. Ahgmed Fernandez & Cesar A. Blanco.
Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos celebrations are observed all over the world. It is a time to remember and celebrate our loved ones who have gone before us. Traditionally rituals take place at grave sites with relatives and friends bringing their favorite foods, drinks, and decorate their grave sites with marigolds, creating shrines in the deceased ones honor. The idea is to welcome back the dead for the day by inviting them with some of their favorite comforts of life. Periods of laughter and celebration are often accompanied by mourning and sorrow, which is an inherent part of living through the loss of a loved one.
November Second is when Dia de los Muertos is celebrated in Most regions of Mexico and other parts of the world. The festivals and rituals that we are familiar with originated from the ninth month of the Aztec calendar. Then the holiday began at would have been the beginning of August, and it was celebrated for an entire month. Then the festivities were dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the “Lady of the Dead.” Today she is commonly known as Catrina.
The Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico can be traced back to the indigenous people such as the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Mexican or Aztec, Maya, P’urhépecha, and Totonac. Rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors have been observed for as long as three-thousand years that we know of. It was common to keep skulls as trophies and display them during the rituals to symbolize death and rebirth. In some places of Peru they have such practices, but they are observed all year round. They will take the skulls of their male ancestors and build shrines around them, or even build them into the walls of their home. They present them with animal sacrifices such as guinea pigs and other ornamental offerings such as flowers.
Day of the Dead doesn’t have to follow any specific ritual, except for the one in which we celebrate those who we have loved in our lives who have passed on from this world and keeping them alive through memory and story, as they live on in our hearts.