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Cigars Across America: U.S. Cigar Makers

Michael Frank
From the Print Edition:
maduro issue, Winter 93/94

(continued from page 1)

Antelo Cigars in Little Havana is owned by Arnaldo Laurencio, who speaks a smattering of English. His immediate, excitable love of the business gives Antelo an amicable feeling missing in other chinchales. Equally rare, Antelo makes several different blends for its cigars. And Antelo employs about 15 rollers, the most, next to El Credito (La Gloria Cubana and El Rico Habano) in Miami. The rollers sit four to a row, each rolling table connected to the next. Seen from behind, the workers' hands are a blur in the otherwise sedate one-room shop. They roll and talk quietly to one another in Spanish.

Berta Davila, a spirited woman in her mid-50s, sits toward the back of the room, separating wrapper leaves according to color, removing the center stem once the leaves are categorized. The leaves are then bundled in sets of 52. The two extra leaves (cigars are usually bundled in sets of 50 or 25) are added "in case a wrapper is broken or the cigar maker wants to smoke one," according to Laurencio. (Rollers are each entitled to three cigars at the end of the day, and they may smoke all day while working.)

There is a strong feeling of community at Antelo. The workers are old friends and even in silence they seem at ease with one another. Still, most of the workers at Antelo echo a common sentiment heard in Little Havana: "If Castro fell, the next day we'd go running back." In this case, the speaker is Antonio Concepcion, a roller in his mid-50s who was forced to leave a pregnant wife in Cuba "for political reasons."

Concepcion is quick to say that he has grown to like the perks of making cigars in America: "I like the air-conditioning in the U.S." This is one of the advantages to rolling cigars in a First World country. Yet in Honduras, the Dominican Republic and at one time in Cuba, cigar rollers were respected craftsmen, and even today their wage can support a family. But in Miami, at places like Antelo where the art is appreciated, the pay only supplements retirement funds or Social Security benefits. It is not a job for the young, not even for the children of these rollers. Most here, like Petra Hurtado, are happy that her children don't smoke or make cigars. Hurtado's son is a policeman, and she clearly has no regrets that the family tradition will die with her.

On the other side of Little Havana, only a five-minute drive away, is El Canelo ("the cockfighter"). It is a small shop, employing four to six rollers, depending on the pace of business. Perhaps the most dignified of all rollers to be found in Miami (also one of the more skillful makers of panetelas) is Adolfo Cuevas, who works here. Cuevas came to Miami when he was 48. A judge in Havana, Cuevas was forced to make a fresh start. He returned to the job of rolling cigars, which is how he worked his way through law school. Now 78, Cuevas augments retirement income by rolling at El Canelo, and his panetelas have the tightly rolled appearance of Cohiba Lanceros.

Cuevas' boss, Orlando Rodriguez, the owner of El Canelo, is a quiet salesman. He will show you the humidor, but he doesn't force anything on you. And he is relaxed about his Cuban heritage, too. "Even if Castro fell, at my age, what am I going to do in Cuba?" Rodriguez did say he would use Cuban tobacco if it ever becomes available. Clearly, however, he doesn't need to change his blend. Rodriguez claims that almost all his customers are "Americans" (not Cuban-Americans), and he seems very content with the job he is doing. For a mere $17 for 25 panetelas, it is not hard to see why business is humming.

Across the street from El Pub, a diner that has become an institution in Little Havana, it is hot and sticky in the bright, tidy shop of Moore & Bode. Despite the lack of air-conditioning, the reserved and very serene Sharon Moore Bode seems undaunted by the heat. But she is used to defying expectations. An enigma in the cigar business, Bode is not only a woman, but a Caucasian with a limited understanding of Spanish. Her entrée into the business has as much to do with her husband, Roberto Bode, a Cuban-born exile, as her own artistic longings. According to Sharon Moore Bode, "art is the No. 1 reason for being in the business."

Moore & Bode cigars are truly works of art, especially the small and large pyramids, 5 1/2 and 7 1/2 inches long, respectively. They also are pricier than cigars made at other chinchales. Bode, again acting very American and untraditional, justifies the high prices by saying that her rollers are paid more than those at other shops. "The bottom line is that other rollers in Miami are paid about $200 per 1,000 cigars, while we pay about $650 per 1,000."

Bode claims that the industry is dying in the United States because rollers are underpaid. "The owner eats out of the same rice bowl as the cigar maker," she says, and she "abhors" a quota system where each roller is required to make a certain number of cigars for a fixed price. Bode pays by the hour, a very unusual practice in the old world of cigar making.

Despite her husband's desire that she take up the mainstream career of stockbroker, Bode runs the shop, buys the tobacco and is unabashedly proud to turn some heads in the business. "We import our own leaf. I stand in line at customs with my little daughter, Margarite. I'm a little lady among all the guys. I wait my turn and select my own leaves." But Bode denies any grand pretense: "We are not a mass-produced cigar--we never desire to be." Still, Bode will not reveal the secret of her blend, which she guards with the same quiet but firm politeness she most certainly uses when buying tobacco.

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