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Havana Corner: 40 Years of a Cuban/American Dream

Posted: December 6, 2004
Jose Orlando Padrón, 77, stood on a stage last Saturday in a corner of his new offices in Little Havana, Florida, recounting how it all began for Padrón Cigars just 40 years ago. He spoke of his humble beginnings after fleeing Cuba, and he thanked America and his friends and family for all the help ever since leaving his beloved island.

However, what moved me the most was when he said in Spanish that he began making cigars in Miami because he knew that all the Cubans there would be greatly missing their country, "so I didn't want them to miss their great Cuban cigars."

Obviously, he never set out to replicate the flavor or character of a great Cuban cigar. Padrón, more than just about anyone else, knows that the character of a Cuban cigar can't be duplicated, because of the unique soil and climate of the best tobacco areas in Pinar del Río, Cuba's premier tobacco region. Padrón, as well as his wife's family, owned hundreds of acres of tobacco in the region of Pinar del Río near the town of Piloto before the Cuban revolution.

I visited both plantations about three years and saw the holy grail of the Padrón family. It was some of the most beautiful soil for growing filler tobacco I had laid my eyes on. So, tobacco is literally in the veins of someone like Padrón.

Chefs prepare a lavish feast at the 40th anniversary party.
What Padrón set out to do in Miami four decades ago was produce cigars under his family name that emulated the quality and tradition of Cuban cigars, and for some, after 40 years, Padrón makes even better cigars than those coming from his former homeland. Since arriving in Nicaragua in the late 1960s, Padrón has continued and perfected what his family taught him in the fields of Pinar del Río as a little boy. Even in Cuba, it's extremely difficult to find individuals who know how to cultivate, process and age their tobacco with the dedication and precision of the Padróns -- and it's all done the way it used to be done in Cuba. There are no shortcuts taken. The Padróns are propagating the Cuban tobacco dream in Nicaragua.

It was about three years ago, and I still remember walking through half a dozen of the Padróns' warehouses in Estelí, Nicaragua. They were filled with huge piles of tobacco leaves standing about four feet high and 20 feet long. The leaves were slowly aging and improving. Orlando (most people refer to Jose by his middle name) spoke of his tobacco in those warehouses as a jeweler might speak of the hundreds of diamonds and precious metals he had in his vault ready to be turned into new creations. "It's the only way to make great cigars," he said. "You have to have great tobacco."

He used the same sort of words when we visited his family's tobacco plantations near the factory as well as in the region of Jalapa, about a two-hour drive north from Estelí. The tobacco fields were as well kept as a recently clipped fairway on a tournament-quality golf course. Everything was done to near perfection.

The Padróns -- Jorge (left), Orlando (center) and their father José Orlando draw the winning raffle ticket at the celebration.
When I visited those tobacco fields in Nicaragua, I thought about how I have heard Cuban farmers in Pinar talk with reverence about tobacco. They said that not treating tobacco properly, even if one leaf is crushed or broken, is like not treating your woman with respect or love. Orlando certainly understands this. In fact, I think he probably lives by a mantra pretty close to that.

It must be hard for him to believe how far he's come after leaving Cuba for New York and then Miami a few months later. He said that he didn't have a dime when he arrived in America, but that a Cuban relief fund gave him $60 to start out and then a friend loaned him some money to buy a lawn mower. And he mowed lawns to make money for a few years.

Besides cutting grass and working as a handyman at night, Padrón also began making cigars with one roller in a tiny building in Little Havana. The word quickly got out that he was making serious fumas. He persevered through bombings in Miami, sabotage in Nicaragua, revolutions, strikes and just about anything else that Mother Nature could throw at him. But he still held true to his dream of making great quality cigars.

Happy anniversary, Orlando, and to the rest of the Padrón family.


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