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South-of-the-Border Smokes

Under Towering Volcanoes, the San Andrés Region Produces Richly Flavored Tobacco That Creates Unique Cigars
Gregory Katz
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

(continued from page 1)

The family of Jorge Ortiz Alvarez, general manager of Tabacos Santa Clara--which produces the Santa Clara 1830 and Aromas de San Andrés brands--has been involved in cigar making since before the Mexican revolution, but did not make a dedicated effort to penetrate the U.S. market until the Cuban trade embargo created a demand for new sources of quality cigars.

"That was when the United States discovered the San Andrés Valley," says Ortiz, a warm man who is proud of the role his ancestors have played in the growth of the Mexican cigar industry. "That was in the late '60s, and it changed things greatly here. We started to choose tobacco differently; we made changes to meet a market that was more demanding. We learned a lot from the Cubans who fled the Castro Revolution. A lot of them came to Veracruz and they helped change the way we presented cigars to the world."

His great-grandfather had built a huge cigar estate before the Mexican revolution, shipping tobacco leaf to Holland where it was made into cigars. But the revolution--with its battle cry of "land and liberty" for Mexico's millions of landless peasants--put an end to the family's vast wealth. More than 90 percent of the cigar fields were seized without compensation for the family, and the 10 percent that remained was mismanaged and gradually sold off.

"Because of my great-grandfather's age and the effects of the revolution, he lost many things. He lost his will and his energy," Ortiz says. "The land was sold little by little by his son, but from there, a nephew of his, who grew small quantities of tobacco, started the business again, and it grew very slowly into what it is today. I think the cream always rises. That's no false pride; it's a reflection of what we have done for many generations."

Ortiz credits the natural qualities of San Andrés tobacco for his family's ability to recoup. He says it retains moisture better than other premium tobaccos because of the plant's unusual elasticity. Conditions in Veracruz allow him to create a special blend using Havana-seed tobacco grown in northern Veracruz state with slightly sweeter tobacco grown in the San Andrés Valley to produce a unique cigar.

"This is precious," Ortiz says. "It is a beautiful thing. We market that now as Santa Clara 1830. We chose that name because we think 1830 is the year when someone in our family first got involved in tobacco in a very rudimentary way. It's not precise; we can't be sure, but there are many indications that this was so."

An earlier factory burned to the ground in 1984, and the fire consumed not only a precious collection of vintage cigars but all the family's records, including a history that had been prepared by a professional researcher. Nearly a century of cigar memorabilia was lost. It is a pity that records have been destroyed--all sorts of historical oddities were chronicled, including an account of the first tobacco workers' strike in San Andrés, which pitted Ortiz's great-grandfather, the planter, against one of Ortiz's grandfathers, who was a labor leader.

In the old days, Ortiz would be grooming a son to take over the family business and carry the tradition forward. But women in Mexico are no longer expected to take a backseat, and Ortiz has found--to his surprise--that it is his 23-year-old daughter Gabriela, and not his son, who is most interested in cigar production. She has indicated that she wants to start working at the factory when she completes her university studies. Perhaps it is a new tradition started when Ortiz relied on his wife Josefina to make important decisions when he was ill with a mouth infection that kept him from sampling tobaccos. She even test-smoked the raw tobacco to decide which batch tobaccos to purchase from outside suppliers--a rough job for someone not accustomed to the harsh tastes produced.

While the Mexican revolution shaped the destiny of the Ortiz family and Tabacos Santa Clara, the friendly crosstown rivals at the larger Matacapan factory that produces Te-Amos credit the Sukarno takeover in Indonesia with creating the conditions that allowed them to produce a unique, all-Mexican cigar. With more than 1,000 acres planted, and more tobacco warehoused and drying in sheds throughout the small city of San Andrés Tuxtla, the Matacapan factory is one of the region's largest employers.

Permeated with the aroma of aging tobacco, the factory is a one-stop shop. Everything is made here, even the cedar boxes used to package Te-Amos sent to the United States. Workers laboring here mix the sacred and the profane in a uniquely Mexican way: posters of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the country's most revered saint, are bracketed by calendars showing blond pinup girls in bikinis.


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