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The Padron Family: A Nicaraguan Legacy

Despite Wars in Nicaragua and Bombings in Miami, Jose Padrón Has Built a Thriving Cigar Business
Jim Daniels
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

(continued from page 1)

In 1985, President Ronald Reagan called for a general embargo of Nicaraguan goods entering the United States. In response, Padrón moved his cigar production across the border to his factory in Danlí, Honduras, where he had been producing cigars since 1979. (Some Padrón cigars are still produced there.) When the embargo was lifted in 1990, Padrón decided, in spite of some trepidation, to return to Estelí, where today many of the original workers once again manufacture his cigars. He says that he returned because of the workers: "They are like my family and I owe them a lot."

Today, inside the Estelí factory, scores of tobacco workers in bright yellow and red smocks are handling tobacco in various stages of production. At the back of the room, women are sorting and stacking piles of tobacco leaves, which will eventually be put into the presses. In the front of the room, the hand rollers, roleros, sit before a worn wooden block with an assortment of leaves on their laps. Finished cigars tied in pink silk ribbons are stacked in neat bunches on desks before them. The rollers, many of whom were trained by Padrón himself, work with a sharp curved blade, a chaveta, cutting and shaping specially selected leaves as they expertly roll each cigar. The top rollers, some of whom have been working for Padrón Cigars for more than 20 years, can make 300 cigars in a day. Señor Padrón, along with his son, George, watches the process from a doorway. (Jose and his wife, Flory, have three other children: Orlando, Lisette and Elizabeth.) Despite a waiting list for Padrón cigars such as the 1964 Anniversary Series, there's an efficient yet relaxed atmosphere inside the factory. When asked why he doesn't dramatically increase production to keep up with demand, Padrón pulls a cigar out of his mouth and says simply, "It would affect the quality, and that's not worth it. Making fine cigars takes time."

Jose Padrón, often accompanied by George, makes weekly trips to Nicaragua and Honduras to oversee firsthand all aspects of the production. Jose talks to the farmers about recent rains and the ongoing battles against the dreaded blue mold and pesky white flies. He inspects the seed beds at various farms, making sure that they are full and lush, and that his strict planting schedule is being adhered to. During one visit to a farm outside of Jalapa, Padrón talks to the farmer about the planting. As they talk, he watches a worker moving along a nearby row, freeing young plants that had been covered with dirt from a recent rain. Suddenly he calls to the woman, "Wait, you missed one." Padrón walks over and, bending down, brushes aside a clump of jet black earth, revealing a small, lime-green plant. "You have to be careful," he admonishes her gently. She nods, returning his smile.

Once the small tobacco plants have been transplanted from the seed bed, it takes about 40 days before the first leaf is picked, with second and third cuts coming later in the growth cycle. The freshly picked leaves are put into large barns, usually at the farm itself, for drying. After about 100 days, the last of the picking is done.

The tobacco is then transferred to a warehouse near the factory, where the leaves are watered down and the curing process begins. The leaves are piled into large stacks, pilones, and separated according to quality, with the best leaves becoming wrappers and the others the filler. Long thermometers are shoved deep into the piles to monitor the preferred internal temperature of 120 to 130 degrees. The tobacco cures for a year and a half before it is taken to be deveined.

After deveining, the filler tobacco is dried on grills and put into packing presses with a weight of 120 pounds. Meanwhile, the wrapper is stored in warehouses, where it cures for another year and a half. It's at this point that the tobacco is ready to be made into cigars. During this process, the tobacco undergoes tests of aroma, curing and burning. Jose Padrón himself will conduct many of the tests as he moves around the factory. He'll grab some leaves off a pilon, put his nose to the warm tobacco and breathe in the pungent ammonia odor. Or he'll remove a moist leaf and wrap it around his already burning Exclusivo and watch it burn. If it burns evenly with a good, solid ash, he's happy; if not, he'll pass the information on to his subordinates. As he shuttles from room to room, talking, probing, sampling, he appears to have the energy and focus of a man half his age. His philosophy is simple: "I make cigars that I would want to smoke."

Inside the modest kitchen in back of the Estelí factory, Padrón sits down for a simple breakfast of black coffee and the Nicaraguan delicacy, juevos de amor--free range eggs. He's in a reflective mood and begins to talk about some of his dreams. "Someday I want to go back to Cuba and make cigars, but," he adds with strong emphasis, "only after the political climate has changed. This is my dream." His love affair with tobacco has been part of his entire life, and the roots of that passion go back to Cuba, where his father and grandfather were tobacco farmers before him.

Padrón is somewhat skeptical about many of the new tobacco companies that have recently sprung up in hopes of cashing in on the current cigar craze. "There are two types of cigar factories: one that's in it only for the money and one that is in it also for love. We're in it for love."

Jim Daniels is a Maine-based writer-photographer who reports frequently from Latin America.

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