Jose Padrón is wandering through a field of soft green leaves under a brilliant Nicaraguan sky. He's wearing a striped oxford shirt with a fountain pen in the breast pocket, and as he strides with his head down, looking intently from side to side, he looks like a man late for the office because he's lost his car keys in a very big garden. As he passes among the rows, a slight breeze rolling in off the mountains urges the leaves to brush gently against his black pants. Señor Padrón, walking quickly, scans the tobacco plants until his eyes suddenly fix on something; he stoops to inspect the bottom of a plant. Tearing off a small, tender leaf, he examines it closely, pulling at the stringy roots and running his fingers over the slender stalk. Satisfied, he straightens up, and pulling a long, black maduro cigar from his shirt pocket, bites the end off and fires it up with a plastic lighter, inhaling deeply. He waves the lit end under his nose, breathing in the aroma, and quietly examines the cigar, turning it slowly between his fingers. Replacing the cigar between his teeth, Padrón takes a moment to look out over the field, and in his Cuban-accented Spanish declares, "Ta bueno" (It's good).
All of the tobacco used for Miami-based Padrón Cigars (officially known as Piloto Cigars Inc.) comes from private farms in northern Nicaragua, including a few that Padrón owns. Padrón, 71, is a third-generation Cuban cigarmaker who oversees his entire business, from seed to cigar, an operation that includes farms and a factory in Nicaragua and another factory in Honduras. The Nicaraguan factory is in the town of Estelí, a rough two-hour drive north of Managua along the Pan American Highway, a road littered with ominous craters.
As is the case with much of northern Nicaragua, signs of the Sandinista war against Somoza, and later the contras, are everywhere. At the Estelí factory, scores of bullet holes made by automatic weapons that were once trained directly at Padrón's business appear alongside the factory name, Tabacos Cubanica. Jose Padrón's passion for producing exceptional cigars has cost him time, money and almost his life.
Jose Padrón has built a thriving cigar business amidst obstacles so fierce that his success is as much a testament to the tenacity of his vision as it is to the quality of his cigars. He has survived two wars, four bombings and an attempted kidnapping. Despite all this, Jose Padrón today produces more than three and a half million cigars a year, some of which are ranked among the very best in the world. But his path to success has been as rough as the roads of northern Nicaragua.
In 1961, Jose O. Padrón left Cuba after his family's tobacco farms were confiscated by Fidel Castro. After a brief stay in Spain and a year working odd jobs in New York, he saved enough money to travel to Miami, where the Cuban Refugee Program paid him $60 a month while he looked for work. He found work cutting lawns during the day and doing carpentry at night. By 1964, Padrón had saved enough money to rent a storefront in Little Havana and, with another man, turned out 200 hand-rolled cigars a day. (The storefront remains the company headquarters today.) His superior Cuban-seed cigars, which he sold for 25 cents, were a big hit with the Cuban-American community and, after a few years during which he added rollers, his production climbed to 7,000 cigars per day.
Then in 1970, in search of additional experienced cigar workers--a resource in sparse supply in Miami--Padrón set up his Tabacos Cubanica company in Estelí, the center of Nicaragua's tobacco-growing region. The favorable climate and rich soil strongly reminded him of Cuba's famous Pinar del Río province, where his family's tobacco farms once flourished. The business soared, and by the mid-1970s Padrón had about 300 people working in his factory and 98 acres of tobacco under cultivation. But by the end of the decade, Padrón learned that there was another, more ominous link between Nicaragua and Cuba--a common political climate that would prove to have a dramatic and threatening effect on Jose Padrón's life and business.
In 1978, Padrón returned to Cuba as part of a humanitarian mission that met with Castro to encourage him to release political prisoners held in Cuban jails. As a result, more than 3,000 prisoners were eventually released. But when word of Padron's meeting reached Miami's Cuban exile community, the more reactionary elements were incensed. A photograph of Padrón handing Castro a cigar ran in a local paper, fueling the rhetoric and inciting a number of prominent Cuban radio commentators to jump on the anti-Padrón bandwagon. A boycott of Padrón Cigars was called, and the business suffered. But the most serious outcome of the crisis came in the form of four powerful bombs, placed (on separate occasions) at Padrón's Miami headquarters. Three of them were detonated, causing extensive damage to the Miami office as well as emotional trauma to Padrón's family. At the same time, an equally deadly crisis was gaining strength and threatening Padrón Cigars in Nicaragua.
The Sandinista movement was gathering momentum in 1978 in its drive to overthrow the Nicaraguan dictator (and tobacco grower), Anastasio Somoza. Although Padrón had no business connection with Somoza, enraged mobs nonetheless attacked his factory in Estelí, harassing his employees and burning his factory and warehouse to the ground. Padrón was able to continue production by moving some tobacco to other parts of town, and he eventually established another factory. After the Sandinista victory the following year, Padrón took steps to protect his inventory, moving his tobacco to various locations in and outside the country. Padrón Cigars managed to maintain production despite numerous work stoppages called by the Sandinistas.
Over the next five years, the Nicaraguan factory continued to make cigars despite periodic interference by the Sandinista government and the effects of living under great political uncertainty. During one shutdown, workers from the Padrón factory took to the streets of Estelí, marching in favor of allowing Padrón to reopen the factory. Stones were thrown at many of the marchers. Although the business was allowed to reopen, the atmosphere remained very tense.
One day in the early 1980s, the local Sandinista commandant, Gen. Elias Noguera, came to the factory. Jose Padrón told the general that Tabacos Cubanica provided necessary employment for the community, adding, "If you make it hard for me to do business here, I'll leave." The Sandinistas looked into Padrón's past and, after discovering that he had been politically neutral, and more important, had never aligned with Somoza, allowed the business to continue. They agreed that the factory provided much-needed employment for the town. At one point, the Sandinistas even changed their plans to draft Padron's workers for the war against the contras. However, because the political environment remained so volatile through the early 1980s (the Sandinistas were in a bloody war of survival with the U.S.-backed contras), Padrón took steps to create a contingency plan to move his business in case the situation deteriorated. His intuition proved prophetic.
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.