Holy Smoke

Deep in the heart of Little Havana, El Credito's expatriate artisans quietly go about the business of hand-rolling the creme de la creme of Cuban cigars

Rush-hour traffic rumbles down the 1100 block of Little Havana's Calle Ocho at 8:00 a.m. on a humid Thursday morning. Young men wearing work clothes and boots, as well as older men in guayaberas, huddle over coffee at the window counter of La Reina Restaurant. A similar group has settled in at nearby San Jose Supermarket, gesticulating as they talk loudly in Spanish. Just down the street, the sound of salsa pours from the open door of a money exchange agency, while outside a scruffy, long-haired man in a camouflage jacket and fake leather pants walks by quickly, shouting insults at no one in particular.

Across the street from La Reina, at the El Credito cigar factory, Tito Blanco rolls his first cigar of the day. Blanco sits at the first bench in the first row of this group of ten cigar makers. He has rolled cigars at El Credito for fifteen years; before that he put in twenty years performing the same task at the H. Upmann factory in Havana. Blanco has black hair with a shoe-polish shine, a neat mustache, a soldier's posture, and a gold eagle charm he wears on a chain around his neck. Dressed in pressed blue trousers and a sleeveless white athletic shirt that shows off his trim torso, Blanco lights a Marlboro he shakes from a pack he keeps next to a pile of cigar molds held together with a metal vise. With the cigarette dangling from his mouth, he resumes his task, reaching for some filler made from shredded tobacco leaves, then surrounding it with bigger binder leaves, positioning each binder leaf so that its tip points to the burning end of the cigar, its side veins turned upward to the left. Blanco bunches the leaves in his palm until he feels that he has the right amount. Every cigar of the same type must have an exact weight, length, and width.

"Getting it right is just practice," Blanco shrugs.
The air inside El Credito is dense and redolent with the earthy aroma of tobacco. In fact a thin cloud of smoke hangs under the low-beamed ceiling. The company's cigar inspector, a petite bespectacled woman named Margarita Pinto, stands at the front of the room puffing on a fat cigar. This particular one has been packed with too much material, she decides, taking it out of her mouth and pressing on it with her fingers. In front of her, ten cigar makers, five men and five women, work at their stations. The majority of them appear to be near retirement age, although two, a man and a woman from Honduras, are in their twenties. The others are Cuban.

Each sits on a taburete, a wooden chair with a calfskin seat and back, traditionally found in rural homes and bars in Cuba. Patterned pillows cover the seats. The joined wooden tables in front of them, topped with a shelf, resemble a row of desks in an old elementary school classroom. Each workspace contains a square wooden cutting block, a handmade half-moon saw blade called a chaveta, the top part of a metal lipstick case, a plastic jar of spirit gum, a plastic spray bottle, a metal gauge used to check the size of a cigar as well as to cut off any excess, stacks of boxlike wooden cigar molds, and several piles of various tobacco leaves, which range in shade from tan to deep brown. Burlap sacks holding the shredded filler leaves hang from the back of each chair. Someone passes out thimbles of coffee and white paper cones of water, as the conversation turns to smoke alarms and lottery tickets. Wooden cigar molds smack together, creating a sound like bowling pins being mowed down that echoes throughout the room. Near the cigar makers, three women work at white tables packing cigars into boxes or bundling them, 25 to a bundle.

Back at his station, Tito Blanco stubs out his cigarette on the floor, then rolls the bunch of leaves on his board with a flat palm motion reminiscent of a baker. Blanco understands that the secret to a good cigar lies in its blend. He senses how many of each type of leaf to add to the mix, judging the strength of a leaf by its darkness, the richness of its flavor by its texture. Now, holding the cigar-shaped roll, he puts it in the gauge and clips the tip, then places it in the first of ten slots of a cigar mold propped up in front of him. When the mold is full, he will add it to the pile of molds held by the vise. Next he grabs the bottom mold from the stack, opens it, and extracts one of the compressed cigars. Working effortlessly, he picks up one of the moist wrapper leaves from a special stack on his table -- he occasionally sprays these with water from the plastic bottle -- and using a smooth spiral motion, he wraps this leaf around the compressed cigar, fixing the end with a dab of spirit gum and then rolling it back and forth on the board to make it smooth. With the chaveta, he cuts another small piece from the wrapper leaf and affixes it over the cigar's tip. As a last step he wraps a piece of newspaper around the cigar, twisting the end tightly, and places it on top of the shelf.

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