By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Terrence McCoy
By Jeff Weinberger
By Ryan Yousefi
By Chuck Strouse
By Terrence McCoy
By Terrence McCoy
Just before noon, a young Aventura psychotherapist dressed in casual designer clothes pops into the shop to buy some cigars. "These are the best cigars in Miami," he enthuses in English. "It's the only cigar I smoke. I know Rosa makes my cigars, and they just smoke so much better," he adds, smiling at the cigar maker.
"You know, I'm Cuban and cigar smoking is part of my heritage. My grandfather smoked cigars and my father smoked cigars. It's just sort of in my blood." He waves goodbye vigorously, clutching his purchases.
Garcia looks over at Blanco. "Was he talking about me?" she asks, sounding perplexed.
Just behind Blanco, a woman in a summery flower-print dress with a well-maintained cap of dyed blond hair and carefully applied makeup gets up to give out some perfume samples. "This is very nice, very refreshing," she says, urging the packets on Manuela and Miriam. Mirta Gonzalez looks as if she'd be more comfortable strolling Dadeland Mall than making cigars. Now 63 years old, she has worked at El Credito for seventeen years.
"I'm a very vain woman," she admits, pressing down the rusty top of a lipstick case on a wrapper leaf to create a small circle. Then she glues the circle over the tip of a cigar, smoothing it down with her fingertips, whose nails have been polished to a pink luster. "I like to get my hair done, I like to dress up. If I stayed home, it just wouldn't be me. I come here, I work, I talk. At four o'clock I go home."
Gonzalez came to Miami with her husband and three young daughters in the first wave of Cuban immigrants at the start of the revolution. Her husband, a strapping Spanish emigrant, had worked in the tobacco fields in Cuba. He now holds down a job at Tropical Tobacco on Northwest 79th Avenue, one of several small tobacco companies that, like El Credito, still exist in Miami.
"When I came here there was no work," Gonzalez recalls. "There were no Cuban businesses. Everyone spoke English. And there was no welfare or food stamps or anything like that. That started a few years later, but luckily we didn't need it by then." In Cuba she worked for the Mennen Company, the American toiletries manufacturer that disappeared when the communists took over. Arriving in South Florida, she at first resorted to working in the fields in Homestead: "I picked tomatoes, I picked cucumbers, I picked anything." Although she found other jobs during those initial years here, nothing lasted.
When El Credito opened, Gonzalez convinced Perez-Carrillo, Sr., to hire her, even though she had no cigar-making experience. She used to help Blanco make Torpedos, putting the filler together for him to wrap. She did that for about eight years. Then she advanced to the chair right behind his, making her own blunt-tipped cigars -- 150 each day.
"At first I thought this was so masculine, but with time I've developed a taste for it," she says, pausing to wrap another cigar. "You know, when we got here, we started working just to get by, but now it's been 36 years. In this country you have to work and you have to fight. If you do, you can have anything you want. We've been happy here. When we [Cubans] came here, Miami was just for tourists. We've helped the city grow."
Looking out the window, Gonzalez frowns at several men standing around idly outside the cafeteria across the street. "Things have changed here," she continues. "Now the people who come over come from a system where people don't work. So they don't like it here." She bends her head farther toward where her hands hold a cigar, then whispers, "And there are people who sympathize with that right here in this factory."
Every afternoon Nora Espinosa dances. The radio that rests on a large wooden tobacco crate plays a Gloria Estefan song. Nora, a slim, dark-skinned Cuban woman with long black hair, undulates around the room in blue leopard-print jeans and a black T-shirt emblazoned with "D.A.R.E. to Keep Off Drugs".
"I just think it would be such a great story if an espalilladora became a star," she says, falling onto her chair. "In the magazines they could say that I worked at El Credito Cigars and then I was discovered. This place would be on Channel 23 and everything. You can laugh, but I'm going to keep dancing."
Espinosa works with three other women, all of whom have tobacco-stained hands, in a dark stablelike room located between the main workroom and another suite of rooms where about two dozen other cigar makers roll tobacco. The small space is filled with cured tobacco leaves packed in bunches in wooden crates and large Tupperware containers. More tobacco is stored in a loft overhead.
A powerful oily smell permeates the room, which, by early afternoon, feels uncomfortably warm and humid. Espinosa sits with her back against the wall, her head leaning against the peeling patterned wallpaper. In front of her, a curved bench covered with a heavy padding of towels and blankets juts out from between her legs. She takes a tobacco leaf, pulling on the stem to remove it with a twisting motion, then separates the leaf into two halves. She dabs each piece with a little water from a plastic bowl, then smoothes it down on top of one of the four piles of leaves on the bench. Next she puts smaller halves onto yet another pile, going through the same wetting-and-smoothing process. These are the wrapper leaves -- dark, oil-spotted ones from the Dominican Republic, plus the lighter "Connecticuts." Grasping the individual wrapper leaves between her long red polished nails, Espinosa starts to count out 50 from each pile. She will distribute these bunches to individual cigar makers, keeping track of each allotment on a list she keeps on a clipboard by her side. By the end of the day, she will have de-stemmed, smoothed out, and distributed more than 1000 tobacco leaves.