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.
Today, like most days, Blanco rolls a specialty cigar called the Torpedo, a medium-sized model with a bullet-shaped tip. The pointed end makes the Torpedo more difficult to put together than a regular flat-tipped cigar. It tops the price list of cigars distributed as part of El Credito's La Gloria Cubana brand: A six-and-a-half inch Torpedo No. 1 costs $3.50, a seven-and-a-quarter-inch Piramide (the largest Torpedo) costs $4.25. The company pays Blanco 45 cents for each cigar he makes. By the end of the day he'll have rolled at least 150 Torpedos, but customers order them faster than he can finish them. Today's cigars, Blanco notes, were sold six months ago.
Few hand-rolled cigar manufacturers still exist in the United States, and most of them are small retail operations. Not surprisingly Miami has been something of a locus for cigar making since the Cuban exodus of the Sixties, and several stores in Little Havana still sell cigars made on the premises to a local, mostly Cuban-American clientele. El Credito, however, distributes wholesale to stores nationwide. Its La Gloria Cubana is the best-known hand-rolled domestic cigar, and arguably the finest. In the spring issue of Cigar Aficionado, the sleek, three-year-old, coffee-table magazine that has become the bible for today's upscale cigar smokers, La Gloria Cubana's Soberanos scored 91 out of a possible 100 points in a blindfold test. The magazine praised La Gloria Cubana's "strong flavors of spice and leather and...smooth, full-bodied smoke."
La Gloria Cubana and El Rico Habano, another of the four lines produced by El Credito (in addition to La Hoja Selecta and Dos Gonzalez), ranked alongside cigars from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Jamaica in the Cigar Aficionado survey. No other American cigars made the list of 53 brands.
Owned by Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, Jr., son of the company's founder, El Credito occupies three storefronts on Calle Ocho near the corner of Southwest Eleventh Avenue, right next to a triple-X bar that tourists tend to identify mistakenly as one of the locations used in the movie Scarface. (El Credito maintains two warehouses elsewhere in Miami.) The picture window of the largest of the three buildings proclaims "El Credito Cigars -- La Gloria Cubana" in big black and silver letters. Below this hangs a small hand-lettered sign that reads "Experienced Cigar Makers Wanted." Right now the company employs 47 workers, 40 of whom actually make cigars. Through the window, pedestrians can peer in and watch the ten cigar rollers in Tito Blanco's group at work, seated at their stations in the three-row gallery. The same crowded space also houses a small office, several utility rooms, and a cigar storeroom constantly kept at 76.3 degrees with a steady 49 percent humidity. Just inside the front door, a glass showcase offers a selection of souvenir T-shirts, leather cigar cases, and ornately packaged cigars for walk-in customers.
In recent years El Credito has profited from cigar smoking's newfound cachet. Just recently, in fact, the New York Times cited the cigar as "the prop of the Nineties," calling it a "statement of cool authority and elegance." Cigar Aficionado has done much to promote this image, sponsoring frequent "smokeouts" in exclusive restaurants and luxury hotels around the nation, and editorializing about antismoking regulations. These efforts have spawned copycat events, sponsored by restaurants and hotels themselves as a way to capitalize on the burgeoning ranks of young power smokers.
Changes in the cigar manufacturing industry itself also have contributed to increased sales. With the U.S. embargo against Cuba stemming the circulation of Cuban cigars for more than 30 years, the Dominican Republic has stepped into the vacuum as a major tobacco supplier, gradually increasing its crop and solidifying the infrastructure of its cigar industry. It even has surpassed Cuba as the world's major exporter of hand-rolled cigars. According to Cigar Aficionado, the D.R. exported 74 million cigars in 1994, up from about 55 million just a few years ago. Cuba's export total for the same year barely exceeded 50 million cigars, down from 75 million in 1985.
El Credito has shared in the growth of the cigar industry outside of Cuba, with the company's sales increasing 50 percent each year for the last three years, topping out at $1.7 million in 1994. Currently the Calle Ocho factory makes 36 different kinds of cigars under its four brand names; La Gloria Cubana Wavell A a modest, medium-size smoke that sells for $2.15 apiece A ranks as the company's number-one seller. El Credito produced 1.2 million cigars in 1994.
Gordon Mott, managing editor of Cigar Aficionado, credits Perez-Carrillo, whom just about everyone calls Ernie, for the company's success. "Ernesto Carrillo is truly one of the most knowledgeable men in the business," notes Mott. "He has found a blend of tobaccos in Central America and the Dominican Republic, and has put it into what you could call a Cuban-style cigar that has great appeal for consumers. He doesn't make a lot of them, so the demand for La Gloria Cubana cigars is just enormous."
"The only thing holding us back is production -- finding enough people to make cigars," says the 43-year-old Perez-Carrillo, as he sits in his factory's small, run-down office, decorated with an aerial map of Havana and some old postcards of workers in tobacco fields and factories, as well as a bust of Jose Marti that perches on a small desk. He's dressed casually: jeans, a denim shirt, and Top-siders. "It's hard to really expand because of the lack of people who know this trade. It's not like jobs that you can train someone for two or three weeks and put them to work."
A friendly, balding man with thick dark eyebrows, Perez-Carrillo has enjoyed a success in Miami that his father never knew. Born into a family of tobacco growers, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, Sr., opened the first El Credito cigar factory in Havana in 1907. He served as a member of the Cuban Senate, a position that helped boost the prestige of the La Gloria Cubana and El Credito brands, both popular in prerevolutionary Cuba. When the factory was confiscated by the Castro regime, Perez-Carrillo fled with his wife and three children, taking with him the original die cut for the La Gloria Cubana and some cigar molds.
Perez-Carrillo brought his family to Little Havana in 1959, settling a few blocks from Calle Ocho. He worked a series of jobs -- in a shoe factory, running a bar -- but nearly ten years after he arrived, he decided to re-enter the tobacco business. "He did a lot of things just to get by," recalls Perez-Carrillo, Jr., who was seven years old when the family emigrated. "Then it dawned on him that he was going to spend the rest of his life here, so he figured he'd do what he liked best."
El Credito opened in Miami in 1969 when the senior Perez-Carrillo was 65 years old, hiring some of the family's former Cuban employees who also had surfaced in Little Havana. About twenty small cigar factories already existed in Miami at the time, tapping into the market created by the U.S. embargo against Cuba. Even so, the popularity of hand-rolled cigars among Americans had waned since the days when anyone could fly down to Havana and buy them. Additionally, back then, at the height of the counterculture, many young Americans demonstrated their antiestablishment attitude by smoking pot, not sucking on a stogy. Older Anglos and Cuban immigrants constituted the bulk of the market, but local competition and an increase in Cuban-style cigars imported from Honduras and the Dominican Republic made times difficult for El Credito.
"There wasn't much interest in [El Credito's cigars]," concedes the founder's son. "It was very, very hard for my father to get people to work for him, and to find materials. It was a real uphill fight."
Eventually Perez-Carrillo, Sr., found the right tobacco supply in the Dominican Republic, using crops traceable to tobacco cuttings and seeds carried out of Cuba by growers forced into exile when the state took over their businesses. El Credito also bought -- and continues to buy -- its tobacco from West Africa, Sumatra, Honduras, and, somewhat incongruously, Connecticut, which grows a superior light brown wrapper leaf.
When the elder Perez-Carrillo died in 1980, his son gave up his ambition to play drums in a blues band and surrendered to the family business, taking over the factory (Ernie's two sisters had no interest in working at El Credito). "I guess it's something that was just meant to be," he allows. Now a third generation has entered the picture: Ernie's 21-year-old daughter, Lisette, works part-time at the company.
"A lot of people tell me, 'You're crazy to be down there. You should go out and open up somewhere else. You can make more cigars, you can make a lot more money,'" says Perez-Carrillo. True, he could find cheaper labor if he relocated his factory to the Dominican Republic or Honduras, each blessed with a growing young work force in the tobacco industry, but Perez-Carrillo opts to stay in Little Havana, where he can still find Cuban cigar makers. His cigar rollers do piecework, for which he pays between 22 to 45 cents for each "piece" they produce -- the amount is based on the size and type of cigar. The employees have no health insurance benefits, a fact the owner admits somewhat sheepishly, before quickly changing the subject.
"I'm skeptical of leaving here and then not finding the same type of skilled workers we have in Miami," he asserts. "If you're going to find cigar makers, you're going to find them in Miami."
As a matter of fact, the whole state of Florida has a tradition of attracting skilled cigar makers. The biggest immigration occurred in the late 1800s, when boatloads of Cuban artisans arrived in Key West -- and later West Tampa and Ybor City on the Gulf Coast -- to take jobs in cigar factories. At the turn of the century, there were 200 factories in West Tampa alone, employing more than 5000 workers. Tobacco and the Spanish cedar wood used to make cigar boxes were imported from Cuba. With the workers and the materials came a whole tobacco culture. In Tampa small single-family homes were built for the cigar workers, creating neighborhoods -- in effect, mill towns -- where both political and social life revolved around the factories. The large businesses maintained the Cuban tradition of employing "readers," who read aloud news, poetry, and fiction to the rollers as they worked. Additionally, powerful tobacco workers' unions, similar to the ones that controlled the cigar-making industry in Cuba from the eighteenth century until the revolution, sprang up in Florida.
However, with the advent of the Depression, the Tampa cigar industry went into decline, bottoming out after the imposition of the Cuban embargo in 1962. The few factories that remain there today are dedicated primarily to machine-made cigars, but also produce some handmade ones for the tourist trade.
Since 1959 a trickle of Cuban cigar makers has migrated to Miami. Several have worked at El Credito for more than twenty years; others, like Tito Blanco, have been here almost as long. Blanco left Havana for Miami in 1980 under the family reunification program. At the time he wasn't aware of any cigar factories in Miami. "I never thought I'd work in this here," he admits. "I never imagined there'd be something so similar. This is smaller but it's the same system."
Some of the more recent arrivals had retired from cigar making while still in Cuba, but found they could not survive in the U.S. without working. A few younger immigrants have turned up, too, including a woman who was released from Guantanamo before the recent amnesty. She started working at the company in April but left almost immediately for a better-paying job, not an uncommon occurrence among young workers, who find more lucrative alternatives to making cigars.
"I always liked this job," says Tito Blanco, watching his hands as they bunch together tobacco leaves. "A lot of people don't last. They say they don't like the smell, but you get used to it. Sometimes they're too impatient or they just can't get it. You really just have to like it. You figure you're going to sit here 10 hours a day for 40 or 50 years, you'd better like it."
Blanco grew up in Havana. When he turned sixteen, his older brother, who worked as a cook at the H. Upmann factory, told Tito he should try his hand at making cigars. The blocklong Upmann factory was the biggest in Cuba, employing about 1000 workers. Trainees for different cigar-making tasks worked on separate floors: Mojadores, or handlers, moistened the leaves; then espalilladoras stripped the stem from the center of the leaves; dependientes, a sort of tobacco vintner, had the all-important job of blending the leaves, which then were sent on to the cigar rollers. The bundles of finished cigars moved on to the escoguedores, or pickers, who selected cigars of the same color for each box. Anilladoras put paper rings on the cigars, and clerks sealed each filled box with a stamp. Everyone ate in the employee dining room.
Back then Cuban cigar factories functioned under a sort of family system, with employees encouraged to bring one relative into the company each year. First the new workers served as apprentices, and the best were invited to stay on. "That way people who retired were always replaced by someone else," remembers Blanco, adding another cigar to the pyramid-shaped pile growing in front of him. "That's how they revitalized the industry. Now there are schools. People don't have to be part of the family anymore."
After the revolution, cigar manufacturing, once one of Cuba's biggest private businesses, was taken over by the state. In an effort to increase productivity, government officials initiated a program to train more workers; master cigar makers were yanked out of the factories to become instructors in nine-month vocational courses.
"Fidel called for ten thousand women to be trained," recalls Manuela Fernandez, a woman who sits next to her friend Miriam Tejera in the back of one of El Credito's cigar-making rooms. Before coming to El Credito a little over two years ago, the two women worked side by side at the Romeo y Julieta factory in Havana for 30 years.
Fernandez (not her real name -- she requested a pseudonym) learned about cigars as a young girl. At that time her father owned tobacco fields in the Las Villas province of central Cuba, where he also operated a small cigar factory. Tejera, on the other hand, was recruited as part of the mass initiative to train female cigar makers. Up until the revolution, she explains, cigar making was pretty much a man's occupation. But when the Cuban offices of American businesses closed down, a large work force of women was left unemployed, many of whom had held factory and clerical jobs. The government decided they would be trained to make cigars, with men undertaking more labor-intensive jobs.
"A lot of women didn't like it but they had to do it," recalls Tejera, "and they're still doing it today."
"Between 1960 and 1980, cigar making was women's work," Blanco adds from the front of the room. "They [government officials] thought that light, manual work seemed right for women. But there were a lot of problems. They have children. If one gets sick, they have to take care of it. A man never misses work. The revolutionary policy was that men could do more strenuous jobs and leave the tobacco rolling for women," he says, casually lighting another cigarette. "They realized afterward they made a mistake."
Seated next to Blanco, Rosa Garcia rolls La Hoja Selecta Chateaus, a mild-tasting cigar. One of El Credito's master cigar makers, Garcia has done this work for 50 years, in Miami and in prerevolutionary Cuba. She dismisses Blanco's assessment of women workers, stating that she had no trouble raising two daughters while holding down a full-time job. One daughter works as a piano teacher in Miami; the other is a pharmacist here. Garcia, now only a few years shy of retiring, works from 7:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. at El Credito.
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.
Espinosa sits facing Margarita Troya, a friend from Havana. Next to the Cuban pair are two young Hondurans, beautiful, ink-eyed women. Sandra Hernandez and Mirna Ochoa Martinez have followed their husbands to Miami and now work to send money back home to support their children, who they've left with relatives. As for Troya, her sixteen-year-old son arrived in Miami from Cuba just the day before. From a plastic shopping bag placed next to her knockoff Louis Vuitton purse, she removes a pair of rubber flip-flops that she has bought for her son and shows them to her friends. Then sits down with a sigh and continues stripping leaves.
A stream of cigar makers appears in the doorway, asking for wrappers. Some stop to flirt, while others complain about the size or condition of the leaves. The women impatiently wave them away and keep counting the wrapper leaves.
Tomorrow Espinosa will have spent a year living in the U.S. after arriving from Cuba; she shares a place in Northwest Miami with a sister who came over during Mariel. She finds everything difficult. "Only the strong survive here," she sighs. "That's the law of the jungle. What I like least about Miami is that I have to depend on people for everything. I don't have a car, I don't have anything. I'm just lost in a lettuce field. If it keeps up like this, I'm gathering up my things and going back to Cuba."
In the nine-floor tobacco factory where Espinosa and Troya worked in Central Havana, 400 women were employed as espalilladoras. Espinosa learned the trade at age twenty after taking a three-month course offered at the factory. That was 21 years ago.
"We started doing this because there wasn't any other work," she explains. "We made a relatively good salary. By working long hours, we could make more than the girls in the office." But more recently in Cuba those pesos could buy less and less. Here at El Credito, the espalilladoras make a fixed $4.25 an hour.
Thirty-six-year-old Troya arrived here from Cuba eight months ago. Like Espinosa, she has not adapted well to Miami. "I come from another system," she says crankily. "I grew up with the revolution. People say we don't like it here because we have to work. Well, I've worked all my life in Cuba, but here when you work there's a lot of stress. I know it's one of the most developed countries in the world, but I don't feel good here. Life is so fast. You look up and it's Thursday. And it's not only work, it's everything. Maybe you can have everything here, but there's no life. As soon as Fidel falls, I'm going back to Cuba."
Gregorio Carrel remembers when his grandmother bought cigars. "That was my father's mother. She'd bring one home, take a big bite off the end, and chew it," explains Carrel, moving his mouth by way of illustration. "She could get five or six good-sized pieces out of every cigar."
Another of the cigar makers at El Credito, Carrel works with a lighted stogy in his mouth, talking about the days when men who performed his job were considered dandies. "We were always partying," he remembers. Even at age 68, Carrel cuts a fine figure, a handsome mulatto in gray workpants, a T-shirt, and a Marlins cap. He sits in the center row of the gallery. "Cigar makers dressed well," he notes. "They drank a lot, too. I lived well at one time. I had quite a lot of money in my pocket."
Carrel had five cousins and an uncle who made cigars in Havana, and started as a cigar maker himself when he was fourteen. Until 1957 he worked in several small Cuban factories; that year he joined the prestigious Partagas export factory. "The big factories were where you made more money," he says, biting down on the cigar in his mouth. "Only the best cigar makers got in there. There was a probation period. After 30 days, if they hadn't thrown you out, you knew you were in. We shipped cigars all over the United States, all over the world. I made Mr. Churchill's cigars, you know."
In 1961 Carrel was reassigned to the Coronas factory, where he stayed for 22 years. "There were some changes after the revolution," he recounts. "Before, making cigars was one of the most flexible professions in Cuba, because you could make your own hours. Since you were paid by the piece, you could decide how much you wanted to do and when you wanted to do it. After, you had to complete eight hours every day or else you wouldn't get paid."
Two years ago Carrel immigrated to Miami and found work at El Credito. "I'm on a sort of mission," he whispers, explaining that he works to support his family in Cuba. He picks up some leaves and spreads them in his hand. "To take some leaves and transform them into a cigar is an art," he says. "It's like a painter with his brush. This isn't easy, you know.
But if you have energy, you should keep working."
At 5:30 in the afternoon, eight employees still sit working, a wall of hexagon-shaped cigar bundles they've produced during the day looming directly in front of them. El Credito adheres to the same practice as the old Cuban cigar factories: Cigar makers work as they please, going out to run errands or to pick up spouses or children, then returning. The office stays open weekdays until 7:00 p.m.; Saturday hours are from 7:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Perez-Carrillo, who spends his twelve-hour day shuttling between the Calle Ocho factory and the company's two warehouses, unpacks cartons of cigar boxes at the front of the shop. The cigar makers yell over to him, teasing and making jokes.
Back in his office a little later, he talks about his cigar makers, referring to them in a reverential tone, almost romanticizing them. "Cigar making is like playing the blues," he says seriously. "It's something you live. You either have it or you don't. They say that to play the blues you have to suffer, and cigar making to a point is the same thing. Let's just say you have to live your life to make a good cigar.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.