Yvonne Rodriguez nervously rapped on the front door of a Westchester home. She’d arrived to see her brother’s santera, Dulce, for insight into her future. In a cramped backroom with a card table draped in a white tablecloth, surrounded by statues of saints and offerings of fruit, Yvonne paid her $21 fee and looked to Dulce for answers.
“You and your sister are going to work together,” the santera told her. “Your ancestors want you to talk about them.”
Nearly 12 years later, Dulce's advice turned out to be spot-on. Yvonne and Yvette Rodriguez, identical twins who grew up in South Miami Heights, broke into the cigar industry three years ago with a boutique line called Tres Lindas Cubanas Cigars. Their three blends — La Clarita, La Mulatta, and La Negrita — pay tribute to the fact that the sisters are perhaps the first Afro-Cuban women to break into Miami's cigar industry.
Though the face of the cigar industry is still the old, white Cuban guajiro in a guayabera, the sisters say their brand taps into a powerful truth. On a recent trip to Cuba, where they toured cigar factories, they found that most of the workers deveining the leaves and rolling the cigars are Afro-Cuban women.
“That is the heart of what a cigar is: all black women,” Yvette says. “But you don’t see that.”
Wearing matching Afros and tube tops on a recent day, the sisters sit in wooden rocking chairs and sip cafecitos at Cuban Crafters. Their roaring laughs cut through the smoky room as they discuss their latest plans: starting a business partnership with On Cuba Travel to host cigar tours on the island and creating an Afro-Latino organization in Miami.
Born to Rafael Rodriguez, a Cuban national soccer player who defected on a trip to Panama, and Nerida Rodriguez, who arrived in Miami on the freedom flights in 1969, Yvette and Yvonne have been straddling African-American and Cuban culture since birth. They grew up around their cigar-smoking grandmother, Esperanza, who cleaned the kitchen but sat in her rocking chair at the end of the day promoting black power and feminism. Their mother, whom the twins describe as a "Coral Gables Cuban," always wore pressed linen and fresh manicures. They fell somewhere in between the cigar-toting, rugged grandmother who could hold her liquor and the polished, business-minded mother who disliked Esperanza’s smoking habits.
“It wasn't weird for us to smoke cigars, so as we got a little bit older,” Yvette says, “they wanted us to be as Cuban as we could be. So anything that had to do with Cuba — smoking a cigar, drinking café at a young age, or taking sips of rum — it was just open.”
They’d speak Spanish at home and dance boleros at quinceañeras to old Cuban songs like "Tres Lindas Cubanas" by Orquesta Aragon, only to become immersed in R&B at Miami Southridge Senior High. To this day, no one ever assumes they’re Cuban, until their rapid-fire Spanglish starts spilling from their mouths.
After high school, they both went to Miami Dade College and then the University of Florida to pursue journalism degrees. They parted ways back in Miami, where Yvette took a job reporting for Channel 7 and Yvonne began producing and editing programming for Telemundo.
Yvette quickly realized the news business wasn’t for her and left to create a PR firm. But Yvonne, the boisterous twin with a magnetic personality, spent a decade editing footage for Telemundo before getting the itch for new adventures.
The concept of a cigar brand came to Yvonne in a daydream, and as with all of her unconventional ideas, she went to her sister for approval. “I'll throw something outlandish, not doable, and she’ll find how to do it,” Yvonne says.
Soon after, she began asking her cigar-smoking boyfriend about the production side of the industry, and Yvette met a Miami Cuban on vacation in Costa Rica who owned a tobacco farm in Nicaragua. The stars began aligning, and the twins were fast rolling on creating their own line of cigars by 2014, using their Afro-Cuban culture as their distinct stamp.
“As women in a male-driven industry, it was more of a shock to the men when we would walk into a cigar shop,” Yvette says. “I embrace the shock.”
Since launching Tres Lindas Cubanas, Yvette and Yvonne have been given condescending advice from shop owners and colleagues on how to run the company. Skeptical male counterparts constantly question whether the sisters know what’s in their own cigars.
“Even to this day, they don't think we smoke cigars, so imagine I'm trying to sell it,” Yvonne says. “We were starting not even at level zero; we were starting at level negative-five.”
But the twins see their position as Afro-Cuban women in the cigar industry in a positive light. Their business has slowly but steadily grown: Their cigars are now sold in shops from Chicago to Baltimore to Atlanta. When they recently walked into Cuban Crafters, much to their surprise, all of their boxes were sold out.
Their cigars have helped spread the gospel of Cuban tobacco to more black consumers, especially in markets like Atlanta where there's been a push to support black-owned businesses. “But I can't take that lightly,” Yvonne says. “I can’t say, 'I'm making money and that’s it.'”
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That's why it's not rare to find the sisters speaking at Miami high schools, volunteering with Women of Tomorrow, mentoring at-risk teenage girls, and teaching them about the SAT and GPAs and ways to deal with stress. The twins never know what will stick, but they show up to teach other minority women that business success doesn’t have to look like the stereotypical corporate-America picture.
Yvonne and Yvette are also determined to make the Afro-Latino culture more visible in Miami through a new organization that aims to expand local knowledge of the community's contributions.
They’ve now partnered with other Afro-Cuban family businesses such as On Cuba Travel to host cigar and rum tours on the island. On their latest trip in May, they surprised themselves with how at home they felt strolling down El Paseo del Prado surrounded by soccer-playing children. They dream of one day owning a plot of land for a tobacco farm on the island.
“It’s really easy to sell cigars,” Yvonne says. “We’re educated enough and successful enough to take it to another level for the younger generation.”