Before the age of radio, few had the knowledge and intellect of most cigar makers; even when illiterate. Many of them knew and could discuss the works of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy although understandably they always preferred Hemingway. Back then, cigar makers were exposed to more books in a month than most of us today are in a year.
Their exposure to all kinds of literary works was due to the “lector de tabaqueria” or “reader at the cigar factory”, who read to them throughout the day as they made cigars at their work stations. These readers came about in 1865 when factory owners used them to let their employees know their rules and regulations. Eventually the reader’s roles evolved and their main purpose became that of communicators and entertainers. They kept workers informed of company policies as well as the latest news from the local newspapers. They also entertained by reading fiction novels.
(It is our understanding that lectores/readers are still being used today in Cuba while in most other countries cigar makers have turned to transistor radios.)
During off hours, it was impossible to find anyone aside from other cigar makers who could discuss the topics they had heard at work: few plantations workers had ever heard of the Brothers Karamazov or about the humongous fish that Santiago caught. This may very well be the reason why cigar makers would get together in what is called a “peña”, a gathering of a group of friends to share and discuss the most pressing issues and ideas of the day.
The only predictable part of a cigar maker’s peña is the smoking of cigars. However, rather than passing cigars as we do today, back then, a pouch with different cigar leaves was passed around giving everyone the opportunity to create their own favorite blend according to their mood. As Jorge Salazar from Cuban Crafters once told us “The Salazar brand started many years ago when the Salazar brothers got together every day after lunch to discuss the pressing issues of the day. They would each get cigar leaves from the pouch and make their own favorite blend.”
To this day, the peña tradition continues all over the world. Friends still get together on a regular basis to discuss politics, sports, have lunch, drink wine or smoke cigars and Miami is no exception.
Some years back, my favorite peña used to be on Saturday afternoons at the Padron Cigar Factory in Little Havana. Being one of the youngest in the group allowed me to disagree with their political sentiments and sports preferences, but I always agreed with smoking cigars. A couple of hours with Jose Orlando Padron taught me more about cigars and its history than any amount of research I could ever do. He shared his knowledge and experiences without hesitation. Not only is Orlando the most knowledgeable cigar maker around, but the most loyal.
Our conversations were mostly about cigars, but the most important lesson he ever taught me had to do with loyalty, not cigars. During the cigar boom in the early 1990’s, cigar consumption in the United States skyrocketed and supply was scarce; prices went through the roof. Anyone who had premium cigars could basically get whatever price they wanted, so a recognized brand like Padron did very well, but I thought it could do better.
I questioned why the price of the lower end Padron brand that was being sold around town was never increased. I mentioned to Orlando that he could sell those cigars in major markets like New York for greater profits. He smiled and said “I have been making and selling cigars in this community since 1964 and the people that are buying them have kept me in business all these years. They have helped me provide for my family. How can I take away their cigars when it is not warranted? They have been loyal to me, and now I must be loyal to them.”
Jose Orlando Padron probably does not remember this incident, but I certainly do. I remember the Padron 1964 Anniversary Series I was smoking at the time which to this day remains my favorite cigar; it has been a reminder of what these peñas are all about and the integrity of a man.