It was 1957, and I was excited about the crab enchilada dinner my parents and I were invited to at Nena and Ulysses Henriquez’s home. My brother had recently married their granddaughter, Yolanda, and our two families often gathered for big dinners. I always had fun at their house; the food was plentiful and delicious!
Walking into the house, I instantly smelled a spicy tomato sauce permeating the air. The rich sauce had been cooking for hours, and I knew the crabs would soon be added. I found Nena sitting at the kitchen table, meticulously rolling a cigar back and forth under her outstretched fingers while she waited for her sauce to finish cooking. The cigar began taking shape with each forward and backward roll, finally becoming a perfect cylinder. Being a curious nine-year-old, I began asking her question after question. “Whatcha gonna do with that cigar?” I asked. “Are you going to smoke it? How many are you making?” Nena was patient with my many questions and smiled as she answered each one. “I am making cigars for Ulysses,” explaining that her husband liked smoking cigars, which is why she rolled. As I watched with increased curiosity, the cigar grew to about 10-12 inches long! She said Ulysses liked long cigars, and with a quick roll of her razor-sharp chaveta, she cut off the end.
Cigars weren’t new to me–I saw lots of men smoking them around Tampa, but I never thought about how they were made until that day in Nena’s kitchen. I later learned that Nena began rolling cigars when she was 14. Like many immigrant children in Tampa during the early 1900s, she needed to contribute to the family income. Cigar makers made little money, but factory work provided a steady income.
Most cigar makers learned their skills during a one to two-year apprenticeship in a small cigar factory called a “buckeye.” Later they secured better-paying jobs in larger factories. For some, it was the only job skill they would ever learn, and they ended up spending 30 or 40 years as a cigar maker.
Employment for many, especially women, began in the stripping department, where they were taught to remove the stem from the tobacco leaf without damaging the wrapper. The technique involved laying the large tobacco leaf around the outside of the hand to secure it, then grabbing the stem with the fingers of the other hand and quickly stripping it from the leaf.
Women began working in some of the higher-paying positions of bunchers and cigar makers. Working their way from the stripping department to these other jobs was not well received by their male counterparts. The men feared the women would lower their own wages or even push them out of their jobs. Some men refused to work alongside women and would go so far as to quit a job and find employment at a factory that had not yet hired female employees. In time all factories employed women, and men had no choice but to accept their presence. Even today, some old timers who roll for the smaller cigar shops feel women should not be in the business of cigars!
Factory owners liked hiring women because they were fast rollers and caused fewer problems. The men were outspoken and demanding, especially regarding union and political issues. Factory owners also liked female workers because few women smoked and would not take home the allotted 3-4 cigars daily. This saved the company money.
Even though men and women performed the same jobs, their lives were quite different once their workday ended and they headed home from the factories. Women began cooking the evening dinner and caring for their children; household chores had to be done, children’s homework had to be completed, baths taken, and lunch prepared for the next day of school. For the men, it was a different story. Many would clean up after dinner and head to one of the private clubs like El Centro Español, El Círculo Cubano, La Union Martí Maceo, or L’Unione Italiano. Once there, they would play cards or dominos with their male counterparts while sipping café con leche and arguing late into the evening about current issues. Eventually, they would head home and retire for the evening so they could rise early for the next day of work, which usually began around 7 in the morning.
Much has been written through the years about the men who rolled cigars in our factories but little about the women. It is time to do so, and with the help of friends and family, I found interesting women to interview who are all independent, strong, and very opinionated! Positive character traits developed over the years of working hard to support themselves and their families. When I called to explain the story, I was writing, most could not understand why anyone would be interested in talking to them about cigar making–to them, it was just a job, but a job they enjoyed. As you read each story, you will learn that the number of cigars they rolled each day varied. Some cigars took longer to make than others because of their unique shape.
Mercedes “Nena” Vila Henriquez
Born June 5, 1903, in Key West, Florida
Died November 22, 1987
Mother and father were born in Key West
Grandfather was a cigar maker.
She is also the Great Grandmother of the Founder & Publisher, Lisa M. Figueredo.
Nena worked in La Corina Cigar Factory in Palmetto Beach and Perfecto Garcia in Ybor City. At 14, she learned how to make cigars and continued rolling long after she retired from her factory job. When she made cigars at home for her husband, she worked without the benefit of the wooden cigar mold. She used her fingers and hands to mold her bunch and then twisted the end of the cigar instead of making a smooth head. Her husband, Ulysses, brought home truckloads of tobacco scraps from the factories to use on his lawn. The foremen would always provide him with a bag of quality tobacco for his personal use. Once home, Nena took the tobacco and sprayed the delicate leaves with water to maintain their moisture.
Margarita Lamelaz Mathews
“The cigar factory was a beautiful, beautiful thing; I loved working in the cigar factories!”
Born June 7, 1926, in Ybor City and received by a mid-wife Josephine Valenti
Her mother was born in Key West, and her father in the Canary Islands
Her father was a cigar maker.
At age 16, Margarita began working in a cigar factory. When asked about cigar making, she said, “I worked like a dog and got paid like a chicken!” But quickly added, “I loved it!” Margarita worked for Cuesta-Rey, Val Antonio, Regensberg, Corral-Wodiska, Arturo Fuente, and A. Santaella. She rolled “cigarillos,” as she called them, which she said were “small cigars.” However, she also rolled figurados, straights, and others. Margarita talked about what she called “biters” - workers who used their teeth to finish the head of a cigar. Many of the “biters” continued to chew on the piece of tobacco instead of spitting it out. Margarita explained that their teeth would suffer the consequences years later as they developed terrible dental problems.
Margarita rolled entirely by hand, never using molds when she first began. She confirmed that women cigar makers were paid the same as men but said, “Men were jealous of the women rollers because women rolled prettier cigars.” Margarita was paid $5 for every 100 cigarillos she rolled, and she could roll 400 to 600 a day–more when she switched over to machine work. Margarita will still roll an occasional cigar for her grandson. She keeps her chaveta sharp by using her front porch step as a sharpening tool.
Lucia “Chiqui” Fernandez Rivas
“My mother taught me on summer vacation, at age 14, how to strip on a machine.”
Born April 21, 1930, at her home on Fremont and Spruce (received by a midwife)
The family is from Asturias, Spain.
She still lives in West Tampa.
Mother was a stripper on machines.
Chiqui said she liked rolling cigars. When she was 14, her mother taught her how to strip on a machine. She then worked at a small buckeye, where she learned to roll by hand. By 15, she worked at Gradiaz and Annis Cigar Company, the start of her more than 40 years in the cigar industry. She learned how to bunch at Cuesta Rey Cigars in West Tampa, worked at Morgan Cigars, Corral, and Wodiska, and later for her brother-in-law, who owned Vincent and Tampa Cigars.
Chiqui stopped working in the cigar industry in the 1980s. If you ask about her favorite job, she’ll tell you, “I enjoyed laying wrapper.” She rolled about 500 cigars a day until she went to work on the machines, when her daily total increased to 5,000! When asked if she thought she could still roll a cigar, she replied, “Sure, I can!”
Mary “Beba” Esquia Lozano
“Capotico, that’s what we called it. He said he would show me how to roll cigars, and he took me downstairs and showed me how to roll, and I bought a chaveta.”
Born January 5, 1920, in a small casita in Ybor City on 8th Ave. and 22nd St.
Mother was born in Key West, and her father was born in Tampa–she is of Cuban and Spanish Heritage.
Father worked in a Buckeye factory.
Beba began working in the cigar factories at age 15. Her family was impoverished and needed the income she could provide. Her father, a foreman at a cigar factory in West Tampa, got her a job. He asked the owner, “If you don’t mind can you give my daughter a job? She’s in school, but she needs to work.” Beba said she was shown how to work with capotico or la capa, as the workers called the cigar wrapper. She bought a chaveta to cut her tobacco and began her first job. Having earned $37 a week in her early years at a small buckeye, she moved on to Garcia y Vega, and when they closed, she went to work for Corral-Wodiska. Later, Tino Gonzalez gave her a job at Villazon, where she remained until they closed six years ago – she was 80 years old when she retired. Beba said she enjoyed hand-rolling cigars but preferred making cigars by machine. Four women were assigned to each machine, and their jobs were to remove the stem, make the bunch, apply the wrapper, and bundle the cigars.
Giuseppina “Pina” LoCicero Leto
“My job was to put on the wrapper after the bunch maker made the bunch.”
Born August 12, 1914, in Tampa, Florida
Mother was born in Santo Stefano Quisquina, Sicily.
Father was born in Alessandria Della Rocca, Sicily
Her parents and sister were cigar makers.
Giuseppina “Pina” LoCicero started working in a Buckeye cigar factory on 4th Street in Ybor City when she was 20. Like most young girls, she probably would have started at age 14, but she had asthma, and her parents were concerned about her working around tobacco fumes. After her apprenticeship in the Buckeye, she went to work for Paradiso (nickname for Perfecto Garcia Cigar Factory) and later worked at Corral-Wodiska. Pina applied capa (wrapper) after the bunch maker made the bunch, making 200 cigars a day. She said she loved it and worked in the industry for over 25 years until the factory closed. I asked her if she could still apply the wrapper today. As she mimicked the movement of hand rolling, she said she could still remember how to do it, but her hands were too old and shaky to make the beautiful cigars she once did.
Like most Ybor residents, she used to walk to and from work. A very handsome man, Salvatore “Sam” Leto, was coming home from Hav-a-Tampa Cigars when he first saw Pina. He tried to speak with her, but she ignored him and hurried home. Sam wouldn’t give up and waited for her every day outside Corral-Wodiska. He eventually won her over, and they were married a few months later.
Carmela Cammarata Varsalona
“I never wish to retire; I love to make cigars!
It’s what I’ve been doing all my life.”
Born in 1907 in Tampa
Died on February 21, 2000
Parents from Italy and Spain
The parents were both cigar rollers.
During a career that began when she was 16, Carmela worked at Arturo Fuente Cigar Co., Villazon, and other factories in Tampa. Her mother and father were cigar makers who immigrated from Italy and Spain. Carmela continued rolling cigars until age 93, working in her grandson Jim Tyre’s cigar shop–Cammarata Cigar Co., once in the Wyndham Hotel lobby. Each morning she packed a lunch for both of them and was ready to go when Jim picked her up for the drive to work. She rolled cigars at a workbench near the glass-encased storefront, observed by many people passing through the hotel patio. In a 1995 interview, Carmela said she remembered fights between the men at the cigar factories where she had worked. She also recalled being prodded by her supervisor to make more cigars and receiving praise when she succeeded. She could roll 400 to 500 cigars a day.
The first cigar she learned to roll was the popular Bustillo brand. Her least favorite cigar to roll was anything in a maduro wrapper. She said, “I hate to make cigars with the black wrapper–it’s so strong and makes you dizzy sometimes.”
Carmela passed away in 2000, and her workbench remains in the storefront window, serving as a tribute to one of Tampa’s proud cigar makers. (Note: information for this story was collected from previous interviews given by Carmela).
Lolita Menendez Fernandez
”When I learned I did everything by hand – they paid me $2 a week.”
Born in Tampa on February 23, 1911
Parents from Asturias, Spain
Father was a selector in the cigar factory.
Lolita started working at Corral-Wodiska Cigar Factory in Ybor City in 1930 when she was 19. She worked as an apprentice for 9 to 12 months, making $2 a week. Once trained, she did everything from making her bunch to placing the binder and wrapper on the cigar. Instead of using a mold, she had a small wooden board about 6-10 inches long with a hole in it. She would put a rubber band around her bunch and place it in the hole to ensure the ring gauge was correct. Then she would measure the cigar by the edge of the board. She remembered her first foreman was Angel Alonso, and the manager was Jose Villa. Lolita earned $5 to $6 each six-day workweek, making approximately 150 cigars daily.
Lolita was among the first to learn when machines were introduced in the factories. She could do any of the machine jobs required at the time. She said each machine produced approximately 4,000 cigars a day. When asked to compare the hand to machine-made cigars, Lolita acknowledged that handmade cigars were much better.
At 67, Lolita ended her cigar-making career at Villazon Cigar Factory in West Tampa. After 48 years in the cigar industry, she felt it was time to retire. At 95, Lolita was still going strong living alone, tending to her home, sewing, and knitting, and driving.
Margarita Jara Reyes
Born March 16, 1953, in Valparaiso, Chile
Parents from Chile
Arrived in the U.S.A. in 1996
An accountant by trade, Margarita Reyes moved to Tampa shortly after marrying Wallace “Wally” Reyes in Chile in 1996. She helped him with the cigar business they started - Gonzalez Habano Cigar Co.
She attended English classes early in the day and then went to the cigar store to keep the books for the business. She observed the cigar makers as they worked making handmade cigars. As she sat nearby, she watched them but did not ask many questions, knowing the men felt strongly that women should not make cigars. She occasionally helped out by placing bands around the cigars.
After two years of secretive apprenticeship, she asked her husband, Wally, for some tobacco and a cigar mold. He was surprised by her request but brought her what she requested. To the amazement of Wally and the other cigar makers, she rolled her first cigar and has not stopped since.
Margarita can make approximately 100 cigars daily if she makes Presidente, Figurado, Torpedo, etc. since they are more difficult to roll. However, if she rolls Churchills or Rothchilds, she can roll 150 daily. When asked if she liked making cigars, she smiled and said, “Yes!” As master cigar makers, Wally and Margarita enjoy their profession, and on any given day, you will find one or both making their wonderful brand of cigars the way cigars should be made–by hand!
After completing the interviews, I asked some veterans if they would roll cigars for me. Margarita Mathews and Mary Lozano agreed, and I arranged to meet on July 20, 2006, at Vincent and Tampa Cigar Co. on Howard Avenue. Mario Garrido, one of the owners, graciously allowed us to use his beautiful showroom for our cigar-making event. The shop’s showroom is complete with cigar-making tables, boards, chavetas, molds, presses, etc. The back wall also has a large black and white photograph of a cigar factory gallery filled with cigar makers– a perfect setting to have these two tabaqueras roll - and roll they did! Margarita brought her chavetawith her, so she was ready to get to work! I asked them to sit side by side so I could take photographs of the two.
Selecting a moist wrapper leaf, they gently spread it on the smooth, wooden board and removed the stem. The bunches had been prepared in advance; they each removed one from a mold and began to roll a cigar. It was as if we had been transported to the early 1940s as they sat talking and laughing, sometimes in English and other times in Spanish. I asked Mary if the foreman cared if the workers spoke to one another as they worked. “Naw, they didn’t care–you could even do the Cha-Cha-Cha!” she proclaimed.
I was so excited; I kept shooting as many photographs as possible of each step of the cigar-making process. I peeked over Margarita’s shoulder as she finished the head of her cigar and asked if she had ever been tired of rolling cigars during her days at the factory. “No, not when you wanted to send your kids to school and give them what you didn’t have in your life– you made lots of sacrifices.” Mary laughed and said she didn’t make much money as a cigar maker, so she remembers eating lots of pork and beans, and grits.
Once all the capa (wrapper) was gone, it was time to end our cigar-making session. For us, it was an extraordinary day–we were able to experience a little bit of Tampa’s incredible past. And I left with some of the most beautiful handmade cigars I have ever seen! Will I smoke them, you ask? Never–I will treasure them forever!
This article is dedicated to Mercedes “Nena” Henriquez, an extraordinary woman, and the great-grandmother to the founder & publisher of this magazine, Lisa M. Figueredo.
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- NOVEMBER/DECMEBER 2006
Art & Photography Contributors: Hillsborough County Public Library, Tampa Bay History Center, The Florida State Archives, The Tampa Tribune/Tampa Bay Times, University of South Florida Department of Special Collections, Ybor City Museum Society, private collections and/or writer.
MARILYN L. FIGUEREDO
Marilyn was Cigar City Magazine's co-owner and managing editor until her passing in 2007. Marilyn was born in 1948 in Tampa, where she lived her entire life and, more specifically, her early childhood in Ybor City. After a successful 30-year career at Delta Air Lines, Marilyn embarked on what became her true passion: reinvigorating the colorful, multicultural history of Ybor City through the lives and personal stories of the families and individuals who made up the uniqueness of this Tampa quarter. She did this primarily through Cigar City Magazine, serving on various committees and organizations, and attending cultural events throughout Tampa. Her work alongside her niece Lisa Figueredo, founder and Publisher, was instrumental in producing Cigar City Magazine.
Marilyn's legacy will live forever throughout the pages of Tampa's first historical magazine–CigarCityMagazine
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