- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 4, 2005

UNION CITY, N.J. (AP) — Jose Suarez is one of a dying breed, his Boquilla cigar shop possibly the last place in Union City where Cuban-style cigars are still made by hand.

After the 1980 Mariel boat lift in which hundreds of people fled their Caribbean island, Cuban immigrants crowded this city in the shadow of Manhattan, bringing their traditions and skills. Little storefront “tabaquerias” cropped up, with one or two persons hand-rolling cigars in the back, then selling them at a counter in front.

Spanish still is commonly heard, but the accent is less often Cuban and the region’s cigar makers are fading into memory. “I’m fighting, trying to maintain my business,” said Mr. Suarez, 72. “But if things continue as they have, I might have to close, too.”

The older customers who favored the $2 cigars most popular at Boquilla are dying off. The new generation of aficionados favors fancier shops selling premium cigars at several times that price — usually hand-rolled in Honduras, the Dominican Republic and other places closer to tobacco fields and inexpensive labor.

In addition, Union City’s cigar-loving Cuban population has declined substantially. They probably peaked at 60 percent to 70 percent in the 1980s, said Emilio del Valle, a Cuban community leader. According to 2000 census data, that was down to 14 percent, although Hispanics as a whole accounted for 75 percent.

“It’s not surprising they’re having difficulties,” said Norman Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America, which represents cigar makers, importers and suppliers. “It stopped being economical to hand-roll cigars in this country decades ago.”

At Jimenez Tobacco in Newark, Nelda Pozo and an assistant still roll a slightly pricier variety of cigars. Although the business supports her as it did her family for a century earlier in Cuba, Mrs. Pozo said, her children have pursued other careers.

Mr. Suarez’s stepson also has gone into other work, leaving Mr. Suarez alone to continue the trade he began learning at age 11 in Placetas, Cuba. He said he produces about 150 cigars in an eight-hour day.

Despite its trade name, Boquilla’s top-selling Havana brand is a blend of tobaccos from the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Ecuador and Indonesia. The mythic Cuban leaf has not been imported legally since President Kennedy imposed an embargo in 1962.

Cigars reportedly smuggled from Cuba are sold illicitly on the streets of Union City, but Mr. Suarez said many are fakes. Even authentic Cuban tobacco is not what he recalls before Fidel Castro nationalized the industry.

“It’s not bad, but it’s not good, either,” he said.

Despite his distaste for the communist dictator, if Cuban tobacco were to become legally available, Mr. Suarez would sell it, “because people are always asking for it.”

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