A Woman Finds a Niche in a Cuban Tradition
By VINCENT M. MALLOZZI
Published: September 3, 2012
Ana Pérez reached into a pile of Connecticut shade tobacco leaves and placed one on the small table in front of her. She began spraying the leaf with water and carving it up with a chaveta knife.
“These leaves are very temperamental, just like women,” Ms. Pérez told a group of men surrounding her at a corporate event on a recent weeknight in Midtown Manhattan.
“When I roll Connecticut leaves into cigars, it makes for a milder blend,” she explained. “At a party like this, I’d rather roll milder cigars than stronger ones using something like ligero leaves, which are darker and result in more of a bold blend. It’s the same thing as making chocolate: the darker it is, the stronger or bolder it is going to be.”
Ms. Pérez, a 26-year-old social worker from Morristown, N.J., has a second job that is unlikely to be found in a classified advertisement. She is a cigar roller, and rather unusual in a field that has been dominated by men for over 500 years, though cigar factories have also employed women. In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered cigars in Cuba, made from raw, twisted tobacco leaves and smoked by indigenous peoples.
Though its roots are in Cuba, cigar rolling is big business in New York, Florida and many places around the world where Cubans have popularized the craft at Cuban restaurants, weddings and other events.
“I have never seen a woman rolling cigars at an event like this,” Joe Genovese, a 49-year-old electrician, said while puffing on one of the five-inch cigars that Ms. Pérez had rolled and cut to size using an assortment of tools.
“Usually, it’s an older, distinguished-looking man rolling my cigar, so this is a pleasant surprise,” Mr. Genovese said between puffs, “and I must say, her cigar has a very good draw to it.”
Ms. Pérez, who was born in Cuba, is indeed as rare as a Cuban cigar in an American humidor. She is one of eight young and attractive cigar-rolling women employed by a company called Cigar Dolls, which is based in Miami.
“There are fewer of us than there are astronauts,” she said.
But that appears to be changing.
Lincoln Salazar, the owner and publisher of Cigar & Spirits Magazine in Aliso Viejo, Calif., said Cigar Dolls was not so much a gimmick as a reflection of the growing number of women in the industry.
“Our own research shows that by the end of the 1990s, less than 6 percent of women were smoking cigars and/or working in the industry, but that number has now increased to less than 15 percent,” Mr. Salazar said. “Many young, savvy and intellectual women in their 20s and 30s are beginning to smoke cigars. They see it as something with a lot more sex appeal than cigarettes; it’s more of a luxury item to them, a real lifestyle choice.”
As Ms. Pérez tells it, cigars have been more a way of life in her family than a lifestyle choice.
Her grandfather Manuel Pérez Sr. worked as a cigar roller in a factory in Havana. When Ms. Pérez was a baby, she said, her grandparents, parents and two siblings all left Cuba with her and settled in northern New Jersey.
Her father, Manuel Jr., well schooled in the craft, was soon rolling cigars in their backyard and distributing them to family members and friends.
“I remember my uncles sitting around at Sunday dinner with messy cigars hanging out of their mouths,” Ms. Pérez recalled. “It was kind of a normal, very mundane way of life.”
Then one day, Ms. Pérez approached her father. “I was about 9 years old and I asked him why he was always playing with this garbage in the backyard. It all looked to me like a bunch of leaves and dirt,” Ms. Pérez said. “He sat me down and gave me my own little pile of tobacco and I started folding it the way he did, and before you knew it, I rolled my first cigar. It was a real mess, but my father saved it and put it in the china cabinet so he could mock me for years to come.”
Ms. Pérez did not know it at the time, but her cigar-rolling skills would eventually pay handsome dividends. After earning a master’s degree in social work from Wheelock College in Boston, she got a job working with troubled youth. She was also earning extra money teaching a Zumba class when she joined Cigar Dolls two years ago. The average cost for a minimum two-hour event is $1,200 to $2,000, depending on the event and the quantity of cigars rolled.
“I try and keep my two lines of work very separate,” Ms. Pérez said. “I don’t want my little youth finding my photos online and teasing me and not taking me seriously as a social worker. But I am proud to be a cigar roller. We all have a background where we were trained in cigar-rolling techniques, which takes years to perfect, and we all work high-class events. There has never been any lowbrow sort of bookings; that kind of business would not be entertained.”
The other women working for Cigar Dolls are in Boston, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami and San Francisco, each working more than 100 events a year. (Ms. Pérez’s Midtown booking was sandwiched between a weeklong series of events in Philadelphia, Providence, R.I., and Montreal.)
Ms. Pérez noted that while each of the women is young and attractive and has a cigar-rolling background, one of the most essential job requirements is a solid education.
“Being articulate is a must,” she said. “You have to be able to handle yourself in conversations with executives from Fortune 500 companies and other intelligent and fascinating people from all walks of life.”
Ms. Pérez, rocking to loud music while she rolled, appeared to be doing just that on this night.
“If I wrapped the tops of these cigars with maduro tobacco leaves,” she told the guests around her, “it would make them much stronger, and they would probably go better with steak and red wine than fish and white wine.
“I’ve tried to learn more about cigar blending secrets, but I’ve been told that if I learn too much, I might be able to take over the company.”