El Laguito. The factory of all factories. A mythical and mysterious place in Havana that once produced cigars only for Fidel Castro and visiting diplomats and dignitaries. The factory in which the Cohiba brand was born, and which very few people get to see. This is where María Sierra, who now works at El Titan de Bronze in Miami, worked for 31 years before going to the US. It’s where she learned how to roll Cohibas like few others can, and which has made her enormously popular among cigar smokers in her new home country.
It all started in 1967. In the name of equality, Fidel Castro’s indispensable helper, Celia Sánchez, had decided to introduce women into the cigar business. Hundreds of women lined up for the prestigious task of rolling for Cuba’s leader and his guests. Thirty were accepted. One of them was 18-year-old María Sierra. “It wasn’t so hard to get the job, but the job in itself was pretty hard,” she says. “I had just finished school and was looking for a career. I thought I’d try this to see if I liked it, and I fell in love with it.”
She and the others were taught by Castro’s personal rollers, Eduardo Rivera and Avelino Lara. The selection process was ongoing, but Sierra stayed on as one of the factory’s better rollers, reaching level nine, the highest skill level for a cigar roller. This meant perks, which few others got to experience. “I got tickets for the Tropicana and a week’s paid vacation,” María recounts. “I also got to go to Hong Kong and Germany with the company. Who got to go was actually decided by vote among the workers. You had to have a good attitude, commitment to work, create quality cigars, of course, and be serious about what you did.”
Which is also why the quality control was very strict. “They were very meticulous. If you were caught making a cigar that wasn’t good enough they’d send you back to ‘school.’ If you didn’t improve, you were kicked out.” Besides the prestige, and in Sierra’s case the perks, however, there were no financial incentives for seeking a job at El Laguito. “We worked from 7 am to 4.30 or 5 pm and had the same salary as people at other factories at our level.” She describes the atmosphere as friendly, the job situation as comfortable and her colleagues as one big family. While working they’d talk amongst themselves a little, but not too much, as rolling does demand focus. Instead, they had, as tradition serves, lectores [readers]. “They’d read news in the morning and books by famous writers in the afternoon, both Cuban and foreign. It was so we could learn about the world while working.”
In all her years, however, she never got to meet Fidel Castro. “This whole area was restricted, so we could see the cars with diplomats go by, but he never came to the factory.”
In 1998, after 31 years, Sierra retired. Eleven years later she decided to move to Miami to be with her only daughter. When Sandy Cobas, owner of El Titan de Bronze, found out that a former employee from El Laguito was coming she hired her on the spot. Sierra arrived on a Friday and started working on Monday. “I was so surprised,” María says. “It was like, ‘Oh my God!’ I couldn’t believe that I got a job straight away.” “[María] was knocking on the door, Monday morning, very excited,” adds Cobas, who is sitting on the other side of the table.
Working at a factory in the United States is different in many ways but there are also some similarities. “I was happy in Cuba. I had a house there,” explains María, “but I also re-gret not coming to the US earlier. Here I also could have had a house and saved money. I see that my daughter has a lot more opportunities. In Cuba they were very organized, but so is Sandy. She’s also picky,” María says with a laugh, looking warmly at her boss. But María still misses her home country.
“Not everything is bad in Cuba. I was born there, so there’s a lot of things that pull you back. Sometimes I start crying when I think about my country, but I’m happy here as well.” As are a lot of other people. Her cigarmaking skills haven’t gone unnoticed. Bill Paley of La Palina Cigars in Washington DC, for instance, created a line called Goldie Laguito because he wanted a cigar made by Sierra. A Nat Sherman show in New York was completely packed with people wanting to see her, and one fan drove almost 250 miles to Miami with his trunk filled with boxes of every cigar she has ever made for her to sign.
“Everything she makes sells out before she finishes,” Cobas says proudly. Not bad for someone who’s never smoked a cigar in her life. “I know if it’s good or not by smelling it,” María says with a smile. “In the beginning it wasn’t easy, but after a while I learned.”
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Spring Edition 2016.