Suarez didn't think he'd stay in tobacco. He studied in Cuba to be an accountant. "Castro said that wasn't a job for men," Suarez remembers. "They closed all the schools in 1962 and they wanted me to work in a cigar factory" Because of his reluctance to follow the dictates of Castro's regime, Suarez ended up being sent to work camps, from which he would walk away. "They would pick me up and put me in a camp; I would stay a couple of days and then I would leave. I never was a political prisoner. I was against the government but I didn't speak my mind."
"They were telling me what do, not letting me do what I wanted. They let me leave because they figured I didn't want to work - that I was lazy. I hadn't left Cuba because I didn't have the opportunity." Even while Castro's government was trying to turn him into a factory worker - he tolerated being trained as a carpenter - Suarez kept his hands in cigars whenever he could scrounge up tobacco. "I always did cigars in my house. The government would come in and shut me down, but I'd open back up," he says.
Suarez remembers the time when the Cuban government seized 3,800 pounds of tobacco that he'd gathered up. "They gave it to somebody else to use to make cigars and they ruined it," Suarez says. He wasn't arrested because the government couldn't prove that the tobacco hadn't been privately owned before the revolution.
When Suarez was ordered by Cuban officials to join what became known as the Mariel boat lift in 1980, he left behind two daughters, who are now 32 and 30. Although he hasn't seen them since he left 16 years ago, he speaks with them often by telephone.
"I wanted to bring my daughters, but they told me I couldn't," he says. U.S. officials detained Suarez and others at a camp in Arkansas. He moved to Union City to live with his brother Luiz, who had arrived in the U.S. through Spain in 1972. On his second day in Union City, Suarez ran into Bob Ramos' mother, Lidesnel Ramos, walking down the street. The two had dated as teenagers when they worked together in a doctor's office in Cuba, she as a receptionist, he doing odd jobs. Lidesnel had immigrated to the United States in 1966 when Ramos was two-years-old. Suarez and Lidesnel Ramos were married two years later.
When Suarez arrived in the United States, he turned briefly to the carpentry trade that had been forced on him by the Cuban government. He ended up working at a ship factory in Connecticut. But Suarez didn't like the separation of his family, and returned to Union City to make cigar boxes and work at the small rolling factories that supplied the cities population. Deciding that it was better to be an owner than a worker, Suarez saved his money and opened the Boquilla Cigar Co. in 1983, against the advice of the factory owners that he'd been working for.
"He was one of their best rollers, and they didn't want the competition," Ramos says. "They told him he'd be out of business in two years. That was 13 years ago and we're still going and getting bigger.
We've always had our customers and we've always survived, even when my dad was putting only $16 a day in the cash register. He fought and he struggled and he showed that everybody was wrong. That's why I'm happy to help him. Hard work pays off and he's been working hard for 15 years."
Suarez bought the Havana premium brand from another local manufacturer that went out of business in 1988. With Boquilla primarily supplying a local Hispanic neighborhood, Suarez isn't used to the prices he has to charge because of tobacco costs these days. "We've got people coming in here who, when I tell them a cigar costs $3, they look at me like I've got 40 eyes." In an aside from his translating, Ramos comments, "If I told him I paid $15 for a cigar, he'd kick my butt for wasting money."
"Until recently, it was not a problem to get tobacco," Suarez continues. "But I'm a little guy and we are starting to get shut out. The bigger companies can get tobacco easier than I can. The game that's being played today is, the one who has the most money wins." Suarez processes each tobacco leaf before it is put into a Havana cigar, but he's won't say what he does to the tobacco. "Everybody has his little secrets in this business and I don't want to let my secrets out," Suarez says.
Suarez has his own test for the quality of cigars. Often, he pulls off the comer of a leaf of tobacco and chews on it like gum. Tobacco can't be bitter when you put it in your mouth," he says. "The best leaf is one that doesn't have heavy cross veins. I like to blend a mild to medium cigar, one that draws well. A lot of cigar rollers in the U.S. who are from the Dominican Republic make too loose a cigar. It's very difficult to find good rollers. They find it hard to prosper, and most of the rollers are older. Nobody young wants to learn how to roll cigars."
Depending on the size of the cigars being made, Boquilla's production is about 5,000 Havana cigars over a seven-day week. If somebody says they want a Torpedo, that takes a lot longer to make than a Ninfa," Ramos says. On large orders, he says, special sizes can be arranged.