The American cigar, from J.C. Newman Cigar Co., is the anchor to this article that I have embarked into writing from the moment I visited the J.C. Newman factory and toured their facilities back in March 2021. When I saw for the first time the shield painted on the wall, it hit me. I was in awe to see the Puerto Rican flag incorporated into the new band design for the remake of this century old cigar called “The American.”
My question was why the Puerto Rican flag? According to the J.C. Newman website, "Like Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and other Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico has a rich tobacco heritage. In the late 1800s, Puerto Rican revolutionaries exiled to New York City created a flag similar to Cuba’s to support their campaign to liberate the island from Spanish rule. In support of this fight for independence, this flag design was incorporated into the American shield and cigar band.”
But how rich was the tobacco history and culture of Puerto Rico? What was Puerto Rico's contribution to this craft? One thing for sure, Puerto Rican tobacco culture disappeared or yet was left out from the mainstream.
The American Cigar not only pays homage to America but also opens the window to tell the story of what once was an island that produced three main products: sugar cane, coffee, and tobacco.
In 1606 the Spanish crown prohibited the growth of tobacco for the island of Puerto Rico for a period of ten years which started the dark period of contraband for years to come. But this prohibition was also applied to La Espanola, Cuba, Margarita, Venezuela. After the lift of the prohibition in 1632 under the order of Governor Enrique Enriquez, a local tax was implemented over tobacco to help the development of public work (construction).
But there has been a tax implemented previously in 1621 for this same purpose. Basically, incessant taxes on tobacco opened the doors for funds to be misappropriated and lay grounds for government corruption. Puerto Rico ended up at a different path than her sister islands in the Caribbean like Dominican Republic and Cuba.
Between 1632 to 1700, the dark period for Puerto Rico, where local governors monopolized the tobacco production on the island, keeping the real amount of tobacco produced off the records. They kept a lot of the products for themselves and only reported to the Spanish crown minute production numbers to display poor productivity and low quality tobacco.
Tobacco on the island of Puerto Rico suffered rigorous fiscal measurements. The most lethal was established in 1636 with General Estanco. This led to production being limited and distributed mostly as contraband. This century was characterized by Spain's total neglect of Puerto Rico. The inhabitants for the most part had to resort to smuggling in order to survive. The lack of population, money circulating, and an effective government paid to the fact that tobacco cultivation did not prosper. Abroad, colonies such as Cuba and the mainland supplied a good part of the peninsular tobacco consumption. This was due to the fact that Puerto Rican tobacco remained on the sidelines and did not prosper. (Luis Caldera Ortiz)
After O'Reilly's report, the activities of Muesas and the efforts of the real Puerto Rican tobacco factory, he returned to place himself on the map, laying the foundations for what would happen in the 19th century. (Luis Caldera Ortiz)
According to the article, “The Science of Tobacco in Puerto Rico, 1900-1940,” by Dr. Teresita Levy, tobacco became an important export product after the North American occupation of 1898. From 1900 to 1927, Puerto Rico produced around of 35 million tons of tobacco annually (Nahira Montcourt)
The tobacco leaf, among other agricultural products, was included in the colonial tariff structure of the United States as a duty-free product. As a result of this opportunity to participate in the American market, farmers in the island's mountainous regions made tobacco growing their most important economic activity between 1900 and 1940. Beginning in 1900 through 1929, tobacco growing expanded rapidly and consistently. Between 1907 and 1917, tobacco was the third most important commercial product on the island, after sugar cane and coffee. (Nahira Montcourt)
The black leaf has always been the most important plant cultivated in our lands. It was considered primarily the tastiest wrapping sheet in the world. The Hoja Prieto was used exclusively in the best cigars in the world.
Record exports were made in 1957 to North America, England, Spain, France, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica and other countries dedicated to cigarettes around the world. Until then, Puerto Rico was the fifth largest tobacco exporter in the world, after the United States, Mexico, Venezuela, and Africa.(Nahira Montcourt)
Today the tobacco industry and culture is gaining momentum in Puerto Rico. We have the Museo del Tabaco located in the town of Caguas, PR inaugurated August 31st 2021. On August 28th, 2021, La Hoja del Chan Cigars inaugurated their production space and offices located also in Caguas, PR. There are several tobacco artisans who dedicate themselves to the art of blending and rolling cigars in Puerto Rico with tobacco imported from Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Mexico, etc. Some have added in their blends a bit of Puerto Rican tobaccos which are produced in very small quantities. There is also El Club el Turro Tabacalera Hidro Organica in Canovanas, PR.
The intent of this article is to give you a glimpse into Puerto Rico's tobacco history and culture (past-present-future) and the importance of its contribution to the evolution of tobacco. I am so thankful to the J.C. Newman family for honoring the flag of Puerto Rico as part of their cigar band design and sharing this important part of tobacco history.