Magic in Ybor City
Amid all the noise and partying, a Cuban craftsman works
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
TAMPA, Fla. -- At the far end of a street filled with restaurants and shops and nightclubs, where tourists party and money flows freely as drink, Roberto Ramirez rolls his magic.
For more than 50 years, first in Cuba and now in this enclave northeast of downtown Tampa known as Ybor City, Ramirez has lived his days among the moistened and fragrant leaves of tobacco. He is a grandmaster torcedor, maybe one of the 10 best in the world. He is a craftsman, an artist.
Ramirez, 65, creates the perfect cigar.
This part of Tampa used to be renowned for its cigar making. In fact, Tampa still bills itself as the "Cigar Capital of the World." But Ybor City fell on hard times when automation forced out all the torcedors (rollers) and, by the 1950s, the cigar factories that dominated the area all were gone. Only in the past several years has Ybor City made a comeback as an entertainment district.
Cigar stores still dot 7th Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Ybor, but they're stuck among tattoo parlors and fancy restaurants, open-air bars and a new shopping center. Most of them are just stores anyway. The cigars are all made elsewhere.
But in one corner of the block-long Columbia Restaurant, a landmark of Cuban culture for almost a century, a space is set aside for making cigars. Ramirez has been there for the last three years, wrapping his creations under the Gonzalez y Martinez label.
He is in on the whole cigar-making process, of course, from picking the proper tobacco for the filler to moisturizing the leaf to putting on the cap and cutting the cigar to size. He wraps the finished cigars in bundles and then they are stored in a humidor in the back of the room, where they'll sit for at least a year and a half. Some 14,000-15,000 of them are back there today.
Martinez can roll 150-200 cigars a day, of all different sorts. Some are specialty cigars, made from tobacco soaked in a barrel of bourbon. Other cigars are wrapped in dark tobacco from Indonesia, or in milder leafs from Ecuador. Ramirez tapers the end of some. Torpedoes, they're called.
Watching him create a cigar is a wonder. He sits at a small desk, grabs a hand-sized piece of prepared tobacco on his left, separates it from the pile and slides it on to the cutting board. His blade edges the leaf.
He puts the filler tobacco, pre-formed into a tube from a wooden mold, inside the leaf. He rolls the leaf around the filler, taking other pieces, wrapping and folding and twisting and shaping until a cigar appears.
It all happens so smoothly and so quietly. Martinez will call out in Spanish, once in a while, to his wife, Clara, who cleans up and makes sure the shop looks good. The two came to Florida from Cuba eight years ago.
Mostly, though, he just sits, head bowed, hands in an intricate weave, working.
"Thirty-seven years," Clara says when asked how long the two have been married. Mr. Ramirez does not speak English. "Long time, eh?"
This weekend, the streets of Ybor will be filled with the noise of the annual celebration of Gasparilla, a kind of mid-Florida Mardi Gras with pirates. Many more thousands of people will be in town for Super Bowl XXXV, which takes place Sunday. It will be a party, loud and mostly out of control.
Down on the corner of 7th Avenue and 21st Street, Roberto Ramirez will sit, quietly, doing what he has done for more than half a century.
It is magic.
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