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Cigarmaker reaches out to community

By ERNEST HOOPER
Published May 18, 2006


The story could have ended with Carlos Fuente Jr. overcoming tremendous odds to extend the legacy of his Cuban-born grandfather Arturo Fuente, the cigarmaking legend who came to Tampa in 1912.

But Carlos' heart wouldn't let the tale stop with his own business success.

Carlos gave the keynote address at Wednesday's annual Latinos Unidos luncheon. He captivated the crowd with stories about his Tampa roots, his love of family and the hardships the Fuentes have endured since his grandfather learned the art of cigarmaking from his father in the 19th century.

There was a 1924 fire that burned down the original factory in Tampa. There was the Cuban embargo in the 1950s that created incredible challenges and forever changed the industry. There was the slow death of the art of handmaking cigars that led the children of most factory owners to get out of the business.

But not Carlos, or as his family and friends called him, Carlito.

"I remember my father asking, 'Carlito, what is it you want to do?' " Carlos said. "He said, 'That cigar must live because that cigar is the memory of my grandfather, and every time I take a puff and that smoke goes up to heaven, I know it's embracing my grandfather.' "

So they moved the operation to Nicaragua and had success until 1978, when political upheaval resulted in rebel Sandinistas burning down the factory. The family lost everything, Carlos says, for the fourth or fifth time.

They went to Honduras, where an electrical fire gutted the factory. With revolution all around Central America at that time, they didn't know where to turn.

In 1980, the Fuentes started over in the Dominican Republic, where Carlos still lives today. The company, Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia, has grown from seven employees to more than 3,000 and has six factories in the town of Caribe. Five of those seven original employees still work for the company.

Fuente was able to grow the company because he and his father were successful in growing quality wrapper leaves in the Dominican Republic, something most experts said couldn't be done.

Now, their handmade cigars have become renowned. At trade shows, cigar lovers flock just to get a word with Fuente, the company's chief executive officer.

"I am and always will be just a humble cigarmaker," he said, as his father looked on at the downtown Hyatt Regency.

Great story. Stand and cheer Carlos' perseverance and humility. But wait - there's so much more.

Growing up in Tampa, Carlos developed a sense of community and compassion that has no bounds and influences all that he does.

"It was a community where if someone had a fever or a cold, everyone would be coming to your home with pots of chicken soup or potaje," Carlos said. "That kind of camaraderie, that kind of gentle love, that kind of compassion for your neighbors is something that was instilled in me at a very young age."

When the tobacco plantation began to flourish, parents began to visit, insisting that the company give jobs to their children as young as 5.

"We explained to the parents we can't do that, it's not moral," he said.

Still, they asked. Fuente began to wonder why the children weren't in school. He asked one what had happened to the baseball glove he had received from Dominican Republic hero Sammy Sosa.

"My dad pawned it for a bottle of rum."

Fuente couldn't live just reaping the benefits of his company. He realized that he had to find a way to give back to the people.

"The American dream does not have boundaries," Fuente said. "It's a dream to achieve the greatest that humanity deserves. As an American and because of all the blessings I was given, I realized something had to be done for these children."

He got together with the Newman Family, Tampa cigar legends in their own right, and created the Cigar Family Charitable Foundation in 2002. The initial idea was to build a small classroom in Caribe.

Today, with the help of another nonprofit, the Dominican Foundation, the Cigar Family Foundation has built a 46-acre complex with a medical clinic, community center, safe drinking water stations and an organic farm that produces fertilizer, honey, shrimp, fish and fruits and vegetables for the children.

The cornerstone is the school, which goes from prekindergarten to high school. In a place where parents once told kids to get rid of books because books can't put food on the table, education has taken on new value.

Fuente dreams of a day when one of the children stands to deliver the school's graduation speech.

"You see these beautiful children all over. You see them without shoes," Fuente said. "But you never see a young Dominican child without a smile."

Fuente says every American has an obligation to give back. For more information, go to www.cigar familycharitablefoundation.com.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper can be reached at hooper@sptimes.com or 813 226-3406.

[Last modified May 18, 2006, 06:43:22]


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