Yvette and Yvonne Rodriguez have long spent their weekend nights at Cuban cigar bars, puffing on maduros and sipping on whiskey.
But a couple years ago, they got tired of the fact that there was no one who looked like them – female, black – in the room or in the industry.
So they got in the game.
In 2014 the twin sisters, first-generation Americans born to Afro-Cuban parents here in Miami, launched Tres Lindas Cubanas Cigars, a cigar company that pays tribute to the Afro-Cuban woman.
Almost all the cigar companies out there are run by white Cuban men, and the marketing, more often than not, includes an old white man in a tobacco field in Cuba. They were over that.
“Let’s celebrate us, let’s celebrate us within an industry that even now doesn’t recognize we exist,” says Yvonne. “In Cuba almost everyone in the cigar industry looks like us, even the rollers of the cigars… You know what? Let’s celebrate that.”
The name is a nod to the traditional Cuban song “Tres Lindas Cubanas” and the woman in their mind as they crafted the brand was their grandma.
Their mom, a businesswoman who wore a pressed suit every day, was an elegant cigarette smoker. But their abuela – she was a cigar woman.
Every afternoon after cleaning her house she would post up on her patio in her designated smoking skirt. Yvonne and Yvette remember her rocking back and forth, ashing her cigar right there on the skirt.
“To me, cigar smoking is so cool, so cosmopolitan. It’s traditional, but when I see someone smoking a cigar, I feel that they’re more interesting. They like to eat good, they like to drink good, they know how to take time off,” Yvonne says.
Building ‘Tres Lindas Cubanas’
The idea for the company, right down to the name of the three cigars, came to Yvonne in a dream, she says.
They have three cigars. There’s “La Negrita,” which is the full-bodied maduro toro cigar – it’s representative of the Afro-Cuban woman with the darkest complexion, says Yvette.
Then there’s “La Mulata,” a Habana torpedo. Then there’s “La Clarita,” the lightest of their cigars, also a torpedo.
“We named them after women. We just want to empower… the black Cuban woman,” says Yvette. “We’re celebrating the complexions, the black race.”
The sisters, now 36, grew up down in South Miami Heights in South Dade, far from Westchester, Hialeah, and Little Havana, the centers of Cuban life. They were always straddling their black and Cuban identities.
“We were little black girls growing up in south Miami-Dade. We spoke Spanish at home hardcore… but when we went to school it was completely hip hop, R&B,” remembers Yvette.
But as they got older and moved into the professional world, it was harder to blend the identities.
“I worked in TV for 10 years at Telemundo… to see a black Latino in the building, [not to mention] TV – It was like unheard of… I never felt isolated because of it, but we’re not being shown at all,” Yvonne says.
As they prepared to launch Tres Lindas Cubanas, they knew they had three things going for them: the name was sure to trigger nostalgia, there was no one in the industry celebrating the black race, and there are few women in the industry, period.
They were also coming into their own as black Cuban women, says Yvette – most of their lives they had both gotten their hair relaxed, but they had just started transitioning to their natural hair. They knew their afros would work well with the branding.
“We could have just hired models for a photo shoot, but I don’t think it would have have the same impact,” Yvette says. “Everyone knows that Cuban women have power, it just depends on how you use it.”
Yvonne and Yvette have a lot of their business meetings (and this interview) at Cuban Crafters, at the western edge of Little Havana. The sprawling shop has a coffee counter churning out cafecitos, a humidor, a shoe shining stand, a barber shop, and a room that seems reserved just for puffing on cigars and playing loud games of dominos.
It’s basically everything a Cuban man wants on a laidback afternoon – and the sisters have the whole establishment charmed.
A recipe for success
They started out with just a $500 investment, which paid for three boxes of their cigars, right down to the bands. They sold those, and from there they were off and running.
Their tobacco seeds are from Cuba, but the tobacco itself is grown in Nicaragua. That’s also where the cigars are manufactured.
The turnaround for the first year was $70,000. The endeavour isn’t going to make them rich, the sisters acknowledge. But they’re growing bit by bit. Today they’re in 18 shops in eight states, and are also stocked at local hotels and mobile cigar shops at events.
This year, with the loosening of regulations on travel to Cuba, they began offering their own cigar tours on the island with On Cuba Travel.
They’ve embraced their personal story, an outgrowth of their mother’s and grandmother’s, as a key to their success.
“We looked within and we said, ‘We cannot compete with the bigger cigar brands that are mainly of old men on the front – the abuelo in the ad in the field against the sunset. We’re not white men, so we can’t even compare,” Yvette says.
“We’re black women, we’re silly, we don’t have to be super thin, we don’t wear suits… we’re rocking our ‘fros, we’re rocking our purple lipstick. We’re going to be respectful of course, but we gotta be us.”