The cigar industry is a white man’s terrain — at least it used to be. Since 2014, Afro-Cuban twins Yvette and Yvonne Rodriguez have been proudly challenging every racial and gender myth of the stogie business with their boutique line of cigars, Tres Lindas Cubanas.
While the sisters are the only black female owners of a cigar company, they’ve made it their personal, and business, mission to inform the tobacco world of Afro-Cuban women’s long and pivotal role in the industry. After all, it’s their late abuela, a pro-black feminist santera whose white skirt was often filled with ashes, that first introduced them to cigars.
“Women have always been smokers, just like men,” Yvonne, a former producer and editor for Telemundo, tells FIERCE. “And they’re the ones making cigars in factories back in Cuba.”
Like the classic Cuban song their business is named after, Tres Lindas Cubanas is a celebration of the various beautiful ebony shades of the black Cuban woman. There are three signature cigars in the line: “La Negrita,” which alludes to the darkest shade of women of the African diaspora, is the strongest, full-bodied, dark-leaf option. “La Mulata,” which represents mixed-race women, is the medium-to-strong brown leaf. And “La Clarita,” for the fairer-skinned brown cubana, is a mild blend rolled in a lighter leaf.
“It’s a celebration of the black woman, from the darkest to the lightest. We have to start praising ourselves more,” Yvette, a public relations professional, said.
Tres Lindas Cubanas is also a tribute to the twins’ ancestors — in fact, unbeknownst to the Rodriguez sisters, they were behind the entire idea. About 13 years ago, Yvonne met with a santera for a consultation. The woman informed her that several of her ancestors were with her, and they wanted her to do two things: speak about them and work with her sister. For years, Yvonne thought she was supposed to write a book about her black female forbearers, but as she sat one day five years ago, imagining what would become Tres Lindas Cubanas, she knew that this is what her progenitors had been trying to tell her all along.
“With our brand, we are honoring our ancestors,” Yvonne said.
And the spirits of their foremothers definitely have their back. The cigar industry is highly competitive. And for two newcomers, who happen to also be black women, the odds were stacked considerably high against them. Still, the cigars have proven to be a hit. Sold everywhere from Florida, Maryland and Illinois to Texas, North Carolina and Washington, the sisters have been able to make a livable wage off of their small line.
But that doesn’t mean business hasn’t been tough. In a boys’ club filled with elder white Cuban guajiros in guayaberas, Yvonne and Yvette — aesthetically femme, arrestingly dark-skinned and donning afros as big as their personalities — are often not taken seriously.
“We stick out like sore thumbs,” Yvonne says. “We walk into these cigar lounges with light Cuban or white old men, who think because we’re women we don’t smoke cigars, because we’re black we’re not Cuban and because we’re new we don’t know what we are doing.”
She says it’s not uncommon for men to ask them to prove they speak Spanish by saying some words in the language or even to quiz the women on blends and wrappings.
“They try to disqualify us, but we use who we are as an advantage: We are memorable, we are charming and our cigars are excellent and have an edge,” she added.
Unlike men, women cigar aficionados love the sisters and sing their praises. While most associate cigar smokers with wealth and leisure, the pair say that their female buyers are renaissance women who have careers, families and hobbies and are able to juggle it all with a light spirit and positive outlook.
So it’s their hope that their product enhances the already ravishing lives women, especially Black women, are leading.
“I want women, anyone really, who smokes our cigars to feel like they deserve it. They deserve the hour it takes to smoke the cigar, they deserve that time to look at the sky, read a book or reflect on the day. They can ask themselves, ‘how is my life going’ or ‘is my husband treating me right?’ I want them to relax and reflect,” Yvette said.