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The name of José Orlando Padrón evokes the aroma and image of some of the best cigars in the world.
Padrón, the founder of Padrón Cigars, died Tuesday at Mercy Hospital in Coconut Grove. He was 91.
Until the very end, Padrón remained loyal to his friends and his roots in the Cuban countryside.
“My father started the business with $600. One person rolled the cigars and he sold them at night,” said Jorge Padrón, one of his four children and president of Padrón Cigars.
The patriarch of the family was born in Consolación del Sur in the western province of Pinar del Rio. His family, who came from the Canary Islands, worked in a tobacco farm in the Cuban region known as Vueltabajo, considered to be among the best tobacco areas in the world. Tobacco became Padrón’s passion.
Padrón left Cuba in 1961 for Madrid, so poor he had to beg on the streets of the Spanish capital. He quickly moved to New York, where he lived for a couple of months before moving to Miami. He mowed lawns and did carpentry work until he opened the cigar company in 1964.
In the 1970s, he opened a cigar factory in Nicaragua, still the source of much of the tobacco that Padrón Cigars rolls into its cigars. The cigars are sold around the world as well as at its famed Little Havana store on 1575 SW First St.
That factory burned down during Nicaragua’s civil war. The factory’s destruction was not at the hands of the Sandinista guerrillas nor supporters of the Somoza dictatorship, but by mobs that looted businesses.
By then, Padrón had opened a factory in Honduras to roll Nicaraguan leaves. But President Reagan slapped an embargo on the Sandinista government in 1985, and the factory could no longer import tobacco from Nicaragua.
Padrón returned to the island in 1979 with other Cuban exiles to speak with Fidel Castro’s government about political prisoners. The discussion led to the release of some 3,600 political prisoners, including some who had spent nearly 20 years behind bars.
Padrón was photographed giving Castro a box of his cigars. Shortly thereafter, several bombs damaged his Miami store, then on Flagler Street and Southwest 16th Avenue.
“My father went to Cuba with the goal of helping,” said Jorge Padrón, adding that many of his father’s old friends were freed from prison as a result of his work.
The business in Central America took off again when the U.S. embargo on Nicaragua was lifted in 1990. The Padrón family had to revive the entire process of cigar-making.
Today, the Padrón brand is recognized as one of the best in the world. It received the best cigar of the year prize, awarded by the magazine Cigar Aficionado, three times since 2004.
“My father always told me that a person had to do three important things: value the family, respect the name, the legacy, and be grateful,” said his son.
The Padrón family runs a foundation that supports causes such as health and education; it is planning to build a school in Esteli, Nicaragua.
Padrón is survived by his wife, Flori Padrón, children Elizabeth, Orlando, Jorge and Lissette as well as 12 grandchildren, two great grandchildren and a nephew he loved like a son, Rodolfo Padrón.
A celebration of his legacy will be held from 6 to 10 p.m. Friday at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. There will be a Mass Saturday at 9 a.m. at St. Patrick Catholic Church, 3716 Garden Ave., Miami Beach, followed by burial at the Caballero Rivero Woodlawn Park North Cemetery on Southwest Eighth Street.
To make donations to the Padrón foundation, go to www.padronfamilyfoundation.org