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Cuban tobacco wraps roll into history

A new display at the San Carlos Institute on Duval Street in Key West is shedding light on one of the many bonds that tie the Southernmost City to our southern neighbor Cuba: Cigar making.

Cuban exiles founded the San Carlos Institute 1871 as a cultural center. After decades of it changing locations while the original building fell into disrepair, it reopened as a museum and venue in 1992.

And now, thanks to a private donor, the San Carlos is displaying more than 1,000 tobacco boxes and labels that date back to before the turn of the 20th Century.

"The tobacco was rolled in Key West by the Cuban cigar workers and sold in the American market," San Carlos President Rafael Penalver told the Keynoter. "It's such an important topic."

He explained that in the late 1800s, cigar making was the primary industry in Key West; in fact, 2,000 men were employed rolling cigars in 1900.

Those men, largely Cuban exiles, were instrumental in funding the revolution led by Cuba icon Jose Marti that would eventually help oust the Spanish from the island nation just 90 miles south of Key West.

"Marti's leadership of the Cuban independence movement, it was a unique leadership because it wasn't imposed from the top down," Penalver said. "It started at the bottom up."

Marti planted the seeds of revolution by organizing Cuban exile communities in New York and Philadelphia. Many times, lectors employed by Key West-based cigar manufacturers would read the text of Marti's speeches aloud to the men rolling cigars.

"Through that institution [of a lector reading to workers], the tobacco workers began to support Marti. It came from the masses up. It's a pretty unique event in political history."

Some of the labels on display hearken back to Key West's cigar making days.

There are cigar boxes and rings from the Eduardo Gato brand, which was headquartered on Simonton Street in a building that today serves as Monroe County government offices. Other labels come from prominent Key West cigar maker Walter Lightbourn and his Cortez Cigar Co.; the brand's motto was "Cigars -- For Men of Brains."

"By 1871, there were 119 tobacco factories in Key West and they used to produce 300 labels," San Carlos administrator Alex Pascual said. Twenty-five of those indigenous labels are on display at the San Carlos.

Despite the patina of age, it's obvious that some of them are more than 100 years old. Also obvious is the level of craftsmanship that went into their production.

Colorful hand-painted lithographs depict island scenes and beautiful, exotic women with a level of artistry that would make tobacco producers today blush. One box, circa 1871 from the Gato factory, is emblazoned with the seal of Key West.

Tom Favelli, owner of the Key West Cigar Co., loaned his collection of cigar memorabilia to the San Carlos for display.

"It's a way to catalog and share these items," he said. "Some people would lock it up and not show it to anybody. What does that do?"

Favelli waxed poetic about the relationship between the Key West cigar industry and the Cuban revolution. He noted that "the message that gave the go-ahead to start the revolution was sent inside a rolled cigar."

In January 1892, Marti made a famous speech at the San Carlos that led to the formation of Partido Revolucionario Cubano, or Cuban Revolutionary Party. Exiles would again gather at the building on May 20, 1902, to celebrate the defeat of the Spanish colonial government in Cuba.

Now, due to Fidel and Raul Castro's communist regime that has ruled Cuba for more than 50 years, officials at the San Carlos, along with their Cuban-American peers, are waiting for the day when they can again celebrate a free Cuba.

An unlit torch is mounted over the Cuban seal that graces the San Carlos Institute's facade."The torch will be lit the day we have a free Cuba without Castro," Penalver said.

The San Carlos Institute is open to the public, free of charge, Friday through Sunday from noon until 6 p.m. The address is 516 Duval St.; for more information, call 294-3887 or check out www.institutosancarlos.org.

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