MIAMI (AP) — Nick Fusco was 16 years old when he got his first cigar — a gift from his grandfather, plucked out of a special tobacco drawer in his grandparents’ Surfside condominium.
Fusco, now 23, says that started a tradition of smoking cigars with his grandfather while sharing stories, drinking Cuban coffee or eating meals together.
Their time together was cut short on June 24 when his grandparents — Gonzalo and Maria Torre, 81 and 76 years old respectively — died in their home, among the 98 people killed when the Champlain Towers South collapsed.
Fusco launched a new cigar brand this month, El Mago Cigars, that he hopes will share the tradition and honor his grandparents’ immigrant story.
“There’s nothing meaningless about the process of smoking a cigar. Everything has a meaning. You want to be creating memories,” Fusco said. “That’s why I felt that it worked out so nicely that I’m able to share my grandparents’ life story through cigars because smoking cigars and storytelling just goes hand in hand.”
The name of the brand, El Mago, is a portmanteau of his grandparents’ first names, Maria and Gonzalo. It means “the wizard” in Spanish, inspired by the magic that Fusco says his grandparents created escaping communist regimes in Cuba and the former Czechoslovakia to give their family a better future.
The cigars are hand-rolled in Nicaragua and available in five blends, some named after qualities he said his grandparents exemplified, such as “triunfante” meaning triumphant, and “intuición” meaning intuition. The cigar labels feature a photo of his grandparents and the facade of the James Hotel, a boutique hotel in South Beach purchased by his grandfather that his family now owns. Also on the label is 1965, the year his grandparents were married.
IDEA CAME FROM A CHRISTMAS GIFT TO MOM
Fusco, a graduate student in accounting at Barry University, said the idea for the cigar line started as a Christmas gift to his mother last year. With the help of two friends in the cigar industry, he made a box of 10 custom-designed cigars with labels featuring photos of his grandparents.
His mother cried after receiving the gift and told Fusco to share it with the world, he said. Fusco has worked with his friends — including the owner of a Nicaraguan tobacco factory — to launch the brand.
Miguel Pinto, the owner of the factory in Estelí and owner of the smoker’s lounge Cigar Cigar in North Miami, created the tobacco blends and manufactured the cigars. Jorge Luis Molina, a designer and marketing professional, helped design the cigar labels, tubes and boxes.
“It makes me emotional in a good way to imagine that people who get the product will literally have a picture of my grandparents in their house if they keep the box and the tube, so that means a lot to me,” Fusco said.
He said he is the sole owner of El Mago and used his savings — mainly from working as a lifeguard at Surfside’s Community Center — and money earned in the stock market to start the company. He began selling the cigars on his website earlier this month at prices ranging from $9 to $15 for individual cigars. He said in the next couple of months he plans to expand into select cigar lounges and tobacco shops.
Fusco said he hopes customers enjoy the quality of the cigars but also appreciate the stories and traditions behind the product. “I want as many people as possible to know and read about my grandparents’ life story,” Fusco said.
“I think there’s so much people can get out of reading their story, whether it’s inspiration, motivation or strength.”
A STORY OF LOVE AND SURVIVAL
Maria and Gonzalo Torre, whom Fusco affectionately called Babi and Pepe, met in the former Czechoslovakia and got married in 1965 after Gonzalo left Cuba to study engineering. They later lived together in Cuba but escaped in 1968 to seek asylum in Canada with two children and $100, Fusco said.
Gonzalo worked as a janitor while studying for a master’s degree in metallurgical engineering. Maria worked at a library. They moved to booming Venezuela in 1974, where Gonzalo worked as an engineer and Maria rose in the ranks at a school — going from teacher to principal to owner of the school, Fusco said.
They left Venezuela in 1984 and moved into their ninth-floor condo in Surfside.
“I think their story is unique but it’s also relatable because no one’s life is easy,” Fusco said. “Everyone has challenges, so I really think that reading their story can give a lot of people a lot of strength.”
Fusco said he ate lunch with his grandparents three times a week — Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday — and cherishes the quality time he spent with them. His family spent every Noche Buena, or Christmas Eve, at their home in the Champlain Towers. He remembers the Christmas music his grandmother would play on her old record player, such as “Es Navidad” by Nancy Ramos, and the spread of Cuban food and other holiday treats.
As the anniversary of the collapse nears on Friday, Fusco said it has been an emotional time for his tight-knit family.
He said he can still feel his grandparents’ presence.
During his interview with the Herald, Fusco lit a cigar behind the front desk of the James Hotel — just like his grandfather had done countless times before.