Nick Fusco was 16 when he received his first cigar – a gift from his grandfather, snatched from a special tobacco drawer in his grandparents’ Surfside condominium.
Fusco, now 23, says he started a tradition of smoking cigars with his grandfather while sharing stories, drinking Cuban coffee or eating together.
Their time together was cut short on June 24 when her grandparents – Gonzalo and Maria Torre, aged 81 and 76 respectively – died at their home, among the 98 people killed when the South Champlain Towers collapsed.
Fusco launched a new brand of cigars this month, El Mago Cigars, which he hopes will share the tradition and honor the immigrant history of his grandparents.
“There is nothing meaningless about the process of smoking a cigar. Everything makes sense. You want to create memories,” Fusco said. “That’s why I felt it worked so well that I could share my grandparents’ life story through cigars because smoking cigars and telling stories go hand in hand.”
The brand name, El Mago, is a portmanteau of the first names of his grandparents, Maria and Gonzalo. It means “the wizard” in Spanish, inspired by the magic that Fusco says his grandparents created while fleeing 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 South Beach boutique hotel purchased by his grandfather and now owned by his family. Also on the label is 1965, the year of her grandparents’ wedding.
THE IDEA CAME FROM A CHRISTMAS GIFT FOR MOM
Fusco, a graduate student in accounting at Barry University, said the idea for the cigar line started as a Christmas present to his mother last year. With the help of two friends in the cigar industry, he made a custom box of 10 cigars with labels featuring pictures of his grandparents.
His mother cried after receiving the gift and told Fusco to share it with the world, he said. Fusco worked with his friends – including the owner of a Nicaraguan tobacco factory – to launch the brand.
Miguel Pinto, owner of the Estelí factory and owner of the Cigar Cigar smoking lounge in North Miami, created the tobacco blends and made the cigars. Jorge Luis Molina, designer and marketing professional, helped design the cigar labels, tubes and boxes.
“It makes me emotional to imagine that people who receive 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 was the sole owner of El Mago and used his savings – mostly from working as a lifeguard at the Surfside Community Center – and money earned on the stock market to start the business. He began selling the cigars on his website earlier this month at prices ranging from $9 to $15 for individual cigars. He said that over the next few months he plans to expand to select cigar lounges and tobacco shops.
Fusco said he hopes customers will appreciate 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 my grandparents’ life story,” Fusco said.
“I think there’s so much people can take away from 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 married in 1965 after Gonzalo left Cuba to study engineering. They then 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 in a library. They moved to booming Venezuela in 1974, where Gonzalo worked as an engineer and Maria rose through the ranks at a school — going from teacher to principal to school owner, 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 relevant because no one’s life is easy,” Fusco said. “Everyone has challenges, so I really think 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 treasured 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 played on her old record player, like Nancy Ramos’ “Es Navidad,” and the spread of Cuban food and other holiday treats.
As the anniversary of the collapse approaches Friday, Fusco said it has been an emotional time for his close-knit family.
He said he could still feel his grandparents’ presence.
During his Herald interview, Fusco lit a cigar behind the front desk of the James Hotel, just as his grandfather had done countless times before.