September 16, 2011

Tampa cigar maker still on a roll at age 87

Every weekday morning 87-year-old Antonio Riverol gets in his 1998 Buick Park Avenue and drives 12 miles from his Tampa home to his job as a cigar roller in Ybor City – where 100 years ago the thriving industry helped put the city on the map.

Along the way, Riverol stops at a West Tampa bakery to get an espresso and buys a lottery ticket at a nearby gas station before arriving at the Columbia Restaurant gift shop, where he's worked for more than a dozen years.

"I've never thought of retiring for no reason in the world," said Riverol, who is fluent in Spanish and speaks limited English. "While I'm working I keep busy."

Riverol learned to roll cigars as a teenager in 1940 in Ciego de Ávila, Cuba, and it has been a part of his life ever since. He's worked both full time and part time as a roller in Cuba and in Tampa.

"I never wanted to lose the rhythm of cigar rolling," Riverol said. "I always enjoyed it and one always earned something."

The opportunity to earn money is what first attracted him to cigar rolling, said Riverol, raising his left hand and rubbing his fingers together. Neither his parents nor any other close relatives practiced the craft.

He became an apprentice at a tobacco factory owned by a family friend in his hometown. A master roller in the factory taught him but gave him a hard time as Riverol learned the craft. After three years as an apprentice, he became a "professional roller" in 1943.

Riverol later worked at a tobacco factory outside his hometown. After a few years, he became a postman because it offered a slightly hire wage and stability. He later moved to Havana, where he worked a modest government job.

At night and on weekends, however, he continued to roll cigars.

He emigrated from Cuba to Tampa in March 1958, less than a year before Fidel Castro took political control of the island nation. His wife and two sons arrived in September of that year.

He rolled cigars while searching for more stable work in Tampa. He later worked assisting a welder who repaired ships at the Port of Tampa, and then became a radiology assistant technician and a technician with several doctors at University Community Hospital, retiring in the 1980s.

But the night and weekend cigar rolling rarely ceased, said his son, Arturo Riverol.

"He is a hell of a worker; that old man has more stamina than me," said Arturo Riverol, who is 71 and retired as a head custodian from Tampa's Jefferson High School.

Antonio Riverol, whose wife died a few years ago, lives with his son Arturo. His other son lives in Miami.

Besides rolling cigars, his passions are watching the Tampa Bay Rays on television and "Sabado Gigante," a Saturday night variety show on Univision that is popular with Spanish speakers.

Arturo Riverol said he's tried to discourage his dad from driving, but that his father doesn't want to stop getting behind the wheel or working.

"I don't want him to get rusty," Arturo Riverol said.

At the Columbia Restaurant gift shop, Riverol sits and works at a wooden cigar roller table from about 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. The shop, 2103 E. 7th Ave., sells cigars, decorative plates and glasses, spices, recipe books and souvenirs from one of Tampa's most recognized restaurants.

Ana Espinosa, who works retail sales in the gift shop, has spent six years with Riverol in the store. They have traveled together to cigar shows and she has seen firsthand his work ethic over the years. He eats lunch by 12:30 p.m. and rarely misses a day of work, she said.

"I think it's a wonderful thing," Espinosa said. "He is allowing people to see what Ybor City was all about and what created Ybor City."

She said Riverol has tried to teach her how to hand roll cigars, but that it looks a lot easier than it is.

"It's a very precise art," she said. "If you don't do it exactly the right way then it won't work at all."

Riverol is an old school cigar roller who has "excellent precision," Espinosa said.

To make the tip of the cigar, for instance, Riverol uses the existing tobacco leaf wrapper and forms the end of the cigar by hand. The newer generation of cigar rollers create the tip of the cigar by cutting out a separate tobacco leaf and securing it with corn starch and water, Espinosa said.

"That is the part I don't think I'll be able to actually master," said Espinosa, 28. "There are times that I watch him I can't even understand how he does it."

Despite his knowledge of cigars, Riverol isn't a consumer. If he has smoked more than five cigars over his lifetime, that would have been too many, he said. They are too strong, so he prefers cigarettes, he said.

"I've smoked them just to taste them, that is all," Riverol said.

It's the craft, rather, that remains the lure for him.

"I'll keep doing the task while I can," he said. "I'll continue striking the iron until I can't any longer."

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