Yvette Rodriguez is enjoying one of her cigars with a glass of bourbon inside Brickell Cigar Co. just on the edge of Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood where she grew up.
Brickell Cigar was the first store to carry the boutique cigar line she started with her twin sister, Yvonne, two years ago, Tres Lindas Cubanas Cigars.
Yvette runs down the names of the company’s three signature smokes.
“La Negrita, La Mulata and our Clarita,” she says pointing to the boxes along a brick-red wall.
The names loosely translate to: Dark-skinned, tan complexion and fair-skinned.
For Yvonne and Yvette, their cigar line is more than just a business venture; it’s an unexpected way to talk about race in Cuban culture and their experience being black and Cuban.
Both of Yvonne and Yvette’s parents were born in Cuba where the Afro-Cuban population is large. But the sisters were born and raised in Miami in a predominantly white Cuban community.
“It was hard for us to define what we were,” says Yvonne, exhaling a cloud of smoke from a Tres Lindas Cubanas cigar.
At school, she says most of her friends thought all Cubans were white. When they looked at her and Yvette with their dark brown skin and curly hair, they were confused.
They assumed one of the twins’ parents must have been African-American.
“There aren't that many Afro-Cuban exiles that came to Miami back in the day, so then it’s best we informed them,” says Yvonne between sips of bourbon. “There’s not a half and half. We are black Cubans, you know.”
Yvette Rodriguez adds even Cubans in Miami are sometimes confused.
“They know there are Spanish-speaking black Cubans that exist,” she says. But they’re still surprised when they meet Yvette and Yvonne.
“I’ll be like, ‘Buenos dias,’" says Yvette. “And it’s like, ‘Oh, habla españnol?’”
The sister says instead of getting frustrated by the almost daily public reaction to them — unapologetic Spanish-speaking black women — they decided to celebrate the stereotypes of race in Cuban culture through something very Cuban: cigars.
Their cigar-puffing Cuban grandmother, Esperanza Gonzalez, or Wezee as the twins called her, helped inspire Tres Lindas Cubanas Cigars.
“She loved smoking cigars,” Yvette says, “My mom hated it."
Gonzalez smoked her way from from Havana, Cuba to Little Havana in 1969. She was very fair skinned; people thought she was white.
Her complexion inspired the twins’ lighter “la Clarita” cigar. But Yvonne and Yvette had much darker skin — that’s the “la Negrita” cigar.
The sisters say even though Gonzalez didn’t look obviously black, she identified as a black woman, and taught her twin granddaughters to embrace what they looked like.
“She would always say, ‘Us black women we have to do this, this and that,’” says Yvette. “It was very confusing to a 5-year-old to be saying, ‘We black women,’ and she was white... It was a very good lesson.”
The third cigar name, “la Mulata,” represents all the shades in between the twins and their grandma.
Yvonne says when people talk about skin color; they tend to highlight negative stereotypes.
She says there can be negative connotations to being called “dark-skinned,” but when she and her sister use “la Negrita” for their cigar, they’re celebrating the positive aspects of being dark-skinned.
“When you think of a strong black woman, she’s a leader. She’s the strongest. That’s why our maduro blend is the strongest,” Yvonne says.
But Yvonne and Yvette didn’t want their brand to just reflect their race.
They also wanted a way to proclaim their Cuban heritage.
So while the cigar names tackle racial stereotypes, their company name — Tres Lindas Cubanas Cigars —pays homage to Cuba and an old Cuban song by the same title.
"It’s like a Cuban anthem,” says Yvette. “When the song comes on the Cuban woman gets up."
Hear Tres Lindas Cubanas below: