The art of smoking: History and culture of tobacco in Puerto Rico

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The art of smoking: History and culture of tobacco in Puerto Rico

Tobacco is a plant that has played a fundamental role in the history and culture of many regions of the world, and Puerto Rico is no exception. The Caribbean island is known for its rich tradition and its appreciation for tobacco, from its cultivation to its manufacturing process and its cultural value in Puerto Rican society. Tobacco is a plant native to America that has been cultivated and consumed by indigenous peoples since ancient times. The Taínos, who inhabited Puerto Rico before the arrival of the Spanish, used tobacco as part of their religious and medicinal rituals, as well as to enjoy its stimulating and relaxing effects. In this blog, we will explore the fascinating history and deep-rooted culture of tobacco in Puerto Rico, highlighting its importance on the island and how it has become an art unto itself.

The cultivation of tobacco in Puerto Rico and its history

Tobacco cultivation in Puerto Rico has a long history dating back to Spanish colonial times. The island has a unique combination of climate and soil that is conducive to growing high-quality tobacco. In the mountainous region of Lares, in the center of the island, one of the most renowned tobaccos in Puerto Rico, known as "black tobacco" is grown. This tobacco is characterized by its intense flavor and its distinctive aroma, which makes it a coveted ingredient for tobacco lovers.

When Christopher Columbus arrived on the island in 1493, he found that the Tainos offered him dried tobacco leaves as a gift. The navigator took some samples with him to Spain, where interest in this exotic plant soon awoke. Puerto Rican tobacco became a luxury of Spanish royalty for more than two centuries, and was one of the main export products of the colony, as highlighted by Montcourt (2019). From 1492 to 1780, more than half of the cargo shipped from the New World to Spain was Puerto Rican tobacco, notes Montcourt (2019). However, tobacco production on the island suffered several ups and downs due to trade restrictions imposed by the Crown, plagues, droughts and wars.

The situation changed with the US occupation of 1898, which opened the doors of the US market to Puerto Rican tobacco. According to the article "The science of tobacco in Puerto Rico, 1900-1940", by Dr. Teresita Levy, tobacco became an important export product due to investments in its scientific study: efficient cultivation, economic structure and the marketing3. From 1900 to 1927, Puerto Rico produced around 35 million tons of tobacco annually. Hoja Prieto has always been the most important plant grown on our land. It was considered primarily the tastiest wrapper leaf in the world. The Hoja Prieto was used exclusively in the best cigars in the world, yes they are reflected in Proyecto Salón Hogar (s. f).

Tobacco cultivation was not only important for trade but also served as a crucial source of income for the rural population. In 1910 more than 14% of the farms in Puerto Rico reported tobacco cultivation and by 1940 that number had increased to 30%3. Tobacco was also a cultural element that gave rise to various artistic manifestations, such as literature, music and cinema. Puerto Rican tobacco reached its peak in 1957, when more than 100 million pounds were exported to countries like the United States, England, Spain, France, Mexico, Honduras, and Costa Rica. Puerto Rico was the fifth largest tobacco exporter in the world, after the United States, Mexico, Venezuela and Africa, once again highlights the Proyecto Salón Hogar web portal (n.d.). However, beginning in the 1960s, the tobacco industry declined due to international competition, increased taxes, anti-smoking campaigns, and changes in consumer habits. Many factories closed their doors and thousands of workers lost their jobs. Today, Puerto Rican tobacco remains a quality product that is grown on a small scale and consumed primarily by cigar aficionados. The art of smoking continues to be a tradition that is part of the history and culture of Puerto Rico.

The tobacco manufacturing process

Fotografía: Afif Ramdhasuma

The tobacco manufacturing process in Puerto Rico is meticulous and handmade. The University of Puerto Rico in its text "The Tobacco Elaboration Process in Puerto Rico" outlines that after the harvest, the tobacco leaves are carefully dried and fermented to develop their characteristic flavors and aromas. Then, the leaves are selected and classified according to their size and quality, and proceed to the manufacturing stage. The cigar masters, known as "torcedores", carry out an intricate manual process to roll the tobacco leaves and shape them into cigars. These cigars are then stored and aged under controlled conditions to allow the flavors to blend and develop further.

The tradition and cultural value of tobacco in Puerto Rico

Fotografía: Valiant Made

Tobacco has played an important role in the tradition and cultural value of Puerto Rico. The art of smoking is considered a form of expression and a social activity that has been appreciated for generations on the island. Tobacco has been used in various cultural contexts, such as family celebrations, social gatherings, and religious rituals. The cigar, in particular, has become an iconic symbol of Puerto Rican culture, and its consumption has become a deeply rooted tradition in the island's society.

In many family celebrations, social gatherings, and cultural events on the island, tobacco has played an important role. For example, on special occasions such as weddings, baptisms, and birthdays, it is common for cigars to be shared among attendees as a gesture of camaraderie and celebration. The act of lighting a cigar and enjoying its aroma and flavor is considered a special moment that brings people together and creates a sense of community. In addition, tobacco has also been used in religious rituals in Puerto Rico. In some spiritual practices and religious ceremonies, tobacco has been used as an offering to the gods or as part of purification and protection rituals. This highlights the cultural and spiritual importance of tobacco in Puerto Rican society. This according to Carmen Lugo Filippi in her text "Tobacco in Puerto Rican Popular Culture"

The cigar, in particular, has become an iconic symbol of Puerto Rican culture. The craftsmanship and process of making cigars on the island is considered an art form in itself. Handmade cigars, made with high-quality tobacco grown on the island, are prized for their flavor, aroma, and quality, and are considered an emblematic product of Puerto Rico. Cigars have also been used as representative gifts and souvenirs of Puerto Rican culture and tradition. In summary, tobacco has played an important role in the tradition and cultural value of Puerto Rico. The art of smoking is considered a form of expression and a valued social activity on the island, used in various family celebrations, social gatherings, and religious rituals. The cigar in particular has become an iconic symbol of Puerto Rican culture, highlighting the importance of tobacco in everyday life and the island's cultural identity.

Tobacco in literature, music and art in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rican literature has been enriched with references to tobacco in various works throughout history. Renowned authors such as José Martí, José de Diego and José Luis González have used tobacco as a narrative element in their writings, describing its aroma, its flavor and its importance in the daily life of Puerto Ricans. Tobacco has been portrayed as a symbol of the island's cultural identity, evoking images of literary gatherings and social gatherings around the smoking table. Music has also been influenced by tobacco in Puerto Rico. Musical genres such as bolero, trova and salsa have included references to tobacco in their lyrics, highlighting its role in daily life and culture on the island. Popular songs like "Fumando espero" and "Tabaco y ron" have captured the essence of tobacco as an integral part of Puerto Rican tradition and identity. As highlighted by María E. Rodríguez Castro (1991).

Art has also captured the beauty and meaning of tobacco in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rican painters and sculptors have represented tobacco in their works, capturing its shape, color, and texture on canvas and sculpture. Tobacco has been portrayed as a distinctive element of Puerto Rican culture and heritage, and its artistic representation has been appreciated both locally and internationally. Tobacco has also been used in other artistic manifestations in Puerto Rico. For example, the technique of "smoking" has been used by artists to create works of art using tobacco leaves as a construction material. These works, which combine the tobacco tradition with contemporary artistic creativity, have gained recognition and admiration on the local and international art scene. In short, tobacco has left its mark on literature, music, and art in Puerto Rico, being considered a distinctive element of the island's culture and heritage. Numerous writers, poets, musicians, and artists have made reference to tobacco in their works, highlighting its importance in daily life and the cultural identity of Puerto Rico. Tobacco has been represented in paintings, sculptures, and other artistic manifestations, capturing its beauty and meaning in Puerto Rican society.

Bibliographical sources

Levy, Teresita (2015), "The science of tobacco in Puerto Rico, 1900-1940", Asclepio, 67 (1): p081, doi:

Montcourt, N. (August 13, 2019). Living Memory: the glory of Puerto Rican tobacco.

Montcourt, N. (August 18, 2019). The tobacco industry in Puerto Rico. La industria del tabaco en Puerto Rico – NotiCel – La verdad como es – Noticias de Puerto Rico – NOTICEL

Home Salon Project. (s.f). Tobacco in Puerto Rico. El Tabaco en Puerto Rico (

Rodriguez, M. (1991). Hear Read: Tobacco and Culture in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Caribbean Studies. Vol. 24, No. 3/4 (1991), p. 221-239 (19 pages). Institute of Caribbean Studies, UPR, Rio Piedras Campus.

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