Angel Oliva, Sr
Angel Oliva’s own autobiography, describing his family, history, and the evolution of the Oliva Tobacco Company.
12/20/1907 – 8/31/1996
I was born in a small town by the name of Remates de Guane in the eastern province of Pinar del Rio, Cuba on December 20, 1907. My father, Juan Francisco Oliva, was a tall, strong, robust, good man of Spanish origin born in Cuba with a strict work ethic. His wife and 11 children were always the first priority in his life. My mother, Casimira Pino Duque de Oliva was a simple, sincere, hard working woman of Spanish origin via the Canary Islands. She dedicated herself to her home and the upbringing of her children. We lived in a small home with long hallways and a red adobe roof for a period of about two years. We were very poor and everyone had to work and carry their part of the load in order to make ends meet. “Making ends meet” in those days meant enough food to eat and clothes to wear. A description of my brothers and sisters follows:
Julio: The party man of the family. He was quite the playboy and was well known for the number of girlfriends he had in town.
Gumercinda: Very quiet and dedicated to the household. She was very sensitive and refined with very high morals.
Santiago: A man of very noble and sincere sentiments. Very hard working. Flora. Very much like my sister Gumercinda, she loved to work at home and take care of all of us as was evidenced by her own family of 11 children which she eventually had and raised.
Marcelino: Also known as Rudolf Valentino. Tall, handsome, hard working. Liked to dress well and was always in love.
Irmina: Good, sweet, delicate woman. Quite strict and very much in control.
Angel: That’s me. Very ambitious and with a great desire to conquer the world.
Mario: A playful and mischievous boy, his life was cut short by a tragic accident at the age of 24.
Felix: Very studious and dedicated young man. Studied and became a lawyer. Also quite a ladies man.
Maria Julia: Good, sweet, very helpful to my mother. A school teacher and excellent seamstress.
Martin: Lovingly nicknamed “Cucho”, he was quite the rebel and, being the youngest, got away with more than the rest of us.
This is my family. The same as any other with our virtues and defects. We always stuck together through good and bad times. This trait was embedded in us at a very early age by my parents and has been passed on from generation to generation. This is the way I started life. Somewhat uprooted by the fact that we were always moving from town to town. First, we moved to a tobacco farm in Tabarico which was my first experience with the growing of tobacco. From there we moved to Guira de Melena, away from tobacco, which did not pan out, so we moved again.
This time we went to Punta Gorda back to tobacco and pig farming. By this time, I was 6 years old so my parents enrolled me in the closest school which was located in a small town called Candelaria. I would ride to school every day on my small black horse and returned home every day to help my father by collecting manure for two cents per bag.
With this money, I was able to buy my clothes and shoes. My father was offered a better position in the town of San Luis so we moved and I continued my schooling through the fourth grade. The school in San Luis was behind a small church and on Sundays I would sometimes serve mass as an altar boy. It became increasingly difficult financially to maintain our large household without everyone working so I left school and took a job keeping chickens from food crops for $0.40 per day. I would also collect tobacco seed and throw out tobacco leaves in my spare time and collected an additional $5 per 25-pound bag of seed and $5 per hundred weight of leaves at the farm my father supervised by the name of Santa Damiana in San Juan y Martinez. This was the best wrapper producing province in Cuba. Because it was apparent that even with everyone working things were still very tough, I was offered and took a job as a storekeeper at the age of 12 with my future brother-in-law, Pio Berdayes in a general store by the name of “La Perla de las Antillas”. I worked, slept and ate there, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year for two years.
Having this experience under my belt, my father secured me a better job in general store in Pinar del Rio called “Parades y Pena” where Ireceived $20 per week, more than twice my previous salary.
This was how I spent my childhood. There was no money, no toys, no time to play. I have no regrets. I firmly believe this instilled in me the real value of things, and a tremendous work ethic and sense of responsibility. In mid June of 1925 I told my father of my desire to try my luck in the United States of America.
At first, he strongly opposed the thought and would not hear of it, but later my brother Santiago helped me convince him. Although not totally convinced, he resigned himself to the thought and we went off to Havana to obtain my passport and purchase boat fare to Port Tampa since this was the cheapest route and my brother-in-law had a friend there who would meet and help me upon my arrival. It was July 10, 1925.
The day of my departure my emotions had never run so high. I felt sadness, happiness, fear, hope, anticipation, and exhilaration all at the same time. It was a beautiful morning with bright, blue sunny skies that seemed more brilliant than ever before. We all arrived at the port in Havana, as always, together. This reunion was different because I was going to follow my dream and that colored the occasion with sadness and at the same time with joy. It is a feeling very hard to explain unless you have experienced it. Everyone wished me luck, especially my brother, Santiago, who always supported and encouraged my dream. He was a mountain of a man at over six feet tall and 250 pounds. With tears in his eyes he gave me a big hug, shoved $50 into my shirt pocket and wished me luck. I will carry the tender thoughtfulness of this gesture with me forever.
The final departure whistle blew and I boarded the ship. I stayed on deck and watched as the ship sailed further and further away until the people became as small as ants and the coastline disappeared out of sight. I retired to my cabin and began to organize my thoughts.
I remember saying to myself: “Well Angel, you are 18 years old. It’s time to construct your future for you and your family and you have nothing to fear. You know the value of work because you have worked endless hours under the hot sun without rest. You have carried heavy loads here and there without help.
What, then, is there that you cannot conquer? Nothing!” The two days flew by and before I realized it I made the announcement over the loudspeakers that we were approaching the port of Tampa.
I immediately went on deck and caught my first view of Tampa. Gray rocks jutting from the coast line and the clusters of wooden homes about dimly lit streets. It was July 12, 1925 and I became confused among the multitude of people speaking a strange language with apparently different customs. I felt fear and panic but immediately calmed myself thinking “You are here and this land is yours to conquer”. I grabbed my small bag and giant dreams and walked off the boat and on to what I consider to be the greatest country in the world. Among all the conglomeration of people awaiting the ship was the friend of my brother-in-law, Adolfo Diaz, who cordially helped me with the few things I had and took me to his home. It was there that I met Estela (or Meca as she was affectionately called) Diaz, the young lady that was to be my future wife. She was Adolfo and Estela’s daughter and was not yet 12 years old and, odd as it may seem, I fell instantly in love with her. She had beautiful long, black, wavy hair that fell loosely to her shoulders and framed a stunningly beautiful and delicate face with a perfect complexion and big, piercing brown eyes.
In my first week, I was easily able to secure a job paying me $7 per week plus my meals as a store keeper at the Thomas Alonso grocery store on 16th street and Columbus Drive. I had brought two letters of recommendation from Cuba and they served me well. Since part of my job was to cook the meals, I had to learn to cook. I would call my future mother-in-law every day for advice and instructions on what to make and how to make it. Fortunately, I had a grocery store at my disposal which made this much easier. The work was hard and the hours long. I worked 6 days a week from 7 AM to 7 PM and from 7 AM to noon on Sunday. I spent as much free time as possible with the Diaz family listening to Meca’s mother play the piano and dancing or inviting them to the cinema. I still vividly remember that the cinema cost $1.25 for all of us and I would always bring Meca Cuban pastries which she loved. Transportation was limited to electric street cars which cost $0.10 to and from the Diaz home.
As the weeks passed I began to settle in. I acquired a room for $1.50 per week and every Wednesday paid a professor $0.75 for English lessons. This went on for seven months, then one day after I had finished the grocery deliveries and unsaddled the horse, Mr. Expolito, a friend of my boss, ordered me to re-saddle the horse and deliver some late orders. It was very late and both the horse and I were dead tired so I refused. This cost me my job. I wasted no time in getting a similar job quickly and after a while I had earned enough to buy my first automobile, a used Ford, for $50.
The year was 1927 and I missed my family, so in March of that year I sailed to Cuba to visit them. Upon my return, I met a door to door salesman, Mr. Menendez, who offered me clothing, table cloths and other items to sell on consignment. It was a tough job, but through persistence and perseverance I sold enough to make $150 the first week. I thought I was the richest man in the world. My success continued and I decided to trade in my old car for a new Model “A”. I also decided to bring my younger brother, Mario, to work with me. I sent him the money for his fare and in a few weeks, he was with me. Unfortunately, his health was poor and worsening. He had suffered a tragic fall from a tree as a small child and it left a defect in his heart. He would get terrible attacks of what seemed like epilepsy which lasted as long as 12 hours. The doctors recommended he return to Cuba so I sent him back. A short time later he was dead.
By the end of 1927 I had earned enough money to try my hand at my own business. I took what I had and borrowed $500 from my best friend, Jose “El Mochin” Suarez and started a laundry business. It was a mistake. Approximately 15 laundries went out of business and I was one of them. I did not become discouraged but rather used this experience as a lesson to learn never to make the same mistakes again. In 1929 a friend, Mr. Santana, recommended me to an old friend of his, Mr. James Johnston, to work in his cigar tobacco warehouse selling and storing tobacco for $20 per week. I had found my niche.
Mr. Johnston was an older man of very good sentiments and in a short time I realized that his business was in very poor shape. He owed much more than he could ever hope to repay at the rate he was going. Without him knowing, I took it upon myself to speak to the two brothers (Emilio and Jose Suarez) that provided Mr. Johnston with our raw material and convinced them to give the tobacco to me directly to sell and to credit our profits directly to his debts. In that manner, I was able to liquidate $3,000 of Mr. Johnston’s debt.
Through my efforts I was also able to convince the bank to liquidate an account he had with them for $1,200. I had hoped these gestures would earn me the opportunity to have Mr. Johnston consider me for a partner but the old man feared the differences in our age would eventually cause problems and he recommended I go into the tobacco business on my own. He appreciated what I had done and would give me his blessing.
At this same time, I had formalized my relationship with Meca. She was 18 years old and had blossomed into a beautiful and sensitive woman. We were married on December 22, 1932 at St. Joseph’s Church in West Tampa. It was a small ceremony in a small, quaint, beautifully simple church.
We had a simple but very joyful reception at Meca’s home. I remember this event as if it had happened yesterday. We left that same day on our honeymoon to my native Cuba. I wanted all my family to meet my wife. The round-trip steamship fare cost $22.00 for me and Meca. I rented a car in Havana and proceeded on to Pinar del Rio where my family had prepared a small surprise welcome in our honor. On December 24th, I bought a small pig so we could all celebrate and spend the traditional “Noche Buena” together. We had a wonderful time.
Upon our return to Tampa, we moved to a small furnished home I had rented for $3.00 per week. We bought a stove for $1.50 and a refrigerator for $1.00. The bedroom suit we purchased was new and paid for in 90 days. It was one of the few things I ever bought and paid for on time. Although we had very little, the home looked full to me, at least with love and happiness. Times were rough. The United States was going through a depression. I continued to work with Mr. Johnson and things got worse financially.
It was at this time that the Suarez brothers (El “Mochin” and Emilio), suggested I open my own tobacco operation. Remembering my experience with the laundry business, I agreed under the condition that they would be my partners. It was October 1934 when we incorporated what is today Oliva Tobacco Company.
After building up the company, I decided to bring my youngest brother, Martin or “Cucho”. He arrived on July 4 and moved in with Meca and me. We went off to see the local fireworks celebration where he proceeded to practically blow off one of his fingers on a bet that he could let a cherry bomb blow up in his hand. I also brought my parents and gave them a 10-day tour of Florida. This was the first trip outside the Island of Cuba either had ever made. My mom was a diabetic and died at the age of 63. In the years that followed, I brought my father a number of times. He would help in the warehouse and we spent many New Year’s eves working. Meca was always with us cooking and working alongside us. We worked very hard and had some unforgettable experiences. One that comes to mind is an incident with my brother, Cucho. I had a fellow working with me, David Busto, who would take the packages to the post office every day. On one occasion, Cucho, who loved to ride around every time he got the chance, offered to take the packages to the post office. He became distracted and forgot to open the glass door to the post office and ran right through it. The door shattered into a million pieces. Fortunately, he did not get hurt, but I had to pay to replace the door.
In March of 1935 our first son, Angel, Jr., was born. He was practically born at our place of business since Meca helped us every day. With the help of close friend, I was able to purchase my first home for $7,000. In November of 1937 I became an American citizen. This was a great moment for me. Our business continued to flourish and in 1939 one of the Suarez brothers, “El Mochin”, died of a stroke. His widow decided to sell me his interest in the business. His brother, Emilio, had always wanted to retire to Spain and, a short time later, sold me his interest in the business. I then hired a young girl of 16 out of business school, Alice Rivero, as our secretary. Her and my brother, Cucho, eventually fell in love and were married. Emilio Suarez had retired and we had no one to get us tobacco so Meca and I began going to Cuba once a month to make contacts. We would spend about 15 days and return. World War II began. My brother, Cucho, went off to war and spent his 3-year-tour, mostly in India, where he contacted a crippling form of arthritis. I was in the Coast Guard and took turns guarding the waterfronts. It was a bad time. Everyone helped in whatever way they could with the war effort. In April of 1942 our second son, John, was born.
In 1944 I sent for my older brother, Marcellino, whose wife had died, and his three children. He and his family moved in with us. It was at about this time that I offered and lent the money to my brothers and Alice to purchase a part of Oliva Tobacco Company. We did everything from sell tobacco to print cellophane tubes and things went well.
In 1945, I created a Company in Cuba called “Excelsior Tobacco Company” with two close, talented and loyal friends, Miguel Foyo and Jose Manuel “Pepin” Gonzalez. This is the point where things took off for us. We marketed large amounts of Cuban wrappers and fillers from the San Luis area of Cuba, especially the increasingly popular “Candela” (green) wrapper. 95% of the tobacco we handled came from Cuba and our profits started to mount. We plowed everything back into the Company and soon became self-financed. I purchased a larger home on the river and sold my other home to my brother, Cucho. I took the kids to Cuba every summer. I got backed into purchasing a beach club with my brother, Felix, in Cojimar and took my in-laws to manage it. In 1946 Meca and I took our first vacation. We toured South America for 3 months.
We visited every country in South America and had a wonderful time. The business continued to prosper and our connections in Cuba grew stronger. We were now a major force in the cigar tobacco business and supplied almost every manufacturer with some part of the raw materialcused in their cigars. In 1953 Meca and I took our second vacation. This time we went tocEurope for six weeks on the Queen Elizabeth. We rented a car and chauffeur and saw almost every Country in Western Europe. It was like a second honeymoon.
The year was 1958. Fidel Castro comes to power in Cuba. I am proud to say he never fooled me. I immediately began to liquidate our corporation in Cuba and scout other potential places to replace the raw material which would eventually be banned from the United States. In 1960 Cuba cultivated the last crop of tobacco that would be sorted and distinguished by farms. I took 13 manufacturers that used Cuban tobacco to Havana as guests of a Communist colonel and I was named their representative. I gave them and all my competitors the opportunity to buy whatever they needed. Some took my offer and others saw no threat from Castro and passed up the offer.
I committed to purchasing this entire crop of about 2.5 million pounds of tobacco from the Cuban government and pay for its sorting, stripping, and handling under the condition that they would allow me to supervise this entire operation and keep the crop segregated by farms. We opened 14 different sorting, stripping, and packing operations and handled this entire crop in addition to 1.35 million pounds of tobacco from more than 20 sharecroppers.
We honored our commitment and shipped the last crop of tobacco grown in Cuba by independent growers. We immediately began growing tobacco in Honduras and moved into Quincy, Florida and the Connecticut valley to replace the “Candela” wrapper no longer coming out of Cuba. We formed a co-op in Quincy and another in Connecticut. We purchased a farm in Quincy and a 25% ownership in a farming operation in Connecticut. The operation in Connecticut was a group of three farms owned by one of the most respected families in the Connecticut valley, Dan K. Christian and his 12 children. We made the people from Quincy and Connecticut our partners in Honduras and began a 200-acre of wrapper tobacco in La Entrada de Copan, Honduras. When President Kennedy slapped the embargo on Cuba, we were in full swing in Central America. As the demand for tobacco increased, we continued to open operations in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. We planted every variety of seed possible from Florida, Connecticut and smuggled from Cuba in order to achieve the highest quality of wrapper, filler and binder. We made huge investments in those Countries and were very successful. In 1979 the Sandinistas came to power in Nicaragua. We concentrated our efforts in Ecuador for the production of wrapper for two reasons:
- The government of Nicaragua nationalized all the farms in the same manner that Castro had done in Cuba. He was their ideological leader.
- A dreaded tobacco virus, blue mold, had been ushered in with hurricane Fifi and taken a strong hold in Central America.
Today we concentrate most of our wrapper production in Ecuador and our filler and binder production in Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic. My youngest son, John, joined the business in 1970 after graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in Industrial Engineering and working in the computer business for 4 years.
My oldest son, Angel, Jr., joined us in 1974 after a successful career in architecture. He had graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in Architecture.
Our Company is over 60 years old (at this writing) and I believe the secret to our success has been the honesty, loyalty and integrity with which we have treated everyone. My wife and I have tried to pass this quality on to our children. I am proud to say we have been successful in doing so. I believe our future really is in the generations that follow. For this reason, I have dedicated a large part of my financial resources to help such organizations as The University of Tampa, The Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs of Tampa, The Children’s Home and other institutions that will guide young people to a productive and fruitful life. Our Company has provided scholarships to people who are Doctors, Professors, and Engineers not only here but in Central and South America where the standard of living does not match ours by any stretch of the imagination.
I end with this comment. I always told my family that the business was always first in my life. This sounds like a harsh comment until analyzed and understood. Our business has been the vehicle that has carried us and many others on a wonderful ride through life. It has allowed us to achieve and do more good than we could have ever imagined or hoped for. Its success has allowed us to look within ourselves, recognize the things that are truly important, and act on those things. Without its success, our intentions may have been just as honorable and philanthropic, but we would never have been able to act on these intentions.