The time a Joya de Nicaragua cigar reaches you, it will have passed through more than 300 pairs of hardworking hands. This is our people, the pillars and backbone of who we are. This time, we introduce to you Rosendo Gonzáles aka Don Chendo, Nicaragua’s first bonchero.

The story behind Nicaragua’s first bonchero

“That’s what they call me,” he says, eyes twinkling, moustache bristling. “I was the first bonchero (buncher) here – and the first in the Nicaraguan cigar business.”

Don Chendo is a shy man. He sits, hands clasped on his stomach, in a side room at Joya de Nicaragua. Now he’s 75, he retired a few years back. Every now and then, he returns to the factory to talk about old times and how things used to be. He’s back pretty often, stealing more kisses and swapping stories with the people who’ve shared his life.

Every time someone walks past the door, they look in, do a double-take and enter to greet him with a hug, kiss or both. Everyone knows Don Chendo. He’s Nicaragua’s first bonchero.

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Don Chendo’s beginnings

“It can get a bit quiet when compared to what it was like here,” says Don Chendo. “When I started, I learned fast and moved through the different stages quickly, beginning with small cigars and moving on to the bigger ones. I was told, over and over again, to focus on quality. It’s a hard job to get right. But this factory has always insisted on the best – the very best – every time.”

There are pictures of a young Don Chendo, working away in the rolling gallery upstairs. There was a time when he sat apart from other workers and rolled cigars specifically for President Somoza.

“All my youth was left right here,” he sighs with a smile. “This is my home.”

Back in the day, Don Chendo – along with his rolling partner – would work exactly as the rollers still do. Around the cigar industry changes abound, but the basic process remains the same.

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Through dark clouds 

“I was a bonchero all 36 years of my career,” says Don Chendo. “I always got along with people, which helps. At one stage, when times were hard and we couldn’t sell our cigars, one of the factory managers told me we had two more months to go – and then we would have to close.

“None of us wanted to go anywhere. We fought tooth and nail so that wouldn’t happen. And when Dr. Cuenca eventually came in, for me, it became the best time in all my years at the factory.”

For once, Don Chendo is not cracking a joke. He stares into the distance as he remembers.

“We were all so relieved, because frankly, Dr. Cuenca is a great person. He threw all his work and support behind the people here. And we were able to do the jobs we were good at. Which is why Joya de Nicaragua is doing so well today.”

 

Coming back home

During his visits, old friends stop and welcome Don Chendo with genuine warmth.

“And now I’m the only one left of my time,” he says. “It’s nice to come back somewhere that was such a huge part of my life. I know I’m always welcome here.”

And Don Chendo will stay a bit longer, hoping to see some more familiar faces. Nicaragua’s first bonchero may have hung up his work apron but he’s still very much part of the family.

These days, he lives a quiet life – reading the Bible, watching international newscasts and enjoying an occasional cigar on the porch.

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There’s always time for a good story and Don Chendo’s is one that deserves to be told. Thank you, Don Chendo.

Let’s hear it from Don Chendo himself:

What do you think of Don Chendo’s story? Have you ever met any of our historic workersShare this story and let us know in the comment section below.

*This blog post is a based on an extract of our new book “Cinco Décadas: The Rise of the Nicaraguan Cigar”.