There is a small rural town, sitting so closely to Nicaragua’s northern border that while walking through its farms and fields you may accidentally step into Honduras without realizing it. It is stunning — colored with fields of coffee, wild flowers, corn, beans, and, of course, tobacco. Within the cigar industry, Jalapa, Nicaragua, is well-known for its rich, thin soil and sophisticated tobacco, famously used as a binders, fillers and even wrappers by cigar manufacturers and brands, big and small. Its agricultural production inexplicably flourishes amongst the scenery of beautiful mountains and valleys. Yet, while the rustic city’s economy has grown with the evolution of subsistent to commercial agriculture, its people, nevertheless, live in heartbreaking poverty.
Whether it’s children who don’t have access to education, families unable to access healthcare, or fathers and mothers who make US$2 a day and simply cannot afford to feed their kids, the reality of Jalapa, for too long, has remained unseen. While working and giving to an industry that is so beloved, creating smokes that shape experiences, those who have the gift of making the cigars you and I deeply love, are suffering unjustly and terribly. In the wake of this, however, even now as the world struggles through a pandemic, we have reason to hope that things can and will change.
When Ace Prime was launched a few years ago, their production consisted of buying more tobacco than actually growing it themselves. As time progressed and demand expanded, Ace Prime mobilized to further grow their own tobacco, naturally going to Jalapa, Nicaragua, a prime location for tobacco growing a few hours from Esteli, where their factory is located. In arriving in Jalapa, Luciano Meirelles, who is one of the founders and owners of Ace Prime, was introduced by her farming partner Yalila Fuentes, to families in desperate need who lived in the area.
Luciano recounts meeting several individuals.
“I met a young boy last week named Elias Daniel, a special needs teenager who is so malnourished, he weighs only 30 pounds,” said the 45-year-old cigar maker.
He tells the story of how the young boy is raised by his 78-year-old grandfather, who still works to support him. For a very long time, he had to leave his grandson at home alone tied to a chair so as to not hurt himself or eat the feces of their chickens, and when he did eat actual food, it was so little. Just once a day.
Through the work of the ACE Prime Foundation, Elias Daniel now has a nurse who’s been hired to take care of him. He has food, clothes, shoes, and medicine.
“When I first came to Jalapa, and met so many people living in these conditions, I realized that hell isn’t a place some people think you’ll go to when you die if you do bad things. Hell is here, this place filled with hunger, disease, abandonment, where people become so dehumanized and forgotten.”
The Brutal Reality
Indignant, angry, but hopeful, Luciano came to the conclusion that inaction would be unacceptable and began helping as many families as he could with the help of the co-owner of his farms. Buying staple food items, clothes, and medication, rebuilding homes destroyed by tropical storms, providing support to parents with kids with special needs, they have now been informally helping 37 families.
Whenever in Nicaragua on business, Luciano visits Jalapa, going around the village visiting families and trying to understand their most pressing needs. For some, it’s a medication they can’t afford. For others, it’s the fear that their children will die of starvation. The brutal reality of Jalapa is inescapable and needs to be addressed as soon as possible, after all, it is a matter of life and death.
In response to this, Luciano has understood that a solution to the large and systemic issues has to be more organized, structured, and to have a much greater impact. The Ace Prime Foundation is the emergent idea and organization created in response to the poverty and inhumane conditions of so many in Jalapa. Its goal is to create and enforce sustainable practices that can significantly improve the lives of the people of Jalapa.
It becomes obvious that there must be something amiss within the industry responsible for employing so many in the small town that also suffers from so much poverty. There is something unjust that pervades the cigar industry, which is so well-known for being unique in preserving tradition, quality, and acting as a family. How can we sit idly by enjoying fantastic cigars while the people who make them barely have enough to eat or care for their children?
The glaring fact is that as manufacturers and consumers, we can be better and we MUST be better. We have to be more responsible, aware, and active in not only condemning injustice vocally but also combatting it in practice.
How You Can Help
Luciano and the ACE Prime Foundation has coordinated with the Nicaragua Hurricane Relief Fund and Exodus Road to help raise funds to support the impoverished cigar workers and families. They have set a goal of $50,000 to build a day care center for special needs children so they can be fed and cared for, while parents are at work. ACE Prime will be matching the donations received. If you want to help you can donate here.