Los Angeles Times
July 18, 2008

Gilberto Leon, 87; maker of hand-rolled cigars for 29 years on 6th Street in L.A.

The Cuban American spent six days a week at his cramped shop near Western Avenue, serving longtime customers who became good friends.

By Mary Rourke
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Cigars were all that Gilberto Leon sold at Leon Cigars, the small shop where he spent six days a week. He didn't speak much English, and most of his customers didn't speak Spanish, but when he died Monday, a sign on the shop door gave the details of his funeral. After 29 years at the same location on 6th Street near Western Avenue, many of his customers considered him a good friend.

Leon, 87, died at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles of complications from a respiratory condition, his stepdaughter Monica Castillo said. He had been a longtime resident of Silver Lake.

Born March 17, 1921, he learned to roll cigars as a teenager in the factories of his native Havana. "We were poor. You had to learn to do something, and that's what I learned," Leon said in a 2002 interview with The Times.

He opened his own shop but sold it in 1959 during the Cuban revolution, certain that his property would be seized by the new Marxist government.

He went back to the cigar factory until Cuba's new leader, Fidel Castro, sent him to work without pay in the sugar cane fields. "That is how I earned the right to leave the country," Leon later said. After five years cutting cane, he got an exit visa in 1971 and moved to Los Angeles.

He opened his 6th Street shop in 1979. The small, crowded space had tobacco leaves stacked on old desks, a wooden counter and a tight work space where he rolled cigars.

"If I stretched out my arms I could touch both walls at once," said Dean Kamiyama, a customer and friend of Leon who stopped by at 5 a.m. some days, smoked a cigar and drank Cuban coffee Leon made on a hot plate. Four people in the shop made a crowd. If the door opened, everyone had to shuffle out of the way.

Leon bought tobacco grown from Cuban seeds in Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Central America. Judges, lawyers, truck drivers and sanitation workers were some of his regular customers.

"Gilberto treated everyone the same," Kamiyama said.

Nobody rushed him.

"There could be a crowd waiting outside, but he took his time rolling each cigar," Kamiyama said.

Leon and two assistants made about 600 cigars each day, and prices ranged from about $3 to $6.

"There were always men in the shop, smoking, watching my dad make cigars," Castillo said this week.

No one talked much.

"One friend of my dad told me that men don't need to speak," Castillo said. "They understand each other."

Leon was married three times. His wife, Carmelina, worked with him in the shop and plans to keep it open. Along with his wife and stepdaughter Castillo, Leon is survived by a son, Miguel of Miami; stepdaughter Ivy Frazier of Los Angeles; and several grandchildren. He is also survived by a brother, Armando of Artemisa, Cuba; and sisters Marina Rivero of Miami and Janicenta Cabrera of West Covina and Miami.

A funeral service is scheduled for Friday at 12:30 p.m. at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, 6300 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles.