Smokers and non smokers: Have you ever seen a little white box of cigarettes called Pielroja while shopping at a corner candy cart?
The cigarettes themselves look like this:
It’s the best selling loosely packed black tobacco cigarette in Colombia. It has been for decades.
The thing is, hardly any foreigners can recognize the brand. No one that I’ve talked to has any idea about the rich history of the Colombian Tobacco Company.
I talked to Sonia Isaza, a woman who worked at ColTabaco (the company founded in 1919) for 33 years and tried to get a clearer picture myself of what this company meant for Colombian identity over the years.
The Colombian Tobacco Company
Imagine ColTabaco as a big company full of the Madison Avenue characters on the show “Mad Men” with a Colombian tight-knit community twist.
Sonia started working there in the 60s as the secretary to the Vice President of the company only because her family was close with the president of ColTabaco and her boss was a former student of her father’s. Talk about keeping it in the family.
ColTabaco produced around fifty brands of cigarettes. However, Pielroja was the best sold and the only one that survived so many years.
Pielroja cigarettes contain black tobacco wrapped loosely in rice paper and can be too strong for most smokers.
Its image of a red-skinned (hence the name) indian was drawn by Colombia’s beloved cartoon artist Ricardo Rendón.
You can find more of his work in a permanent exhibition at Museo de Antioquia in the XIX Century Room.
Why an Indian?
Tobacco itself refers to America, colonization in the 1600’s led to the rapid spreading of the vice and eventually smoking became a globally accepted habit.
Colombians welcomed the image of the indian when the cigarette was created in 1924 and even created myths about which way to light the cigarette-with the indian towards the flame or towards the lips.
The fact that the cigarettes were competing with brands like Marlboro made the home-based cigarette ads absolutely necessary.
They needed to answer a simple question: why should you smoke Pielroja and not Marlboro? “They taste better AND they’re Colombian.”
The advertising of the cigarette over the years is remarkable. ColTabaco went out of its way to photograph the most beautiful women, at first, competing man to man with American cigarettes, including “gringa” (as Sonia called them) models for the adds.
And later, using the local talent, Colombia’s most distinguished models, actresses and even pageant queens (Paulina Vega has a whole tradition of Colombian beauty queens behind her).
When asked about advertising with local women, Sonia let me in on a secret: one of the pageant queens had such a hard time loosening up for a photo shoot that it was demanded she have a few shots of liquor to cool her down. According to her, the trick worked to perfection.
Soon after, ColTabaco was mass producing a Pielroja Calendar which Sonia remembers giving out, as we paisas say,”como pan caliente” (“like hot bread”). The impact this calendar had is similar to that of the Águila calendar now.
Sonia shared with me that during her time at the Tobacco Company, she saw two strikes in which employees would camp outside fighting for wages.
“During that time, she says, we didn’t get paid. Even if you weren’t a part of the strike you didn’t get paid.”
One went on for over three months. During that time, no cigarettes were produced and people in the city would pick up cigarettes of the ground and light them, or they would be sold by the “puff.” The strikers themselves would be forced to share cigarettes while camping outside the building.
“Having a cigarette then was a treasure. You could ask for almost anything,” She said to me, laughing.
The Company Today
ColTabaco has had a close relationship with Philip Morris International for decades.
Sonia can remember when the executives from the American company flew to Medellín on their private plane and gave some employees of ColTabacco a sky view of their own city.
“That plane was a sight to see. They flew right into Olaya Herrera Airport.”
That time, they came to negotiate a permit that allowed ColTabaco to produce Marlboro instead of importing it, but in 2005, ColTabaco became an official part of PMI.
During this time, a filtered version of Pielrojas has been produced and sells really well, along with the unfiltered original.
Although when it began it was more of a “popular” cigarette, in the Colombian sense of the word (read: for the lower classes), over time more and more people came to find comfort in smoking a Colombian cigarette.
I myself know at least three smokers who are dutifully faithful to it.