Lorena Vásquez: A life less ordinary

From surviving guerilla warfare to improving rights for Guatemalan women, Shay Waterworth hears the remarkable story of Ron Zacapa’s master blender, Lorena Vásquez


IT WAS VERY DIFFICULT for me during the war because my pharmacy was broken into three times by the guerrillas. After the second time I thought ‘why don’t I bring the pharmacy into my own house?’. This was the worst decision ever. The last time we got broken into they took my six-month-old son and held a gun to his head.”

By this point in the interview, tears had filled Lorena Vásquez’s eyes. The Nicaraguan has been master blender for Ron Zacapa for nearly 34 years, making her a pioneer in an industry heavily dominated by men.

Although Vásquez shied away from revealing her age, she is old enough to have survived the Nicaraguan revolution, which started in 1979. “My first experience of the war was when I was at university,” she says. “One day we were wondering what happened to our teacher and we found out he had gone to war. If you had a friend you hadn’t seen for a while then they would probably have gone to war and may not return.”

Once Vásquez graduated from university her parents left her a pharmacy to run, which was a vulnerable industry to be involved with during a time of political and social revolt. The revolution was led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship and, although the initial conflict caused many deaths, there were tens of thousands of Nicaraguan fatalities during the Contra War, which took place throughout the 1980s.

Vásquez adds: “It was a very difficult time at the end of the war because there were guerrillas everywhere, so we had to quit our jobs, get a car and move to a countryside house owned by our family. We stayed there a week and during this time I learned that all the material things we have mean nothing. When you’re in that kind of situation it doesn’t matter what houses or cars you have, it’s about being alive.”


In 1979 she was evacuated from Nicaragua on a military plane – a shuttle service to Costa Rica supplied by the Spanish government. Only foreigners, old people and kids were evacuated, meaning she was able to leave with her then husband and young son. The rest of her family were forced to stay in Nicaragua.

“My father was a doctor at the hospital in Nicaragua, so my family stayed in the countryside. But my father decided to go back to the hospital in the city and he was kidnapped,” says Vásquez.

“He was OK but it was a difficult time and I learned a lot about life.”

One year after arriving in Guatemala, Vásquez began working at a brewery, despite not having a good word to say about beer. After that she got her first job in a distillery working in quality control.

She adds: “At the beginning it was difficult because I was the only woman, which meant I had to work a little bit harder. I was working with some old people who thought I was some naive girl with no knowledge.”

From there, Vásquez worked her way up the hierarchy and she has worked hard to improve opportunities for women in Guatemala.


“We value the role of women at Zacapa,” says Vásquez. “For example, in quality control I prefer to have women because I feel they have more attention to detail. I think men generally want to be more active whereas women can have more patience.”

She believes growing up on a farm gave her the opportunity to develop her nose and pallet for rum blending, and now she wants to help local women in less fortunate positions.

Ron Zacapa now employs 700 Guatemalan women who use a traditional technique of weaving palm leaves together, originally to create baskets or hats, to form a patterned band which goes around every bottle of Zacapa 23. The women are given the freedom to do this work at home so they do not have to leave their families, a condition put forward by Vásquez.

For a women who has experienced so much, travelling has naturally become a big part of her life. Vásquez’s daughter works in finance and her son is an interior and furniture designer in Florida, so between visiting her grandchildren in the US and her mother in Nicaragua every two months, her other travel has become her hobby.

“I like to travel to different places and enjoy totally different cuisines. Anything from Italian to Chinese, even fish and chips. But not cold sandwiches.”

“You only live once, so you must eat well.”

Through all of her experiences in younger life, Vásquez’s mental strength is admirable, and there are no signs of weakness.

“If you like what you do, show passion and work hard then anything is possible,” she says. “I don’t know when I will retire. Probably when I don’t have the strength to continue.”