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Instalaciones de South Florida Tissue Paper en Miami Gardens. Miami Herald.
South Florida Tissue Paper plant in Miami Gardens. Photo: Miami Herald.

The Corzos, the Guatemalan family behind the essential toilet paper business in the U.S.

While many businesses are closing, South Florida Tissue Paper is working 24/7 to try to fill the fierce demand for toilet paper during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Since early March, when toilet paper purchases across the country skyrocketed by 60% due to the COVID-19 threat, Juan Corzo, co-owner of South Florida Tissue Paper, has arrived at work wearing a suit and tie and returned home late at night with a pair of shorts and a sweaty T-shirt.

The Guatemalan immigrant, from a family that has been in business since the 1970s, came to the United States fleeing violence in his country, after both he and his father were kidnapped. Since then, he has known how to make his way in an industry that is working at the limit of its capacity. 

At their factory in Miami Gardens, the Corzos have gone from producing some 120,000 rolls of toilet paper a day to more than 220,000. 

The new "absorbent" gold

The images of customers in supermarkets filling their cars with rolls of toilet paper and the pitched battles on the shelves to get the last package will go down in the annals of cultural history. 

So will the way in which an industry with more or less a regular demand for a commodity and an undervalued product adjusted to the massive increase in demand: now producing rolls at an unbridled pace and distributing them in record time. 

"We were overwhelmed," Corzo told USA Today. "The surge came quickly, we started seeing a lot of orders around March 15th or 16th."

Not only did they have to work piecemeal, but they also had to implement security measures at high speed to protect employees from the spread of the virus.

After disinfecting the facility, South Florida Tissue Paper forced its workers to wear safety gloves and goggles and imposed a 6-foot social distance rule, in addition to professionally disinfecting the entire factory. 

They also hired a dozen workers and created shifts to keep the machines running day and night. 

"If we had more machinery, we would have enough orders to quintuple production," said Corzo Jr. who even during the first critical weeks did not raise the price of his paper. It's an honesty to be thankful for in a family of historic Latino and migrant entrepreneurs. 

From Guatemala to the U.S.

The family has been in the paper business since the 1970s, when grandfather Juan Corzo founded Papelera Internacional in Guatemala after quitting his job as an electrician with the Boise Cascade wood company. He traveled to the U.S. as a young man to learn English and get a sense of the business, and had an intuition the weaving industry was going to be one of the most booming. He was not wrong.

However, a little less than 20 years later, when Juan Corzo Sr. took over his father's business, a chilling event forced the family to leave Guatemala: 

"I was kidnapped along with my youngest son. I was held for almost a month and my son for five more days. They cut off my ring finger and sent him to my house to prove they had me," said the businessman.

The painful journey did not end there:

"After they were released, the government kept asking my father if he knew more about the kidnappers," explained Corzo Jr. who pointed out that the gang had apparently kidnapped a friend of the president of Guatemala. The information provided by the businessman, who had a slight idea of where they were being held, was crucial to freeing the victim and arresting the criminals. "I testified against them. After that, it would have been very dangerous for my family in Guatemala, so we moved to Florida," the father concluded. 

In Miami, the Corzos continued to run Papelera Internacional until they sold it to a Canadian group.

Now the family, which has been in the business for more than 24 years, has a tough mission: to supply Americans with the incredibly coveted toilet paper.

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