Like many Cubans, Jesus Fernandez and Enrique Velazquez had fled their native country during a volatile period marked by the violence of the Ten Years’ War and then the Spanish-American War. Relocating to Tampa, Florida, both men resumed duties as rollers, turning tobacco leaves into cigars.
But by 1903, the two men were aiming guns at one another.
Their rivalry began over a disagreement that had started at the Tampa factory: whether a novel titled La Canalla that was to be read aloud by their lector (reader) contained passages that might offend the presumed-delicate sensibilities of the female workers in the room.
Fernandez declared it obscene, Velazquez objected. Firearms emerged and shots were fired. Both men were hit, and Velazquez died from his wounds five days later.
It was a morbid bit of testimony that reflected the importance of the lector, a man (or later, woman) who was charged with reading to factory workers as they sat at their workstations for long hours. Without any heavy machinery to stifle noise, a lector could broadcast his or her voice to hundreds of rollers, keeping their minds engaged as their hands performed mindless, repetitive work. Newspapers were read, and so were novels. Some would work harder and longer if it meant staying to see how a plot would unravel. Current events would be translated from American newspapers.
Far from being laborers starved of culture, cigar rollers had the opportunity to examine new ideas, remain informed, and gain perspective through interpretation of classic literature. The lectores were their informal teachers. But, like many attempts to educate working class citizens, it nearly went up in smoke.
In the absence of printing presses, reading aloud to an audience was once the only effective way to communicate the written word to a large number of people.
Saturnino Martinez may have been the first to begin reading from newspapers and books while surrounded by tobacco leaves. In 1865, he had his own paper, La Aurora, which endorsed both literature and the practice of reading aloud to remain intellectually sharp.The practice was a perfect fit for the cigar factories of Cuba, which require only the eyes and hands of workers to be engaged in a silent ritual of monotonous work.
There was no radio that could be turned on to occupy their minds. Instead, laborers would volunteer to stand up and place themselves in the middle of a factory floor—where they could be easily heard by all—and read for a half-hour per shift before another worker would take their place. To make up for the wages lost reading, their fellow employees would donate part of their salary.
Martinez and his fellow lectores were an immediate hit. The following year, the large Partagas Factory adopted the practice, which soon spread to the majority of the 500 buildings in Havana where cigars were made.
Some had conditions. Partagas allowed a lector on the condition the factory had approval over what could be read. Novels were rarely a problem, and works like Les Miserables became popular choices. But when papers like La Aurora became more politicized, railing against pastimes like cockfights and billiards and pushing for labor unions, harder lines were drawn. In 1866, Francisco Lersundi, the captain general of Cuba, ordered the police commander to enforce a ban of lectores, with police patrolling the factories to quiet any activity.
It wasn’t until the conclusion of the Ten Years’ War in 1878 that reading resumed, and not until the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 that the practice was no longer in danger of being stifled. By this time, lectores had evolved from being volunteer workers to full-time professionals, typically from educational or communications backgrounds. Reading materials were voted on by workers. If some were dismayed to hear the works of Rudyard Kipling or Ibsen, they might balk at paying their share of the lector’s salary.
Typically, the lector would be granted a podium of varying height and width to better project his voice—rarely were microphones used—and would begin the workday by reading selections from newspapers for 45 minutes to an hour. Rather than dry recitations, lectores would insert segues into their oration—Now we’ll turn to sports—to create a sense of transition.
In the afternoon, another block of time would be devoted to the selected work of fiction. If workers couldn’t agree on a title, the typically well-read lector would help them choose. The novels of Victor Hugo were popular, as were those of Jules Verne, and Shakespeare made frequent appearances as well. The selection was less important than the practice—many workers would refuse jobs at factories that didn’t host lectores.
Listeners were held to incredibly strict standards during readings. No one was allowed to interrupt them. After too many workers tried to evade paying, rules were implemented with the consent of employers that rollers could be suspended for not contributing. Likewise, a lector had no guarantee of job security. While a good one could earn 10 to 25 cents per worker, one who failed to resonate with his audience might be subject to a collection of signatures that would force his resignation.
When the wars prompted several workers and factories to head for Key West and other parts of Florida, their lectores followed. Because English-language newspapers were easier to come by, they now had the additional responsibility of translating the news they felt would be of greatest interest to the workers.
While there was always interest in current events and sports, novels allowed the lectores to inject some measure of performance into their readings, with some opting to embellish dialogue. While authors like Agatha Christie and, later, Peter Benchley proved popular, "name" writers weren't always necessary. One lectora, Maria Caridad Gonzalez Martinez, wrote 21 novels over her career. None were published; she simply read them all aloud to her audience.
As the number of women employees increased, so did the demand for romance elements in fiction. A good novel kept workers enraptured; a bad one cast a pallor over the room, especially when the lector followed the unwritten rule of always finishing his chapter. A disappointing novelist, therefore, would rarely get a second chance to be heard.
The emergence of radio in the 1920s had expected consequences for lectores. Unlike humans, stations were inexhaustible, and could offer a variety of dramas, sports coverage, and up-to-the-second updates on world affairs.
While many factories in Cuba and the U.S. had radio equipment installed, a large number did not. Those that did held lectores in such regard that the two diversions began to co-exist, with the lector starting the day with news and historical trivia before a broadcast would begin. Later in the day, they’d resume a novel before once again turning the floor over to the airwaves.
Part of their stability had to do with their expanded roles in factories. A lector was not just a source of white noise, but a liaison between workers and the authors, artists, and politicians who wished to address them from the pulpit. When factory baseball teams needed an announcer for games, their lector was an obvious choice.
The profession remains a fixture of many Cuban cigar factories, where industrial evolution hasn’t yet seen the total obsolescence of hand-rolled craftsmanship. The voice of the lector and lectora has survived both political unrest and the advent of technology to inspire their listeners. It is no coincidence that rollers favored the work of Alexandre Dumas—one of Cuba’s most famous exports is the Montecristo.
El Lector: A History of the Cigar Factory Reader.