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The Lectores Who Read to Cuba's Cigar Rollers

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.

Additional Sources:
El Lector: A History of the Cigar Factory Reader.

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This Just In
How to Tell if You're a 'Xennial'
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Generational labels began to take off with the Baby Boomers—those born in postwar America in a prospering, increasingly suburban environment. Then there was Generation X, the brooding, alt-rock-consuming cluster of babies. They were followed by the Millennials, those coming of age around 2000 and who easily adapted to the digital revolution.

Those broad strokes may now include the Xennials, a specific "micro-generation" of babies born between 1977 and 1983 who grew up with some of the basic tenets of pre-digital technology—landline phones, broadcast television, and handwritten letters—who then adapted to social media in their 20s.

The segment of the population has been identified by Dan Woodman, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Melbourne in Australia. Woodman believes Xennials deserve their own banner because of their hybrid youth that straddled the line between the last gasp of quaint communications and the rise of the internet.

"It was a particularly unique experience," Woodman told Mamamia.com. "You have a childhood, youth, and adolescence free of having to worry about social media posts and mobile phones. It was a time when we had to organize to catch up with our friends on the weekends using the landline, and actually pick a time and a place and turn up there. Then we hit this technology revolution before we were maybe in that frazzled period of our life with kids and no time to learn anything new. We hit it where we could still adopt, in a selective way, the new technologies."

Xennials' attitudes, Woodman says, are distinct from Gen X's pessimism and Millennial optimism because they've had a toe in two very different cultural landscapes. Time will tell if Woodman's Xennial label will catch on, but odds are if you grew up with a Trapper Keeper and are now reading this on a mobile device, you probably qualify as one.

[h/t Daily Mail]

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History
The Spiritual Purpose Behind Shrunken Heads
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If you’ve ever visited a museum like New York's American Museum of Natural History, you may have noticed a strange—yet oddly fascinating—relic on display: a shrunken human head. Artifacts like these may appear to be bloody battle trophies, but as the Smithsonian Channel explains, they once served as protective talismans for the Shuar people of Ecuador.

The Shuar are an indigenous people who live in the remote jungles of the Amazon. Long ago, they beheaded their enemies, and shrunk their over-the-shoulder remains by defleshing, simmering, and searing them with hot stones and sand. They also sewed the eyes closed, and pegged or sewed the mouth and nostrils shut. These creations were known as tsantsas.

“The Shuar believe in spirits,” explains Anna Dhody, a forensic anthropologist and curator of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, in the video below. “They believed that the spirit of their enemy could still harm them after death, and that they had to take preventative measures. So by taking the head of their enemy and creating these very special tsantsas, they could actually, effectively seal the spirit of their defeated enemy in the head.”

Learn more about the history of the practice below.

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