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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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Art
15 Things You Should Know About Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe’s enchanting floral still lifes are now a deeply ingrained part of American culture—so much so that they often eclipse her other colorful accomplishments. For a more complete portrait of the artist, who was born 130 years ago today, brush up on these 15 little-known facts about her.

1. FLOWER PAINTINGS MAKE UP A SMALL PERCENTAGE OF O'KEEFFE'S BODY OF WORK.

Though O'Keeffe is most famous for her lovingly rendered close-ups of flowers—like Black Iris and Oriental Poppies—these make up just about 200 of her 2000-plus paintings. The rest primarily depict landscapes, leaves, rocks, shells, and bones.

2. SHE REJECTED SEXUAL INTERPRETATIONS OF HER PAINTINGS.

For decades, critics assumed that O'Keeffe's flowers were intended as homages—or at the very least, allusions—to the female form. But in 1943, she insisted that they had it all wrong, saying, “Well—I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flowers you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower—and I don’t.” So there.

3. SHE WAS NOT A NATIVE OF THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST.


Joe Raedle/Getty Images

O'Keeffe was actually born on a Wisconsin dairy farm. She'd go on to live in Chicago; New York City; New York’s Lake George; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Amarillo, Texas. She first visited New Mexico in 1917, and as she grew older, her trips there became more and more frequent. Following the death of her husband in 1946, she moved to New Mexico permanently.

4. HER FAVORITE STUDIO WAS THE BACKSEAT OF A MODEL-A FORD.

In an interview with C-SPAN, Carolyn Kastner, curator of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, explained how the artist customized her car for this use: "She would remove the driver's seat. Then she would unbolt the passenger car, turn it around to face the back seat. Then she would lay the canvas on the back seat as an easel and paint inside her Model-A Ford."

Painting inside the car allowed O'Keeffe to stay out of the unrelenting desert sun, where she painted many of her later works. The Model-A also provided a barrier from the bees that would gather as the day wore on.

5. O'KEEFFE ALSO PAINTED SKYSCRAPERS.

While nature was her main source of inspiration, the time she spent in 1920s Manhattan spurred the creation of surreal efforts like New York With Moon, City Night and The Shelton with Sunspots.

6. O'KEEFFE IMMERSED HERSELF IN NATURE ...

While in New Mexico O’Keeffe spent summers and falls at her Ghost Ranch, putting up with the region's hottest, most stifling days in order to capture its most vivid colors. (The rest of the year she stayed at her second home, located in the small town of Abiquiu.) When she wasn't painting in her Model-A, O'Keeffe often camped out in the harsh surrounding terrain, to keep close to the landscapes that inspired her.

7. …WHATEVER THE WEATHER.

The artist would rig up tents from tarps, contend with unrelenting downpours, and paint with gloves on when it got too cold. She went camping well into her 70s and enjoyed a well-documented rafting trip with photographer Todd Webb at age 74. Her camping equipment is occasionally exhibited at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.

8. SHE MARRIED THE MAN BEHIND HER FIRST GALLERY SHOW.

"At last, a woman on paper!" That’s what modernist photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz cried when he first saw O'Keeffe's abstract charcoal drawings. He was so enthusiastic about this series of sketches that he put them on display—before consulting their creator.

When O'Keeffe arrived at his gallery, she wasn't pleased, and brusquely introduced herself: "I am Georgia O'Keeffe and you will have to take these pictures down." Despite their rocky beginnings, Stieglitz and O'Keeffe quickly made amends, and went on to become partners in art and in life.

9. O'KEEFFE AND STIEGLITZ WROTE 25,000 PAGES OF LOVE LETTERS TO EACH OTHER.

When the pair met in 1916, he was famous and married; she was unknown and 23 years his junior. All the same, they began writing to each other often (sometimes two or three times a day) and at length (as many as 40 pages at a time). These preserved writings chart the progression of their romance—from flirtation to affair to their marriage in 1924—and even document their marital struggles.

10. SHE SERVED AS A MUSE TO OTHER ARTISTS.

Thanks in part to Stieglitz, O'Keeffe was one of the most photographed women of the 20th century. Stieglitz made O'Keeffe the subject of a long-term series of portraits meant to capture individuals as they aged, and she made for a striking model. Though he died in 1946, the project lived on as other photographers sought out O'Keeffe in order to capture the beloved artist against the harsh New Mexican landscapes she loved so dearly.

O'Keeffe later wrote:

When I look over the photographs Stieglitz took of me—some of them more than sixty years ago—I wonder who that person is. It is as if in my one life I have lived many lives. If the person in the photographs were living in this world today, she would be quite a different person—but it doesn't matter—Stieglitz photographed her then.

11. SHE QUIT PAINTING THREE TIMES.

The first break spanned several years (the exact number is a matter of debate), when O'Keeffe took on more stable jobs to help her family through financial troubles. In the early 1930s, a nervous breakdown led to her hospitalization, and caused her to set aside her brushes for more than a year.

In the years leading up to her death in 1986, failing eyesight forced O'Keeffe to give up painting entirely. Until then, she fought hard to keep working, enlisting assistants to prepare her canvas and mix her oil paints for pieces like 1977's Sky Above Clouds/Yellow Horizon and Clouds. She managed to use watercolors until she was 95.

12. AFTER GOING BLIND, SHE TURNED TO SCULPTING.


By Alfred Stieglitz - Phillips, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Although her vision eventually made painting impossible, O'Keeffe's desire to create was not squelched. She memorably declared, "I can see what I want to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there.” O'Keeffe began experimenting with clay sculpting in her late 80s, and continued with it into her 96th year.

13. SHE'S THE MOTHER OF AMERICAN MODERNISM.

Searching for what she called “the Great American Thing,” O'Keeffe was part of the Stieglitz Circle, which included such lauded early modernists as Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Paul Strand, and Edward Steichen. By the mid-1920s, she had become the first female painter to gain acclaim alongside her male contemporaries in New York's cutthroat art world. Her distinctive way of rendering nature in shapes and forms that made them seem simultaneously familiar and new earned her a reputation as a pioneer of the form.

14. SHE BLAZED NEW TRAILS FOR FEMALE ARTISTS.

In 1946, O’Keeffe became the first woman to earn a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Twenty-four years later, a Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective exhibit introduced her work to a new generation. Fifteen years after that, O'Keeffe was included in the inaugural slate of artists chosen to receive the newly founded National Medal of Arts for her contribution to American culture.

15. SHE WASN'T FEARLESS, BUT SHE REJECTED FEAR.

O'Keeffe was purported to have said, "I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do."

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holidays
10 Alternatives to Columbus Day Celebrated Around the Country
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Columbus Day has a complicated history, and many cities have recently voted to rename the annual holiday that falls the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples Day, honoring the native cultures that existed in North America long before Columbus arrived in 1492 and who were decimated by European colonization. In lieu of heading to a Columbus Day parade, consider these 10 alternative celebrations taking place across the country.

1. TEACH-IN AND FRIENDSHIP DANCE // BOULDER, COLORADO

gathering in a park
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The White Horse Creek Council, a Denver-based preservation society for indigenous culture, is hosting a Mini Pow Wow, Teach-In and Friendship Dance at Boulder’s Central Park Bandshell. The October 9 event will include traditional dances with performances from the award-winning Plenty Wolf Singers. Visitors will also get a chance to learn a circle and friendship band and take in an oral retelling of Boulder's history from a Lakota elder.

2. INDIGENOUS PEOPLES WEEK // SEATTLE

Seattle
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While other cities dedicate a day to honoring their Native American culture and history, Seattle sets aside an entire week, put on by groups like the Daybreak Star Indian Culture Center, the Seattle Indian Health Board, and local community colleges and universities. On October 9, there will be a march to City Hall, canning demonstrations, performances from Tahitian and Alaskan Native Dancers, guest speakers, and more.

3. NATIVE AMERICAN DAY AT THE CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL // CRAZY HORSE, SOUTH DAKOTA

Crazy Horse Memorial

Jerry and Pat Donaho, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

South Dakota has celebrated Native American Day on the second Monday in October since 1990. It was the only state to vote not to observe Columbus Day state-wide until Vermont made the switch to Indigenous Peoples Day in 2017. The first celebration of the holiday was held at Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills, a monument to the Lakota leader who defeated General George Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. The memorial still hosts an annual celebration with performances from Native American dancers, singers, artists, and storytellers. Visitors also receive a free buffalo stew lunch.

4. LIFE BEFORE COLUMBUS FESTIVAL // LOS ANGELES

Indigenous Peoples Day celebration in Los Angeles

David McNew / Stringer/ Getty Images

Los Angeles voted to make Indigenous Peoples Day a city-wide holiday for the first time in 2017, but organizations in the city had already been observing it before the official designation. The Gabrielino Tongva Springs Foundation—a cultural center and museum for the Gabrielino/Tongva Indians native to the Los Angeles Basin area—holds an annual Life Before Columbus festival at Kuruvungna Springs, a California historical landmark. The arts festival features traditional singers and dancers, Native American foods, and workshops and exhibitions on crafting items like reed baskets and traditional Native toys.

5. RETHINKING COLUMBUS DAY // RANDALL'S ISLAND, NEW YORK CITY

Randall's Island
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Each year, the Redhawk Native American Arts Council throws a free celebration on New York City’s Randall’s Island for Indigenous Peoples Day. The two-day event includes an overnight camp out, a sunrise ceremony, spoken word performances, guest talks from activists and cultural groups, and more. The 2017 festival is dedicated to honoring water protectors, according to the event page.

6. INDIGENOUS PEOPLE'S DAY MUSIC & ART SHOWCASE // SAINT PAUL, MINNESOTA

Saint Paul Minnesota
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Electric Machete Studios, an art gallery in Saint Paul, is throwing its 14th-annual concert series on October 12. Formerly called the Anti-Columbus Day Concert, it was founded to use “hip hop and community action to raise awareness around the effects of colonization on communities of color and celebrate indigenous culture through art and music.” There will be more than eight musical performers throughout the evening.

7. SANTA FE INDIGENOUS PEOPLES DAY CELEBRATION // SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO

2017 Santa Fe Indian Market
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New Mexico, home to 23 different Native American tribes, voted in 2016 to begin recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day. The central Santa Fe Plaza will play host to an all-day celebration on October 9 as well as weekend dance performances. The Monday festivities include morning flute and drum songs and 10 different dances throughout the day.

8. DECOLONIZATION CELEBRATION // ASHLAND, OREGON

Ashland Oregon

In honor of Ashland’s inaugural Indigenous Peoples Day, groups like Southern Oregon University (SOU), the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and a local grassroots organization called the Red Earth Descendants are holding events like a salmon bake social, a drama workshop, and a performance of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s first play by a Native American writer, which turns the Bard’s Measure for Measure into a Western exploring the legacy of Indian boarding schools.

9. TULSA NATIVE AMERICAN DAY CELEBRATION // TULSA, OKLAHOMA

Tulsa, Oklahoma
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Tulsa’s first-annual Native American Day celebration will be held in the city’s downtown arts district. The inter-tribal gathering will include a meet and greet, reading of the city’s Native America Day resolution, prayers, exhibition dances, and songs, with speeches by several Native American leaders. According to census data, the area is home to around 30,000 Native Americans, and the city includes the boundaries of three different nations.

10. BERKELEY POW-WOW AND INDIAN MARKET //BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA

2016 Indigenous Peoples Day Berkley California

If you miss out on October 9 celebrations, head over to Berkeley, California’s 25th anniversary Indigenous Peoples Day festival, which takes place a little after the day itself on October 14. The annual Pow Wow and Indian Market includes a variety of contests, giveaways, performances, and arts and crafts, including an owl dance contest, a “prettiest shawl” contest, and intertribal dance performances.

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