CLOSE

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Words
These Are the Most Popular Baby Names of 2017
iStock
iStock

Millions of babies were born in the U.S. last year, and the most popular names chosen by American parents were Emma and Liam. Exactly 19,738 Emmas and 18,728 Liams were born in 2017, accounting for 1.053 percent of female births and .954 percent of male births, according to data recently released by the Social Security Administration.

Liam's ascension to the top of the boys' list marks the end of Noah's three-year streak as No.1. This year Noah was bumped to the No.2 slot, followed by William in third place for the second consecutive year. James, Logan, Benjamin, Mason, Elijah, Oliver, and Jacob round out the top 10.

On the female side, Emma continues to dominate. It was listed as the most popular name for baby girls for the fourth year in a row. Also for the fourth year running, Emma was followed by Olivia in second place. Ava, Isabella, Sophia, Mia, Charlotte, Amelia, Evelyn, and Abigail make up the rest of the list.

For an idea of what baby naming trends will look like a few years down the road, you have to look at the names that saw popularity spikes between 2016 and 2017. On the boy's list, Wells enjoyed the biggest boost, jumping 504 spots from 1419th to 915th place. Kairo, Caspian, and Nova all climbed high up the list as well.

The girls saw even more dramatic increases. After ranking No.2426 in 2016, Ensley now occupies the 965th spot. Oaklynn, Dream, and Oaklyn also made impressive gains. Melania made the fifth biggest jump last year from No.1650 to No.930 (the popularity of the name Donald, meanwhile, remains unchanged from 2016 to 2017 at No.488).

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Netflix
arrow
Pop Culture
The Wild, Wild Story of the 'Sex Guru' at the Center of Wild Wild Country
Netflix
Netflix

Wild Wild Country, a six-part docuseries on Netflix, tells the unbelievable true story of what happened when an Indian "sex guru" and thousands of his crimson-clad followers infiltrated a sleepy town in Oregon in the 1980s. This binge-worthy retelling of a bizarre moment in American history features plenty of free love, to be sure. But there's also betrayal, wire tappings, immigration fraud, attempted murder, a late-night arrest, the largest bioterrorism attack in U.S. history, the relocation of thousands of homeless people in an attempt to sway a local election, and—at the heart of it all—a gussied-up guru who owned enough Rolls-Royces to drive a different model each day for three months.

But the voice of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the very man who founded "Rajneeshism," is surprisingly silent throughout the series. According to brothers Maclain and Chapman Way, the directors behind Wild Wild Country, this was intentional. The docuseries primarily focuses on the years 1981 to 1985, which coincided with a period in Rajneesh's life where he took a vow of silence.

“We really just wanted to drop the audience into whatever was happening at that moment,” Chapman told India's CNN News18. “And the truth of the story is at that moment [Rajneesh] wasn't speaking to the locals, nor was he speaking to his followers. So, we wanted the audience to experience the story as the characters in the documentary were experiencing it.”

Still, viewers were left wondering what made Rajneesh’s followers—largely well-educated and well-off Westerners—renounce their past lives and devote all their time and energy to the guru’s teachings. To understand how Rajneesh, a former philosophy lecturer, gained thousands of followers from around the world, we need to go back to the beginning.

 
 

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was born Chandra Mohan Jain on December 11, 1931. (He wouldn't begin calling himself Bhagwan, which means the blessed one, until 1971.) He was raised for the first seven years of his life by his grandparents, merchants who greatly influenced his views on religion. His grandfather was a Jain, part of a religion that preaches asceticism and avoids all forms of self-indulgence, but took an interest in other views. He often invited Jaina monks, Hindu monks, and Sufi mystics into their home, where an inquisitive young Rajneesh grilled them with questions.

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh speaks with his followers in 1977
Redheylin, Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0

Rajneesh’s grandmother didn’t believe in religion—a highly uncommon stance at that time, but one that also resonated with her grandson. Later in life, Rajneesh spoke out against organized religion, arguing that it interfered with the practice of meditation.

In school, Rajneesh proved to be a bright pupil and voracious reader, but by his own admission, he was both argumentative and mischievous. However, this served him well as a student—and later, a lecturer—of philosophy.

In his youth, Rajneesh developed an obsession with meditation and experimented with different methods, all while pushing himself to physical extremes by running at least five miles twice a day. He claims to have reached enlightenment at the age of 21 while sitting under a maulshree tree—similar to the enlightenment story surrounding the Buddha. Rajneesh later told his followers that his current life was an extension of a past life he experienced 700 years before.

Although his insubordination got him expelled from the first college he attended, he transferred to another university and earned a degree in philosophy. He went on to earn a master's in the subject and even lectured at the Mahakoshal Arts College at the University of Jabalpur for some time. However, he often took breaks to go on speaking tours, where he traveled around India spreading his own views on enlightenment—a pursuit he took up full-time in the mid-1960s.

An image of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh making the peace sign with his fingers

Somprakashmlaobra, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Rajneesh quickly gained a reputation for his controversial views, which angered many but also attracted followers he dubbed sannyasins (those who renounce the world in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment). He regularly criticized revered figures like Gandhi and Mother Teresa, but reversed his view on religion several times, at one point proclaiming, “Ours is the only religion—first religion in the history of the world.”

 
 

People in India started calling Rajneesh the “sex guru” after he gave a number of lectures on the transcendental and divine nature of fornication. In 1968 he gave a series of lectures that were published as From Sex to Superconsciousness, and later urged his followers to meditate during sex because because “it is one of the most peaceful, silent, harmonious states—where meditation is the easiest.”

In his book, he references some of the theories of Friedrich Nietzsche, and this blend of Western thought and Eastern spirituality is a recurring theme in Rajneesh's teachings. Or, as the Daily Mail put it: “His teachings were a bizarre mixture of pop psychology, ancient Indian wisdom, capitalism, sexual permissiveness, and dirty jokes that he gleaned from the pages of Playboy magazine.”

It’s important to note, however, that sex was merely one component of Rajneesh's philosophy. The meditation method he invented, called Dynamic Meditation, was largely aimed at inducing a cathartic release. This was achieved by getting his followers to scream, hit things, cry, jump up and down, and dance blindfolded. Brigid Delaney, a writer for The Guardian who tried some of these methods at a meditation camp, wrote:

“There are psychological theories behind this process of letting go in a contained and safe space. In some ways it’s like a self-exorcism: you release your own demons and suppressed emotions and afterwards, feel lighter for it. It worked for me.”

There's no denying, though, that Rajneesh's talks on sex attracted the most attention, and they coincided with the “free love” movement of the 1960s. As such, it was around this time that he began attracting followers from Western countries. To accommodate his growing group of devotees, Rajneesh founded his first ashram (commune) in Pune, about 90 miles southeast of Mumbai, in 1974.

Rajneesh's eccentric and indulgent habits only attracted more attention. He had a squad of 50 sannyasins, all trained in karate and other martial arts, to protect his home, and “sniffers” stood guard at his lecture hall, ready to turn away anyone who smelled of perfume or other pungent odors. (He was supposedly sensitive to strong smells.) He even hired a limousine to carry him 150 yards from his home to his lecture hall. When asked why he made such a dramatic entrance, Rajneesh was matter-of-fact in his response: “I want people to talk about me.”

Later, after moving to the U.S., he racked up a collection of 93 Rolls-Royces, earning him the nickname “Rolls-Royce guru." He also had a habit of sporting gem-encrusted Rolex watches. According to Vulture, he owed his fortune in large part to donations from his wealthy sannyasins.

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh driving one of his Rolls-Royces circa 1982
Samvado Gunnar Kossatz, Wikimedia Commons

His followers, however, were unperturbed by their master's flagrant materialism. Indeed, his commune in Pune grew and grew until it became clear that the ashram was no longer large enough to accommodate Rajneesh’s vision. Unable to find a suitable property in India that could house the 100,000 sannyasins he someday hoped to preside over, his assistants (most notably Ma Anand Sheela, who is arguably the real focus of Wild Wild Country) started looking for property in America. However, as The New Republic reported, there were other factors that likely spurred Rajneesh to leave India, including unpaid taxes and disagreements with the locals in Pune.

 
 

In 1981, Rajneesh and 15 of his followers came to Antelope, Oregon, where they bought a 64,000-acre ranch and ultimately took over the town, renaming it Rajneeshpuram. It’s here where we catch up with the events featured in Wild Wild Country, a story which culminates—spoiler alert!—in Rajneesh’s arrest at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport in October 1985 following an attempt to evade charges of immigration fraud for arranging sham marriages among sannyasins who faced deportation. He was 53 years old at the time.

Rajneesh himself was ultimately deported from the U.S. and lived out the rest of his days in India, where he died of heart disease at the age of 58.

In yet another reversal that occurred a few years before his death, he called for an end to the religion of Rajneeshism and eventually asked his followers to start calling him Osho, meaning “on whom the heavens shower flowers,” according to his obituary in The New York Times.

After disavowing the religion he created, Rajneesh said, "There is no church, no holy book, no catechism, no priest, no congregation, no baptism ... It is a mystic commune ... of people who are individuals searching and seeking ... It is a way of being religious but not a religion. I am a friend, a guide, a philosopher."

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh holds court among his followers in Oregon
Netflix

In keeping with his worldview, Rajneesh's epitaph fittingly carries these words: “Never born, never died, just visited this Earth from 1931-1990.” His teachings, however, live on in the many spiritual centers around the world that continue to teach his meditation techniques.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios