Yesterday I put up a post entitled “Tampa Tales” about my adopted city. It included the above photo taken in an Ybor City cigar manufacturing plant. One cannot write about Tampa’s history without mentioning cigars and the Cuban and Spanish immigrants who came here from their home countries to hand roll cigars.
Now while I usually smoke cheap cigars, I truly enjoy a fine one now and then. Usually when our family gets together a number of the older and younger men, including myself will take to the lanai in early evening for a drink and a good cigar, each of us usually bringing 2 or 3.
In the comments to the post there was one from Jennie: Wow! I learned far more than I ever knew. Like, the lightening capital as well as important history. I recognize the man sitting up high at the Cuban cigar factory. He reads aloud to the workers. It’s a great story, so I must post it soon. Terrific post, Frank. Thank you!
El Lector – “The Reader”
I too knew who the man sitting high up over the factory floor was but Jennie’s comment reminded me that most readers wouldn’t and that El Lector was worthy of a post in his own right. Two posts if Jennie does one too.
“Tampa’s cigar factories were a cacophony of noise. Wagons, and later trucks, were constantly delivering tobacco and picking up cigars. The sorting rooms buzzed with talk of current events, and la galeria , the main cigar-making floor, was awash with the sounds of the cigar makers and the tools of their trade — the chaveta (a rounded knife) — tapping steadily on their cutting boards.”
Over the sounds of rhythmic tapping on cutting boards was the voice of the Reader.
“The Lector was paid by the factory’s workers to read to them from local Spanish-language newspapers, such as La Traducción, or translate on the fly English-language papers such as The Tampa Tribune or the Tampa Daily Times. They even read novels, including “Don Quixote,” “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “Les Miserables.” The lector read while seated on la tribuna , a raised platform, so all of the workers could see and hear him or her. La lectura (the reading) provided an education for the workers, but it also caused friction between the workers and the factory owners.”
“Beginning with the first time a lector took his seat in an Ybor City factory in 1886, owners saw them as a negative influence on their workers. Lectors were blamed for the workers’ growing socialist views, slowdowns and strikes. Yet the workers revered the lector.
“Generally, the factory workforce elected a committee of workers to audition, select and pay the lector for their factory. The committee usually consisted of three members: a secretary, a treasurer and a presidente de la lectura. During the audition, the prospective lector would have to have both an excellent reading voice — in proper Castilian Spanish — and the ability to almost act out the roles in the novels he read. Each worker contributed to the lector’s pay, which approached $75 a week during the heyday of the cigar industry. Factory workers earned approximately $20 a week.”
The lector committee, not the lector, chose the materials to be read. This mattered very little to the factory owners. The lectors were forced out of the factories when what they were reading was deemed too radical. This caused widespread strikes and work slowdowns. The owners would relent, but only temporarily.
“Workers were both generous and ruthless to the lectors, depending on the performance. If they enjoyed the day’s reading, they would loudly tap their chavetas on their cutting boards as a form of applause. On the other end of the spectrum, workers could vocalize their unhappiness with a particular reading. Since the lector was paid by the workers, he or she took cues from them.”
Many if not most of the Cuban and Spanish cigar workers had no education what so ever and many were illiterate in their own tongue. The Lector served up a form of education in news, literature and politics. He or she would read to the workers as they performed their daily tasks as an adult would read to children, letting them pick the readings of the day.
It was from the Lector that these immigrant workers learned how to speak high Spanish; learned of unions, socialism, the news and Don Quixote.
And so from the turn of the century until the 1930s a well dressed educated man or woman, perhaps in a fine hat, blessed with a loud and beautiful voice and speaking in perfect Spanish sat atop a platform and read to poor cigar workers as they rolled. And they would hear Cervantes, Zola, Victor Hugo, Jules Verne ….and Karl Marx.
The owners forced out El Lector eventually during the Depression as they cut wages in the face of slumping sales. Instead they installed radios as substitutes.
The mass hand rolled cigar manufacturing business in Tampa closed down for good with the coming of mechanization and the increased popularity of cigarettes.
One of the readers, Victoriano Monteiga, who came from Cuba to Tampa in 1913 to accept a Lector position went on to found La Gaceta, a weekly newspaper still published and thriving in Tampa today. It is America’s ONLY tri-lingual paper (Spanish, Italian and English). Today it is run by the third generation of the family and in 2012, La Gaceta marked 90 years, making it the oldest family-owned, minority-owned and targeted newspaper in the United States.
I can still smell the smoke.