El Lector, the Cigar Factory Reader of Ybor City


He walked down la galera, the smell of tobacco hanging thick in the still air of the rolling floor. All eyes were on him. He stopped to light his cheruto then mounted the stairs to the tribuna. Taking a sheaf of newspapers from under his arm he selected the top one and began to read in stentorian tones in Spanish. He was el lector. A depiction of cigar factory workers and lector can be seen on the image above

El Lector: Historical Beginnings

The practice of reading aloud started in Cuba and was brought to the United States more particularly to Key West in 1865 when thousands of Cuban cigar workers emigrated to Florida to escape Spanish oppression.

Reading actually began in Cuban prisons when inmates would read aloud to each other. Since many of the inmates were cigar rollers reading naturally transferred into the cigar factories and was continued there. The word galera, referring to the prison wards where reading first took place, stuck and became the word for the cigar factory floor.

Reading in cigar factories was suspended during the 10 years war between Cuba and Colonial Spain but was not suspended during the Spanish-American War. The first lectores were cigar workers and would read for half an hour and be compensated for time lost to production of cigars. By 1890 “reader” became an actual profession in Tampa. He was paid about $80.00 per week and would collect his salary from the cigar workers on Wednesday and Saturday each week. Workers contributed 25 cents a week.

A Typical Morning of Reading

The lector would start his day at 9 a.m. Taking a few minutes to savor some strong Cuban coffee and the last puffs of his cigar he glances around the room which may contain as many as 500 tabaqueros or cigar rollers. (In 1895 a typical cigar roller in Ybor City would have earned $12 – $18 dollars a week depending on his daily production.) At 11 a.m. the reader would stop and go to lunch either at his home or in the factory.

Readings Were Chosen by the Cigar Workers

Workers had reading committees headed by the reading president ( Presidente de Lectura) that chose the actual material read after a nightly discussion with the cigar workers’ committee. To be sure, it was radical and unionist and fed the fires of anarchy and revolution during one of America’s most radical times. The rollers are Cuban, Spanish and Italian and are proponents of anarchy, socialism and other radical ideologies. They also supported the Cuban revolution against Spain and would select readings which enforced these leanings.

What Would He Read in the Afternoons?

By 2 p.m. the lector returns from his lunch and begins the afternoon readings; but, there is a decided difference in both the tone and the subject matter. Italian women comprised by 1897, up to 20 % of the work force in some factories. For this particular afternoon they have voted to listen to something very whimsical and light, possibly the romantic novel Marianela written by Benito Perez Galdos, a popular author of 1898.

Marianela tells the story of a man who regains his eyesight after many years only to reject his best friend Marianela for her ugliness. On Saturday afternoons the workers’ families may linger outside the factory windows taking in the popular readings and enjoying the gentle breezes of a spring day. Another popular novel which was read by lectors was Don Quixote by Cervantes.

Many other things were read from the lector’s tribuna from novels to poetry, some written by cigar workers themselves and also by lectores.

The reader will continue with Marianela tomorrow in serial fashion. Rollers on the floor are receiving an education and will probably take home and share the experience with their families thus enabling them to share in pieces of Spanish, French and other cultures at home.

Not So Easy

While it may be perceived as inconsequential reading was not as easy as it sounds. Readers must buy all their owns newspapers and rent the books if available at all. It was also hard on the voice and throat leading to frequent bouts of laryngitis and sore throats. But the rewards more than made up for these difficulties. And remember tone, loudness and enunciation were absolutely essential to good reading. To even be selected, potential readers must compete by having a ten-minute long audition.

Jose Marti

Jose Marti the Cuban revolutionary relied on lectores to further the revolution. He was invited to speak at Vicente Martinez Ybor’s cigar factory in Tampa. His “with all, and for the good of all” speech was quickly disseminated by readers in Key West factories thus fomenting interest in Marti’s revolutionary goals.

The Practice Ends

By the end of the 1920s patrones (owners of the factory) were fed up with the radicalism being propagated to their employees by the lector and put an end to it. After a series of strikes reading in cigar factories was banned in Tampa from 1921-26. Though briefly reinstated at the end of 1926 “readers” took their places as fascinating footnotes to the rich cultural heritage of Ybor City. The last year of the reader was 1931. It should be noted that reading aloud in cigar factories continues today in Cuba and other countries.