Rolling By the Book

Lectors have been reading to workers in Cuban cigar factories since the 1860s. The tradition continues today.
| By Miguel Barnet | From Tiger Woods, May/June 2008

Smoking is one of the great pleasures of life. Some people may have doubts about it, but one only needs to put a cigar in his mouth to be convinced. The cigar was largely demonized when taken to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors. It quickly recovered its prestige and became a worldwide custom and a Cuban symbol. There is nothing better for reflection and rest after a hard day at work, and nothing better after a good dinner and a coffee. There is nothing more captivating or more pure in nature than the aroma of a cigar. But I am not going to write more about the pleasure of smoking right now. • I am going to tell you about another pleasure in life: the pleasure of reading and being read to—like when we were children and our parents used to read to us. Having someone read to you is one of the greatest joys for the spirit. Robert Louis Stevenson resisted learning how to read because he liked having his nanny read to him British and American classics next to the fireplace. Those intimate readings stayed with him through his whole life. Reading out loud gives the text a special resonance with a unique beauty and comprehension that is not found in reading to oneself. The text, according to the reader's tone and modulations, acquires multiple facets and new wings so that the listener can fly as he pleases with the story. As an emancipating and useful tool, reading out loud was an ancient craft that was used as a vehicle for knowledge in all cultures since the Mesopotamian age until today.

In Cuba, reading out loud to the workers in cigar factories became an industry-wide tradition in 1865. In that year Saturnino Martínez, a consummate smoker, journalist and poet, published the La Aurora journal, which was an advanced publication for the working class mainly used to enlighten the cigar workers sector. Martínez had the brilliant and altruistic idea of using people to read to the workers during working hours and he first organized readings in the El Figaro factory in Havana.

These readings were the greatest nutritional ferment for workers and also provided entertainment. The workers were read novels such as Les Miserables by Victor Hugo; works by Honoré de Balzac, Stendhal, Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville; and many other important Spanish, Cuban and Latin American writers. There was also the indispensable reading of newspapers. And famous cigar brands such as Romeo y Julieta and Montecristo were created because of the reading of William Shakespeare and Alexandre Dumas, the author of The Count of Monte Cristo. These readings were enjoyed so much that many workers acquired the capacity to repeat by heart whole chapters of classical works of prose and poetry.

Some of these readings were considered subversive since the country was under the despotic regime of Spanish colonialism that only ended with the Spanish-American War in 1898. For example, the patriotic speeches of Cuba's national poet and hero of the independence movement against Spain, José Martí, were read out loud in cigar factories in Tampa and Key West, Florida, to the workers who lived in exile in those American cities. Upon his return to New York, Martí frequently spoke of this period of his life with great satisfaction because his speeches enlightened the factory workers and transformed them into fellow patriots to the cause of liberating the island.

The readings were so important to the rhythm and flow of the work in transforming what would otherwise be an extremely monotonous activity into a delight. Cigarmakers used the chaveta to tap on the wooden table as a sign of thanks to the reader, or lector, who had given them many hours of great pleasure and ventures, and they threw the blade on the floor as a sign of disapproval if the reader was not convincing or the story was boring or uninteresting. Many of these workers, influenced by readings, decided to learn how to read and write at a time when working was more important than going to school because they had to support their families. Because of this, the tobacco factory workers became the most educated sector in the country.

The reader's job was and is sacred. It has always followed a strict discipline and, as written by Araceli Tinajero in her book The Cigar Factory Reader, reader's workshops followed the conventional model of creating a series of behavior rules where entry and leaving schedules, silence and good manners were listed. For example, "readers and artisans had to wash their hands in the morning, make the sign of the cross, offer their work to God and then started working."

Today, all over Cuba, this tradition is alive and well. Readers are in all the factories, from Santiago to Havana to Pinar del Río. The readings have specific timetables and generally begin with the headlines of the day's newspapers. After reading the newspaper, the readers take a break and then begin reading the unfinished book from the day before. Most are women.

For example, Yoandra Rodríguez, 24, has been reading in the Partagas factory for four years. "My passion is reading," she said. "I begin at 9 a.m., and I read the newspapers until 10:30 or 11. Afterwards, we listen to a play on the radio for an hour. Today, we listened to Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. The rest of the day I read novels."

The workers themselves choose the book. It might be a classical novel or one by a contemporary author usually found in public libraries, or even in private collections. The choice of books can vary from a political manifesto to a work by Edgar Allan Poe or Gabriel García Marquez. However, the most popular books are detective stories as well as books by Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (I have even had the honor to occasionally read a book I wrote in the 1960s called Cimarrón ["The Biography of a Runaway Slave"], which is one of the most widely read books in the factories today.)

"I like to make cigar rollers happy with actions, adventures, historical and love novels," says Rodríguez. "They are the ones I like the most. Once in a while, they bring their own novels. Occasionally, writers come and make donations of their works. I learn a lot from all that I read. I also have a good diction because I practice at home before reading out loud."

The art of interpretation, pronunciation and tone of the voice are essential requirements of a good reader. Some of them become legends for their talents, which are developed after many years of performing this specific art. Many began as teachers or radio announcers, and brought their experience of talking to an audience or into a microphone to their new careers.

"When I applied for this job in the cigar factory, I competed against a retired lecturer. [To] my surprise, I won because I dramatized everything I read," said Jesús Pereira, 44, who studied telecommunications in the Ukraine but soon began working as a reader after graduation. He now works at the Partagas factory. "My pleasure is reading and reading out loud. Sometimes, I believe I am an actor. I act out the voices of all the characters. For example, when reading El Mercader de Brillantes by Xavier de Montépin, I play 15 different characters with different voices: men, women and children."

Sometimes, these daily readings are combined with cultural activities, radio programs or the visit of an author to read his own words. It is well known that books do not think for us but teach us how to think and dream. They are, according to Walt Whitman, "tiny ships chartered since antiquity, and on them we have traveled in calm and turbulent waters confronting all kinds of adventures."

Cuban cigar rollers have always known it and with the reading of the works from great authors, they have surely obtained a higher and more refined quality of cigar. When concentrating on a novel, a poem or just an ad while working, they never look at the face of the reader but instead pour on the leaf all the passion of what they are listening to, of the adventures they live and the dreams they dream, so that this other great pleasure of life—smoking—turns into supreme ecstasy.

"The praise I appreciate the most of all comes from the silence of the cigar rollers, mainly when I am reading and dramatizing a good suspense novel," said Pereira. "People say that I have the diction of an actor reading novels on the radio. During my time off, I am an amateur boxer and wrestler, but I wouldn't change reading for anything in the world."

Cuba hopes one day that this institution will be declared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization an Intangible Heritage for its originality and because it is a living memory treasure from a sui generis community.

And remember, dear reader, when you think that your cigar has pleased you enough, don't put it out on the ashtray, don't humiliate it. Let it die, slowly and with dignity.

Miguel Barnet is a Cuban novelist, poet and ethnographer.