Araceli Tinajero

Cigar Factory Readers in Cuba

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Reader’s desk. Trinidad, Cuba, 2003. Photo: A. Tinajero.

In 2003 I travelled to Cuba, to the town of San Juan y Martínez. There I met Santos Segundo Domínguez Mena, an eighty-eight-year-old man. He told me that for sixty-five years he had been a cigar factory reader. A reader is a person whose profession is to read newspapers, magazines, and literature aloud to cigar makers while they work. I asked about the books that he had read but he told me that he could not remember except for Los Miserables [Les Misérables] which was the best book he ever read. He also told me that he had read all the books by Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas that came across him.

Reading aloud in cigar factories began in Havana in 1865 and this practice is directly linked to preindustrial times when reading viva voce was the rule. Reading aloud in the factories was the idea of Saturnino Martínez who was a cigar worker and the editor of the newspaper La Aurora: Periódico Semanal Dedicado a los Artesanos. At the beginning readers were cigar workers who took turns reading every thirty minutes. Their coworkers used to compensate them for the time lost from their jobs.

What was the purpose of reading aloud in cigar factories? Reading aloud is usually associated with illiteracy; paradoxically, this practice also takes place within the intelligentsia, literary circles, schools, and libraries. In Cuba the cigar industry had a higher rate of literacy compared with other craft industries. However, many workers were not able to read. On the other hand, it is important to note that illiterate people have had access to literature and historical texts through the practice of reading aloud.

In 1865 there were over five hundred cigar factories in Cuba. Political reformists such as Nicolás Azcárate saw the need to educate the workers. Reading took place first at El Fígaro Cigar Factory on December 21, 1865. The factory had three hundred workers approximately. The origins of this practice were published in La Aurora and very soon several factories in Havana were inspired and began reading aloud as well. Cigar factories are like classrooms. They have rows of workbenches that resemble student desks. Workers sit shoulder to shoulder. The absence of noise (there is no machinery) allows workers to listen to a reader. This also encourages dialogue among the workers when reading doesn’t take place. Workshops and schools were inspired by a monastic model that resembled the refectory where monks sat only on one side of a table with their backs to the wall.

On January 9, 1866 reading began at the Partagás Factory, one of largest and most important factories in Havana. Jaime Partagás, the owner of the factory donated a platform so the reader in turn could read from there. It was like a pulpit but without railing or canopy. First, the owner climbed up the platform and gave a speech; then the reader went up and began reading. The tobacco workshop took on the ambiance of a school or a convent where the “pupils” listen to the voice of the teacher (or a priest in a religious setting). The establishment of the platform in this factory was symbolic because other factories throughout the country followed the same example.

What was read back in 19th century Cuba? Like in the rest of the world, newspapers proliferated in the second part of that century. In Cuba workers listened to newspapers such as La Aurora, El Siglo, El Ajiaco, La Estudiantina, and El Recreo Social, among others. They also listened to fragments of books such as Las luchas del siglo, El rey del mundo, Historia de la Revolución francesa, and Misterios del juego, among others. Workers also listened to translations of poems and essays into Spanish originally written by François-René de Chateaubriand, Victor Hugo, and Friedrich Schiller.

Reading aloud transformed the habits of the workers with regard to studying as well. They began to open schools such as the Escuela para Artesanos and libraries remained open in the evenings so people could go there after work. Therefore, reading served to educate and inform people. In addition, what was read in the factories spread to spaces beyond the workplace such as the home or the workers organizations—a function that only the radio would perform decades later.


Reader Jesús Pereira Caballero, Partagás Cigar Factory, Havana, Cuba, 2003. Photo: A. Tinajero.

Reading aloud was soon threatened by antagonistic factions. On the one hand, it was believed that reading would distract the workers from their work, or that it would create disorder in the workshop. On the other, there was a great fear of educating the masses and awakening in them critical and civic awareness. Conservative factions (Cuba was a Spanish colony until 1898) were against reading. For instance, Víctor Patricio Landaluze drew for the newspaper Don Junípero caricatures whose topics were based on the readers and the important conservative paper, Diario de la Marina openly declared its opposition to reading in workshops. Even though reading continued to gain popular momentum, it was banned in 1866 when the Capitán general of Cuba forbade reading and ordered police officers and factory foremen to monitor workshops so that reading aloud could not take place. It was gradually reestablished in 1868 but the Ten Years’ War exploded the same year and it ended in 1878. Because of this, many factories moved to the United States and reestablished the practice of reading aloud in places like Key West and Tampa in the State of Florida. Reading also spread to Spain. This is particularly obvious in the novel La Tribuna by Spanish writer Emilia Pardo Bazán. This historical novel written in 1882 is about Amparo, a factory reader in a northern town of Spain. Reading aloud in cigar factories was an institution transplanted from Cuba to Spain; there, like in the island, the workers themselves were the ones who read to their coworkers.

Reading in Spain had a very short life, however, in Key West and Tampa it was very successful. The factory owners were mostly Cubans and Spaniards and the workers were from Cuba, Spain and other Latin American countries. In Florida the first people who read in the factories were mainly journalists and they sat or stood on a small platform which was usually located in the middle or at the front of the workshop. Workers used to listen to Spanish-language newspapers such as La América, El Avisador Cubano, El Boletín de la Revolución, Diario Cubano, La estrella de Cuba, etc. These workers in exile listened to chapters of books as well, such as Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, Garibaldi’s campaigns, and Los Miserables. Cigar workers and Hugo had something in common: both were living in exile (in Florida and in Guernsey). In 1870, more than two hundred Cuban women wrote to the French writer complaining about the Spanish government violence used against Cuban revolutionaries. They asked Hugo to intercede in the bloody struggle. The writer replied to them in a letter “Aux femmes de Cuba” where he wrote about the pain of being in exile and the promise that one day Cuba would rise up free and sovereign.


Reader Yuneimis Miló González, Francisco Donatien Cigar Factory, Pinar del Río, Cuba, 2003. Photo: A. Tinajero.

Over time, the platform from where the reader stood or sat was not limited to the practice of reading newspapers and literature. There were poetry readers, actors, playwrights, novelists and even musicians who performed from platform. However, most importantly, the platform served as a political forum for politicians like José Martí.

In 1886 a fire broke in Key West and dozens of factories and business were in ashes. Many factories were reestablished in Tampa. Those who had been readers in Key West moved to Tampa and reading resumed in the newly constructed factories. The cigar industry was prosperous. Cubans established schools, clubs, libraries, and businesses of all sorts. In November, 1891, the members of the Club Ignacio Agramonte invited José Martí to Tampa to participate in an artistic-literary venue. Martí visited the cigar factories and realized that they had a platform and a reader who read newspapers such as El Porvenir where he used to publish his independence ideology and his plans to insurrect against Spain in Cuba. He took advantage of the invitation to spread his political views. One of his most beautiful and persuasive speeches were given in Tampa “With All, and for the Good of All”. Martí needed followers and the cigar workers were more than willing to support him. First in Key West and later in Tampa the most prestigious readers were José Dolores Poyo and Francisco María González. Both were journalists and the former launched the newspaper El Yara.

After Martí’s successful visit to Tampa, he went to Key West which had recovered from the fire that had destroyed almost half of the island years earlier. When Martí arrived into Key West on December 25, 1891, he had asked the leaders of the revolutionary movement from Tampa to accompany him. He visited several cigar factories and in each one of them he was introduced by the readers. He visited the H. Gato factory which employed hundreds of workers. He received such a warm welcome that he knew he had the support of the workers. The owner of the factory, Eduardo H. Gato contributed to Martí’s campaign with thousands of dollars and the workers worked extra hours to contribute to the same cause. It was in Key West were Martí established the Partido Revolucionario Cubano (Cuban Revolutionary Party).

Martí (who was based in New York) kept returning to Key West (and Tampa) between 1892 and 1895, the year in which the Cuban War of Independence began. In Florida Martí found a group of educated cigar workers that ideologically and financially backed him. The readers in factories were also teachers, community leaders, and cultural facilitators. They were very well respected in the factories and in the community. Thanks to the readers Martí was able to visit Florida and thanks to them he was able to agitate the workers.


Reader Ángel Borges, La Caridad Leaf-stripping Plant, San Juan y Martínez, Cuba, 2003. Photo: A. Tinajero.

At the beginning the readers were cigar workers but as time went by a reader (a lector) was hired to read. Workers used to pay the salary of the reader (on Saturdays the reader would collect his salary from the workers); therefore, they would choose the books or newspapers to be read. A vote used to take place and the book that had the majority of votes would win. The reader never had the right to choose the text to be read. Factory owners could never interfere either.

In Florida reading was the cause of heated arguments that caused death. In 1903 two factory workers from the José Lovera Cigar Factory in Tampa drew their guns and fired at each other. It all began when the reader mentioned that one of the possible works to be read was La Canalla [La Curée] by Émile Zola. Some workers objected the reading of this novel because they considered it to be immoral. This was the center of the argument that caused the death of the workers. Reality ended up being more like fiction than fiction itself.

Other Tampa readers like Ramón Rivero Rivero launched his magazine Revista de Florida which he read enthusiastically to the workers. Gradually other Spanish newspapers began to be published and subsequently read in several factories: El Crítico de Ibor City, Revista de Cuba Libre, Cuba, La Opinión and Cuba y América, La Traducción among others. In addition, readers read newspapers from Cuba, New York, Mexico, and Madrid. There were few libraries in Tampa but some workers lent their own books to the factory. Some books came from the clubs established by the workers. Some members donated their books and eventually these were read in the factories.


Reader Lázara Cantero Marino, Pino Guinart Tobacco Factory, Trinidad, Cuba, 2003. Photo: A. Tinajero.

Even though reading in Florida was very successful, it was banned in Tampa from 1921 through 1925. Cigar factory owners were preoccupied of the spread of anarchism and communism, particularly after the First World War. Furthermore, reading was threatened by the invention and popularity of the radio. Factory workers refused for decades to have a radio installed in the factories. They only wanted to hear the voice of the reader. The microphone was a threat as well; however, workers wanted to hear the readings viva voce. The development of machinery to roll tobacco was another element that threatened not only the practice of reading (the noise of the machines makes reading impossible) but the work of several workers as well. On the top of this, the decline of the global economy as the Great Depression was approaching, made reading extremely vulnerable.

The platform of the reader was also the platform for labor leaders. Thus, the platform was in a sense dangerous not only because of the reading, but also because of the spread of labor issues by the employees themselves. Because of several local politics and employment conditions cigar workers went on strike several times. Because of all these reasons reading in factories in Florida was banned on November 26, 1931 by the factory owners who, as a group, declared that it was absolutely forbidden to read anything in the factories. When the workers returned to work the next morning the platforms of the readers had been destroyed. That was the real end of reading in the cigar factories in Tampa. Meanwhile, what happened to reading in Cuba?

Cuba was born as an independent nation in 1903 and even though reading was interrupted during the Ten Year War (1868-1878), and then the War of Independence (1895-1898), reading continued at the dawn of the twentieth century. One of the readers in Havana factories was Víctor Muñoz. He had worked as a reader in Tampa but when the war was over, he returned to Cuba. When reading was reestablished in the Island after war, readers read for approximately three hours per day. Half of the time was dedicated to the reading of novels and poetry and the other half to newspapers. Reading was very well structured: the workers elected a president, a secretary, and a treasurer and each worker paid the latter 15 cents a week (for the reader). This fee was obligatory. The money collected was to pay the salary of the reader and for buying some books and newspapers. As in Tampa, the workers chose the newspapers they wanted to have read to them. The selection of works of literature was more elaborate. Up to twelve books were submitted to a vote and the winner would be read by the reader.

First the reader sat or stood at a platform but in the 20s it was transformed due to the radio. In Havana the radio appeared in 1923 and a couple of radios were installed in large factories. Many workers complained about having a radio in the factory. Likewise, the use of the microphone by the readers was something that irritated many tobacco rollers. On the other hand, the microphone made the job of the reader easier. Over time, the platforms were transformed from being a sort of a pulpit to a wooden platform, like a stage of approximately five yards long by three yards wide where a seat or a writing desk was placed. The reader would read from there with a microphone. Also, readers promoted cultural events and became the cultural facilitators of the same. Besides reading, the lectores promoted dances and venues that even took place outside of the factory.

Santos Segundo Domínguez Mena, the eighty-eight-year-old man who had been a reader for sixty-five years said that before Fidel Castro established the first communist state in the Western Hemisphere in 1959, he used to get paid five cents per worker per week. Therefore, he used to look for large factories that employed a lot of workers. However, after Castro came into power, the salary of the reader was set. He earned 138 pesos per month. That was his salary until 1984. In addition of standardizing the salary, for the first time the reader became a government employee who had to work a fixed work schedule usually from 7:00 to 16:00 (five days a week and two Saturdays from 7:00 to 13:00).

The workforce has been transformed as well. Increasingly more women have been recruited as cigar makers (in the past the majority were males). The same has happened with the readers. In 2005 there were more lectoras (women readers) than men. Of the more than 230 cigar factories that had a reader 137 were women and 97 were men. To become a reader the person must have a good voice. There is no school for reading or training. Readers are self-taught. However, many of them were previously teachers or worked in communications.

When I interviewed Odalys Lara, the reader in La Corona Factory she told me that before becoming a reader she used to work at Radio Enciclopedia on a program called Cita en la Enciclopedia, a cultural program. And Bernardo Campos Iglesias a reader in El Corojo said that he had been a teacher for thirty-six years. Before that, he had earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in the Soviet Union and had been a translator there. A reader in El Laguito Factory, Zaida Valdés, said that she had been an economics teacher all her life but retired young, at fifty-five. When she learned that the factory needed a reader she applied and was very happy about it.

When a position of the reader becomes available the candidates are asked to read a newspaper article or a fragment from a novel. The candidate that receives the most applause is the one who gets the job as a reader.

Since nowadays readers spend at least 8 hours in the factory, they have to carefully consult with the workers the reading schedule and activities. For example, in 2003, at the LV-9 Factory in the town of Santa Clara reader Francisco Águila Medina explained that this was his schedule:

7:45-8:15 — News overview
9:00-9:30 — Reading of magazines or newspaper articles
9:30-10:00 — Music
10:00-10:20 — Radio soap opera
10:20-10:30 — Factory employees discuss production results
10:30-11:15 — Music
12:00-12:40 — Radio program
1:00-1:30 — National news: radio
2:00-2:30 — Reading of novel
2:45-3:00 — Discussion – open topic


Reader Bernardo Campos, El Corojo Plantation Selection Facility, Pinar del Río, Cuba, 2003. Photo: A. Tinajero.

As shown above, reading has been decreased; however, the reader has to be very attentive to the daily schedule of activities. Like with the reading, the workers decide the radio programs that they want to hear. Each factory has its own reading/radio programming schedule.

When I interviewed the readers most of them told me that they had not kept records of the books read in the past. However, in one of the largest factories in Havana, reader Jesús Pereira Caballero recalled having read Don Quixote, Como agua para chocolate by Laura Esquivel, Papillon by Henri Charrière, and El conde de Montecristo [Le comte de Monte-Cristo] by Alexandre Dumas, among others. And in the City of Santa Clara (province of Las Villas) Francisco Águila Medina (who began keeping records of the books read) mentioned that he had read books by F. Mond, Luis Báez, Ernesto (Che) Guevara, Rafael Calleja, Juan Madrid, Antonio Morales Rivera, James Fenimore Cooper, Jules Verne, Sidney Sheldon, Edith Maude Hull, and Agatha Christie, among others.


Reader Jesús Pereira Caballero, Partagás Cigar Factory, Havana, Cuba, 2003. Photo: A. Tinajero.

The reading strategies in each factory depends on the reader and the physical space that separates the transmitter and receiver. It is very important for the reader to see the audience reaction while he/she reads. In most cases the reader sits before a main floor and reads to dozens or hundreds of workers. However, in some factories the readers can’t see the workers. Therefore, the reading dynamics change completely. Francisco Águila said that the audience is very demanding because cigar makers are like artists that are not only good at their craft but are used to listen to readers for years, sometimes decades. Usually cigar workers measure the reading time by the number of cigars rolled. In other words, they know the number of cigars that they can roll in a given reading time. Therefore, the reader has to read most of the time at the same speed and can’t stop reading before the time is up or after. Águila said that it is “pure magic”.

Nowadays and in the last five decades there are only few newspapers published in Cuba: Granma, Juventud Rebelde, and Trabajadores; these circulate nationally. Local papers are scarce but these are certainly read when available; for instance, in Havana, El Habanero or Prensa Latina, in Santa Clara, Vanguardia, and in Guantánamo, Venceremos. Most of them are six to eight pages long. Each reader prepares the reading according to his/her philosophy, of course. Some of them meticulously read the articles ahead of time and study the words that they don’t know. Others think that news should be fresh for both, the reader and the audience.

The order of reading the newspaper is guided by at least two aims. The first is the strategy used to capture the audience attention; the second has to do with the selection of one article of the newspaper over another. This implicitly shows the ideological agenda of the reader. In some factories the reading president marks the parts and the order of reading but for the most part readers choose the order of reading. According to many readers, cultural news and sports are very interesting to the workers so they leave this part for last. Occasionally some discussions take place after the reading of a particular article. The workers take the microphone and give their opinion about it. Therefore, the floor becomes a forum where several individuals participate through an open dialogue.

The reading of fiction (novels, short stories and poetry) is more elaborate. The readers most know in advance where exactly they are going to stop the reading. Universal novels were meant to be read aloud. For instance, the chapters of Don Quixote are very short. Likewise, El conde de Montecristo, Madame Bovary, and Anna Karenina, just to name a few, were published in installments. Therefore, the authors craftly finished each installment (each chapter) in a moment of suspense. Readers in Cuba must be crafty; they have to stop the reading in an interesting point even if the length of the chapter doesn’t coincide with the time of reading. Needless to say, the intonation of the voice is very important when reading works of literature. Some readers like to dramatize the works they read; others don’t.

Overall there is an active participation at the end of each novel read. If a worker wants to give his/her opinion about the novel, he/she can take the microphone and do it. In some occasions, particularly when the workers don’t like the novel, they make sure they say why. In this fashion, there is a fruitful dialogue among the workers and the reader.


Reader Irenia Morales Reyes, Manicaragua Cigar Factory, 2003. Photo: A. Tinajero.

Over time, the duties of the readers have increased. From the platform they announce the worker’s birthdays and they also transform the platform into a “stage”. Sometimes the workers recite poetry or sing for their coworkers and the lector must be in control of what is going on and particularly he/she controls the time. Readers announce anniversaries and important dates such as February 14 (Valentine’s Day), May 10 (Mother’s Day), and June 5 (World Environment Day). Workers engage by singing or reading compositions about these anniversaries. Moreover, the readers are the facilitators of cultural and athletic activities such as baseball. The latter is the national sport of Cuba and many factories have their own teams. The readers must announce the games, the results, the activities related to these, as a sports announcer does in radio or television. In addition, sometimes the reader organizes and coordinate trivia contests where the workers actively participate.

Readers in present day Cuba are the liaisons between the factory and the outside world. They are in continuous communication with cultural and academic institutions and often invite presenters and panelists to discuss issues related to law, psychology, AIDS, history, literature, art, music, sports, and so on. In addition, they invite librarians so they can talk about new books or specific entries of encyclopedias. Without the readers as coordinators of these events these activities would be practically impossible.

Over 150 years have passed since reading aloud was established in Cuba. Even though the practice was banned several times, particularly in nineteenth-century colonial Cuba, nowadays is still very successful. “There will always be a reader in cigar factories” claimed an article in Diario Trabajadores (March 4, 2002). Reading was established with an educational agenda. The founders wanted the workers to learn something while they did manual work. It would be erroneous to believe that reading was instituted in cigar factories simply because people did not know how to read (in the 19th century the level of illiteracy in the tobacco sector was minimal compared with that in other sectors). There is no illiteracy in present day Cuba. Therefore, reading is not practiced to fight illiteracy.

There is an intimate relationship between cigars and literature. Classic works and their authors have been represented on cigar labels and lithographs and the names of cigars and factories are intertexts themselves. For example, Don Quixote, Romeo y Julieta, Montecristo, Sherlock Homes, etc. But of all the books that have been heard by workers there are two favorites: Los Miserables and El conde de Montecristo. Why? The listening audiences has the last word.

Published on <o> future <o>, February 23, 2020.


This article is a summary of the book El lector: A History of the Cigar Factory Reader​ by Araceli Tinajero (translated by Judith E. Grasberg), University of Texas Press, 2010. It is part of a series published on this website on the initiative of Jerome Dupeyrat and Laurent Sfar in relation to “The Gray Library”. Established since 2015, this “Library” is a collection of resources—books, images and objects—at the origin of publications, films, exhibitions and educational projects that explore phenomena related to the transmission and the sharing of knowledge. By focusing on the field of pedagogy and the history of books, “The Gray Library” aims to reveal the aesthetic nature of some transmission processes and their role in the construction of subjectivities. See: Géraldine Gourbe, “La pédagogie d’Other Ways par Allan Kaprow et Herbert Khol, au cœur d’un contexte contre-culturel” [Read]; Marie-Dominique Leclerc, “Lire, écrire, compter avec la Bibliothèque bleue” [Read]; Éloïsa Pérez, “Écrire l’espace: sur la spatialisation des savoirs dans la salle de classe et le manuel scolaire” [Read]; Andrew Stauffer, “To raise books to the level of historical witnesses”, a conversation with Alexandru Balgiu, Jérôme Dupeyrat and Laurent Sfar [Read].