A man reads aloud as his co-workers concentrate on their jobs. His task is to relax and educate those who, without looking at or being distracted by him, hand roll delicate and dark tobacco leaves to make cigars that will eventually be turned into aromatic clouds of smoke.
When cigar makers like what they hear, they hit their cotter pins in unison, against the wooden board of their table as a sign of approval.
When they don’t, they throw their curved cotter pins – tools for cutting and rolling the leaves - to the floor.
Cuban cigars are the best of the world in part because their refined high quality is influenced by the art of cigar factory readers, who inspire cigar makers to indent in the leaves the passion aroused.
The poet Miguel Barnet once said that this is the point at which the immense pleasure of smoking transcends to become a supreme ecstasy.
Cigar factory reading is a unique and original occupation, though not altogether unlike the reading involved in stripping and selecting leaves; another stage of the cigar making process.
Such readers are not found in other industrial sectors and it has, since its inception, been a 100-percent Cuban tradition.
UNESCO will soon, at the suggestion of Cuba, declare the work of cigar factor readers an Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Cigar makers did not always enjoy the luxury of readers. Records reveal that the first was employed at the El Figaro cigar factory in 1865.
Readers soon aroused the suspicion and ire of the ruling class and colonial Spanish authorities. The former because education made workers less prone to exploitation and the latter because pro-independence ideals were being fostered by readers.
In fact, just six months after he had been hired, that first reader was dismissed from his post.
Readers reappeared around 1880 and the influence of anarchist propagandists on the Island at that time helped the trend to take root.
They disappeared once again during the War of Independence in 1896, when many cigar factories moved to Southern Florida.
Cuban cigar makers in Tampa and Key West were an invaluable mainstay of the Revolution. They applauded José Martí’s speeches with cotter pins and the readers platforms became a place for rousing speeches and patriotic appeals.
Throughout this period certain readers were threatened, beaten and had their readings censored because -- as also happened during the Republic -- cigar factory owners always tried, sometimes successfully, to control what workers could listen to.
What did readers read? Works by José María Carretero, who used the pen name El Caballero Audaz, soon gave way to more complex texts by authors such as Zola, Hugo, Balzac, and Cervantes.
The Cuban writer, Carlos Loveira was a favorite. Dumas and Shakespeare took the prize for foreign writers.
Indeed, they were so popular that the names of some of their characters, such as the Count of Monte Cristo and Romeo and Juliet, lent their names to famous cigar brands.
Daily newspapers were also popular and some readers specialized in reading them.
Others were unsurpassed at reading stories. When one reader had mastered both tasks he became a highly coveted “complete reader”, a master of his trade.
Readings today include a long list of Latin American and Cuban writers.
Some cigar makers can repeat by heart complete chapters from important classical and modern works.
Cigar factory readings both entertain and educate and have ensured that cigar makers rank as one of the most advanced sectors of the Cuban labour movement.Share on FB Share on TT