A man reads while his coworkers toil away. He does so in a loud voice, bringing moments of relaxation and education as his coworkers remain concentrated, without looking at him, rolling the delicate, dark leaves of tobacco between their hands and forming the cigars that smokers will turn into aroma. If they liked what they heard, the cigarfactory workers give a sign of approval at the end of the day by banging their curved knives, or chavetas —ideal for cutting and rolling the leaves— against the wooden tops of their worktables; if what they heard was unconvincing or seemed inappropriate, they will thrown their knives to the floor.
If Cuban cigars are the best in the world, it is because their refined quality is unquestionably influenced by the art of the cigar-factory reader, who leads the cigar worker to permeate those leaves with the passion of their listening. As the poet Miguel Barnet says, it is the only way for that great pleasure in life, smoking, to become a supreme ecstasy.
It is an original, unique task; these readers join those who read during the despalillo (leaf-stripping) and escogida (leaf-sorting) stages of the process of hand-rolling cigars. This is not something seen in other industries. It is 100 percent Cuban, and has been from the start—a real institution. Not too long ago, the UNESCO declared the work of the cigar factory reader an Intangible World Heritage. And recently, it was declared a National Cultural Heritage.
The cigar-factory readers did not always meet with universal approval. Men began reading for their coworkers in 1865, at the El Fígaro cigar factory, and they soon gained begrudging looks and mistrust from the bosses and Spanish colonial authorities. In the case of the bosses, they preferred workers who were ignorant and therefore more easily exploited. The authorities, for their part, feared that the readings would allow pro-independence ideals to take hold. So, the very first reader found himself banned from his job a mere six months after his first reading. However, around 1880, the cigar factory readers made a comeback, and the practice gained ground a few years later as anarchist propaganda began to spread throughout the country. In 1896, with the Independence War, the readers disappeared again. Many cigar factories were moved to southern Florida, and Cuban cigar workers in Tampa and Key West were an invaluable pillar of the Revolution. With their chavetas, they applauded the speeches of José Martí, and the readers made their platforms a place for rousing patriotic speeches.
Throughout that period, readers were threatened and beaten, and their readings were muzzled and censored. This was repeated in later years, under the Republic. The factory owners always tried, and sometimes succeeded, in controlling the materials that were read to their workers.
So, what was read? The work of José María Carretero, who used the pseudonym “The Courageous Gentleman,” soon gave way to more complex texts, by authors such as Zola, Hugo, Balzac, and Cervantes… Dumas and Shakespeare were the most popular; in fact, the names of characters from their books later became the names of famous cigar brands: Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta, and others.
The daily newspapers were also popular reading material, and some readers specialized in that task, while others were unsurpassable in reading literature. When somebody could masterfully take on both types of reading, they were called “full readers,” and they were the most in demand. It was a status gained by entering and winning a contest. The cigar workers themselves organized these events, setting themselves up as a jury and choosing the reader they liked best. As far as we know, up until the late 1960s, it was the cigar workers themselves who paid the readers. Once a reader had been chosen from among the workers, the rest made extra cigars so that the reader's daily quota of work would be fulfilled. That system changed over the years. When readers began to be chosen by contest, their fellow workers would contribute small sums of cash every two weeks to cover the reader's salary.
Today, cigar factory reading materials include the work of a long list of Latin American and Cuban writers. Some cigar workers can recite from memory entire chapters of important classical and contemporary works. They have consumed these books by ear, as the Bible says; they have them in their blood. They are readings that bring delight and education at the same time, broadening out their world, and, in the end, making cigar-factory workers into one of the most advanced sectors of the Cuban labour movement.