Tobacco shop readers, Cuban heritage tradition

Tobacco shop readers, Cuban heritage tradition

Heritage & Traditions

By Ana Maria Silveira

Works of national and universal literature, information, educational texts ... are part of the workday of Cuban cigar rollers, accompanied since the 19th century by a singular figure: the tobacco factory reader.

The presence of these people in the island's tobacco factories has proven essential over the years and has not given way to technological advances such as radio or recorded broadcasts.

The idea of combining work time with readings was put into practice for the first time in the prison galleys of “cigar-making” workers that existed in the then Arsenal of the Havana Apostadero and historians refer that in 1864 there was already a tobacco factory reader in the town of Bejucal. In Havana, the El Fígaro factory was the first to accept reading in its workshops, in 1865.

The following year Jaime Partagás did it in his facilities and the practice spread, although with some ups and downs due to fears and interests of patrons and colonial authorities. According to the apostle of independence José Martí, the reading table of each tobacco factory was an advanced platform of freedom.

According to insiders, famous cigar brands such as Romeo y Juliet and Montecristo received their names from characters in literary works read in tobacco factories.

This unique profession, practiced today in Cuba by many men and women throughout the country, also has a unique tradition: if the workers are satisfied with the work of the reader, their pins, small curved blades to cut the leaves, will sound against their work tables. But if they are unhappy, they throw them on the ground.

In each factory, the readers are chosen by the tobacco managers themselves, after listening to the applicants for the position for several days, and they propose the books to be read. In 2012, the "Readings of Tobacco Factories" were declared Cultural Heritage of the Nation, a title that recognizes a practice of over a century and a half, which also aspires to become an intangible heritage of humanity.