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Lifestyle Stories

Readers played important role in cigar factories

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 10:42 AM

Tampa's cigar factories were a cacophony of noise. Wagons, and later trucks, were constantly delivering tobacco and picking up cigars. The sorting rooms buzzed with talk of current events, and la galeria , the main cigar-making floor, was awash with the sounds of the cigar makers and the tools of their trade — the chaveta (a rounded knife) — tapping steadily on their cutting boards. Heard over these rhythmic sounds was the voice of el lector , the reader.

The lector was paid by the factory's workers to read to them from local Spanish-language newspapers, such as La Traducción, or translate on the fly English-language papers such as The Tampa Tribune or the Tampa Daily Times. They even read novels, including "Don Quixote," "The Count of Monte Cristo" and "Les Miserables." The lector read while seated on la tribuna , a raised platform, so all of the workers could see and hear him or her.

La lectura (the reading) provided an education for the workers, but it also caused friction between the workers and the factory owners. Beginning with the first time a lector took his seat in an Ybor City factory in 1886, owners saw them as a negative influence on their workers. Lectors were blamed for the workers' growing socialist views, slowdowns and strikes. Yet the workers revered the lector.

Generally, the factory workforce elected a committee of workers to audition, select and pay the lector for their factory. The committee usually consisted of three members: a secretary, a treasurer and a presidente de la lectura. During the audition, the prospective lector would have to have both an excellent reading voice — in proper Castilian Spanish — and the ability to almost act out the roles in the novels he read. Each worker contributed to the lector's pay, which approached $75 a week during the heyday of the cigar industry. Factory workers earned approximately $20 a week.

Workers were both generous and ruthless to the lectors, depending on the performance. If they enjoyed the day's reading, they would loudly tap their chavetas on their cutting boards as a form of applause. On the other end of the spectrum, workers could vocalize their unhappiness with a particular reading.

Since the lector was paid by the workers, he or she took cues from them. The lector committee, not the lector, chose the materials to be read. This mattered very little to the factory owners. The lectors were forced out of the factories when what they were reading was deemed too radical. This caused widespread strikes and work slowdowns. The owners would relent, but only temporarily.

Perhaps the most severe reaction against a lector was the action taken against Francisco Milian in 1902. At the time, he was both the reader at the Bustillo Brothers and Diaz cigar factory in West Tampa and the mayor of West Tampa — at the time a separate city from Tampa. Against the custom of the day, the factory owner forbade the presidente de la lectura from collecting the weekly lector fees in the factory workroom; instead, he was required to do so in the street. Milian viewed this as a slight against him and resigned, which was followed immediately by a strike of the entire factory workforce.

Despite his political position, Milian was kidnapped from his office in West Tampa's city hall and taken out into the country where he was beaten by a group of vigilantes. He was then given a choice: leave the area immediately — and permanently — for Cuba or be killed. Milian left for Cuba, but his absence was immediately noticed. A general strike of most cigar factories in West Tampa and Ybor City soon commenced, and Milian returned to Tampa to a hero's welcome. Rather than face execution, Milian returned to his seat in the lector stand in the Bustillo factory.

The next 20 years would see the rise and eventual fall of the power of both the lector and the organized labor surrounding the cigar industry. After a series of long and often violent strikes during the 1920s, over issues ranging from unions to the use of machines in the cigar-making process, factory owners began to replace the lectors with radios. By 1920, all of the factories controlled by the Cigar Manufacturers Association in Ybor City and West Tampa had barred the lectors from their factories. In 1931, during the depths of the Depression and after another strike ended with a decrease in workers' wages, the book also closed on la lectura. In the words of historians George Pozzetta and Gary Mormino, "manufacturers replaced [the lectors] with radios, the final symbolic victory of the new industrial order over the cherished artisan privileges that had for so long sustained Tampa's cigar workers." This, combined with the growing presence of machine-made cigars, the Great Depression and the rise of cigarette smoking, contributed to the overall decline of Tampa's cigar industry.

The removal of the lectors from the factories did not end their influence. Workers would gather outside the factories during their breaks to listen to the readers — free from censorship. Some former lectors would turn their attention to politics and the press. Victoriano Manteiga, a lector in Tampa for eight years, founded "La Gaceta" in 1922. The paper is still in print today and is the only tri-lingual newspaper in the country.


Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He encourages your questions and comments. He can be reached by email, rkp@tampabayhistorycenter.org, or by phone, (813) 228-0097.

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