A Unique Cuban Tradition

The readers in cigar factories

The readers in cigar factories emerged 150 years ago. However, they have gained a place in history because of their unconditional support for the freedom and independence causes in Cuba


Readers in cigar factories are a Cuban tradition, in force since 150 years ago, and have been nominated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as an oral and intangible heritage of mankind.

The reading in a cigar factory took place for the first time on December 21, 1865 at the El Fígaro cigar factory in Havana, as a way of keeping workers amused in their long and monotonous working day, and this singular activity rapidly expanded and it even promoted social struggles, according to the history collected at the Museo del Tabaco (Tobacco Museum)

José Martí was among the most prominent communicators who captivated the attention of the cigar rollers through his speeches for collecting funds for the Necessary War in 1895. The high political and cultural education of the guild, thanks to the information that the cigar factory readers provided, has historically placed tobacco’s rollers among the most advanced union sectors.

At the beginning of this practice, and until the 1960’s, the workers in the sector gave the funds from their wages to pay the readers, whose voice made the days more agreeable and educational for the operators.

The authors of a huge research work entitled The Cigar Factory Readers in Cuba, by Zoia Rivera, MSc, and Ivett Roig Albet and Osmay Kim Men Fong Delgado, consider this kind of reading as an educational practice, in spite of the many difficulties it has had to experience during its existence, it doesn’t have a corresponding counterpart in any place in the world, except in those places where the cigar rollers who emigrated carried out this practice.

These scholars said that in other branches of the Cuban economy like the textile industry and commerce, the introduction of the readers was tried; however, it didn’t work. In a cutting and sewing workshop, during the 1950’s, the manager had the idea of hiring a reader to keep workers amused; but the literary works, though they were attractive for women, couldn’t be listened to because of the noise of the sewing machines, which hindered the expansion of the reading practice.

Later, in the late “El Encanto” shop in Havana, they introduced the initiative of reading news and passage of novels to the employees during lunch time; however, that reading also failed because lunch time was the only recess the workers had to talk.

This work has been traditionally for men. The presence of woman is registered in isolated cases. However, together with the growing incorporation of women into work, and their integration into all the Revolution’s tasks, feminine voices were added, being well-received by the cigar makers. They recognized in women the patient, discipline and sacrifice that the reading activity requires. In addition, the initially low salary of this profession made it so that readers applied for positions of a higher remuneration; thus, women were occupying the reader position in the cigar factories, and they represent the majority in this occupation at present.

This important activity is currently carried out by more than 200 people under the advice of experts of the Museo del Tabaco in Havana.

Idania Álvarez Rodríguez, from the cigar factory in Guayos, in Sancti Spíritus, who has 25 years experience, told the Cuban News Agency (AIN) about the great acceptance readings of universal and Cuban literary works have in the guild.

She explained that she systematically looks for stories dealing with the worries of the staff, about health, legal and technical problems which are required by the workers themselves.

For his part, Armando Ramos Paz, from the Jesús Feriol Leyva cigar factory in Holguín province, said that to be a cigar factory reader requires being a versatile person, having a lot of knowledge and being updated in everything related to the everyday cultural, sports, national and international events in order to be capable of answering the workers’ inquires.

Data from the Tabacuba Business Group of the Ministry of Agriculture, show that almost fifty thousand work in tobacco selection, factories and stalking in all Cuba and are nourished by pieces of advice and stories that are narrated by those seasoned relators.

The journalist Ciro Bianchi says that the cigar factory reading is a “100 percent Cuban tradition since its very beginning. It’s a complete institution. And the date when UNESCO, following the proposal made by Cuba, declares the work of the reader of cigar factories as an intangible heritage of mankind, doesn’t seem to be far away.

Translated by ESTI

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