Tobacco Prose: The Cigar-Factory Readers of Ybor City

Postcard depicting The Cigar Lady of Ybor City, Florida
Images: Boston Public Library

We read to know we are not alone.
–C.S. Lewis

 

On a December evening in 1903, the streets of Ybor City, Florida rang with gunfire. Two men had dueled and, in so doing, sustained grave injuries. One of the duelists, Mexican national Enrique Velázquez, would find himself the worse for the exchange, his bullet wounds carrying him off five days later. His antagonist, Spaniard Jesús Fernández, managed to survive his injuries.

What made the two men fall out so? What insult, what dispute, inspired such passion that only a gunfight could settle, and in a year so seemingly removed from the great age of duels? In the case of Velázquez and Fernández, no woman was to blame, nor any family feud. Rather, it was a novel, Émile Zola’s La Curée, that set in motion the deadly event. The novel’s plot turns on sexual intrigue, some of it verging on incestuous. This would be scandalous enough if read privately. If read aloud, it promised to upend public decency.

Velázquez and Fernández emerged as the fieriest partisans of opinion that had divided the workers of the José Lovera Cigar Factory, where the novel was being read aloud. One camp found Zola’s novel suitable matter for general consumption. The other camp found it quite the opposite, and it pointed to the handful of women employed at the factory as the reason. The camps remained at odds over the matter until it became clear to Velázquez and Fernández, if no one else, that only guns could settle it.

Art was held in high esteem in the José Lovera. Like other cigar factories of Ybor City, which occupies the eastern part of Tampa, the José Lovera had its reader (el lector). A reader was recruited to the position by the factory hands, who tasked him to read aloud as they rolled cigar after cigar. A reader’s text varied. Novels, newspaper articles, even political tracts — all were likely to be read from in a shift. Along with a text, a reader had a pulpit of a sort: a seat elevated above the shop floor from which to be better heard.

The office of reader was born well before 1903, and in a place other that Florida’s Gulf coast. The lore goes that it was the brainchild of Saturnino Martínez, a cigar worker in Cuba (he would in time go on to be a reader himself, as well as the editor of a literary newspaper). Martínez took his inspiration from Charles Dickens, who in the 1850s toured the United States giving lectures. The practice of reading aloud during a shift made perfect sense to Martínez. Rolling cigars was a quiet activity. The only sound it made came from a chaveta, a knife for cutting tobacco leaves. And it demanded little in the way of thought from the individual engaged in it, leaving him brainpower to spare for indulging the imagination with stories and news.

The earliest readers were simply workers who knew how to read. Being tapped for reader duties by peers certainly came as an honor. Yet the honor came at a cost. The lofty reader’s perch called a successful candidate away from his job of rolling cigars, which amounted to calling him away from his wages. For the half-hour to hour that a reader read to his co-workers, he received no pay. To make up for the wages lost, listeners passed the hat among themselves. The money collected went to the reader. Sometimes the subsidy could be quite handsome, especially if a reader showed himself to have real talent.

The practice of reading aloud became an instant success in Martínez’s factory. “Spending hours listening to someone reading speeches, essays, or the chapters of a novel!,” exclaimed the editor of a Cuban newspaper of the time. “This is something better than that to which we are accustomed, and we find it irresistible.” Factory hands did grow accustomed to it in short order, however — so much so, in fact, that many workers refused to work at any cigar factory that failed to offer this perk.

Postcard depicting the interior of a cigar factory in Ybor City, Florida
 

The practice hardened into tradition, and the tradition migrated with the cigar industry itself from Cuba to Florida. The office of reader, meanwhile, evolved, growing ever more professionalized. The readers in these factories came to be regarded as something akin teachers or priests. The comparison was apt: The practice of having someone reading aloud to others as they performed their daily tasks had its roots in the Dark Ages, when Catholic monks listened to religious texts as they dined and nuns to spiritual works as they illustrated books, embroidered cloth, or carried out other duties. The readers of Ybor City, however, were no religious votaries; they were journalists and writers of various social and political backgrounds. And they were nearly all men. The only reader able to crack this boys’ club was a woman said to dress like a man.

Whatever their sex, background, political leaning, or fashion sense, readers read to an audience of diverse origins. Members were as likely to hail from Spain, Mexico, or Italy as they were Cuba. Ybor City’s cigar factories also attracted workers from elsewhere in the U.S., such as Philadelphia, New Orleans, and New York. Lack of formal education was characteristic among them, but it proved no impediment. They shared a love for the works of Cervantes, Shakespeare, Flaubert, and other immortals of world literature. The adventure novels of Dumas père always satisfied and, as already noted, the unflinchingly realistic tales by Zola seldom failed to meet with a strong response. Spanish novelists Armando Palacio Veldés and Benito Pérez Galdós were favorites, as well.

The workers did understand that they sometimes needed a break from the warm bath of literature for a sobering plunge into current events. To this end they charged their readers with reading daily newspapers to them. (Here added distinction fell to readers who were fluently bilingual, as they often had to translate into Spanish English-only periodicals on the fly.) When time came for a return to sweetness and light, a vote was held to select the work to be read next. The ritual served to settle disputes concerning tastes, and it generated real excitement. The winning group of workers would cheer whenever their choice won and would sometimes even gloat. Fortunately, any dispute over reading matter rarely met with tragedy, the shootout of December 1903 standing as one rather shocking exception.

Postcard showing a prospect on downtown Ybor City, Florida
 

Readers took added pains to head off disputes by creating a strict schedule of reading for the working day. The news claimed the morning, with readers reading it for an hour and 45 minutes or so. In the afternoon, fiction ruled. Readers read it for about two hours. “I try to vary the reading as much as I am able,” explained one reader, “not only to please the workers in the shop, but also in order to treat myself with kindness.” The kindness shown to readers by workers could be quite lavish. They gave them fresh Cuban bread, coffee, and cigars for stamina, and generous pay for their service. In 1890, the lowest-earning reader pulled in about $20 a week, which amounts to about $780 in today’s money, with the top-earning readers receiving as much as $125, or about $3,900 today. The basis of their pay was a weekly fee of 25 cents per worker, which they collected every Saturday, the day that closed out the work week, by positioning themselves near the factory door at the end of the shift. Workers who claimed not to enjoy the selections read that week would try to hold out. Yet most workers paid up without complaint; they understood that a more pleasurable selection was bound to make the reader’s rotation sooner or later.

The generous compensation reflected the great difficulty facing any would-be reader. Cigar factory workers had high standards, and they devised tests and trials to ensure the would-be readers could meet them. Candidates were summoned to a bench, there to read aloud a selection chosen by the workers. The ringing of a bell signaled candidates to begin and a second ringing, to end. The workers listened carefully to the candidates’ enunciation and scrutinized gestures they made to bring the story alive. Then they voted by secret ballot for their favorite contestant.

Perhaps inevitably, readers often held firm political and intellectual convictions, and they contrived ways to impart their convictions to the workers. Happy for them, workers in the cigar factories savored polemic and potboiler with equal relish. Indeed, it was the cigar factories of Ybor City and elsewhere throughout the Tampa Bay region that helped incubate the movement to free Cuba from Spanish colonial rule. (The readers themselves took up collections to bring Cuban poet and nationalist José Martí to Florida.) And once Cuba was free, the readers would continue to instigate social change, sparking general strikes, mass protests, and other forms of labor unrest well into the 1930s.

Labor Day has now passed, but we can still keep the revolutionary spirit of the cigar workers, and their beloved books, alive with ropa vieja, the national dish of Cuba.

Ropa Vieja (via Recipe Source)


  • 3 pounds flank steak
  • 1–12 cups water
  • 6 whole garlic, peeled
  • 6 whole black peppercorns
  • salt to taste
  • 8 poblano peppers, fresh
  • 12 cup lard, bacon drippings, or veg. oil
  • 2 garlic clove, peeled and sliced
  • 1 large onion, sliced 18” thick
  • flour tortilla(s)

Cut the flank steak in half horizontally so it will fit into a large Dutch oven. Place it in the pot and cover it with the water. Add the six whole cloves of garlic, along with the peppercorns and salt as desired. Place over low heat and bring the liquid to a simmer. Cover and continue cooking over low heat, turning the meat occasionally, until it is tender and well done, about one and a half to two hours.

While the meat is stewing roast, peel and seed the peppers and slice each pepper lengthwise into strips an eighth of an inch wide. Set aside.

When the meat is tender, remove the Dutch oven from the heat and let the meat cool in its own broth. When it cold enough to handle, remove it from the broth and place it on a cutting board. Slice the meat across the grain into strips about two inches across. Using your fingers, pull the meat into fine shreds. Return it to the broth.

Heat the lard or other fat in a large heavy skillet over medium heat until it is rippling. Crush the sliced garlic cloves and add to the hot fat. Sauté for one minute, stirring frequently. Add the sliced onions and sauté until it’s somewhat soft, about three minutes. Add the reserved pepper strips to the pan and continue sauteing and stirring for about two minutes.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the peppers, onion and garlic to the Dutch oven. Cook the meat mixture, uncovered, over medium heat, stirring frequently until the flavors are blended about 10 to 15 minutes. Serve the meat hot, rolled up in heated flour tortillas.


If you’d like to learn more, please see El Lector: A History of the Cigar Factory Reader by Araceli Tinajero. It was the source of information for this post.

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