In Cuba, in the town of San Juan y Martínez in 2003, I had the good fortune of meeting Santos Segundo Domínguez Mena, an eighty-eight-year-old man. It was in this town that he shared with me his life's story. For sixty-five years, Mr. Domínguez Mena was a cigar factory lector (reader). In other words, his job was to read newspapers and works of literature aloud to cigar makers while they worked. His memory, withered by age, still brought back vague snippets of his past:
I remember that as a child, in the early 1920s, my mother was a vendor at the doorway of La Caridad [Leaf-stripping Plant]. I had to be there to help her sell ice cream. And the first lector I ever heard from our spot outside the factory used to go there. And I liked it way back then; I really liked reading. Ever since elementary school, whenever parties were planned and something had to be read aloud, it was given to me. I soon grew accustomed to this. I had a better reading voice than other children. The others spoke too softly. I was the one who was chosen for parties. Besides that, I did recitations. When I became a cigar factory lector for the first time, it was because I already liked it.
I asked him about the books he had read aloud, and he told me he could not recall their titles, which was no surprise, since his memory was already failing him. Then he said suddenly: "I liked a few universally renowned novels. After all, Les Misérables was a novel that I enjoyed along with everyone else. It was the best book I ever read. Everybody still likes that work. It's a masterpiece. I read all the novels by Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas that I could get my hands on."
Since he had stopped reading to others ten years earlier, I asked whether, when he read, he read aloud or silently. His answer has stayed with me as if it were written in bold red print: "When I have something important to read, I put on my eyeglasses. I read silently while I get my lips unstuck. I have to pay attention to it, just as others paid attention to me."
The sheer size of his cultural universe and his feeling for the written and spoken word were revealed in just a couple of sentences. Learned authors have expressed the same idea for centuries. Francisco de Quevedo, the seventeenth-century Spanish poet, states in the opening two quatrains of his sonnet "From the Tower of Juan Abad":
Retiring to these deserts now in peace,
with few but learned volumes to be read,
I live in conversation with the dead,
and listen with my eyes to those deceased.
Though sometimes impenetrable they seem,
they mend or they enrich all that I own;
and they, in quiet counterpointed tones
awake, address this life which is a dream.
And Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz writes:
Hear me with your eyes,
since now your ears are far away,
and of former anger hear,
in echoes of my pen, my plaint;
since my rough voice cannot reach you,
hear me deaf, since I am now mute.
But what moved me most about Santos Segundo Domínguez Mena was that his natural loss of memory had condemned to oblivion the texts that he had read and heard throughout his life. This internal library was now erased for all time; its memory is not preserved anywhere.
I learned for the first time what a cigar factory lector was in the autumn of 2000. Curious to learn about the history, I went immediately to the library to research the subject. I started by rereading Fernando Ortiz's monumental Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar and painstakingly consulted his sources. I anxiously dusted off volumes and was increasingly surprised at how little had been written about the fascinating work of these lectores.
One day, much to my surprise, I learned that these cigar factory lectores still existed in Cuba. Without giving it a second thought, I took the first available opportunity to travel to Havana. I had spent so many months in the library stacks wondering about and intrigued by the history of the lectores that I truly was not prepared to meet any of them. The opportunity to go meet them in Cuba was too good to be true, and it was impossible for me to recognize its full impact at the time.
As soon as I arrived, I went to the Partagás Cigar Factory in Havana and asked if I could see the lector. It was 8:00 a.m., and the lector had not yet started to read, so he came out to meet me right away.
"Are you the lector?" I asked.
"Yes, I'm the lector. How may I help you?" he answered.
I wanted to ask him so many questions, but I began trembling and stuttering. I could not believe that lectores still existed, much less that I was standing in front of one of them. It was August 2001, and thus began my research about present-day lectores. Those who had already died could wait for me in the library archives. On that trip, I was able to meet and interview almost all the lectores in Havana. There are but a handful of factories in the capital, but they are huge.
That same summer I had the opportunity to go to Santa Clara, for I wanted to meet at least one lector from the provinces. It was my good fortune to meet one of Cuba's most dynamic lectores, Francisco Águila Medina, the lector at the LV-9 Factory.
During that trip, I also visited writer and ethnographer Miguel Barnet, who, with traditional Cuban hospitality, welcomed me into his home. I told him about my project and my "discovery": there were still lectores! He told me with much enthusiasm that my study sounded not only fascinating but also necessary, for very little had been written on the topic.
At that time, I also had the opportunity to work in the archives of the José Martí National Library under the guidance of renowned Cuban bibliographer Araceli García Carranza. I managed to ferret out a few (though very few) important essays and journalistic articles there.
Over the subsequent two years, I kept in touch with the lectores I had met and returned to Cuba in the summer of 2003 to interview others from the interior. I started by interviewing former lectores in Santa Clara. From there I went to Manicaragua, where I visited not only the factory that bears the town's name, but also a leaf-stripping plant. I was surprised to learn that reading aloud took place not just in cigar factories, that is, in large factories with a number of different departments, but also in specialized workshops in which the majority of the staff is female and whose job it is to strip the leaves (i.e., to remove the stem or center rib from tobacco leaves before they are rolled or cut).
This experience was completely transformational for me. I had never been inside such a dark workshop, where a hundred women were seated in rows at workbenches resembling classroom desks, all doing the same job. I sat quietly among them, and each minute that passed seemed an eternity. The lectora was not reading aloud; it was totally silent. And suddenly I realized that the smell of tobacco was stinging my eyes, skin, and throat. "How grateful these women must be every time someone reads to them," I thought. Then I recalled an article that José Martí had published in 1893 in his newspaper, Patria, which alludes to just such a leaf stripper, Carolina Rodríguez. The article states: "People speak ill of the cigar workers because they do not understand the value of the job these workers do, nor are they capable of doing with their own hands any sort of work; nor can these people understand at all the value of a life that is both free and respectable." With his customary brilliance, Martí was aware of oral reading in workshops and the enrichment it afforded the employees and thus adds: "This woman, who defied death for years on end, who is well versed and discerning with regard to the classics of history and literature, who fearlessly speaks her mind in a living language that naturalness and honor tend to endow with literary beauty, earns her daily bread . . . in her leather chair, before her leaf-stripping barrel." There is no doubt that reading aloud—especially in the context of the overwhelming monotony to be found at a leaf-stripping workshop—not only educates, but also enriches the spirit.
I left my experience with the leaf strippers behind me and went to the town of Trinidad, where I interviewed two more lectoras. Next I went to Sancti Spíritus. I started at the Pedro Larrea Factory, which is located in the city proper, and from there went to Guayos and Cabaiguán. Since I was again so close to Las Villas, I decided to go to Placetas to interview that city's lectora. Afterward, not knowing what to expect up ahead, I headed east. When I reached Camagüey, I was lucky enough to spend a few days at El Surco Cigar Factory, where I spoke with cigar workers and the lectora, who had been reading in that same place for no fewer than thirty years.
The Day of the Cigar Worker, May 29, was drawing near; I thought it would be a good idea to go west to the province of Pinar del Río, the most fertile tobacco-producing region in Cuba. I began by visiting the Francisco Donatién Factory and the Niñita Valdés Leaf-stripping Plant. I also traveled to the remote location of El Corojo Tobacco Plantation near San Luis, where I met lectores who read without microphones to huge audiences. In Viñales, I was unable to meet the lectora at the VD-31 Leaf-stripping Plant, but I interviewed a charismatic former lectora who was much beloved in the cigar community. My travels ended with visits to workshops in San Juan y Martínez, source of the best tobacco in the world. Here I met Santos Segundo Domínguez Mena, the elderly gentleman who had spent his whole life reading aloud.
This book covers the history, culture, and literature of cigar factory lectores in Cuba, Spain, the United States (including Puerto Rico), Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. It is a story that must be told, because reading aloud to a group is a cultural practice that has gradually been lost over the centuries, and few people have taken on the task of making a record of who did the reading, what was read, and who the audience was. Reading aloud in cigar factories is a unique institution that traces its roots to nineteenth-century Cuba, and from there spread to several other parts of the world.
I knew I would have to do research in Florida, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico as well. Although reading aloud continues only in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, my research about other parts of the world has been quite fruitful, as it has brought into view again a cultural practice that had been relegated to oblivion.
As my background is in the field of literature, I am used to analyzing only written texts. Nevertheless, this research project required me to conduct interviews with real people in order to give structure to this history of the practice of reading aloud. To that end, as is often done in anthropological and ethnographic studies, I developed a questionnaire for use in each interview. In it I asked how the lector began to practice the profession, what material was read, who chose said material, which books had been read in the past, which books the lector enjoyed reading most, which books the audience liked best, which books had been read more than once, and so on.
In the case of Florida, where the practice of reading aloud was discontinued decades ago, I had to resort to consulting historical texts, mainly newspapers. This was an exhausting exercise, but necessary and worthwhile, for I recovered crucial facts about reading aloud in Spanish in Key West and Tampa. In the Dominican Republic, I conducted interviews and witnessed how reading aloud is still going on in that country. In the case of Mexico, I interviewed cigar workers in the state of Veracruz, who had only heard about the lectores of yesteryear. There remain only bits of information and literary texts about reading aloud in Spain and Puerto Rico, which nevertheless have contributed greatly to this study of the history of reading aloud.
The last two decades have seen important studies about the practice of reading aloud in a variety of time periods and contexts. Still, there is a minimal number of projects that focus on the history of reading aloud, precisely because it is difficult and sometimes impossible to discover what was read during a certain time to a group of listeners. Therefore, this study attempts to recapture a cultural practice of critical importance.
I begin Part I with an overview of the tradition of reading aloud and later concentrate on the institution of reading in cigar factories in nineteenth-century Cuba. Afterward, I analyze reading aloud in Spain at the end of the same century. Part II centers on reading aloud in Key West, Tampa, New York, and Puerto Rico from 1868 to 1931. Part III deals with reading aloud in cigar factories in Cuba from 1902 to 2005. Because reading aloud has also played an important role in Mexico and the Dominican Republic, I cover in this section the tradition in those two countries as well.