Travel causes my writer’s mind to twirl around the possibilities of new stories and characters. My visit to St. Augustine, Florida was no exception. This beautiful historic town swells with cultural narrative, stunning architecture, and beautiful vistas.  My camera clicked again and again, documenting settings and references that impacted me. During that week, two unexpected characters pushed their way into my imagination. One of them has a connection to the cigars.

Photo credit: Gwen Tuinman, Flagler College, St. Augustine, Florida
Photo credit: Gwen Tuinman, Flagler College, St. Augustine, Florida

Upon returning home, I read Karen Harvey’s America’s First City: St. Augustine’s Historic Neighbourhoods and discovered that the town was once home to two different cigar manufacturers: The Carcaba Cigar Company and Martinez, Solla and Carcaba Cigar Mfg. This Cuban/Spanish influence intrigued me. The local library had a copy of the Pulitzer Prize winning Anna In The Tropics, by Nilo Cruz. Thisstory follows the rise and fall of a lector who reads Anna Karenina to the workers in a cigar factory located in an area in Ybor City, an area of Tampa, Florida . This furthered my curiosity and the search for information continued.

The concept of lectors originated in Cuba. A worker, usually a man, would volunteer to read for up to thirty minutes to entertain and inform their colleagues about local issues and political news.  Fellow workers would contribute a few coins to compensate the reader, known as a lector, as the time spent reading aloud was unpaid. The factory owners noted that productivity often increased during the reading period, so they encouraged the practice. As the length of reading  increased to four hour sessions, external candidates were invited to serve as lectors and the position evolved into a respected career.

Left Photo (Historic Martinez, Solla, and Carcaba Cigar Mfg, St. Augustine, Florida Photo by Gwen Tuinman) Right Photo: (Joacquita de la Llana, Lector, 1929, Ybor, Photo courtesy of USF-Tampa Special Collections)
Left Photo (Historic Martinez, Solla, and Carcaba Cigar Mfg, St. Augustine, Florida Photo by Gwen Tuinman) Right Photo: (Joacquita de la Llana, Lector, 1929, Ybor, Photo courtesy of USF-Tampa Special Collections)

In the early days of the lector, many cigar factory employees, both male and female, were illiterate. There was a great thirst for knowledge.  Lectors read novels determined by consensus. They also read poetry, nonfiction works, and newspapers. The people enjoyed hearing about the parallel universe of Les Miserable. They also favoured books by Zola, Dickens, and Tolstoy. Anarchist materials gained popularity as well.

Lectors were gifted orators; some readings might be best characterized as  dramatic performances. The men and women sat shoulder to shoulder in large open rooms, rolling cigars  by hand. The lectors’ voices needed to project to all corners of these spaces, so they read from atop a specially constructed  tribuna or platforms as seen the photographs below.

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Labour organization and political topics were of special interest to audiences. In fact, some lectors began writing their own material to rally the workers’ fervour for change and found themselves transformed into workplace leaders. Such activities led factory owners  to sever ties with their lectors.  Many workers arrived at work to find the platform removed; their lector never returned. Tempers ran hot. These abrupt changes contributed to strike actions that typically ended in favour of the factory owners.

The story of the lector ended around 1930 with the introduction of mechanized cigar production. Without amplification, the human voice could not be heard above the clamour of the machinery. As a note of interest, the Great Depression and increasing popularity of cigarettes adversely affected the cigar industry and pushed the lector into obsolescence.

Another piece of history gone up in smoke.

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