By Javier Otazu
HAVANA – They’re called “cigar-factory readers” and for almost 150 years they have entertained the workers who hand-roll cigars in factories all over Cuba.
The Cuban government has suggested that these unique readers be designated as part of the world’s Intangible Cultural Heritage that the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization will vote on, together with another 110 candidates, at a the meeting to be held in Abu Dhabi beginning next Monday.
In medieval monasteries, a monk read from the Bible or other sacred texts to the brothers while they were having their meals. In the same way, cigar-factory readers stand on a platform and read to their co-workers, often for their education, though time is also allowed for horoscopes, sexology, novels and kitchen recipes.
Documents show that the custom began in December 1865 when a learned magnate called Nicolas de Azcarate decided to provide entertainment for the workers during their tedious job of hand-rolling cigars hour after hour, and at the same time teach them about progress and reformist ideas.
In just six months the example spread across the island and more than 1,000 reader jobs were created. The workers chose whoever among them had the best enunciation and raised the money to pay the selected reader themselves, Zoe Nocedo, director of the Old Havana Tobacco Museum, told Efe.
The choice of books at the time was a matter of negotiation: there were employers who imposed dull tomes of Spanish history on the cigar-rollers, but factories with more active unions brought in works by Victor Hugo and Emile Zola and so helped incite the growing anarchy.
In 1886 Spain’s colonial Captain General of the Island, Francisco Lersundi, pressured by the conservative bourgeoisie, banned the custom with the argument that is “makes workers undisciplined and they stop paying attention to their work,” but in 1890 it was reestablished, this time forever, Nocedo said.
The birth of radio could have put an end to the reader, but the custom was so deeply rooted that the factories alternated, as they do today, periods of reading with radio programs.
The readers nowadays are state employees with an enviable status: they read 90 minutes a day and spend the rest of the time preparing new readings or debating with the workers the meaning of what they have heard.
Amid the sweet cigar aromas and standing on a platform with a microphone heard throughout the factory, Jesus Pereira, 44, entertains his fellow-workers by reading to them in three sessions: the first two obligatorily dedicated to the press and the third to novels or self-help books.
It is Thursday and today it is time to read “40 Tips about Sex,” a text suggested by a group of female workers who complained about certain bedroom habits, and that had to go through the filter of a “reading committee” before being voted on by the workers.
The advice being read sometimes gets a laugh or a smile, sometimes protests, and the cigar-rollers can show their agreement or disagreement by banging the table with the curved knives they use to cut tobacco. One bang with the knife’s edge means “I don’t like it,” while a bang with the flat of the blade is a sign of approval.
Pereira is proud of having read to his 630 fellow workers at the prestigious Partagas factory from novels like “The Da Vinci Code” and “The Count of Montecristo,” and says that detective and suspense novels are the ones they like best.
Once when he was finishing a novel, he realized that the last two pages were missing, so he invented an ending and nobody was the wiser – the tobacco knives banged loudly that day, he recalled proudly.
Jesus is very popular because in his 23 years on the job he has added “special effects” – he imitates gunshots and doors slamming, cries out in a woman’s voice and in many other ways adds drama to his reading.
Like all cigar-factory readers – there are 213 on the island – he had a 30-day trial to win the favor of his demanding audience and get those tobacco knives banging loud and strong. EFE