What do cigars and the Anarchist revolution have in common? The history of both is intertwined into a fascinating story. It all started around 1865 when much of the western world began to industrialize rapidly. In the years between that and the Second World War, the working classes fought for workers’ rights and started unionizing. At the time, people saw these activities as communist and anarchist ideas, and many of the statements and people endorsing them were openly members of these groups.
It is essential to mention that these ideas are not totally the same as in our modern world for historical purposes. Not to get into it too much, the ideas presented at the time mostly revolved around workers’ rights and the 8-hour day, although violent groups existed on all sides. This is where our story begins, the El Lectors, those famous cigar readers we have heard so much about.
A “Lector” is the person in a cigar factory who reads to the workers. In earlier periods they took time out of their shift to read, and the audience of torcedores (cigar rollers) would chip in money to the Lector for his lost wages while he was reading. Eventually, these lectors became paid positions as we know they read stories such as “Romeo and Juliet,” “Count of Monte Cristo,” and “Don Quixote,” which inspired the names of future cigar brands in Cuba.
There is a more exciting twist to this story that is rarely discussed today. These lectors read newspapers, specifically anarchist and revolutionary newspapers, to the other cigar factory employees. You may be asking yourself how this might have been allowed. Cigar factory employees were in cigar unions. One of the most popular was Cigar Makers International Union, led by the famous union leader Samuel Gompers for a while. Unions and the high demand for cigars gave these employees an edge over other industrial jobs of the era.
The cigar industry, like many workers, wanted to see changes to their conditions internationally and domestically. It won’t surprise many that immigrants filled these positions, and of course, a lot were Cuban. These anarchist newspapers being read were in Spanish to help keep American English readers from reading them. It was no mystery what they wanted to see, a rapid and dramatic change to working conditions.
Jose Marti was one of these revolutionaries who leaned on the lectors to spread the message to the people of making changes in their home country of Cuba. Jose Martí is also a brand of cigars and the name of a factory in Cuba called Empresa de Tabaco Torcido José Martí. Martí and many of these Spanish anarchist newspapers operated out of none other than the cigar city itself, Ybor. Martí would not see his revolution succeed as many historians have stated he prematurely left the United States to return to Cuba to start his revolution which was violently crushed. He was killed in a minor skirmish between his and the Government’s forces in a rather anticlimactic way. The United States had a part to play in this story as it seized Martí’s ships and the supplies on board before they left the U.S. ports.
El Lectors, the celebrated readers in the factories the Revolutionaries, Communists, and Anarchists’ days would not last. The workers at the beginning of the twentieth century started to see a mixture of a crackdown on their activities and organizations. They also did see increased rights to working conditions in dramatically changing times. Here, the cigar industry switched to reading more and more stories. However, in Cuba, history reminds us that they continued to embrace revolutionary ideas waiting for the day to topple their government.