TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — More than a century ago, cigar factories were filled with hundreds of immigrant cigar rollers, the strong smell of tobacco, and the sound of knowledge.
He sat on an elevated platform, elegantly dressed, holding that morning’s newspaper or popular literature. He was El Lector. His job was to educate and entrance the factory workers whose minds would often drift while rolling hundreds of cigars.
“You had to be well-read, you had to be able to be very dramatic, and you had to know what you were doing, and you had to really be a bit of a lobbyist,” said Kathy Betancourt, who was born in the Tampa neighborhood of Ybor City and works to keep alive the history Cuban heritage.
The tradition of lectores began in Cuban cigar factories and then adopted in dozens of factories in Ybor City during the early 1900s. Each lector was chosen by a committee at those factories. At the end of the week, the workers would pitch in up to 25 cents to pay him for his work.
“My father used to say that the lectores made the cigar makers more informed than most of the people in Tampa, Florida,” remembers Betancourt.
Betancourt said the workers took pride in selecting a lector who would make them well-rounded, and in turn, be able to pass on that knowledge to their children. The responsibility of lector extended outside of factories.
“The readers in our community were seen as intellectuals,” said Patrick Manteiga, whose grandfather carried the prestigious title. Victoriano Manteiga immigrated from Cuba in 1913 and later founded La Gaceta, a trilingual newspaper still published to this day.
“They would be called in to give speeches, they’d be called on by politicians,” Patrick Manteiga said.
Lectores could also spark controversy. The reading of left-leaning articles angered some factory owners. Between that and the introduction of machinery, by the 1930s the lector was gone.
But could they return one day?
“Coming to our factory is like stepping back in time,” said Eric Newman of J.C. Newman Cigar Company, the last of its kind in Ybor City.
Newman says cigar rollers are making a comeback at his factory and with them, so will “El Lector.”
“We’re going to have lectors here,” Newman says. “Not every day, but from time to time and on special occasions.”
The J.C. Newman Cigar Company is undergoing renovations and adding a museum to keep preserving the rich history of cigar rolling and El Lector in Ybor City.