TAMPA, Fla. — 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 Ybor City and works to keep alive the history Cuban heritage.
The tradition of Lectores began in Cuban cigar factories and then adopted in the dozens of factories in Ybor City during the early 1900s. Each Lector was chosen by committee at those factories. At the end o the week, the workers would pitch in up to 25 cents to pay the Lector 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 tells us 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 a Lectors extended outside of factories. Just ask Patrick Manteiga.
“The readers in our community were seen as intellectuals,” he said.
His grandfather, Victoriano Manteiga who immigrated from Cuba in 1913, carried the prestigious title and later founded La Gaceta, a tr-lingual newspaper that’s still published to this day.
“They would be called in to give speeches, they’d be called on by politicians, “said Manteiga.
Lectors could also spark controversy. The reading of left-leaning articles angered some factory owners. Between that and the introduction of machinery, by the 1930’s the Lector was gone.
But could they return one day?
“Coming to our factory is like stepping back in time,” said Eric Newman.
Eric Newman is with 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,” says Newman. “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.