Lectors of Ybor City

Education, Entertainment, and Enlightenment: Lectors in the Ybor Cigar Industry

The Ybor City cigar industry once supported a vibrant immigrant culture, whose core centralized upon the Lector system. What was this tradition and why was it so integral to the cigar making community of early 20th century Ybor City?

In 1878, the 10-year long War for Cuban Independence had come to an end, leaving the country in political and economic ruin. The increased hostility and tariffs that Cubans faced in the direct aftermath of the war caused many to flee the country in search of reprieve and opportunity. Laborers involved in the business of cigar making followed former revolutionary Vicente Martinez Ybor to the cigar factories that he would establish in both Key West and Tampa. The Cuban immigrant cigar makers brought the tradition of the lector with them.

Lectors were cigar factory readers, paid collectively by groups of cigar makers to entertain them while they performed the monotonous task of hand-rolling hundreds of cigars each day. In an era before the widespread popularity of the radio, lectors read aloud as the cigar makers worked. The workers voted on the reading material themselves. Newspapers, political tracts, and popular fiction were all quite common. Besides offering entertainment, lectors provided a workroom education to immigrant cigar workers, offering daily lessons in history, politics, literature, and current events. Historian Araceli Tinajero believes that the lector system’s origins span as far back as the middle ages, stemming from Spanish monks and priests who read aloud from the Bible in order to minister to the masses.

While lectors were both educators and entertainers, they were also crucial to the spread of radicalism and worker rebellion. Their readings encouraged labor radicalism and unionization. “The readers in the role of the educator, disseminated ideas to the cigar workers,” writes historian George Pozzetta. "The lector became a lightning rod for an increasingly militant labor movement…in other words, the reader lights the candle.” The political education offered by the lectors created an increasingly self-aware workforce. Unionization, strikes, and labor agitation followed.

Contrary to popular belief, lectors were not on a mission to instigate labor strife. It is worth remembering that workers were responsible for the material that the lectors read. The education that the workers received from the lectors, coupled with the rise of socialist and communist ideologies of the early 1900’s, caused the workers to choose increasingly provocative reading material, spurring a wave of strikes and insubordination. The most notable lector-influenced strikes were the cigar strikes of 1920 and 1931. In 1931, the lectors themselves became the focus of an increasingly organized labor movement in Ybor City.

This statue depicts Roland Manteiga, long-time editor of La Gaceta, Ybor City’s newspaper and the only tri-lingual (English , Spanish, and Italian) paper still published in the United States. Roland’s father, Victoriano Manteiga, was the founder of La Gaceta, but prior to this, Victoriano Manteiga was a highly esteemed lector in Ybor City cigar factories. The lector tradition declined after the 1931 strikes, but it serves to be remembered, here, in the heart of Ybor City.



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