HAVANA – Every morning Odalys de la Caridad Lara Reyes gets to work, sits down and starts reading aloud. Usually there is a novel. She has a weakness for the books of Victor Hugo and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Lately, during the pandemic, it was all news.
She is one of a small group of tobacco factory readers – a work that has become a unique part of Cuban culture.
“If I was born again, I would be a reader again, because thanks to this profession I have learned in all fields,” said Lara, a small 55-year-old woman with straight graying hair, a deep voice and a perfect diction. .
In front of her, at the La Corona factory, dozens of workers roll the best cigars in the world – San Cristobals, Montecristos, Cuabas.
According to legend, at least cigars like the Montecristos and Romeo y Julietas owe their name even to the books read while they were being rolled.
If they like what they hear, the torcedores shake their cutters. If they don’t, they can drop them to smack on the ground.
During the pandemic, so many cutters have been away so often – sometimes in quarantine or caring for children – that it’s impossible to keep up with a new one day in and day out. So for now, Lara has just read the news, read articles on COVID-19 therapies, the repatriation of migrants or the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.
Sitting on a podium on a wooden stage near a Cuban flag, she will also read birthday reminders and factory announcements, like what’s on offer in the cafeteria.
Historians say the practice dates back to around 1865, when workers at the El Fígaro factory chose a colleague to read to them as they drove – promising to produce more cigars to compensate the missing worker. Later, they contributed to pay a salary. Despite initial resistance from factory owners, the practice spread.
It has become a way for workers to learn. He also helped spread the cause of Cuban independence in the late 19th century – a political activism that led to temporary bans.
Independence hero Jose Marti once went to the reader’s chair to deliver a speech to Cuban emigrants who worked in a factory in Florida, said Spanish teacher María Isabel Alfonso, a specialist in Cuban culture at St. Joseph’s College in New York. The work “occupies a special place in the collective Cuban imagination,” she said.
Today, more than 200 readers are on the staff of state factories. The government declared the work “cultural heritage of the nation”. But the workers always elect the readers and vote on what will be read.
In 1996, Lara, then a mother of two toddlers, was working as a presenter at a radio station when she learned that a position was open in La Corona. She applied and was tested with two men.
“We spent 20 days reading … and when the vote came, the workers elected me as the factory reader.”
She said perhaps the hardest days came in 2016, when she read tales of the death of former President Fidel Castro.
“We cried to see the loss and there are no words to describe what it feels like trying to convey to many people who are also suffering,” she said.