Ybor Cigar Workers

By the 1890’s Ybor city’s cigar industry was booming. Over the past decade the small community had grown from 800 people to 5,000 on their way to 16,000 by the turn of the century. Workers flooded in from all over the world, but the largest group was from Cuba.

These Cubans where, by and large, dissatisfied with the Spanish rule of their island and wanted an independent nation. They were revolutionaries at a distance. It was common to give weekly a day’s wage to fund the cause of Cuban Independence. This resistance eventually resulted in Spanish-American war and ultimately independence.

This community of everyday revolutionaries changed the world. You shouldn’t divorce their accomplishments from the structure of their daily lives.

Two bedroom homes were built around the cigar factories. They housed children, parents and grandparents. It wasn’t a company town, it was an industry town with many companies producing cigars nearby. Early morning fresh Cuban bread was delivered to the house straight from the bakery.

It took at least 6 months of apprenticeship before you were able to work on the factory floor. They took their craft seriously and put great care into it. They might not know how to read, but there was no one better in the world at making cigars.

The majority of these workers would be rolling the cigars in a giant room hundreds of them at their desks side by side rolling cigars. The smell of tobacco leaves obviously, but also delicious cuban coffee from someone walking around with steamed milk and coffee delivering it directly to the workers’ desks.

Sure, you’d hear the sound of their knives chopping leaves, but above that, both in volume and in physical height, was the reader. Perched above everyone to be heard by everyone. He’d be reading the paper aloud. Either a spanish paper or he’d translate in real time an english paper into spanish. Later he might read Don Quixote and then finish the day reading a political tract by José Martí, the “Apostle of Cuban Independence”, who often came to town to speak to them.

After work they would go home to wash and eat. Then the men would head out to Marti-Maceo if they were Afro-Cuban or Circulo Cubano if their skin was lighter. (This was the law in days of Jim Crow and it was still the south, sometimes even requiring spliting members of the same family.) They would drink, play cards or dominos and talk. These clubs were the social centers of the community. On the weekend were formal dances. If a family member was sick they provided some of the best medical care available at the time.

Recently I toured one of those small two bedroom homes. There was a family on the tour too. The mother turned to her 8 year old daughter and told her how lucky she was not to have to share a room with her younger sister like these workers’ families did. Not to diminish the nicety of personal space, but standing in that home I was overwhelmed by how much we’ve traded for personal space.

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