“Los lectores”=why Cuba has the highest literacy rate in the world

A lector, or reader, in a Havana cigar factory around 1907

A lector, or reader, in a Havana cigar factory around 1907

Hanging out by the pool at the NWP Resource Development Retreat in Austin, someone brought some cigars as a gift for another in our cohort, and I was reminded of the story of the lectores in Cuba’s (and later Florida’s) cigar rolling factories. It was a fascinating phenomenon, organized by the workers themselves, not their employers. The lectores were paid by contributions from the workers. There were many struggles and much resistance from the bosses.

The readers would read the newspaper, cover to cover, in the morning, and some piece of literature in the afternoon. Even those working in the fields would gather when they could near the rolling barns to listen. This tradition is a major reason why the Cuban Revolution’s early literacy campaign was so successful–almost the entire population had been listening to stories for hours a day for many years. Within less than a year, I believe, Cuban had achieved nearly 100% literacy and still has the highest literacy rate in the world.

Many lectores were quite highly paid, and had a status comparable to today’s rock and movie stars.

I couldn’t find a good account of the early Cuban history of the lector phenomenon, but there’s a great interview by Studs Terkel with Jose Yglesias, author of The Goodbye Land, In the Fist of the Revolution and An Orderly Life, about the early history of the lectores in Ybor City, the Cuban enclave in Tampa, Florida.


Fred is a Teaching Artist, an arts integration advocate & a social justice activist. He is near completing a two-month Residency as String Game Performance Teacher at Calabasas Elementary School in Watsonville, CA, and performed at the 2015 Santa Cruz Storytelling Festival. He also serves as Teacher Consultant for Professional Development with UCSC's Central California Writing Project and as their Technology Liaison to the National Writing Project. He is a Connected Learning Facilitator and coordinates Face To Face Drop Ins on Connected Learning biweekly at Arts Council Santa Cruz County. He teaches self-directed & connected learning via real-world projects & string games through his Original Digital Project, an Associate of the Arts Council.

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One comment on ““Los lectores”=why Cuba has the highest literacy rate in the world
  1. rxena77 says:

    I sadly wonder America’s literacy rate would be? We graduate students who cannot read on an adult level. To read well is to have the door open to the possibility to thinking well. Your blog is fascinating and insightful. Roland

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