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An Ybor City Resident Describes Work in the Cigar Factories

The family of Cesar Marcos Medina moved from Cuba to Ybor City in Tampa, Florida in 1903. In this interview, Medina details the experiences of his father, who worked as a lector (reader) in the city's cigar factories. Medina also describes the frequent labor unrest in the factories, as well as the effects of education on the workers there.

Gary Mormino (interviewer): What made your father move to Tampa, immigrate to Tampa? And your parents—

Cesar Marcos Medina (interviewee): Envy, and the opportunity that Tampa offered, and the fact that Tampa at that time was already becoming a big cigar center and that there were more opportunities here, better living conditions.

GM: Were conditions getting worse in Cuba under the American flag?

CM: No, I wouldn't say that. But I think that the cigar industry here offered more opportunity. The wages were higher.

GM: Right. And when did he move—immigrate?

CM: In 1903.

[...]

GM: Um hm. Right. What are your very first memories of Ybor City?

CM: Well, lots of old buildings, wooden sidewalks, wooden block streets that they used to use instead of bricks; they would have—the streets were paved with wooden blocks. Very small homes, hundreds of them. People—mostly everybody working at cigar factories. Already many women getting involved in that. Young children going to work when they were very young: thirteen, twelve, fourteen. Going to the factories. Fortunately, I never had to do that, but it was quite common.

GJ: How did your father become a lector? Did he ever talk about that?

CM: Well, my father, of course, always liked to read, and he had a very strong voice and quite a strong personality and he—you know, to be a lector in those days, not only did you have to read, but you had to kind of improvise the voices of the different parts of the novels, you know, if it's a woman, a man, a weak man, an old man. So you had to be more or less like an actor, similar to an actor, and he was very good at that. Of course, if you read in that factory, you had to be good, because that was one of the largest in the city and you had to have it—like I was talking to this young man. They had no sound system. You had to have a voice that could carry to the extreme end, see, because if they didn't hear you, they wouldn't pay you.

Gayla Jamison (interviewer): (laughs) Sounds fair.

GM: Merit, merit pay. That's what it is.

CM: Right, and of course the cigar makers themselves paid. The lector was not an employee of the factory. The lector was an employee of the workers there. They could throw him out, and they would have to tell him what they wanted him to read in the literature. They would send a bunch of suggestions, and then they would run an election, and you say, "Well, I wanted him to read Edison's biography," or, "I want to read The Life of Napoleon," or whatever. And they used to read some very deep material, so they were very well informed. So then they would meet in these coffee shops at night and they would argue about everything under the sun. Then they got to be so smart that the cigar manufacturers got concerned, and they said, "No more reading. These people are getting too smart, and they are getting ready to have a union and they are going to make trouble for us. No more readers." That's how the reading stopped.

[...]

GM: What are your memories of your father at night, what was a typical evening? Give me an idea of you coming home from school, and just tell me your family memories.

CM: Typical evening of the average man in Ybor City was that soon as he had dinner, he wanted go to the coffee shop and have coffee and talk to his friends, or go and meet with somebody. My father generally would take me, as I got a little bit older, with him. And his main interest was medicine, so his contact was mainly with doctors, and we would go to a drugstore that was called Franco on Seventh Avenue, where a lot of doctors would meet there and just chat and discuss a lot of things. Conversation was a big thing in those days. People talked a lot. They didn't have television, they didn't have radio, so your way of communication was conversation. And we'd go there, and I got to meet a lot of the doctors. And that's how my interest developed in medicine, see, which of course later on is how I've been in the hospital business for many years, which I've enjoyed.

[...]

GM: You must remember some of the great strikes in Ybor City. You would have been old enough to remember the 1910 strike. What goes through your mind when I mention that?

CM: That was a rough strike. You know, they hung two fellows in West Tampa. And the citizens committee—so-called citizens committee—came to Ybor City and they would just beat these people up. And they would have to scramble and hide, because they wanted them to go to work. Course, that was the beginning of the union. I was a little bit communistic at that time, because I was already beginning to be able to read and make my own opinions—and of course my father being in management, that was kind of bad because I felt that the unions had a place in view of the fact that they, like I, saw in those days that the owners were abusing the workers.

GJ: In what way did you think that they were abusing the workers?

CM: Well, they were working them very hard. They were paying them very little. They would have tremendous power; if anybody did anything they would ostracize them. He couldn't work in the community, you know. Oh, they—but then, like in everything, then my first job was working in the cigar factory here. I hated the cigar factories, but I had to have a job, and I worked in the office. The time came when the owner could not go to the second floor to inspect the workers, cause the unions would prohibit the owner to go up the step to the galería. It got to be—we go from, you know, when you push somebody, and then of course the resentment is built there—bitterness, you know then they're going to show, and it took a long time before a better understanding among the labor group came about. Younger people came in, the old ones faded out of the picture, and there was a better understanding. I was only in that factory-—oh, about two years.

[...]

GM: Many, many people, if you read the newspapers at the time—the Tribune blamed the lectores for these strikes. That the lectores were radicals, they were fomenting revolution from the (inaudible). What do you think?

CM: Well, you see, this business of being radical is the moment that people become educated. One of the things about education—of course, my son used to go to the University of Chicago, and he used to worry about some of these things—you begin to question, see. If you're ignorant and they tell you this is good, and you know no different, you accept it, but if you've been in a place that is nicer than this, you say, "Wait a minute. I don't buy that." And then, if you know in the working field that in other places people are being treated better and there are other advantages and so forth and so on, socially, then you begin to say, "Hey, why can't I have some of that?"

Source | "Cesar Marcos Medina oral history interview," Ybor City Oral History Project, University of South Florida Library, http://digital.lib.usf.edu/SFS0022545/00001.
Interviewer | Gary Mormino, Gayla Jamison
Interviewee | Cesar Marcos Medina
Item Type | Oral History
Cite This document | “An Ybor City Resident Describes Work in the Cigar Factories,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 17, 2018, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/2491.

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