I just learned about an incredible cultural institution that’s under the radar: cigar factory readings. Starting sometime in the nineteenth century, cigar factory workers began to pool their money to pay for a lector, or someone to read newspapers and works of literature aloud while they worked. Most of the workers were illiterate so these readings were a way for them to overcome the monotony of their job and learn about current events and culture. Sometimes if the workers liked a book enough they would name a cigar after it, ala the Montecristo. While this practice spread to factories in other parts of the world, it is only still practiced in Cuba today.
What amazes me most about these workers is how they recognized that there was more to life than making money. While money was obviously critical, they felt a need to reserve a percentage of their pay for the lector.
It seems today that too much emphasis is placed on overcoming poverty in the sense of food, clothing and shelter. I don’t want to make light of the fact that people are hungry or homeless, believe me, but stories like this remind us also not to forget the “poverty of aspiration.” Basic needs are just that—basic. The cigar factory workers prove that no one wants to live in a world without creativity, hope, beauty and all of the other abstract things art and culture provide.