The Cigar Makers' Strike
An Economic Power Goes Up in Smoke,
1919 to 1945
As a child growing up in Cayey, Puerto Rico, Jesus Colon used to hear a clear, strong voice coming from a big factory down the street. The voice was that of “El Lector,” or the reader. His job was to read from the works of Zola, Balzac, Hugo, or Marx to the rows of cigar makers facing each other as they tenderly rolled fine cigars between their fingers (Colon 1982, 13). Puerto Rican cigar makers brought the tradition of El Lector with them to New York City around the turn of the century. Rolling cigars was not enough for them. Puerto Rican cigar makers also insisted on enlightening themselves about the critical issues rocking the world, enjoying fine literature they might not otherwise read, as well as reminding themselves to “keep on struggling and learning from struggle” (ibid.). What is interesting is not that Puerto Rican cigar makers wanted to work like this but that they could.
The lector symbolized the power of cigar makers and by extension of the Puerto Rican community itself in the pre-1930s period. Though small in numbers and working class, Puerto Ricans were surprisingly successful in pressing their demands both on employers and on government. In their actions and words, cigar makers exhibited pride and confidence that they could generally prevail. The existing literature, however, has generally overlooked this period of relative power for Puerto Ricans. Researchers who have recognized power, on the other hand, explain it as the fortuitous consequence of effective Puerto Rican leadership or of the strategic interests of dominant political party organizations. But the social power of Puerto Ricans in this period was actually the result of the Puerto Rican ability to dance with, even to lead, cigar manufacturers. The evidence suggests clearly that power grew and declined for Puerto Ricans with changes in the capitalist need for their special skill at rolling cigars. The interest in Puerto Ricans was both objective and real.
A perilous, major strike in 1919 by cigar makers exposed the roots of