Left: Loudreader reads from the newspaper Below: Luisa Capetillo Loudreads in a tobacco factory

A century ago, at the same time that the celebrated Bauhaus, under the direction of Walter Gropius, kept women away from the main disciplines of architecture, sculpture, and painting, in the US colony of Puerto Rico, a group of tobacco workers, organized in anarchist syndicates, created a simple and fascinating alternative practice of education. That practice grew international networks like tentacles over the map of the Americas, from San Juan to New York, from Ybor City and Durham to La Habana and Santo Domingo, giving birth to what some historians call the most enlightened proletariat force in the continent.

The practice was simple. While tobacco workers engaged in the alienating labor of rolling cigars, they would hire one of their own to read aloud for them during the entire work-day. While the readings consisted mostly of newspapers, magazines, and literature, the Loudreaders focused on Darwin, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Marx, and Engels fomenting an anti-capitalist, decolonial imagination. As the practice of loud-reading grew, the lectores (Loudreaders) will become traveling performers with an international audience, creating new networks of solidarity all around the Caribbean as well as a massive, shared, and open access oral library to workers who were denied any other form of formal education. The tobacco workers turned the mind-numbing characteristics of their repetitive, manual, and boring work of rolling cigars into an advantage, using the same space and tools of their capitalist exploitation to create an anti-capitalist underground culture.

At first glance, the practice of the lectores could seem ironic: exploited workers at the bottom of the capitalist global machine produce tobacco, a highly addictive substance that generates more demand the more it is consumed, schooling themselves in an anti-capitalist culture of liberation through revolutionary books (anarchists, feminists, communists) read aloud while working for the same machine they are criticizing. From the perspective of the modern cynic, the lectores seem to be secretly working for the tobacco corporations serving the purpose of making the workplace more bearable, selling the illusion of an anti-capitalist society in order to make their capitalist machine more efficient and their exploitation inescapable. Thelectores, in this cynical depiction, in a Huxleyean twist would be selling a drug that would keep the workers hallucinating better worlds while being endlessly exploited in this one.

However, this was not the case. Luisa Capetillo and feminist, activist, and suffragist Juana Colón (the self-taught daughter of slaves) led a series of massive workers strikes blew up in the tobacco factories, first in the municipality of Comerío, and then around the main island causing multiple arrests and deaths of protestors at the hands of the police. Parallel to the practice of loudreading, other forms of solidary efforts executed by Capetillo, Colón, and other leaders like Dominica González, Concepción (Concha) Torres, Genara Pagán, and Franca Armin challenged the mainstream male-driven workers organizations with feminist voices. These practices include comisiones(consisting of collecting money and provisions for the striking workers) and attending mítines, raising their voices during the tribunas to challenge the arguments being made by male speakers, as well as creating a network of support and providing food and clean clothing for workers imprisoned during the strikes.

Luisa Capetillo: LOUDREADER

Luisa Capetillo (b. 1879, Arecibo) was a worker, writer, labor organizer, and Loudreader. In a time when Loudreading was mostly performed by men, Capetillo—who had been arrested in La Habana for wearing a shirt, tie, pants, and short brim hat—offers a model for contemporary forms of Loudreading. In Puerto Rico, Tampa, and New York, Capetillo will Loudread texts by Kropotkin, Bakunin, Malatesta, while serving as a syndicalist representative for the workers and creating and distributing emancipatory propaganda.

In 1909 she publishes La Mujer (Women), and the following year publishes La Humanidad en el futuro (Humanity in the Future), a utopian tale centered around a central strike. She writes about freedom, sexual education, and the rights of men and women.

Notes Araceli Tinajero, El lector de tabaquería: historia de una tradición cubana , (Madrid: Editorial Verbum, 2007). 

Luis Othoniel Rosa, The Tobacco Intergalactic School (Postnovis Branch in the Americas)’ Feb. 1st, 2019 – Feb. 1st, 2031

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