Evolving Narrative: Storytelling from Factory Floor to Concrete Pour
It’s strange how you can take note of something once, and then all of a sudden, that obscure thing keeps popping up over and again. When recently teaching James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, published in 1912, I was intrigued by a passage describing the narrator’s employment in Jacksonville, Florida: because of his education, he became un lector, a reader in a cigar factory. Next, the very contemporary A Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli found its way to me, and here again cigar factory readings came to the forefront. Luiselli used the idea of la lectura to create her novel, offering weekly “chapbooks” to workers in Mexico City’s Jumex juice factory to read and discuss in installments. This model wasn’t quite the same as the cigar factory reader, but the shadows are there, and the Jumex workers' comments and anecdotes were foundational to each installment of the novel Luislli wrote. And finally, just last week I had the pleasure here at UNL of hearing Daniel Howell of New York University present on Cuban Nationalism and the active political roles of los lectores and the workers they read to. The topic of readers and workers kept coming at me: there must be something here. And because I often notice the storytelling done by my truck driving cohort, I started wondering about possible connections. So stay with me for a moment, and let's explore...
The practice of las lecturas began in Cuba in the mid-nineteenth century but spread to the United States, and was active until the 1930s: lectores y lectoras would often perch upon a specially built platform in the cigar factory and read aloud to the people working beneath as they stripped tobacco leaves or rolled cigars. Lectores were chosen and paid by the workers (each made a small weekly contribution) and the reading material was also requested and voted on by the people. A day’s reading would often start with the newspaper and end with literary classics by Cervantes, Hugo, or Flaubert (Mormino 8). Part of Howell’s presentation was a clip of cigar factory workers in the 1930s. Watching it is a little surreal, as old films often can be, but it’s riveting (you can view the clip by following the URL in the works cited below).
I am always interested in the ways culture manifests itself in what we term the working class, and what was especially striking about this film was the collective participation of the workers and enjoyment of the text; they are laughing, nodding, sometimes exclaiming out loud in response. In “The Reader and the Worker: Los Lectores and the Culture of Cigarmaking in Cuba and Florida,” Gary Mormino quotes a former factory worker who described the factory and las lecturas as “‘a university,’” highlighting the importance of las lecturas to workplace culture. Lectors disseminated important news of the day, exposed workers to very “literary” texts, and gave them access (through these texts and others) to social and political critical lenses that would of course prove applicable to their particular situations as workers and as citizens or immigrants.
This view of this particular historical moment seems intimately tied with some of today’s working class cultures, and in other ways, not connected at all. Storytelling has an important place within some groups performing manual labor, although it looks very different today.
Let me use trucks drivers and construction workers as examples, since that’s where my expertise lays. If you are an over the road driver, you have a very solitary job, and there’s no instance of this same collective culture sharing that we see in the cigar factories. There is only, well, the radio, and satellite radio does offer channels specifically for truckers. Through this venue we can imagine a similar type of sharing: as drivers perform labor, they are read to or entertained. Yet there is no collective interaction, no group response, no real choice or vote about what is accessible: yes you can call in to the radio host and air your opinions, but responses take place in the cab of the truck, where the driver is alone. This denies her or him the opportunity to truly participate in information sharing: the online class equivalent of the college classroom.
Things work a little differently in construction and the driving jobs associated with that industry. Example: concrete mixer drivers spend much more time around people: they see and interact with workers at job sites, and they see and interact with each other as they wait in the same plant location to be dispatched a load. And yet there is always your own truck to go to, a place to escape interaction if you choose. And of course, when hauling loads, there isn’t a choice: you are alone until you get to a job, you stay there for 20 minutes to 2 hours (load by load), often talking with construction workers on the job site, and then you’re off again. It’s highly variable and you never quite know who you will be talking with in a day. There is shared culture here, but it looks different from the cigar workers' environments or that of long haul truckers. There isn’t the closeness of a factory floor nor the loneliness of a truck cab.
And of course, el lector of yesterday is gone. No one reads to us now. There’s not a lot of time for listening to radio. Does that mean there’s a dearth of culture? (I say no). Or does it just look very different as labor changes over time and across occupations? (Yes!). In construction, information sharing is often done in the form of storytelling, and stories are recycled over and over again. Instead of choosing what is read to us, we create the texts and narratives on our own. Furthermore, we draw from our labor experiences to create - telling, modifying, and retelling stories of labor that happen on or adjacent to the job. It’s not that outside things are never discussed: of course construction workers and drivers talk about family, weekend plans, what’s in the news. It’s just that this isn’t the focus.
What does it mean, then, if the dialogue within a workplace is a self-generated narrative collectively made and rewritten by workers that retains its focus within the workplace environment? Mormino writes that cigar factory workers “were active decisionmakers who attempted to define their own place and position in society, not passive pawns. The ways that immigrant workers used the reader to shape a dialogue with the larger society are suggestive of how institutions entered into this process” (16). But there is no reader here today, no lector, no Madame Bovary, so what is the role of “larger society” and “institutions” in contemporary workplace culture?
I’m not sure of the answer. I argue though that close analysis of the narratives drivers tell would reveal complex issues commonly dealt with in “larger society”: relations between ethnicities, classes, genders, bodies, sexualities, and how all of this is navigated while performing a dangerous job. Perhaps we even do it better, because despite the transitory nature of driving, the construction world is still small. Few of us work really alone; at its most basic, getting the job done necessitates the cooperation of the people laying concrete and the driver who pours it. Ethnicity and gender aren’t theorized for the sake of theorizing, but rather enacted, read, and negotiated in real time. And then weirdly, they are recorded in stories told about a job, retold anecdotally from one driver to another, and embedded into the culture of the workplace. There is no single author, no reading platform, no collective experience of listening, and yet storytelling is as present as it ever was.
In her essay "Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective" Leslie Marmon Silko instructs us in Pueblo storytelling, saying "a written speech or statement is highly suspect because the true feelings of the speaker remain hidden as she reads words that are detached from the occasion and the audience." She continues to explain that "Pueblo expression resembles something like a spider's web--with many little threads radiating from the center, crisscrossing one another . . . you must simply listen and trust, as the Pueblo people do, that meaning will be made" (48-9). The ways in which workers tell stories and use stories echoes this Pueblo practice as narratives and meanings change over time. Because they are created by the workers, because they are so malleable, and because they not readily accessible to people outside the culture, we often fall in to the trap of thinking this cultural practice is only performed and studied in "institutions." Not so, I think, it's just not so.
“Manufacturing of Cigars--Outtakes.” 30 May 1930. Moving Image Research Collections Digital
Video Repository. U of South Carolina. https://mirc.sc.edu/islandora/object/usc%3A16535
Mormino, Gary R. “The Reader and the Worker: ‘Los Lectores’ and the Culture of Cigarmaking
in Cuba and Florida.” International Labor and Working-Class History. No. 54, Fall 1998, pp. 1-18. JSTOR.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. "Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective." Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit. 1996, Touchstone.
"Tobacco Factory Lectors, 1910." Rare Historical Photos.com. https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/factory-lectors-1910/