Tampa Cubanos:  race, class and identities


Maura Barrios



The current renaissance of the historic Cuban cigar-maker community of Tampa/Ybor City causes Tampeños to marvel at the real estate prices tagged onto their grandparents’ abandoned shotgun cottages.  More shocking are the clutter of theme bars, art galleries, trendy shops, restaurants, cigar smoking college kids, loud music (none of which are Cuban) on the same Seventh Avenue strolled by José Martí and Paulina Pedroso.

Earlier attempts to lure tourists to the declining factory town packaged as the “Cigar City” or “Latin Quarter” by the Ybor Chamber of Commerce, with images of Spanish flamenco-dancing señoritas failed to attract more than a few busloads of Yankee senior citizens.   In the 1970s, the City was designated as historically preservable and bronze markers were erected to remind everyone of its glorious past.  Then the Cuban cigar community was “discovered” by the University of South Florida (USF) History Department faculty. Professor Lou Perez’ challenge to contest the tourist history, titled “Radicals, Workers and Immigrants in Tampa” inspired several works by labor and social historians.  Mostly, these works emphasize the multi-ethnic solidarity of the Cuban-Spanish-Sicilian or “Latin” community and only briefly mention Afro-Cubans.  They portray Tampa Latin history as primarily a class conflict between “Anglos” and “Latins”. 

As a Tampeña student of history, I was inspired by the new social histories that explained my grandparents’ weird political ideas -- better understood in their proper historical context – the times of radical -immigrant-anarchist-socialist-Cubans who worshipped José Martí. 

This research project titled Race, Class & Identities: Cubans in the Deep South, is the product of a seminar on comparative race relations with another USF history professor, Alejandro de la Fuente.  The seminars inspired a second look at Tampa Latin history, through this new comparative race relations lens. 

 This new perspective revealed the extraordinary:

1)      Cubans were lost in those histories – (though they are the majority ingredient in the multi-ethnic meltdown)


2)   Information about  black/white race relations within the community is also lost




I began to wonder if those two missing pieces weren’t somehow related.  And many questions followed: How and why did the Cubans of Tampa, the vanguard of José Martí, metamorphosized to ‘blanco’ or “Latin” or “Spanish”?  Did the dominant Anglo culture of the Deep South contribute to that change?  Did Cubans “whiten” in response to external pressures or were those tendencies inherent in their emigrated cubanidad?  How were Tampa/Cuban race relations affected by the island customs?  Could the Cuban history of Tampa be recovered?   Could the taboo issue of race be examined clearly, chipping away the hardened “myth(s) of racial equality” formed by José Martí, the social historians and the Latin community?


 In searching for Cubans in the historical works on Tampa, I noticed a construction of multiple identities in response to a variety of social, economic and political forces.  These “layered” identities could be traced historically, perhaps: In the beginning and at the core is ‘cubano’ – the vision of nation (cubanidad) developed with José Martí  in Tampa.  The Latin communities of West Tampa and Ybor City were “Cuban to the core” in the early years.  After 1898, the notion of a “raceless” nation was challenged – Cubans had to choose, were they blanco o negro?  Why or how did these transitions occur -- as a result of the external pressures from the dominant Southern-Anglo society or more related to the conditions back home in Cuba? If the Cuban radical  “culture of labor” could form alliances with Spaniards and Sicilians, the multi-ethnic “Latin” solidarity found to be so unique in U.S. history – are those alliances always white.  At the same time there is a change in political status from “exile” to “immigrant”.   And sometimes Cubans became “Spanish” on their way to ‘americano’ -- but they are never “Cuban-American”.  



Cubano/cubanidad  (circa 1886)

Most of the historical work on Tampa Cubans focuses on the cigar industry’s 1886 move from Key West and the subsequent period of the Cuban independence struggle. Tampa’s Cuban communities - Ybor City and West Tampa - were built on a foundation of Cuban cigars in the swamplands adjacent to Tampa, a town of 720 residents in 1886.


The economy of Tampa saw tremendous growth with the cigar industry. The native “Anglos” who had invited the cigar factory owners were happy to coexist in separate geographical spaces -- divided by a river and a larger cultural divide. Cubans were the majority population by 1900.  For Cuban workers Tampa was but a suburb of Havana.


Within those frontiers Cubans maintained their citizenship, language, and traditions reinforced by travel back and forth to the island.  They built protected ‘enclaves’ enjoying some political control.  In West Tampa’s early years they elected five Cubans as mayors including Ten Years War veteran Fernando Figueredo Socarrás.


With control of the economy and political institutions, Cubans re-created Cuba within a Cuban enclave within the Deep South.  Like in Cuba, black and white Cubans lived in the same neighborhoods, attended the same schools, and worked side-by-side at the factory.  And like in Cuba, many social activities were separate - dances, picnics, etc.



 “With All and for the Good of All” – Martí in Tampa (1891)



We are all familiar with the cigar-makers relationship with José Martí and their influence on Martí’s revolutionary philosophy.  I just want to underline that the PRC (Partido Revolucionario Cubano) was organized in Tampa, and that the speech, “With All and for the Good of All” was delivered in Tampa; that Marti’s friends in Tampa included the Pedrosos and Carlos Baliño.  And that “the cigar that delivered the message of revolution to García” was rolled in West Tampa.


Gerald E. Poyo has written, “Cuban communities in the United States, and particularly Florida, were in the vanguard of accepting and promoting a multiracial version of cubanidad.”.  (Poyo, The Cuban Experience, page 31).


Sixty  revolutionary clubs in the Tampa, the largest Cuban émigré community in the United States, worked hard for Cuba Libre for more than six years.  The delicate alliance formed during that period bridged ideologies, ethnicity, race and class – for the revolutionary moment.

From “Cuba Libre” to the Spanish American War (1898)

Across the river:  April 1898, the U.S. troops including Rough Riders and Buffalo Soldiers arrived.  Cuban volunteers also gathered in Tampa in a separate quarter. Colonel Figueredo marched them to West Tampa’s Céspedes Hall daily.  The press reported much excitement among Cubans and much boredom among the American soldiers.  One correspondant reported, “Americans are disgruntled by the presence of Afro-Cubans”.  And, at the victory celebration shared with Anglos at the downtown courthouse, the Cubans were told “no niggers are allowed on the podium”. 



Tensions are racial when Cubans and Americans meet across the river’s divide. The raceless society is challenged.  After 1899, patriotic Cuban leaders of Tampa organized the Club Nacional Cubano,10 de Octubre.  But in less than one year, the black Cubans were expelled from the club.  The Afro-Cubans met to establish a new club named Pensadores Martí-Maceo, later joining with the mutual aid society La Unión to form La Unión Martí-Maceo. . 


Afterwards, the “white” Cubans established the Círculo Cubano, incorporating the “one-eighth rule” of Jim Crow in their by-laws.  These by-laws are missing but it is common knowledge in the community they were in effect.  Most of the social historians, including Rivero Muñiz*, explain this situation as being a result of U.S. southern customs.  Armando Méndez*, an amateur historian, explained it in another way:  “Social clubs in Tampa, as in Cuba, were segregated by race.”


But we must also ask, is either group acting in this way do to political differences?  Are Afro-Cubans of Tampa linked with Afro-Cubans in Cuba in this post-1898 era.  With the Partido Independiente de Color, for example?  


Also, La Unión Martí-Maceo begins as an associate of the Asociación Libre Pensadores de Maceo de Santa Clara. We do not know enough about the history of mutual aid societies, whether they also were segregated by race. Therefore there exists the possibility that the Asociación Libre Pensadores was a black Cuban organization.



An 1897 a case from the Cuban community of West Tampa offers a more complex example of this process of separation.  When the School Board tried to meet the demand for public schools by incorporating existing private schools, they encountered the Colegio Céspedes problem in West Tampa.  Méndez stated:  “Fernando Figueredo was appointed to the School Board for West Tampa because the situation was a delicate one and required a person of stature to deal with it. During the previous month of May, the Board had encountered difficulties reconciling the community’s institutions and the laws of the State of Florida”.  The Cuban community resisted for four years. In 1901 the School Board purchased the school space and sent the Afro-Cuban children to the new Colored School Number 2.  (Méndez, West Tampa: Ciudad de Cigars, pages 79-83).


“Latin” immigrants inside the Monster   (1899-1930s)

Cubans organized the first union in Florida, La Resistencia, a radical and independent union based on a Cuban model.  The union boasted 5,000 members in 1900 and excluded Americans. (Steffy, p. 67) 


La Resistencia and the more American AFL - Cigar Makers International Union (CMIU) competed for control of the cigar labor movement for a decade, perhaps demonstrating tensions between Cuban and American ideas. Here’s a quote from La Resistencia’s newspaper, “There is no longer any Cubans, Spaniards, Italians, Americans, but only workers united in societies of  resistance …. (D. Long, page198).


 The Latin workers of Tampa faced increasing hostility with the anti-immigrant and Red Scares movements sweeping the nation in the next decades. Cigar workers faced vigilante violence, forced deportations, attacks on the Labor Temple and the lynching of two Italian anarchists in 1910. Unfortunately, the labor histories do not analyze the struggle between the Cuban La Resistencia and the American AFL affiliated CMIU in terms of racial inclusion.  They never asked: Was the most important institution of the radical community – the Labor Temple – integrated?  It would be helpful to know whether these unions included Afro-Cubans or black Americans in their organizations or in leadership positions.


1930s Depression Era – the great compromise.  Whitening?


The Tampa cigar industry experienced enormous changes in the Depression Era. The fissures along ethnic and racial lines are obvious in the pre-affirmative action documents of the WPA Federal Writers Project - “A Social and Ethnic Study of Ybor City, Tampa, Florida, and other WPA works.  Example: In an interview in this WPA Study a Cuban states:  It is known historically that the Cubans descend from the Spaniards of different regions of Spain.  Apart from this lineage there are African and Chinese descendants…. but the white race has always predominated” (page 311).  The ‘vanguard’ of José Martí had come full circle, claiming Spanish heritage and denying African when speaking to outsiders recording their history. 


  “Spanish” or Americano

Many Tampeños recall that the favorite racial slur toward all Latins used by Anglos was “Cuban nigger”. They also remember many conflicts over public spaces as they moved beyond the enclave. Beaches and public parks had signs that read “No Dogs, No Niggers and No Cubans Allowed”, there are many versions of this recollection. As color is an important criteria for self-worth and upward mobility in the American setting, color hierarchies may have developed within the Latin community. While Cubans were officially recorded as “white” or “black” by the State of Florida, the one-drop rule must be fluid when defining this group.  Many Cubans adopted a “Spanish” identity in the next generation to avoid questions about race. .  The next generation of cubano-blanco-latin-spanish americanos searched for their “rightful share” in American society – and perhaps were lost in the negotiated spaces.     



Presented at Florida International University, March 1999

Cubans and Cuban Americans Conference



Maura Barrios Álvarez,  Máster en Artes,  es la Historiadora de la Comunidad Cubana de Tampa y directora del proyecto Voces de West Tampa, una autobiografía de la comunidad cubana/latina de West Tampa.





Most notable of the works on this period are Rivero Muñiz, Los Cubanos en Tampa. and Joan Marie Steffy’s MA thesis, The Cuban Immigrants of Tampa, 1886-1898

Blanco o Negro.


Anthropologist Susan Greenbaum has dedicated more than twenty years to the study of the Afro-Cuban community of Tampa and La Unión Martí-Maceo. Through many interviews, she has demonstrated that black Cubans were gradually segregated and eventually assimilated to the Black American community, retaining Cuban culture to some degree.  We do know, however, that the “bicultural” experience of black and white Cubans is very different.  Black Cubans assimilated to and intermarried with Black Americans, joining the struggle for civil rights and many provided leadership in the Tampa civil rights organizations.



Preliminary bibliography:

Campbell, A. Stuart.  The Cigar Industry of Tampa, Florida.  Gainesville, University of Florida,      Burueau of Economic and Business Research.  1939.

Dworkin y Mendez, Kenya.  de bufos y otros patriotas.  1997

_________.  “Cuban to the Core: Immigration, Identity and Cultural Continuity through Tampa Latin Theater.”

Greenbaum, Susan.  Afro-Cubans in Ybor City: A Centennial History.  USF, 1986

Greenbaum, Susan.  “Afro-Cubans in Exile: Tampa, Florida, 1886-1984.”  Cuban Studies, v. 15, 59-73.

________________.  Afro-Cubans in Tampa.  Tampa Bay History.  , Winter, 1985.

________________.  La Union Marti-Maceo:  Focus of Afro-Cuban Heritage in Tampa.  Ex Libris. 

Ingalls, Robert P. Urban Vigilantes in the New South: Tampa, Florida, 1882-1936. Florida:  University Press of Florida.  1988.

James, Winston.  From a Class for Itself to a Race on its Own:  The Strange Case of Afro-Cuban Radicalism and Afro-Cubans in Florida, 1870-1940, book chapter.  Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia.  London, New York: Verso, 1998.

Liss, Sheldon P.  Roots of Revolution: Radical Thought in Cuba.  Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press, 1987.

Long, Durward.  La Resistencia:  Tampa’s Immigrant Labor Union.  Labor History. V 6, Fall 19654. 193-214.

Mendez, Armando.  Ciudad de Cigars: West Tampa.  Florida Historical Society, 1994.

Mirabal, Nancy.  “Telling Silences and Making Community:  Afro-Cubans and African Americans in Ybor City and Tampa, 1899-1915, book chapter. Between Race and Empire, Lisa Brock and Digna Castaneda Fuertes, editors.  Philadelphia:  Temple University Press, 1998.

Mormino, Gary and Pozzetta, Gary F.  The Immigrant World of Ybor City: Italians and their Latin Neighbors, Urbana:  University of Illinois, 1986.

Perez, Louis A. Jr, “Cubans in Tampa: From Exiles to Immigrants, 1892-1901”.  Florida Historical Quarterly.  57, Oct. 1978, 129-41.

_______________  “Reminiscences of a Lector: Cuban Cigarworkers in Tampa.  Florida Historical Quarterly.  53, April 1975, 443-49.

_______________, editor.  Jose Marti in the U.S.: The Florida Experience.  Tempe:  Arizona State University, Center for Latin American Studies, 1995.

_____________.  Radicals, Workers, and Immigrants in Tampa: Research Opportunities in Special Collections.  Ex Libris.  Spring, 1978

Poyo, Gerald E.  With All and for the Good of All: The Emergence of Popular Nationalism in the Cuban Communities of the United States, 1848-1898.  Durham:  Duke University Press. 1989.

______________.  “The Cuban Experience in the U.S., 1865-1940: Migration, Community and Identity.  Cuban Studies, v. 21, 1991. 

Rivero Muniz Jose.  Los cubanos en Tampa. 1954. Translation by E. Fernandez and H. Beltran..

Sanchez, Arsenio.  Articles on West Tampa found in Tampa Tribune. 

Steffy, Joan.  Cuban Immigrants of Tampa, Florida, 1886-1898.  MA thesis, USF, 1975.

Tampa Bay History Journal. – Tony Pizzo edition

Tampa Bay History Journal -  Jose Yglesias edition

Works Progress Administration.  Tampa, Florida.  Federal Writers Project.  Social and ethnic study of Ybor City; and Life Histories.   1937

Yglesias, José.  The Truth About Them.  (novel) 

_________.  “The Radical Island in the Deep South”, Tampa Bay History, v. 7, 1985, 166-169.


Newspapers:  Tampa Times, Tampa Tribune, Tampa Journal,

La Traduccion, La Gaceta, union publications, cigar publications