José Martí Meets Jim Crow: Cubans in the Deep South:Tampa, Florida   


 Maura Barrios       


“José Martí Meets Jim Crow” suggests a dramatic clash of ideas and values experienced by cubanos in the trans-national and trans-cultured journey from Cuba to the U.S.   The path from cubano to americano required dramatic adjustments of identity, values and culture in the process of becoming.  In this essay, I pose questions about negotiations of Cuban identity as impacted by the transition to a hostile racial order and by the conflicts endured by cubano cigarmakers of Tampa.  How did cubanos negotiate identity, culture or values to adjust to the racial order of the Deep South?  We know that cubanos de Tampa resisted, confronted, and questioned their new world order; but they also negotiated space, language, politics, family, identity and values.   Many conflicts in the cigar cities of Tampa revolved around class; but the dynamics of race – the prevalent conflict in their new homeland – led to apartheid in the Cuban community of Tampa as early as 1900.  Apartheid separated families, school friends and neighbors, as well as social and political organizations.


  In Tampa, Cuban immigrants of the early 20th century lived in the bordered enclaves of Ybor City and West Tampa along with Spaniards, Jews, Sicilians and African-Americans.  Cuban workers, male and female, built lasting institutions in the swampland but also maintained ties to Cuba via family connections and frequent travel.  They organized mutual aid societies, cultural centers, revolutionary clubs, libraries, theatres, schools and social clubs to maintain Cuban culture.  They re-created Havana in the Deep South while waging an independence war that called for racial and social justice. Gerald E. Poyo found that during the independence era “Cuban communities in the United States and particularly Florida, were in the vanguard of accepting and promoting a multi-racial version of cubanidad.”  Jose Martí was emphatic in his call for racial unity in his many speeches delivered in Tampa.  His greatest supporters, Paulina and Ruperto Pedroso, black independence leaders of Tampa are now forgotten; except for a plaque at the site of the Pedroso home that is today the “Parque de los Amigos de José Martí”.   In that time, Tampeños attempted to live up to the ideals of Martí; but the dream of racial unity was short-lived.  The Club Nacional Cubano Deciembre 10, a revolutionary and patriotic social club reorganized to eliminate its black members in 1900.  (See book by Susan Greenbaum, More Than Black:  Afro-Cubans in Tampa). The black Cubans established La Union Marti-Maceo and the white Cubans renamed the Club Nacional el Circulo Cubano.  The historical record of this segregation is silent on the cause.   Many Tampeños believe that U.S. laws and customs “forced” them to segregate – because of pressures from the Anglo community’s violently guarded racial divide.  The Ku Klux Klan was very active in Tampa.  Also, the racial divide was mandated by Florida’s Jim Crow laws.  [Jim Crow is the name given to legal disenfranchisement/segregation of blacks in the U.S. southern states after the Reconstruction era, around 1890s; example is Plessy v. Ferguson decision that “separate but equal” would be acceptable practice.]    However, one must look at the racial order and practices in Cuba to test these statements. Armando Mendez, an amateur historian of West Tampa, regards the segregation of the Cuban social club as normal practice.  He states, “Social clubs in West Tampa, as in Cuba, were segregated by race.”    Why did the Tampa Cuban “vanguard of José Martí” segregate by 1900? 


An 1895 case from the Cuban community of West Tampa offers a different example.   As the West Tampa community grew rapidly, the county needed schools.  The Hillsborough County School Board hoped to meet the demand by incorporating existing private schools.  They wanted to incorporate the Cespedes School, the Cuban society’s integrated school located in West Tampa.    The Tampa Tribune of 1895 reported “the School Board encountered difficulties reconciling the community’s institutions and the laws of the State of Florida.”  The Cuban community of West Tampa resisted segregation for four years.  City leaders called upon West Tampa Mayor Fernando Figueredo, a Ten Years War veteran, to negotiate.   In 1899, the School Board purchased Cespedes School and forced the black Cuban students to attend “Colored School Number 2” in December, 1901.    


Cuban cigar-makers’ labor activism and internationalism reinforced solidarity with fellow workers from Spain and Sicily who lived and worked in the cigar enclaves.  In later decades the cigar-workers formed a “Latin” identity that crossed ethnic divides; however black Cubans were not included in the “Latin” definition.   (See article on Tony Pizzo in Tampa Bay History Quarterly)


Anglo-Latin racial conflicts are equally prominent in this community’s history.    Many centered on anti-immigrant and anti-labor issues as exemplified in the tumultuous period known as the “Red Scare”.  In Tampa the period is marked by much violence and a lynching of Italian anarchists in West Tampa.    Anglo-Latin racial conflicts are often embedded in class struggles. Elites organized anti-immigrant campaigns, using some of the same tactics that brutalized Black southerners.  They targeted labor union leaders as well as factory lectores.  Supported by the editors and publishers of the Tampa Tribune, “citizens” organized vigilante committees with participation of the local police and the Ku Klux Klan.  (This reign of terror is the subject of Robert P. Ingalls’ book, Urban Vigilantes in the New South:  Tampa, Florida 1886-1936).  The anti-immigrant movement and the subsequent anti-immigrant law of 1923/24 ended the fluid mobility of cigar labor between Cuba and Tampa.


Tampeños recall discrimination in public spaces:  signs at public beaches  that read “No Dogs and No Cubans” ; or the downtown department store where Cubans could not apply.   Cubans moved from the enclaves and into the americano “mainstream” after World War II, marking the end of Tampa’s “golden cigar era.”  Anglo - Latin conflicts continued in the 50s and 60s with gang style “battles” waged over contested territories, like in the movie West Side Story.   A favorite racial slur in Tampa was “Cuban Nigger”.  [See Jose Yglesias]


The next generation, lost in America, knows little of their Cuban history and never read José Martí.  The great great grandchildren of Martí’s vanguard may find it difficult to claim Cuban identity – they are distanced from Cuba by generations, negotiations of racial and ethnic identity, politics, embargo and travel restrictions.   In the old Southern apartheid, Cubans lived in the precariously negotiated middle; geographically and socially.  They denied Cuban identity to distance any connection to Africa, dreaming only in white….. 



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.