Tampa y Cuba: cien años de solidaridad

  Maura Barrios

             This essay on Tampa Cubanos discusses the historic social and political links between Tampa and Cuba.   I also hope to demonstrate the influence of Marti’s ideas on the social development of the cigar cities of Tampa and the influence of Tampa’s cigar communities on Martí.  The Tampa-Cuban story offers rich and layered complexity to the history of Cuban Americans in the U.S.   


  Tobacco’s Radical Roots

             Fernando Ortiz, in Cuban Counterpoint, explains the particularities of Cuba’s two worlds.  According to Ortiz, “sugar enslaves and tobacco liberates.”  Tampeño culture grows from “liberating” tobacco roots.  Cuban cigar-worker traditions transferred to Tampa in 1886 via Key West with thousands of Cuban immigrant workers.  The cigar industry dramatically transformed the small village of Tampa into an industrial center, an outpost of Havana in Florida.  Cuban immigrants became the majority population in the next decade.  They recreated Havana in the swamplands of Florida.   Tampa Cubans maintained Cuban and working-class identity reinforced by links to Cuba and by a difficult adjustment to U.S. culture vis a vis the immigrant experience. The Life Histories-Federal Writers Project from 1935 includes the interview with Jose Ramon Sanfeliz, born Havana 1870. "I worked in a cigar factory in Havana and attended school at night.  A labor temple ran the school.  I came to Tampa in 1890 and worked in the Pendás factory.  I became enamored of radical proletariat ideas which were later to prove unwise....  these advanced ideas were epidemic among the cigar workers here.”   These radical workers almost rejected Martí’s call for national liberation; illustrated in the article by Gerald Poyo, “The Anarchist Challenge to Cuban Independence.”              As the U.S. took control of Cuba after 1898, Cubans in Tampa took control of the cigar enclaves to build a society that carried on Marti’s vision - with all and for the good of all.  Workers returned to radical labor organizing with renewed vigor in the next decades.  Carlos Baliño, a leader in the Florida cigar-maker labor movement, exemplifies the radical link.  His poem, “Bandera Roja” appeared in the Tampa publication, El Internacional, in 1920.  Cubans formed powerful alliances with radicals from Sicily and Asturias creating the collective label “Latin” to advance the cause of workers.  Several major strikes by cigar-workers shut down the local economy for long periods of time, demonstrating the strength of the workers’ alliance.   Many elderly Tampeños refer to the major strikes to mark the decades of their past:  1901, 1910, 1920 and 1931.   Tampa’s Anglo leaders collaborating with cigar manufacturers organized vigilante groups and citizens committees to repress the striking workers.  The vigilantes deported union organizers or attacked labor meetings at the Labor Temple in Ybor City.   The image of two Italian anarchists lynched from a palmetto tree in West Tampa continues to haunt the Latin community today.


Political Culture

       The grandchildren of Jose Marti’s Vanguard came of age during the Depression -- a time of dramatic changes in the “Cigar City.”  In this era, cigarmakers faced transitions from cubano to americano, from radical revolutionary to Roosevelt Democrat, from skilled cigar-maker to government relief recipient, from fabricas de tabaco to New York City factories.  Cigar-makers tried to hold onto their traditional values in a rapidly changing environment that included the introduction of machines. A resurgence of radical activism in the 1930s reflected the experiences of many U.S. immigrant worker communities during the Depression.  (See Ingalls, “Bolshevism in Tampa:  Not an Invention of Hysteria”).  As one Tampeño recalls, "Pepemelena [an activist in West Tampa] said that the WPA sent the unemployed cigar-makers to work on clearing the land for MacDill Field project because it would make them too tired to think about revolution.”                  That generation shifted their energies to U.S. politics in support of the Roosevelt-Democratic Party.  However, that transition must be understood in the context of the New Deal agenda: the intervention of government in social and economic problems, often accused of being “socialist.”   The identification of the Democratic Party as “the party for the working class” remains strong among Tampeños today.  Their political power elects Democrats to represent them in local, state and Congressional seats.   The “radical” tendency re-appeared during the presidential election of 1948, when many Tampeños supported the progressive-socialist candidate, Henry Wallace.  In the election of 1952 and 56:  74.81% and 71.72% voted for Adlai Stevenson.  Claude Pepper, who was branded a 'pinko' by the Tribune, received 83% of the Latin vote in the 1950 and 81% in the 1958 Senate races.   The election of Governor Bob Martinez offers an interesting case in ethnic politics.  Martinez left his historic roots and switched to the Republican Party.  Though he won the election, he did not win the Latin precincts of Tampa.


 Links to Cuba 

       Tampeños directly participated in Cuba’s revolutions including the wars for independence, the reformist revolution of 1933 and the 26th of July Movment of 1959.  Writer Jose Yglesias states:  “Tampeños were fidelistas… for the old-timers the embargo was further proof of the barbarity of americanos – the crackers with hair on their teeth that broke up their union meetings and called them “Cuban niggers.” Most of the colony, particularly those of Cuban descent, were in sympathy with [the Revolution], open and full in 1959, surreptitious now and almost invisible to those who are not of the same beliefs.  The campaign, waged by the FBI and the Cuban exiles against the old-timers involved intimidation, red paint splattered homes and loss of jobs.  But whenever Fidel Castro speaks, there are innumerable radios in Tampa turned to Radio Havana, at a low volume."    The support of Cuba’s revolutions are remarkable in the historical context of the Cold War and McCarthyism.   Tampeños certainly understood “Cuba Si, Yankee No” – they lived inside the monster. 


Cuban identity/culture               

       Until 1962, Tampenos remained in constant contact with Cuba via travel, family relations, newspapers, cultural exchanges.  'Cubanidad', the act of being Cuban, continues in many forms today.  The immigrants’ mutual aid societies and social clubs maintained national and cultural identity.  These clubs provided social services “from cradle to grave” including education, health care, death benefits, and cemetery plots.  In addition, cultural programs flourished in these centers:  debating clubs, theatre and music performances by visiting artists, dances, social events, and sporting clubs.  The Circulo Cubano and La Union Marti Maceo in Ybor City remain active today.  Note, the radical cigarmakers are not known for their support of the Catholic Church; the mutual aid societies handled many social services.  They worshipped at the Labor Temple, though Our Lady of Perpetual Help stands on the fringes of Ybor City.  Newspapers, journals and radio shortened the distance from Tampa to Cuba.  Cuba’s Bohemia magazine sold in all the boticas of Ybor and West Tampa.  Bolita fans listened to Cuban radio for the week’s winning numbers. The 1959 revolutionary newspaper arrived at Tampa’s international airport each day to be delivered to the clubs and cafes.  The great grandchildren of Jose Marti’s Vanguard are well represented in the professions of union organizers, social service workers, government employees, and teachers.     They organized the Classroom Teachers Association that held a major strike in the mid-1960s, when Latino principals were fired for honoring the strike.  Some actively participate in the Latino and immigrant rights movement.    



             Sheldon Liss in Roots of Revolution:  Radical Thought in Cuba noted this irony:  “the socialist tradition of cigar-workers living in the United States brought back to Cuba by Carlos Baliño during the occupation led to the socialist revolution that brought down the United States government in Cuba.”   


  Maura Barrios, M.A.