The Majestic of Ybor City: The Cuban Revolution

A City within a City that has all the glory of liberation, abolition, and connection. Tampa, Florida recently gained prominence in the media for our Superbowl win (and lack of care in COVID protections) but we have so much more to offer than Superbowl championships.

We have revolution and liberation to offer.

We have mutual aid to offer.

As a Sicilian American, I find the assimilation of the Sicilian into Anglicization to have been tragic. My family, for example, kept the very obviously Sicilian last name but many of their first names were changed when they immigrated here. (Giussepe becomes Joseph, Graziela became Grace, etc.)

But finding the roots of my culture has been a blessing.

Below, I am going to share with you what I have learned about my City. I want to re-build this. I want to create a mutual aid society again. It worked once, it can work again. We aren’t imagining a new society, we are looking to rebuilding a once vibrant society.

CW: Discussion of race, chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and other forms of domination & isms.

Land Acknowledgement: “I acknowledge that we are on the traditional territory and homelands of the Seminole & Tocobaga people.”

Let’s talk about the Cuban revolution!

While the Italian Club and the Cuban Club buildings remain, they serve only as a vestige to Tampa’s mutual aid past. West Tampa, in particular, was known to be the home of the marginalized in Tampa. West Tampa itself was annexed as its own City at one point in time and it was Fortune Taylor, a Black woman who became wealthy after having been liberated from the horrifically violent chains of chattel slavery on this land, who was so fundamental to building a bridge between West Tampa and main Tampa, which helped save the cigar industry.

Social justice, as we now know it, has a rich history in our City. The Cuban exiles found themselves quite in awe over a publication based out of New York, La Doctrina de New York, edited by Afro-Cuban activist Rafael Serra, who embodied the work of Jose Marti, a fighter for Cuban independence killed in the battlefield as the island sought for its freedom from the rule of Spain. In the gaze of the excitement, right here, in Port Tampa, it was February 10, 1897.

Former anarchist organizer and now the head of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, Guillermo Sorondo, a Black Cuban, was chairing a meeting when the resolution passed that the Tampa community must not let this publication fail and that it is the only publication that so clearly keeps the values of José Martí alive, they must financially contribute to its success. [1]

The rich history of the cigar industry dates back to a time when Cuba was resisting the rule of the Spanish government. Having recently abolished the abhorrent tragedy of slavery, the newly freed Afro-Cubans would join the working class and Cuban’s rich elite became part of the urban middle class. Dependency on the United States, who began investing capital into Cuban economies, however, began to form and uncertainty waned as then United States Secretary of State James G. Blaine’s outcry and desire for the Cuban land to belong to the United States, an effort to keep European control down. [2]

Concern for the working class arose, and the Cuban residents formed the first official labor organization, the Cigar Makers Guild, in 1878. [2]

In December of 1881, Secretary Blaine writes:

“That rich island is the key to the Gulf of Mexico, is, though in the hands of Spain, a part of the American commercial system…If ever ceasing to be Spanish, Cuba must necessarily become American and not fall under any other European domination.” [2]

Via Wikipedia, an image of Circulo Cubano de Tampa, once a mutual aid and revolution hub in Ybor City, Tampa, Florida.

The gift of the pen would find Martí unleashing his ideas to the world in ways that ignited a fury. In the heat of the Ten Years War for Cuban Independence, a young Martí found himself writing about independence, which led to deportation and exile to Spain in 1868. The time in Spain proved useful to Marti who graduated with a law degree focusing on Civil Rights and began traveling to different areas of the world. [3]

A return to Cuba in 1878 was relatively brief when he is once again accused of trying to overthrow the government (he was), so back to Spain he went. This time, however, he decided to come to New York City. [3]

On January 1, 1891, Marti published an essay, “Nuestra America”.

The words sent a shockwave of inspiration across Cuban exiles throughout the Americas. Through his passages came connection and on November 26, 1891, the Cuban immigrants of Ybor City hosted Marti at Club Ignacio Agramonte to celebrate and fundraise for Cuban independence. [4]

There he delivered a speech that roughly translates to “With everyone and for the good of all”. The power wave of oration moved so many Cuban exiles of the Ybor City community into action, ready to unify for one common cause: liberty. [5]

That passion, that speech, that power: that is why the Cuban Revolutionary Party felt so strongly a need to protect his words through the publication. Tampa leadership was different than that of other Cuban exile groups. Tampa had a stronger vision, one based on mutual aid and socialism. Ramon Rivero was one such leader, who migrated up from Key West, he served as the lector to the Martinez Ybor factory, where he read to the cigar workers as they labored. His publication, La Revista de Florida, impassionately supported the effort for a better socio-economic status. La Revista de Florida touted, in 1889:

“The banner of socialism is our banner: It means: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. It means equality, and the recovery of honor. There is not one among us who is not a convinced socialist, visionary men, who understand the times, and we prepare as one body to assure the future following the only road our conscience allows.”

But yet, we would be remiss to say the entirety of the Cuban Revolutionary Party had only come to existence because of the radical teachings of Marti, that acknowledged a struggle of class, a struggle of race, and a struggle of independence to be intertwined. Marti’s unification brought forth the unified Cuban activist front and built a movement of change. [5]

Marti’s unification brought forth solidarity in ways never seen before, and on July 19th, 1892, Marti, along with other leaders, visited the cigar factories. They visited the Black Cuban led clubs. The next morning, a visit to the Martinez Ybor cigar factory was met with a thunderous applause and noted to be a mixed crowd:

Americans, Cubans, Italians all together, cheering for unity, and crying for the dream of liberty. [5]

The Cuban Revolutionary Party developed, for the first time, Cuban exiles of all sects organizing for one common cause. A march across town was declared as a march for:

“the unity of the oppressed, of the disinherited, of all free men.”

Today, such marches are met with irate disdain, and organizers and attendees are discarded as snowflakes and troublesome. But then, it brought forth a sense of peace and prosperity in Tampa’s marginalized area of town. Reports say:

“Spaniards and Cubans, glorious military figures and prominent emigrés, distinguished journalists and eminent public men, whites and blacks, poor and rich, all spoke on that memorable night with accents of truth.” [5]

What could be so wrong with something so beautiful? Isn’t unity the story we preach?

a white statue of revolutionary Cuban organizer Jose Marti’ on top of a white block. Behind him is a painting of Cuba and the words Isla Cuba. The statue stands between an American flag and a Cuban flag.
Statue of Jose Marti’, in Jose Marti Park in Ybor City, Tampa, Florida. Via Bay News 9.

Marti had a passion for humanity.

He knew the Cuban identity was of its own and that it did not belong to Spanish colonialism. He abhorred slavery and knew racial harmony could only come with solidarity. His death in 1895 did not end the fight and the Cuban Revolutionary Party continued to build. Marti is largely credited with many fundamental roles in making the fight for Cuban independence a success.

While he may have been fundamental in this role in unifying, the takeaway from this story is not the words of one man but the actions of a unified community, fighting for a shared goal of freedom.

A fight for everyone instead of a battle for wealth, greed, and imperialism. Interdependence, and not independence, builds power. When we connect with one another, and when we build, a government is accountable to us, not the other way around. [5]

References

[1] https://scholarcommons.usf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1183&context=tampabayhistory

[2] [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Cuba#The_16th%E2%80%9318th_centuries:_Cuba_under_attack]

[3] https://cuba50.org/2020/01/26/who-was-jose-marti-2/

[4] http://www.josemarti.cu/publicacion/nuestra-america-version-ingles/

[5] http://www.josemarti.cu/dossier/con-todos-y-para-el-bien-de-todos-unidad-justicia-y-estrategia-internacional-en-jose-marti/

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I’m not an expert or scholar on anything. I mainly write for me. If others see it, and love it, great :)

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Angel D’Angelo

I’m not an expert or scholar on anything. I mainly write for me. If others see it, and love it, great :)