The Tampa-Cuba cultural connection
There was a time not so long ago when Tampa belonged, in heart and mind, to Cuba. In late 19th century Ybor City and West Tampa, Cuban immigrants recreated their homeland, to the best of their ability, while they powered the burgeoning cigar-making industry. Cuban-flavored Spanish rippled through the factories as the lectors, whose only job was to read to the cigar workers, sat on their platforms and performed the day’s text: newspapers and literary prose, often with revolutionary tones. Afro-Cubans, who contributed the indelible mark of African percussion to the Cuban sound and inspired the creation of the national music, son, and the development of rumba rhythms and dances, labored with their compatriots to establish the first real wealth in this area — economically and cross-culturally.
2016 marks more than 500 years of relationship between Tampa and Cuba, starting with the Spanish colonial appropriation of both Florida and Cuba in the 1500s. The two purloined lands shared a Spanish governor, Hernando de Soto, whose name became something of a Florida brand for parks and counties. In the early 1800s, a thriving settlement of Cuban fishermen lived on the shores of what is now Bayshore Boulevard. Years later, when Vincente Martinez Ybor and others built the lucrative cigar industries in Ybor City (originally “Cuba Town”) and West Tampa (originally “Cuba City”), donations from their workers funded the legendary Cuban fight for independence from Spain headed by José Marti and Antonio Maceo. Marti, beloved poet, patriot, revolutionary and orator, spent much time in Ybor stoking the fires for independence and equality. “Somos todos Cubanos,” he would say, walking with his trusted friend and lauded activist Paulina Pedroso down the streets of Ybor. We are all Cubans; his motto for the right attitude necessary for Cuban unity. This historical foundation so inextricably tied Tampa and Cuba that Pedroso Park on 8th Avenue in Ybor City is still owned by the Cuban government, who purchased the land because of its historic significance prior to the U.S. and Cuban governments’ fall-out in 1959.
“For much of Tampa’s history, Cuba was the dominant partner,” says USF Professor Emeritus of History and author of The Immigrant World of Ybor City, Dr. Gary Mormino.
In Tampa, we possess the legacy of not only being the seat of Cuban independence, but also as a seat of trans-culturation that happened in the formation of Tampa as an American city.
“The sheer amount of creativity coming out of the social clubs was astounding,” Mormino says. The clubs, structured mutual aid societies that included health care and social opportunities, included ballrooms and theaters. Long before The Straz, plays, concerts and select performances of opera singers took place in the Cuban clubs — as well as in their Spanish, Italian and German counterparts.
In fact, Tampa’s first theatrical venue was a wooden cigar factory Martinez Ybor gave to his workers who repurposed it as El Liceo Cubano, a theater for arts, politics, education and cultural activities. El Liceo mounted the very first theatrical performance of any kind in Tampa — a performance of Amor de Madre in 1887.
Many cigar makers moonlighted as playwrights, actors and directors. Regular Spanish-language plays ran at La Sociedad La Union Marti-Maceo as well, many of them socially-conscious works including a production of Hambre (Hunger), an attack on ruling class exploitation of poor people. In the Depression Era, Tampa-Cuban actress Chela Martinez opened a theater company featuring well-known actresses Carmen and Pilar Ramirez, and many of our Cuban thespians joined Tampa Federal Theatre Project, the only Spanish-language theater to come out of the New Deal.
Cuban music and dance, a complex cuisine of multi-cultural influences, was dished out in the streets and social clubs of Ybor City and West Tampa. The most potent flavors — son, danzon, bolero, rumba, cha cha cha and the lesser-known sacred Afro-Cuban Santeria songs and rhythms — traveled from the island to Tampa. Cigar maker Ramon Padron played part time with Floridano Sexteto, one of the most popular local Cuban ensembles, and famed Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona (who wrote “Melaguena”) often spent time in Ybor City. The clubs hosted regular gatherings of local and touring Cuban artists, filling Tampa with the incomparable spirit of Cuban culture.
Now, as the political fetters fall away, we are in a unique position to rejoin the beloved island that gave us so much music, dance and theater. Cuba helped shape us culturally as an extension of its vibrant sound and exuberant energy, bringing to Tampa its exquisite artistry and giving birth to our identity in America.
Habana Compás Dance
We celebrate the Tampa-Cuba connection with the American debut of Habana Compás Dance on April 22 in Ferguson Hall. Direct from Havana, this electrifying company showcases the new artistry emerging in Cuba, a mix of tradition and vision that exalts the rhythmic complexities of the culture.
Many thanks to Dr. Susan Greenbaum, professor emerita of anthropology, University of South Florida, and author of More than Black: Afro-Cubans in Tampa, for photos and her insightful contributions to this article.