A Cuban State of Mind – Tampa, Florida, USA

A Cuban State of Mind

Tampa, Florida, USA

La Setima
La Setima
As I walk down 7th Avenue or “La Setima” in Tampa’s Ybor City, admiring its iron balconies, street lamps and brick buildings, I’m reminded of the Ybor City’s history. The first Cuban immigrants arrived here in 1886, bringing their culture and talent as cigar rollers. Two years later, Ybor City was the cigar capital of the world, producing at one time, one hundred million cigars a year. But today imposing nightclubs and bars dominate Ybor City, a far cry from the place of freedom and opportunity for the first Cubans 120 years ago.

In the face of change, trendy, cosmetic and cultural, does Ybor City, a National Historic Landmark District; retain the influence brought by the first immigrants? That’s what I’m here to find out.

A Cuban Breakfast
I began my foray into the local Cuban culture at La Tropicana restaurant. Opened by Bibi Mendenez in 1963 as a place for tampeneos, fifth or sixth generation Cuban immigrants, to gather, eat and talk, La Tropicana serves Tampa’s best Cuban breakfast and Cuban sandwiches.

Before heading to the cigar factories, Cuban immigrants started their day by eating a traditional breakfast of Cuban toast, flaky bread toasted with butter and café con leche, a strong Cuban coffee with milk. I ordered my Cuban breakfast and sat in one of the black metal chairs with a green seat, next to a Ferdie Pacheo painting. The painting, a scene of patrons enjoying their food and people talking, depicts a typical day at La Tropicana. As I looked around, the scene was accurate, with a family talking over their green baskets of Cuban toast and a group of tampenoes talking beside me.

As I enjoyed my breakfast, the three tampenoes sitting beside me began talking loud in Spanish. I had no idea what they were saying but my imagination lead me to believe they were reminiscing of Ybor City’s younger days, when they were young kids chasing the pirili man (candy man) or hopping on and off streetcars that rolled down 7th Avenue.

Cigar Rolling
Everything in Ybor City revolved around the cigar industry, which over time employed 13,000 people, operating in hundreds of factories. By the late 50s, most cigars were manufactured by machines, driving away the cigar rollers.

After breakfast, I head to the Ybor City State Museum. The museum employs Dagoberto “Dago” Troncoso who demonstrates the art of cigar rolling. Dago shows visitors the discipline needed to properly roll a cigar, a skill that determined the roller’s salary. Depending on their skills and the amount of cigars rolled, workers earned $14-$20 per week.

I watched Dago roll cigar after cigar, with ease and precision. Each cigar was uniform in size and weight. By watching him, I appreciated the artistry and discipline necessary to be a cigar roller. The cigars rolled by Dago can be purchased in the museum’s store.

Shotgun Homes
After a long day at the cigar factories, the cigar workers went to their casitas, houses built for cigar worker’s families. Often called a shotgun home, casitas were built from Florida pine with cypress or cedar shingles and rented for $1.50 to $2.50 a week or purchased for $400 to $900. In addition, cigar manufactures allowed the workers to deduct the payments from their weekly wages.

After leaving the museum, I walk next door to one of the three casitas preserved by the Ybor City State Museum. The exterior of the casitas are modest, often painted white with a small porch. Inside, paneled walls accentuate wooden ceilings and floors. The first original casitas lacked electricity or indoor plumbing. Kerosene lanterns produced needed light and a pump from behind the house provided water. Twelve foot ceilings allowed heat to rise and opposite double hung windows provided cross ventilation.

The design of the casitas is simple – three rooms in a row down a long hallway with a kitchen in the back. Families entertained guests in the first room, or living room. Next was the master bedroom and followed by the children’s room. The kitchen featured a wood burning stove and an ice box. The bathrooms were located outside in an outhouse, often shared with other families.

Free Cuban Soil
I left the casita and walked up 8th Avenue to Parque Amigos de Jose Marti or Jose Marti Park, Ybor City’s strongest remaining tie to Cuba. The title to the park is own by the Cuban government, who purchased the land in 1957 to commemorate Marti, the father of Cuban independence. Stones, decorated with the Cuban flag, sit in a six plots of dirt. Each plot represents soil taken from the six original provinces in Cuba.

Jose Marti Park
Jose Marti Park
Jose Marti arrived in Tampa in 1891. A Cuban patriot and brilliant poet, Marti helped start the Spanish Revolution. While in Tampa, he gave fiery speeches, raised money for the revolution and inspired cigar workers to donate 10% of their salary. He was killed in battle in 1865 before Cuba gained its freedom from Spain but is credited with beginning the movement.

Surrounded by a rail fence, the park is located on the former home of Rupert and Paulina Pedroso, an Afro-Cuban family who housed and protected Marti from Spanish assassins. A white life-size statue of Marti, with his hand welcoming visitors, stands at the back of the park, flanked by a U.S. and Cuban flags. On the wall behind the statue, a color map outlines the provinces of Cuba.

As I strolled back down 7th Avenue pass the gaudy posters and foggy bar windows, I realized the charm and history of Ybor City is stronger than the excessiveness of change. And despite its current surroundings, you can still enjoy a traditional Cuban breakfast and appreciate the art of cigar rolling, relive the memory of Ybor City through the eyes of the tampeneos in La Tropicana and the renovated casitas and the soil at Jose Marti Park. No trendy nightclubs can change that.