Book excerpt: "Ybor City: Crucible of the Latina South" by Sarah McNamara

Excerpted from "YBOR CITY: Crucible of the Latina South" by Sarah McNamara. Copyright © 2023 by  Sarah McNamara. Reprinted with the permission of the University of North Carolina Press.


Amelia Alvarez was born in Cuba when the island was a Spanish colony. Yet by Amelia’s ninth birthday, her home as she knew it no longer existed. The Cuban War for Independence, which U.S.  imperial ambitions turned into the Cuban– Spanish–Puerto Rican–Filipino–American War, brought an end to Cuba’s colonial status as well as Cubans’ hopes for a truly independent island. When  Amelia turned sixteen, U.S. troops occupied Cuba for the second time in her life. That year, 1906,  she boarded the steamship Olivette and sailed 110 miles from the Port of Havana to Key West. Soft winds from the Florida Straits wrapped around Amelia as she passed through immigration and rested for a night. The next morning, she climbed aboard the same boat and journeyed another 250  miles northward through the warm waves of the Gulf of Mexico. Once the ship docked, Amelia descended the gang- way and walked into Tampa, Florida. 

At the turn of the twentieth century, Tampa brimmed with chaotic possibility. Sounds of Spanish and English hovered in the heavy, humid air as Amelia navigated the throngs of people who crowded the port. More than one hundred passengers charged forward with their luggage in hand,  while stevedores unloaded bales of Cuban tobacco leaves from the ship’s hold. Thirty years earlier,  this swampy town featured little more than an obscure military outpost and a settlement of sweaty  Confederates. But by the time of Amelia’s arrival, the Cuban cigar industry had changed nearly everything. Black and white immigrants, primarily from Cuba, along with others from Spain, Italy,  and Puerto Rico, collided in Tampa as they searched for work in the city’s new cigar factories. Once  hired, cigar workers “stripped, sorted, and bunched [tobacco] leaves,” then “rolled, banded, and  boxed cigars.”The labor of these women and men transformed Tampa into the leading industrial center of the state, while their bodies, cultures, and politics created an international borderland in  Jim Crow Florida. On the dock, Amelia stayed near her family, for she had not come alone. Her sister and brother-in-law, their two children, and three aunts arrived together with fifty-six dollars between them. As the family of eight emerged from the bustling masses, they likely boarded a  streetcar to carry them six miles down the road to their new home in a neighborhood called Ybor  City. 

To Amelia, Ybor must have felt familiar and foreign at the same time. Red-brick buildings with  Moorish arches lined the streets, while ornate wrought iron twisted across glass windows and  framed outdoor patios. Architectural remnants of colonial Spain seemed to echo through the streets, but it was the politics of Cuban independence that lived in people’s homes. Some of Amelia’s neighbors told tales of when JoséMartı́, the famed Cuban poet and revolutionary, organized and  collaborated with cigar workers to bring an end to Spanish rule in Cuba. Although this fight ended in 1898, when Amelia was nine years old, the community she joined in Ybor remained unapologetically anticolonial, prolabor, and radically leftist in their self-proclaimed exile. From the perspective of Amelia’s neighbors, Ybor City served as their sanctuary from the restrictive imperialist agendas and the oppressive, anti-labor, antidemocratic conservative forces that lingered in their homeland even after the Spanish relinquished claim over the island. The two-story Centro Obrero (Labor  Temple) stood at the helm of this neighborhood and operated as the space where women and men organized unions, planned strike actions, and created a culture of labor on their own terms. Cigar factories defined the city landscape and separated Ybor’s immigrants from Tampa’s Anglo residents—a racialized border that likely seemed uniquely American. De jure segregation generally did not exist in Cuba during Amelia’s lifetime, but de facto segregation did and Amelia likely recognized the practice. As a Cuban woman with white skin, however, being the subject of segregation would have been a new experience that made her acutely aware of her place within the  South’s racial hierarchy. 

Inside Ybor City, Amelia found acceptance. The things that Anglos believed made her seem different—her appearance, her labor, her politics, her traditions, and her language—were foundational elements that bonded this immigrant community. Despite living in a new country,  Amelia never had a problem with communication because nearly everyone in Ybor spoke Spanish, and those who did not learned upon arrival. Sicilian grocers transformed their markets into hybrid bodegas as they sold Spanish chorizo alongside Italian pickled vegetables and elevated, what is now known as, the Cuban sandwich. The local version of this delicacy stacked layers of mojo marinated roasted pork, boiled ham, and hard salami on slices of Cuban bread dressed with a swipe of yellow mustard, a piece of Swiss cheese, and a sliver of crisp dill pickle. According to community lore, the last three ingredients reflected the food traditions of Jewish merchants who came to Tampa in search of refuge from the escalation of anti-Semitism in Romania and Germany. Many of these families sold fabrics, clothing, shoes, and auto parts in dry goods stores, while others used their profits to purchase cigar factories of their own. 

Spanish-language newspapers thrived in Ybor and reported daily news from Havana, Madrid, Key  West, and Tampa. This vibrant print culture not only kept Amelia and her neighbors informed of global affairs and local events but made Ybor City an integral hub within a cross-national network of leftist activism and intellectualism that reached from the Caribbean to the Americas and across the Atlantic Ocean. As Amelia walked through the streets of Ybor City, she may have brushed shoulders with women such as Luisa Capetillo and Luisa Moreno—Latina feminist labor organizers and leftist thinkers—as well as Eugene V. Debs and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn—leaders of the socialist and communist movements—all of whom visited, organized, or sought refuge from political persecution in Ybor City. Each Saturday, the Afro-Cuban rhythms of rumba and the melodies of  danzón, once outlawed in Spanish-controlled Cuba, spilled out from the ballrooms of the centros  (mutual aid societies) and filled the streets. Yet as Amelia twirled across the dance floor of the  Cı́rculo Cubano (Cuban Club), she would have noticed that the Black Cuban women and men who worked beside her in the cigar factory were absent from this space. According to her neighbors,  when the city of Tampa annexed Ybor City and made it part of Hillsborough County in 1887, Anglo political powerholders mandated that the centros segregate their membership and create a  separate club for Afro-Cubans. La Sociedad de la Unión Martı́-Maceo, the mutual aid society built by and for Black Cubans, emerged as a result of this moment. The Ybor City of Amelia’s youth was a  place where multiracial, multiethnic Latina/o self-determination endured under the watchful eye of a reconstructed southern order.  

After nearly two years of living and working in Ybor, and shortly after celebrating her seventeenth birthday, Amelia met and married a Spanish im- migrant named Pedro Blanco. The young couple moved down the street and rented a house near their families. When Amelia looked out her front door she would have seen rows of identical, whitewashed, shotgun houses that sat on narrow lots and flanked Ybor City’s wide dirt roads. In many ways, Amelia’s neighborhood was the turn-of-the-century version of a cheap housing development—a company town built for profit, not for comfort.  In wintertime, families pasted old newspapers to the walls in hope of stopping cold air from seeping into the house. During summertime, the wooden planks expanded and softened from the inescapable humidity that penetrated the wood. Although the casitas were imperfect, people made do. These homes, flaws and all, were better than the lodgings most cigar workers could access in  Cuba or in smaller cigar-working towns such as Key West. Amelia spent her days in the cigar factory and her nights gossiping on her front porch or gambling with other women in secret. Each night after dinner, her husband joined the men of Ybor at one of the local cantinas, where the sounds of clinking dominoes cut through the smoke-filled room and the scent of whiskey clashed with the smell of sweet tobacco and the bellows of masculine laughter. I imagine that, in the absence of men,  Amelia and her friends talked about everything from politics and children to money and memories of Cuba, Spain, and Italy. 

Amelia created a life in Ybor City, but she never fully let go of the island. She and Pedro had four children—Delia, Pedro, Margot, and Dalia—yet only the last three survived infancy. Her sister,  Concepcı́on Camero, rented the house next door, until she and her three sons moved to Puerto Rico,  where they stayed. Amelia visited her parents and siblings in Cuba roughly once a decade and always in July. At first, she traveled by water, retracing her original path to Tampa. By the 1940s,  however, the steamships stopped sailing and Amelia flew Pan American Airways. Every time Amelia left Florida she used her Cuban passport because she never applied for U.S. citizenship. Perhaps U.S.  citizenship seemed unnecessary, perhaps it seemed impossible to obtain, or perhaps Cuban citizenship was a part of herself she never wished to surrender. In 1952, at the age of sixty-three,  Amelia passed away and was buried in Ybor City, Florida. 

I learned about Amelia when I was a teenager. My grandmother, Norma Alfonso, showed me an article she clipped from the Tampa Tribune in 1990, roughly twelve years earlier. “Sarah, come look at this,” she yelled, calling me over to her rose-colored kitchen island. On the counter my grandma placed a white, two-inch, three-ringed binder I had seen many times before. Norma, who was born in Ybor City in 1931, saved anything and everything she found about the old neighborhood.  Placemats from lunch counters, pamphlets from museums, excerpts from books, and articles from newspapers all found their way into her portable archive. As I took a seat in the kitchen, my grandmother slipped the pristine clipping from its acetate sleeve, extended her finger, and pointed at two women in a reprinted photograph. “This is Abuela Amelia,” she said, “and here’s her  daughter, your aunt Margot.” The black-and-white image captured a sea of women linked arm in arm marching through what I recognized as La Avenida Séptima (Seventh Avenue), the main thoroughfare of Ybor City. As I sat there gazing at the picture, Norma drew two arrows on the clipping and labeled the women in our family.  

For as long as I can remember, my grandmother was on a one-woman mission to be sure my sister and I never forgot Ybor City. She drove us through the neighborhood, told us stories of our families,  and kept traditions alive. Even before I saw the clipping, I knew Amelia was my grandmother’s favorite grandparent. Like Norma, she hated the beach but loved to read. Amelia had a talent for cigar making, a passion for bingo playing, and infectious joie de vivre. Those who knew her say she was loud and outspoken, a family trait that has survived generations. According to my grandfather,  Gus Alfonso, Norma’s husband, “Amelia was an activist who was always up to something” and the foil to his self-proclaimed respectable, rule-abiding family. In reality, his father was a member and organizer of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA)—a truth he once revealed with a whisper and a  look that made clear we would never revisit the subject. Despite the many stories Norma shared,  she never told me the context of the image. Instead, I had to search for this answer on my own. In the process, I found that there was much more to Ybor City and the women in my family than my grandma was willing to explain. After all, sometimes it is the stories we hold back, rather than the ones we share, that reveal the essence of who we are. 

"Ybor City: Crucible of the Latina South" is available through major retailers and locally at  Oxford Exchange, Tombolo Books, the Tampa Bay History Center and Bookends: Literature & Libations

To read more about Sarah McNamara and "Ybor City: Crucible of the Latina South," go to Tampa native Sarah McNamara explores Ybor City, family history in her new book.

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