Institute features Tampa’s smoking start to Cuban independence

The order to begin fighting Spain for Cuba’s independence didn’t arrive by telegraph or in a typed-letter. It came written in longhand, rolled in a cigar from West Tampa’s O’Halloran Factory.

Owner Blas Fernandez O’Halloran wrapped the historic note himself -- one of five cigars; “the important one distinguished with a little mark,” explains West Tampa community historian Maura Barrios. "That cigar traveled from Tampa to Key West to Havana.''

West Tampa was a center for activism in the war for Cuban Independence, Barrios adds. “The Cubans of West Tampa formed revolutionary clubs, organized picnics and soirees -- all kinds of events to raise money.”

To understand how “Cuba City,” Ybor’s “Cuba Town” and the rest of the Tampa cigar community got involved with the late 19th century Cuban revolution is to appreciate the nation’s cultural influences -- the family ties, the sense of tradition and spirit of support and camaraderie -- that helped foment a revolution. 

It took a stern non-English-speaking grandmother, who told her stories in a kitchen rich with the aroma of olive oil and sauteed garlic, for Barrios to appreciate she wasn’t just another descendant of Spain. 

“Nosotros somos Cubanos,” the elder corrected with a resonance and pride Barrios still feels today.

The fourth-generation Cuban-American and Latin Studies scholar, who pioneered the community biography project “Our Westside Stories -- Voces de West Tampa” project, will be part of a University of Tampa summer institute funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The University of Tampa has been awarded a $190,000 grant from the NEH to present a summer institute in 2019 focusing on the rise of the United States as a global power in the early 20th century as a consequence of its intervention in Cuba’s War of Independence.

The four-week institute, “José Martí and the Immigrant Communities of Florida in Cuban Independence and the Dawn of the American Century,” will take place on the UT campus from June 17 to July 13, 2019. Up to 25 university and college professors from throughout the U.S. will be selected to participate.

Getting to Tampa
Among the locals included will be living legend/former Judge E.J. Salcines, the community go-to for West Tampa-related history. He will speak on José Martí’s 20 documented visits to Tampa and share some compelling artifacts from that time.

Another West Tampa-bred scholar, James López, UT professor of Spanish, wrote the grant proposal and coordinated the institute with Denis Rey, associate professor of political science and international studies. Its seminars will closely examine an often overlooked aspect of Cuba’s War of Independence: the role of immigrants.

Revolutionary Club women“The cigar workers of Ybor City and West Tampa were pivotal in Martí’s efforts to finance and organize Cuba’s war of Independence,” explains López. “Cuba’s founding father, Jose Martí, and other Cuban leaders founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party in Tampa and in Key West.”

How did late-19th century West Tampa become a home away from home for Cubans? Before the war for independence started, many had been fleeing the island amid the aftermath of the 10 Years War, which ended in 1878. Spain’s punitive backlash plus the drying up of the coffee and cigar trade -- their final blow dealt by U.S. tariffs -- forced thousands out. Many relocated to Key West to work in cigar factories, benefitted by manufacturers who devised a workaround. 

When labor strikes stifled the Key West factories, Vicente Martínez de Ybor decided to leave Key West in 1885 to open factories in Tampa. After a prolonged violent labor strike in the Keys, others followed suit, an ordeal detailed in Louis A. Pérez Jr.’s "Cubans in Tampa: From Exiles to Immigrants, 1892-1901.''

In the Tampa cigar factories, men and women of different ethnicities worked side by side, earning equal wages for equal work. The workers contributed to their own betterment by paying lectores to read contemporary and classic literature aloud while cigars were being rolled by the thousands.    

Professor López, whose grandfather was also a lector, says that the workers and factory owners pitched in and helped fund mutual aid societies that made up for a lack of assistance by the government.

West Tampa roots 

Cigar factories began to open in West Tampa too. Before 1925, West Tampa was its own municipality. Fernando Figueredo, its first mayor, served as Tampa’s delegate to the then-Cuban Revolutionary War Party. He also served in the Florida Legislature, as superintendent of schools and later worked in the Cuban republic after it formed.

Mambises train in West TampaThe Cuban independence movement had its riot girls in Tampa, too. The Discípulas de Martí (Disciples of Martí) gathered women in support of the insurgency. Soldiers, known as Mambises, even trained in Tampa.
Naturally, UT’s institute will focus heavily on the work of Martí, whose oratory, poetry, journalism, and essays would inspire the Cuban patriotic identity, which would outlast the U.S. military intervention, and establish Martí, as the “Apostle” in Cuban society -- a symbol and source of national identity on and off the island. 
Expect lectures, guided readings, archival materials and visits to significant historical sites. All of these are directed toward the development of innovative course modules and teaching plans to enrich the college curriculum and disseminate this history. The institute is one of 218 humanities projects across the country funded by NEH, which total $43.1 million in awards. 

As López states in his grant proposal, “the lessons of this history continue to be resonant today, and the close study of this seminal period from the perspective of the working class immigrants who organized, financed, and in many cases fought and died for a patriotic ideal that they helped inspire by their example, will enrich any.”

For more information on the institute, email López at james.l[email protected], or Rey at [email protected]

Read more articles by Julie Garisto.

A graduate of Largo High, USF, and the University of Tampa's Creative Writing MFA program, Julie Garisto grew up in Clearwater and now has a home in the Ocala National Forest. Between writing assignments, she's teaching English courses at Saint Leo University and other colleges. Julie has written arts features in Creative Pinellas' online magazine ArtsCoast Journal, Creative Loafing, Florida travel pieces  (Visit Tampa Bay and Visit Jacksonville), the Cade Museum, and features and reviews in the Tampa Bay Times. Her previous journalistic roles include arts and entertainment editor for Creative Loafing, staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times, and copy editor for the Weekly Planet. Lately, she's been obsessed with exploring Florida's State Parks, small towns, and natural springs.