In "Cuban Pathways,” a landmark exhibition at the Tampa Bay History Center, you can take in the beauty and the blood that has punctuated the history of Cuba for centuries.
"I have never seen anything so beautiful," exclaimed 15th Century Explorer Christopher Columbus when he first saw Cuba.
And yet, this largest island in the Caribbean, which has seen more than 500 years of migration, has also seen thousands of refugees fleeing this tropical paradise.
"Cuban Pathways,” a fascinating and well-researched exhibition mounted by the History Center, exposes these contradictions and shows a picture of a land with long and close ties to Tampa.
A 1603 map from the center's Touchton Map Library collection shows Cuba at 777 miles long, roughly shaped like a crocodile.
The exhibit includes coins minted from the gold that drew the Spanish to the island. When the gold ran out, the colonists turned to cattle ranching and sugar plantations. Along the way, Chinese laborers were brought in. They joined native Tainos, the indigenous people of the Caribbean, in being enslaved along with Blacks brought in from West Africa.
Visitors to the exhibit can listen to the music of that era in the lively recorded sounds of "son," the musical beat that echoes the sounds of West Africa.”
The exhibition, with its rich mix of artifacts, maps, and music, gives a broad view of Cuba's evolution.
"We wanted to tell the long story of Cuban history," says Brad Massey, curator of the exhibition. "We are talking about the local Tampa story that often gets lost in the post-Castro conversation.”
Cuba and Tampa have had longtime ties, from the Ybor City statue of Cuban revolutionary leader Jose Marti, who came to Tampa in 1891, to the cigar workers whose photos you will find here.
"People don't realize that Tampa has been connected to Cuba since the 1860s, living and working in Tampa nearly 100 years longer than they have been in Miami," says Maruchi Azorin, the show's Presenting Sponsor along with her husband Dr. Rafael W. Blanco. Azorin, a native of Cuba who immigrated to the U.S. with her family in 1960 and grew up in Plant City just east of Tampa, owns Villa Rosa Distinctive Linens in South Tampa, is a longtime business and community leader, and currently serves on the Florida Commission on the Status of Women.
"Tampa is the Ellis Island of the South," says Cuban Club president Patrick Manteiga, the third-generation editor and publisher of La Gaceta Newspaper in Tampa. La Gaceta has been in circulation since 1922 and is one of the oldest minority, family-owned newspapers in the nation and “the nation’s only tri-lingual newspaper.’’
Havana was a lively vacation destination for Americans from the 1920s through the 1950s, as shown in an assortment of mid-century travel brochures.
Fidel Castro’s rise to power changed all that, unleashing an endless flow of refugees who tried to cross the 90 miles from Cuba to Florida in flimsy boats.
This depiction is the most heartbreaking part of the exhibition.
Images on display show watercraft painstakingly crafted from aluminum sheeting and blue tarps. Never to be forgotten are a child's pink and blue sneakers and a snorkel fashioned from part of a beach chair.
Unforgettable are the words written by one refugee on an oar he used to cross the Florida Straits: "We got the goal, thanks God.”
For more information, visit Cuban Pathways at the Tampa Bay History Center.
The Cuban Pathways exhibit opened February 11. Special programming includes:
- Members’ Night (annual membership starts at $35)
History Center members are invited to a special reception and gallery talk with Dr. Brad Massey on Thursday, Feb. 24, 5:30-7:30 p.m.
- Florida Conversations
Dive deeper into the Tampa-Cuba connections during a special Florida Conversation hosted by Lissette Campos on Wednesday, April 13, at 6:30 p.m. Join in person or with Zoom.
Funding for this story was made possible as part of an underwriting partnership between 83 Degrees Media and the Tampa Bay History Center.