At the Tampa Bay History Center, the new “Cuban Pathways” exhibit occupies more than 2,000 square feet of gallery space. The collection includes more than 120 artifacts, each one carefully arranged to marvel guests at every turn. It works. Even after three visits, I keep falling under its spell.
It’s as if the exhibit has a life of its own. It bestows gifts on a visitor, depending on who else is in the room.
The first time I walked through the galleries, I was drawn to two old airport chairs in a corner of the room. The chairs represent the last stop inside the Havana airport. Cubans fleeing the country in the 1960s would sit on one side of the glass wall. On the other side of the glass, watching, were the people staying behind by choice or by default. The raw emotions displayed on either side of the glass earned this section of the airport its nickname of “fishbowl” or “la pecera” in Spanish.
Just one look at those chairs and I could hear my mom’s voice retelling the story of the day she left Cuba. I had heard that story a million times growing up, but Mami’s memory of September 25, 1961 had a different flavor on this night at the museum. Standing in that spot of the museum, I could almost picture it myself.
The voice of the Bello family behind me brought me back to the present. The old chairs had enchanted them too.
“Incredible,” whispered Angela Bello in Spanish. Angela is the matriarch of the family. Her son Jose and daughter Ana wanted to see “Cuban Pathways” together. These pale blue chairs reminded Angela of another important day the three of them had been together. Fifty-five years and eight days earlier, the three of them had left Cuba forever. The date was February 16, 1967. Jose was 23 months old at the time. Ana was 4 years old.
Jose Bello, Vice President and Community Outreach Officer of Encore Bank, whips out a picture taken of them when they landed in Chicago, Illinois.
“My mom always says this picture represents the three things this country gave us the day we arrived: freedom, opportunity and those coats,” he says. “There were 26 inches of snow on the ground,” adds Ana Bello with a smile.
Then off the siblings went deeper into the gallery, reminiscing about the things they remembered and asking Mama Bello about the things they do not.
Generations and years between them melted away like butter on Cuban toast.
Several weeks later, I was back in the gallery and this time it was Francisco Changsut that sparked a completely different experience. When I found Changsut’s photograph on the wall that day it was surrounded by guests surprised to learn that Cuba had a large Chinese population.
Dr. Brad Massey, Saunders Foundation Curator of Public History and lead curator of “Cuban Pathways,” has done a masterful job telling that part of Cuba’s history through the journey of the Changsut family.
Francisco emigrated from Canton, China to Cuba in the 1900s. His great-grandson in Tampa provided the artifacts guests are seeing today, which includes a Cuban driver’s license.
“No wonder that Cuban café on Columbus (Boulevard) sells Chinese rice,” says a young woman to her friend. The visit had me reaching for the phone to talk to my 15-year-old niece Sabrina. Just like Francisco Changsut, her great-grandfather was from Canton too.
You don’t have to be Cuban or even Hispanic to enjoy “Cuban Pathways.” Arrive curious and the artifacts will do the work. They span 500 years of history, dating as far back as a map from 1515 and a war bond bought by a cigar roller in Ybor City on February 13, 1897.
Meant to be
It’s no accident that this traveling exhibition was born in Tampa.
It was here, in the neighborhoods of Ybor City and West Tampa, where Cuban immigrants first settled in the late 1800s. They brought their cigar rolling skills and their deep love of baseball. The first baseball team in recorded history was formed in 1887 by cigar rollers in Ybor City.
“Given our region’s deep connections with Cuba, this story is part of the Tampa Bay story,” says C.J. Roberts, President and CEO of the Tampa Bay History Center. “Cuban Pathways is the first traveling exhibition produced exclusively by the History Center. We are proud to share these artifacts from our collection and the extensive research with the Tampa Bay community and other museums in the Southeast and beyond.”
Tampa residents Maruchi Azorin-Blanco and husband Dr. Rafael Blanco inspired its creation and provided priceless family artifacts. Maruchi’s father, Rogelio Azorin, was a Spaniard who immigrated to Cuba in 1898. By 1917 in Camaguey, he had started “Industrias Azorin”- a manufacturing company. In 1943 he fell in love and married Julia Luisa Gonzalez and the rest, as they say, is history.
Daughter Maruchi would be their only child. The day their family business was ceased by Cuban soldiers was also the day their home was nationalized. Four weeks later, they boarded a flight to the United States and never looked back. It was November 13, 1960. Maruchi was 8 years old.
Standing at her side, 42 years later, I was struck by the clarity of her memories and the bond she shared with her father. In Maruchi’s heart, this is a tribute to him.
It’s that kind of love -- of family and history -- that runs throughout the exhibit. The Tampa Bay History Center has woven these magical threads into the stories of three families from three different eras in Cuba. The result is a pathway that delights, teaches and inspires at every turn.
The Cuban Pathways exhibit, on display thru January 2023, is open to the public daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information and to learn details before you go, visit the Tampa Bay History Center.