With the first episode of the Florida Orchestra's cultural exchange with Cuba scheduled to take place this month, I went on a little tour of local Cuban landmarks, mainly in Ybor City and West Tampa. My guide was E.J. Salcines, a retired prosecuting attorney and judge, a Latino elder statesman with a remarkable grasp of the community's history.
Salcines, 73, a Tampa native whose parents immigrated from Spain, via Cuba, can speak at great, detailed length on the historical icons of Tampa. "E.J., you're a walking history book," said Alan Lopez, executive director of the Cuban Club, marveling at his explication of the meaning of images — a palm, tobacco leaves, a key, six flags — of the seal of Cuba in a splendid stained glass window on the club's third floor.
"The history of Tampa cannot be written without devoting several chapters to Cuba," Salcines said. "And the history of Cuba cannot be written without devoting many chapters to Tampa."
The history of the Tampa Bay area and Cuba goes back as far as Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer who died in 1521 in Havana from an arrow wound he received in Florida. "Some say it happened on Egmont Key, some say it was in what is now Manatee County," Salcines said. "Ponce de Leon was our first connection to Cuba."
The judge — Salcines still works as a senior judge who substitutes on cases in the court of appeal — likes to spice up his historical narrative with folksy, philosophical asides. "Ponce de Leon was looking for the fountain of youth," he said. "You know what that tells you? It tells you all males are looking for the Viagra of the moment."
Before heading out to Ybor City and West Tampa in his silver Cadillac, Salcines took me and photographer Chris Zuppa to City Hall, where he was greeted like visiting royalty by a security guard, a clerk in the mayor's office, a lawyer passing by. Everywhere we went that afternoon, the judge, a consummate political being, ran into people eager to say hello to him, share a story, press the flesh.
At City Hall, Salcines wanted to show us the seal of Tampa on the wall of the mayor's conference room. It depicts one of railroad magnate Henry Plant's steamships, the Mascotte, which brought Cuban cigar workers to Tampa.
He also showed us two stamps issued by the Cuban postal system in the 1950s. Both memorialize Jose Marti, the 19th century liberator of Cuba, who visited Tampa frequently to raise money for the revolution to gain independence from Spain. One stamp shows Marti speaking to cigar workers on a staircase at the Ybor Cigar Factory. The other has a picture of the first wooden cigar factory in Ybor City, which became Liceo Cubano, a club where Marti made important speeches in 1891.
"No other country has honored the city of Tampa like Cuba has with those two stamps," Salcines said.
From City Hall, Salcines drove along Tampa Bay to a sliver of park between Bayshore Boulevard and W Bay Street, across the water from Davis Islands. In the park is a plaque that commemorates Spanishtown Creek, a pioneer settlement at the end of the 18th century. Spanishtown Creek is the true genesis of Tampa Bay, it reads.
"Back then Cuban fishermen lived in thatched huts up and down Tampa Bay," Salcines said. "They supplied fish to Havana. Some of the lumber used to build the University of Havana came from the bay area."
Our first stop in Ybor City was the Cuban Club, where Salcines performed as a teenager in the 1950s in community theater and concerts. "This has a lot of meaning for me," he said, walking on the stage. "I had a voice then."
The club was the social hub of the community, and popular touring Cuban musicians such as Benny Moré played there. Musing about the boxing matches that were held in a ring set up on the large patio, Salcines remembered a famous featherweight, Kid Chocolate. The first Cuban to win a world title, in 1931, he was forgotten when Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, and the boxer spent time in Tampa.
"I came back from law school in '63, and that's when Kid Chocolate was walking up and down the streets of Ybor City," Salcines said. The boxer eventually returned to Cuba and died there in 1988.
Of course, the cigar industry is what closely tied Tampa and Cuba. At its peak, the industry had some 200 factories here. The tobacco came from Cuba, as did many of the cigar workers. In Ybor City, the Cubans, along with other cigar workers mostly from Spain and Italy, created an immigrant world that has become legendary for its progressive politics and cultural diversity.
At the heart of this utopian history is the red brick cigar factory built in 1886 by the founder of Ybor City, Vicente Martinez Ybor. The staircase facing Avenida Republica de Cuba is where Marti was pictured for the Cuban postage stamp Salcines had showed us earlier. Cuban and U.S. flags hang there, along with something else that seems jarringly out of place: a sign for the Church of Scientology.
"Money talks," Salcines said. "They had the money. And they bought it."
In 2010, the church purchased Ybor Square — the name of the mixed-use complex that used to occupy the former factory — for $7 million. In March, it reopened after extensive renovation as a gleaming, high-tech showcase for Scientology. It includes some nice historic touches, such as an ornate tin ceiling, a foreman's desk and tobacco press. Tours are advertised, but on another day, when I was given one, I was the only person there who wasn't either a Scientology staff member or a security guard.
Across Eighth Avenue from the factory is Jose Marti Park, "a sanctuary for all Cubans," said Salcines, explaining that the property is literally owned by the Cuban state, "like an embassy." There's a statue of the "apostle of Cuban freedom" — one of a half-dozen statues and busts of Marti in Tampa.
Nearby the face of Marti appears on a mural on the wall of La Union Marti-Maceo, the Afro-Cuban club. A half-block away is a yellow building on the site of what was Liceo Cubano, which Salcines likened to "Cuba's Independence Hall" because it is where Marti delivered two speeches that laid the groundwork for the Cuban Revolutionary Party.
My favorite public rendering of Marti is in West Tampa on a mural on the wall of a racquetball court in Macfarlane Park, which is named for Hugh Macfarlane, the Scot who brought the cigar industry to that part of town. The mural looks great in the morning sun.
Salcines' father had a department store on the site of what is now Salcines Park, on the corner of Howard Avenue and Main Street. The judge has lived for the past 47 years in the same three-bedroom house in West Tampa, and he relishes his memories of when the cigar industry was booming. A block from where his father's store once stood is the site of the neighborhood's first cigar factory, now the West Tampa Library.
Back in Ybor City, Salcines drove by the old Labor Temple, where Cuba's latter-day Marti, Fidel Castro, delivered a fundraising speech for his revolution in 1955. He was at that venue, now a club called the Castle, because the Cuban Club had not permitted him to speak there.
Salcines stopped for a beer at the original Columbia Restaurant, which is rich with Cuban connections. Perhaps the strongest, he said, is the Siboney Ballroom, named after a hit song by Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, who frequently performed at the restaurant. Sometimes called "the George Gershwin of Cuba," Lecuona lived in West Tampa following Castro's takeover. He died in 1963 in the Canary Islands.
The afternoon was winding down, and we didn't have time to visit the Palma Ceia neighborhood, where many streets are named after streets in old Havana: San Rafael, San Miguel, Neptune and others. That posh neighborhood was also home to Santo Trafficante, the son of Sicilians born and raised in Ybor City who controlled the Mafia casinos in Havana.
As a child, Salcines would travel to Havana every summer to visit uncles, aunts and cousins. His last trip there was in July 1959. Even though he has been invited back several times to speak about Tampa-Cuba history in Cuba, he has chosen to honor the U.S. embargo, mindful of his position as a prosecutor and judge.
Salcines is cautiously optimistic about the loosening of restrictions on travel to Cuba and efforts like the orchestra's cultural exchange.
"I hope not to die without going back to Cuba, standing on the same corner of the hotel where we would stay every summer," he said. "I hope some day to walk those same streets."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.