TAMPA — Ybor City's first cigar was rolled in 1886.
The first play was performed in the Latin District a year later.
In the ensuing decades, as Ybor City established itself as the cigar capital of the world, it also built a reputation as an American hub for Spanish-speaking theater.
Yet, little is known about that latter distinction.
"Theater is as important to Ybor City's history as cigars," said E.J. Salcines, retired judge and a lifelong student of local history. "Our cigars have been well documented by historians. Our theater has not."
Inspired by Salcines' call for someone to document Ybor City's importance in Spanish-speaking theater, Kenya Dworkin has spent more than 20 years creating the first archive on the topic.
The 60-year-old professor of Hispanic studies at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University is doing so despite having no roots in Tampa.
"I left Cuba when I was 8 months old, but I am still Cuban born," Dworkin said. "Its history is something I'm passionate about.
"When I learned of Cuba's connection to Tampa and Tampa's theater, it was a story I wanted to tell."
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Her mission began in 1994 while in Tampa for a conference on Spanish history at the University of South Florida.
She was invited on a tour of Ybor City by a group of local historians. Salcines was one of them.
During a stop at the Centro Asturiano — a social club for those from Asturias, Spain — Salcines told Dworkin about Ybor City's theatrical history.
Fascinated by the tale of blue collar immigrants gathering to watch travelling shows from their native countries, Dworkin returned to Pittsburgh and sought to learn more about Ybor City theater. She was shocked to find there were no sources of information.
"The people living in that era were not aware they were part of something that would become so important to history," Dworkin said. "They didn't have the foresight to record it. That's what I am attempting to do."
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In the early years of Ybor City, the language, songs, dances, sets, costumes and stories of plays connected first generation immigrants to their native countries of Spain and Cuba.
"Theater helped preserve their cultures," Salcines said.
That first play in Ybor City was put on by a visiting Cuban theater troupe at EI Liceo Cubano, a social club for immigrants from the island nation.
They performed Amor de Madre by Spanish playwright Don Ventura de la Vega.
Dworkin now has a copy of the script they used.
As Ybor City became a priority destination for Cuban and Spanish immigrants looking for work in the cigar industry, the district also became a hub for visiting theater companies from those nations.
"Cuba had its talented performers and was also a natural stop for Spanish performers," Dworkin said. "When they wanted to come to the U.S., Tampa was the first place they went since it was a hop away."
What was occurring in Ybor City was deemed so important by the U.S. government that the Centro Asturiano was included in the Federal Theatre Project — a New Deal-era undertaking from 1935-39 that funded live performances in the United States during the Great Depression.
"This is all a part of our identity," historian Salcines said. "She is telling of the cultural development of Tampa."
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Through two decades of visits to Tampa and searching through national archives in Washington, D.C., Dworkin put together her collection of photos, news clippings and dozens of scripts.
It wasn't easy.
She had to comb through thousands of pages of newspapers to find one mention of a specific play. Scripts were discovered in unmarked folders at the USF library.
She tracked down surviving local playwrights from that era and gained acceptance into the male-only cantina of the Centro Asturiano where regulars shared their memories of Spanish-speaking theater,
Dworkin is now asking those who attended shows or were part of the days of early Ybor City theater — or had ancestors who did so — to search their homes and storage units for historical artifacts such as photos, news clippings, tickets or even scripts.
She can be reached at kdworkin @andrew.cmu.edu.
Dworkin plans to use the archives to complete a history book on Spanish-speaking theater in Ybor City. Then she wants to donate the collection to one of the local universities.
"I don't think these memories belong to me or any one person," Dworkin said. "They belong to this community. No serious scholar would want to keep materials to themselves."
Patrick Manteiga, publisher of Ybor City's 94-year-old trilingual weekly newspaper, La Gaceta, has provided Dworkin photos and articles to help her work. He hopes more in Tampa will do the same.
"Good history is rare and we lose more and more of it every day," he said. "Her making the effort to gather and preserve it will be treasured for years to come."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.