TAMPA — When Spanish, Cuban and Italian immigrants mixed in the streets of early Ybor City, a lot of words got mixed up in translation — or lost altogether.
Consider the "p" in La Septima, translated as "the seventh," for Seventh Avenue, the main street in the historic area. Since 1998, street signs along the entertainment district's mile-long strip of bars, cigar stores, restaurants and clubs have read "La Setima," rankling some who believe the city shouldn't have made a mispronunciation official.
With 50,000 visitors about to descend on the city in August for the Republican National Convention, a strong faction of Ybor natives, business owners and historians say now is the time to right a grammatical wrong before Tampa looks foolish to the world.
"It just makes us look like we're all stupid and illiterate," said Fran Costantino, a native Ybor resident, business owner and president of the East Ybor Neighborhood Association. "If we're ever going to get it done, it's do or die now. We're going to have thousands of people in town and Ybor City is going to be the star."
Other notable Ybor figures would prefer to leave well enough alone. They say the signs accurately reflect the melting pot that Ybor City became — something original and all to its own.
"When I first saw it, it bothered me that the spelling was wrong," said Richard Gonzmart, owner of Ybor's Columbia Restaurant, Florida's oldest eatery. "But then I started thinking about the roots of Ybor City — the Italians, the Cubans and the Spanish. And the Spanish that was spoken in Ybor City was different than it was spoken in Spain or Cuba or anywhere else.
"This is what makes Tampa unique. My vote is: This is what my ancestors called it."
The City Council is scheduled to take up the issue today during a Community Redevelopment Agency meeting at City Hall. It won't be the first time it has been debated.
In 1996, Ybor historian and author Frank Lastra made a presentation to the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce and Museum Society asking for a secondary street sign on Seventh Avenue that would read "La Setima," the colloquialism he said many in Ybor had used for a century. Both organizations debated whether Septima would be more accurate and appropriate but were persuaded by Lastra's historical argument.
In 1998, with then-Mayor Dick Greco's support, the City Council approved La Setima.
Reflecting back, Greco now says he just wanted the street spelled in Spanish, correctly or incorrectly, to make people remember Ybor's history.
"I think it might be best to spell it the right way, but it's fulfilling the same purpose," he said Wednesday. "La Setima or Septima, either way they want to spell it is fine as long as it begs the answer: What does it mean?"
In the fall of 2008, after Costantino pushed to change the signs, the Ybor City chamber and Development Corp., a city agency that promotes economic development, voted against a respelling. In 2009, the City Council did, too.
Part of the argument that swayed officials was that Lastra and others had found Setima as an accepted spelling for Seventh in the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language and major dictionaries in Spain.
"I can't understand that those who were born and lived and were raised in Ybor City don't understand that Setima is a correct word if you look in a dictionary," Rafael Martinez-Ybor, 83, the great-grandson of Ybor City's founder, said Wednesday. "The people who are bringing it up are the same ones, and I respect them. But respect our history. It's not misspelled."
Costantino's allies disagree.
"A lot of times in communities you get mispronunciations that will stick," said Patrick Manteiga, publisher of the 90-year-old trilingual La Gaceta newspaper. Manteiga could find no references to "Setima" in his archives.
"But generally, in a written format, you correct those issues,'' he said. "I would believe most newspapers would fix those mispronunciations, most documents would and I believe most governments would."
Andy Huse, a librarian at the University of South Florida special collections and author of a Columbia Restaurant retrospective, said he has never seen historical records with Setima.
"Just because some people can't pronounce certain things or have an accent," he said, "doesn't mean it changes the spelling."
City Council member Frank Reddick said the city has an obligation to fix something if it's wrong.
"If the cost is feasible and within reason and if the sign is misspelled, I would be in favor of having the signs replaced," he said. "I don't know the history of it, but I would want my name spelled correctly if it was on a sign."
According to a 2009 city estimate, each sign change could cost as much as $171, or more than $4,000 for all 24 signs on the 10 blocks that make up Seventh Avenue's main drag.
While passions are clearly split, not everyone feels strongly either way.
"There are people who are very anal about doing things the correct way, and I understand reasons for that," said Don Barco, owner of King Corona Cigars on Seventh Avenue who grew up, like many, calling the street Broadway. "But then there are things like in Nashville where they have the Grand Ole Opry. It's sort of their calling card."
Council member Mike Suarez, a third-generation Tampa resident, said he hasn't picked a side.
"I am agnostic on whether it is spelled one way or the other," he said. "Historically, I have always looked at it as a quirk of Ybor's history. My whole point of putting it on the agenda is let's discuss it."
Justin George can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3368.