TAMPA — Some saw it as a rightful spelling correction while others viewed it as a forceful rewriting of history. Either way, the "p" the City Council added to an Ybor City street sign Thursday polarized Tampa natives holding onto the city's cigar-rolling past.
The Spanish secondary name for Seventh Avenue, the entertainment district's main strip, will change from La Sétima to La Séptima after council members decided the latter version was a more accurate and commonly regarded Spanish spelling for "The Seventh."
"It's been a long, hard road," said a weepy Fran Costantino, the East Ybor Historic & Civic Association president who galvanized a group of natives, historians and business people to lobby for the name change. "This is a good day for the Cubans and the Spanish and the Italians who settled here. And La Séptima."
The change comes three months before the Republican National Convention, appeasing Costantino and others who worried that Tampa would be the laughingstock of Hispanic tourists, delegates and politicians from California, Texas and Miami including Marco Rubio and the like, Costantino said.
The controversy over what the street should be called traces back to the first immigrants of Ybor City a century ago, who rolled cigars, lived in shotgun shacks, stuck leftover ham and pork into the first Cuban sandwiches and played dominoes in social clubs like Centro Asturiano. Made up of Cubans, Spaniards, Italians and Germans, Ybor's first settlers had a language all their own.
Not quite perfect Spanish and certainly not perfect English, many had their own way of pronouncing things such as La Séptima, which many pronounced Sétima.
A century later in 1998, "La Sétima" found its way onto official street signs, becoming a constant reminder of Ybor's unique colloquialism to some and an embarrassing spelling gaffe to Costantino and others.
It became the street's official Spanish spelled version thanks to Ybor historian and author Frank Lastra, who successfully persuaded neighborhood and city leaders to add La Sétima to street signs as a way to highlight Ybor's oral history. In the fall of 2008, Costantino, chafing at the misspelling, started calling for a correction, but the council rejected the request a year later.
La Sétima supporters said the spelling was recognized by the Royal Spanish Academy, an official royal institution in Spain responsible for regulating the Spanish language. A number of prominent Ybor natives also believed the way it had been said should be the way the sign should be spelled.
City Council member Charlie Miranda, 71, who was born in Ybor City, embraced that argument. He was the lone dissenter of the name change, which passed on a 5-1 vote, and said the La Sétima signs spoke for the historical characters of Ybor's past.
"I can't support the changing of a sign that makes Ybor City no more intriguing as time goes by because those characters are no longer there," he said on Thursday.
But several Tampa natives had different recollections of the street's pronunciation, saying they always knew Seventh Avenue as La Séptima.
"In my life, I've never heard anybody refer to Seventh Avenue as anything other than La Séptima," said Mario Nunez, a host of the local cable Tampa Natives TV show. "When will this foolishness stop?"
"Plain and simple, it's been misspelled," added former Tampa City Council member Mary Alvarez. "Do the right thing, council. Let's change the spelling."
Both Costantino and others brought or cited historical books, postcards, pictures, novels and even the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Anna in the Tropics, as written proof that Ybor's La Séptima always included a "p."
"How do you spell relief?" former Hillsborough County Commissioner Joe Chillura asked council members. "Séptima. It certainly would be in the community and Ybor City's interest to have the correct spelling."
No member of the public spoke against the name switch, which will cost the city's Ybor City Development Corp. about $2,000 to pay for new signs on 10 blocks of Seventh Avenue, YCDC manager Vince Pardo said. The work cannot begin until the City Council approves the name change again at a yet-to-be determined regular council meeting.
"It's about where we want to go as a city in the future," council member Mike Suarez emphasized, "and it's not in any way about destroying our past."
Justin George can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3368.