Saturday, February 24, 2018
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Ybor City was once a "hotbed" of radicalism, historians say

It took Ybor City's tobacco industry decades to grow large enough to earn Tampa the title of Cigar Capital of the World.

But almost from the start, Ybor City — founded in 1885 — was Florida's revolutionary hub.

It was a U.S. epicenter for the independence movements in Cuba and Spain, home to labor activism, and a stomping ground for feminist leaders.

"Ybor was a hotbed of radicalism," said Sarah McNamara, an assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University and Tampa native. "That played a large role in this city's history."

McNamara and Manny Leto, director of marketing at the Tampa Bay History Center, explored this legacy at the event "Radicals and Revolutionaries: Politics in Early Ybor City" on July 14 at New World Brewery.

Sponsored by the American Library Association's Latino Americans: 500 Years of History grant initiative, it was part of Tampa's Archives Awareness Week that recognizes the need to document the city's unique history.

Nearly 150 people were in attendance, Leto said.

"Everyone enjoyed it," he said. "We were looking at an aspect of Ybor's history that doesn't get talked about too much."

It started with Jose Marti. Known as the George Washington of Cuba for his role in chasing colonialist Spain from the island, he visited Ybor City about 20 times in the 1890s.

Decades later, before openly embracing communism, Fidel Castro visited Ybor City once in 1955 in support of his revolution.

Each inspired residents to donate money and help smuggle arms into Cuba for their causes. Others fought in the war.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in the 1930s, residents backed those battling against the coup d'etat of Francisco Franco.

Again, men from Ybor City took part in the war. Others helped civilians caught in the conflict's cross hairs by sending two ambulances and 300 pounds of clothing to Spain, researcher McNamara said.

Still, Franco, with the help of Nazi Germany, won the war.

Not every radical movement was tied to conflicts overseas.

Cigar employees waged battles with factory owners over wages and working conditions.

The insurrections were inspired by lectors — men and women paid to entertain workers by reading novels and newspapers. Literature would venture into the realm of labor rights.

"Lectors were the CNN of their day," Leto said. "They disseminated vital news to the community, and that often meant news of what other labor movements in the U.S. and internationally were doing."

Among the lectors was Luisa Capetillo. Originally a labor organizer in her native Puerto Rico, she wrote the first Spanish-language feminist manifesto while in Ybor City in the early 1900s.

In the early 1930s, the lectors were banned from the factories in order to prevent more strikes.

But Tampa's immigrant community remained a preferred destination for national and international labor activists.

Guatemala native Luisa Moreno, for instance, was founder of the California-based National Congress of Spanish-Speaking People, a Latino civil rights organization with more than 70,000 members throughout the U.S.

In 1937, Moreno led thousands of women from Ybor City to the downtown courthouse to address the lack of opportunities for Latino men.

As Ybor City's population waned in the 1960s, so did its radical ways. Still, the stories remain important to remember, McNamara said.

"Ybor City has a fascinating history of radicalism. The working class from Cuba, Spain and Italy collided there along with anarchists, socialists and communists.

"I think it is a part of Tampa's history that has been sanitized. It should be celebrated."

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

 
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