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When Spain fell, Tampa rose

Stanford University history professor Peter Carroll called it "a terrible moment in Tampa's history."

He was speaking of March 31, 1939, the day the narrowly elected leftist front of Spain surrendered to a fascist coalition of the war machines of Hitler and Mussolini, led by the rebellious Gen. Francisco Franco and his army.

There was a rally at a Catholic church in Tampa that day. "When the people gathered together," said Carroll, "the news came that Spain had fallen. And apparently everyone in this church was just wailing and crying. They managed to get together and sing La Quince Brigada," a song dedicated to the 15th Brigade, a group of American volunteers who fought for the anti-fascist republicans in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. The war left the country devastated and killed nearly 1-million people.

Tampa was a small city then, but made an inordinate war aid effort. Two major segments of the multifaceted exhibit "No Pasaran! The Spanish Civil War Remembered," will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the war and Tampa's role in it.

"Shouts From the Wall," a collection of war propaganda posters and photos brought home by the 15th Brigade, dubbed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, will be on display at the University of South Florida's Contemporary Art Museum Saturday through Dec. 20.

"No Pasaran! Tampa and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939," a collection of local artifacts, film, photos and music, will be on display at the Centro Asturiano at Nebraska and Palm avenues Saturday through Dec. 22. Symposiums, lectures, films, and performances are also scheduled (see accompanying schedule).

Ana Varela-Lago, coordinator of the event and a USF history graduate, wrote her master's thesis on Tampa's involvement in the war. She estimates that 5,000 of Tampa's 30,000 Latinos at that time were Spanish immigrants, ranking third behind Los Angeles and New York City.

Though the Latin community had little money during the Depression, Varela-Lago said that Tampa "per capita probably was the community that gave the most to the Spanish Republic.

"They would give a quarter, a dime, a nickel, whatever they could, and in total they sent almost $200,000 during the three years of the war. We have asked an economist how that would be today, and he told us it would probably be like $1.57-million."

Children scavenged the streets for discarded gum and cigarette wrappings, the tin foil of which was melted and fashioned into fishing sinkers to sell. Volunteers staked out the cigar factory steps on payday, asking for donations. Once a week store owners were asked to give what they could.

Proceeds from performances at the Latin communities' mutual aid societies went to the Spanish Red Cross.

Varela-Lago's thesis became the basis for the Centro Asturiano's segment of the exhibit. She was recruited by USF historian Fraser Otanelli, who wanted to develop a Tampa exhibit to complement the traveling "Shouts From the Wall" collection.

Varela-Lago unearthed a wealth of memorabilia and reminiscences from a war that many non-Latin Americans know little about. But as the Centro Asturiano collection attests, Tampa was alive with war-related activities.

It includes photos of local demonstrations, including those of a 5,000-strong march that started at Ybor's Labor Temple _ the home of Tampa's Committee for the Defense of the Spanish Popular Front _ and ended at City Hall; photos of four ambulances purchased with donations and delivered to the Spanish Red Cross; a book of autographs from visiting Republican dignitaries; lapel ribbons in red, yellow and purple, the colors of the Spanish Republican flag; a recording of No Pasaran! or "They shall not pass," an anthem recorded in New York City with lyrics written by Tampa cigar worker Leopoldo Gonzalez; and a homemade film shot on Labor Day 1938 by Armando Mendez, depicting a demonstration with placards shouting: "Stop The Bombing!" "Stop Hitler!" "We Support Democracy!," plus footage of children scavenging tin foil.

Varela-Lago stressed that support for the war came not only from Tampa's Spaniards, but also Cubans and Italians.

"In general, Americans didn't consider this important enough to support," she added. "They thought of it as a foreign war, and they didn't participate."

Communist and socialist factions comprised much of the republican movement, as well as trade unions and liberal groups. Major republican military support came from the Soviet Union.

"There was that idea in America that the republic was radical somehow," Varela-Lago said. "It's true that there were communists and socialists in the government, but it was an open government. There were all kinds of other parties involved. And of course in Ybor City there was this experience that Latins were radical because of all the strikes and all the history of the labor movements."

As with any 20th-century war, the battle for people's minds was a crucial element of strategy. Posters were the leading form of propaganda.

"Posters were the forerunners of television as a form of visual propaganda," said USF art historian Brad Nickels. "And film of course was used at the time. But for most people, that's how they got pictures of things for political propaganda purposes, in the form of a poster."

As part of the exhibit, Nickels will present the lecture "Poster Wars!" that addresses the artistic merit of the posters in relation to other wartime propaganda images.

"They're more abstract than, say, World War I posters," Nickels said, "but still have elements of realism. . . . They have elements of modern art, kind of abstract forms. Things are smoothed out, streamlined, turned into striking patterns.

"A lot of art in the '30s is intensely political, having to do with symbols of what a nation, a race, a socio-economic class should be."