TAMPA — Sarah McNamara was a teenager when she first learned of her great-great-grandmother and great-aunt’s local activism in the 1930s.
“My grandmother showed me a photo of the 1937 Ybor City women’s march against fascism,” McNamara said. “Around 5,000 Latinas marched, and you could see my family in the photo.”
But it wasn’t until she was pursuing degrees in history, culminating with a doctorate, that McNamara understood the significance of that march and the role that Tampa women played in the fight against fascism abroad and, in their opinion, at home.
Now, McNamara, 35, is a history professor at Texas A&M University, and she is spreading the story of the May 6, 1937, march.
She details it in a chapter in her book “Ybor City: Crucible of the Latina South” to be released April 11.
And for Woman’s History Month, on Thursday, at 2015 E Seventh Ave., she unveiled a historic marker and mural dedicated to the march.
McNamara’s aunt, Margot Falcón Blanco, who participated in the march, is one of three women depicted in the mural that she commissioned to be painted by Michelle Sawyer.
Blanco is in the front.
Tampa labor activist Luisa Moreno is in the middle.
Dolores Ibárruri, an anti-fascist activist in Spain, is in the back. Ibárruri was not in Tampa for the march, but she symbolizes the international movement.
“When I look at the mural, there are multiple things at play,” McNamara said. “It, at once, recognizes the political work of women in Ybor and acknowledges the history of these women as something that was transnationally informed and nationally important.”
According to the Tampa Tribune’s coverage of the march, they protested Francisco Franco’s fascist Nationalist Party, which started the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and was victorious in 1939.
The women walked to downtown from Ybor, which was home to Tampa’s Spanish population. They delivered to the mayor a petition speaking out against the “ruthless killing of women and children by Franco’s forces,” the Tampa Tribune wrote.
The mural, which is painted on the Ybor City’s Community Redevelopment Area’s headquarters, also features the phrase, “No pasarán,” which means “they shall not pass.” This was the slogan of Spain’s Republican Party fighting Franco.
McNamara said that there was a local element to the protest. “They recognized the emergence of strong man leadership throughout the U.S. and around the globe. They were hyper aware that, without resistance, those things could emerge locally as well” due to the discrimination that was rampant in Tampa at that time.
Looking to explore the Tampa Bay area?
Subscribe to our free One Day in Tampa Bay newsletter series
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
To stop residents of color from voting in city elections, the White Municipal Party was formed in 1910. Party leaders ensured that all mayoral candidates registered with them. Black residents were denied party membership, turning the primaries through 1947 into de facto general elections with only whites voting.
During the Great Depression, the federal government created the Works Progress Administration to hire millions to complete public service projects throughout the nation. It funded construction as well as the arts and scholarly research.
“But Latinos were not getting the WPA positions at the same rate as Anglos in Tampa got them,” McNamara said.
And those men needed employment.
The city’s cigar factories had been their primary employer. To save money during the hard economic times, the factories replaced the men with women for a quarter of the pay, McNamara said. “Latinos became mass unemployed.”
But fighting for their rights was dangerous.
“By 1935, the ACLU declared Tampa as one of the most dangerous places in the U.S.,” McNamara said. “The Ku Klux Klan was pretty much unchecked. When men spoke out, there were visceral repercussions. Women did not encounter the same kind of retribution.”
That’s why women planned that march.
Women and children led the way to city hall. Men made up the rear of the procession, according to the Tampa Tribune’s coverage.
McNamara recalls the details of the day her grandmother, Norma Alfonso, first shared the story of the march.
She called McNamara over to a kitchen island and opened a thick white binder that held mementos like lunch counter placemats, museum pamphlets and newspaper clippings. One of those was an article with a photograph about the march. She pointed proudly to McNamara’s great-aunt Blanco and great-great grandmother, Amelia Alvarez.
“Events like the 1937 anti-fascist march were possible due to broad community support and the willingness of everyday people to stand for what they believed was right,” McNamara said. “This moment, and this history, wouldn’t have been possible without them. You don’t have to be famous for your life to make history.”
Correction: An earlier version of a caption misidentified Spain’s Republican Party. The story has been updated.