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Tampa Bay History Center exhibit focuses on history of Cuba and Tampa connections

“Cuban pathways” illustrates the rich legacy and diversity across the Florida Straits.
Guests enter to view the Cuban Pathways exhibition covering 500 years of Cuban history pictured inside of the Tampa Bay History Center on Friday in Tampa.
Guests enter to view the Cuban Pathways exhibition covering 500 years of Cuban history pictured inside of the Tampa Bay History Center on Friday in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Jun. 13|Updated Jun. 14

TAMPA — When Maruchi Azorín left Cuba with her family as an 8-year-old girl once Fidel Castro took over, she thought it wouldn’t be for long. She harbored the hope that her father, Rogelio, and her uncles, Manolo and Antonio, would recover their business and their home in Camagüey.

More than six decades have passed since her family left the island to flee the communist regime. Her family used to tell them stories about Cuba and the reasons why they left when Castro came into power. Nothing went back to what it was before, but the legacy of her roots never failed to point to the past of an island rich in tradition and history.

Despite the circumstances, the Azorin’s managed to keep their history alive and their commitment to building a new path in the U.S.

That legacy is part of a meticulous exhibit called “Cuban Pathways” by the Tampa Bay History Center. The exhibit tells the 500-year story of Cuba coined by Spanish explorers, their journeys, the waves of new immigrants and the efforts of their independence leaders seeking freedom.

The exhibition has been in development for two years and occupies 2,000 square feet of gallery space. It presents more than 100 objects such as the first map of the Caribbean basin, published in 1511, and a homemade refugee boat that took the 90-mile trip to Key West with 12 people aboard.

Cuban Pathways — which runs for a year-long showing — features documents, music and images of men and women who are part of Cuba’s history and diversity. The list includes names like Paulina Pedroso, an Afro-Cuban revolutionary against Spain in 1895, who sheltered Cuban freedom fighter José Martí during a visit to Tampa when he was poisoned; Rogelio Azorín, whose family established a manufacturing company after arriving from Spain at the end of the 19th century; and Francisco Changsut, who emigrated from China to Cuba around 1900.

The current exhibition covers the Taino Indians, the early Spanish settlements and the arrival of the first Africans to the island, among others. The exhibit also chronicles the earliest working class of Ybor City; the Cuban music and culture; the tobacco “torcedores,’ or cigar rollers; the first urbanizations that were born in the wake of modernity; and the “Mutual Aid Societies,” voluntary associations that fulfilled a social task of great importance by helping members facing difficult circumstances.

“Given our region’s deep connections with Cuba, this story is part of the Tampa Bay story,” C.J. Roberts, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay History Center, said in a statement.

Ybor City was a fundamental part of local history, consolidating itself as an urban center that attracted projects and initiatives of various kinds. Stores, mansions and hotels were born as new opportunities arose, but their destiny changed forever with the tobacco industry and the vision of an entrepreneur, Vicente Martínez Ybor, who founded the city of Ybor in 1885. Later more than 150 tobacco factories were established with an annual production of more than 500 million cigars.

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Curator Dr. Brad Massey talks about the new Cuban Pathways exhibition covering 500 years of Cuban history inside of the Tampa Bay History Center in Tampa on Friday.
Curator Dr. Brad Massey talks about the new Cuban Pathways exhibition covering 500 years of Cuban history inside of the Tampa Bay History Center in Tampa on Friday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Another chapter of modern Cuban history is Operation Pedro Pan, a plan that made it possible to transfer 14,048 Cuban children to U.S. territory. The children left Cuba without their parents on flights from Havana to Miami between 1960 and 1962. It was by far the most dramatic child exodus in modern history. But it was also a race against time because many Cuban parents were convinced that the new regime was going to exercise control over their children’s future.

The collection doesn’t ignore the mass exodus of Cuban migrants during the Mariel Boatlift of 1980, the fall of the Soviet Union and the “special period” in the 1990s when the Cuban economy went into severe crisis, and the drama of the 35,000 rafters who fled Cuba in 1994. For greater realism, the exhibit uses a giant slide viewer that shows photos of Cuba before the communist revolution and a rustic boat used by a group of people who left the island just last September. According to the organizers, the chug boat, powered by a diesel engine, carried 12 people to the shore of Key West, near the famous buoy marking the southernmost point in the continental United States.

A giant Viewmaster featuring images of Cuba tourism and historical images at the Cuban Pathways exhibition covering 500 years of Cuban history pictured inside of the Tampa Bay History Center on Friday in Tampa.
A giant Viewmaster featuring images of Cuba tourism and historical images at the Cuban Pathways exhibition covering 500 years of Cuban history pictured inside of the Tampa Bay History Center on Friday in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
A homemade refugee chug boat that made the 90-mile trip to Key West in September 2021 with 12 people aboard on display at the Cuban Pathways exhibition covering 500 years of Cuban history pictured inside of the Tampa Bay History Center on Friday in Tampa.
A homemade refugee chug boat that made the 90-mile trip to Key West in September 2021 with 12 people aboard on display at the Cuban Pathways exhibition covering 500 years of Cuban history pictured inside of the Tampa Bay History Center on Friday in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Azorín, one of the exhibit’s sponsors, along with her husband Dr. Rafael W. Blanco, said “Cuban pathways” showcases the diversity of the Cuban people and the importance and relevancy of Tampa.

“Many 20th-century Cuban-born Tampeños visit the exhibit and see themselves reliving childhood memories, both good and bad, that impacted their lives and who they are today,” Azorín said.

Cuban Pathways is presented in both English and Spanish at the Tampa Bay History Center, 801 Water Street. For more information visit www.tampabayhistorycenter.org

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