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Ancestry research reveals that great-grandfather in Tampa spied for Martí

Vicki Vega knew her great-grandfather was handsome from the portrait that once hung in her grandparents' Tampa home.

She also knew Genaro Hernandez was a preacher and a cigarmaker who was born in Cuba.

But that was about all Vega and her family knew of Hernandez. He died when his daughter Angelica was just 7, his wife Alicia remarried and didn't speak of him much, and records that might have told Hernandez's story were destroyed during the Great Fire of 1886 in Key West, where he lived before moving to Tampa.

Then, a year ago, Vega learned there is another reason little is known about Hernandez.

"My great-grandfather was a spy," Vega said with a chuckle. "Pretty cool."

Even cooler for Vega: Hernandez did his clandestine work for José Martí, the Cuban revolutionary who inspired the island's successful War of Independence against colonialist Spain in the 1890s.

Vega learned all this while researching her ancestry. She didn't uncover everything about Hernandez, but she has learned from historians that she now has all she can expect to get.

"Guys like my great-grandfather operated in the dark."

On Wednesday, Vega, 68 and living in Sarasota, returned to her native Tampa to visit family for the holidays.

For the first time, she stopped by José Martí Park in Ybor City.

As she gazed upon the statue of the park's namesake, thinking of her great-grandfather, she wept with pride.

"These are real people, real lives" she said. "And in some small way, maybe a large way, my great-grandfather made a difference."

Hernandez was born in Cuba in 1864, though the date or even the month remains unknown.

In 1868, he moved with his parents to Key West to flee the Ten Years' War, Cuba's first and failed attempt to force Spain from the island.

Little else is known about Hernandez until he met with Martí, who was seeking support for Cuba's next campaign to mount a war against Spain by visiting U.S. cities with large Cuban populations.

Martí arrived in Key West on Christmas Day 1891, fresh from a stay in Tampa. According to the book Exile and Revolution by José D. Poyo, Martí stepped off the boat and was greeted by Key West's top revolutionary leaders, one of whom was Hernandez.

Hernandez led a procession to a hotel, where he stood on a chair and introduced Martí for the freedom fighter's first speech in Key West.

Hernandez was later among a select few present in Key West on Jan. 5, 1892, when Martí ratified the platform of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, which led the war against Spain.

Alfred Lopez, author of José Martí: A Revolutionary Life, said Hernandez "was a young tobacco worker and activist at the time of Martí's visit. The workers considered him a leader."

Over the next two years, Hernandez supported Martí by organizing fundraisers and coordinating his trips to the southernmost Florida city, great-granddaughter Vega said.

Author Lopez said the trips probably were made in secret because of constant Spanish threats on Martí's life.

"Martí adopted a range of tactics to frustrate pursuers," Lopez said, "including traveling under assumed names, booking multiple tickets and traveling at night and in covered carriages."

Other undercover duties for Hernandez likely involved sending and receiving secret messages, Lopez said. But few if any knew the details of his work.

Those Martí charged with underground missions were unaware of how their "particular task fit into the larger design," Lopez said.

"In many cases they did not even know who else was involved beyond their immediate contacts."

In 1894, Hernandez moved to Tampa to work as a preacher. In October of that year Martí visited Tampa for the last time, delivering a speech at Ybor City's Emilio Pons Cigar Factory. The factory later became home of La Floridana Cigar Co., operated by members of Hernandez's family.

"That may be another connection," Vega said.

Martí was killed in battle in May 1895, less than three months into the War of Independence. Cuba declared victory in 1898.

Hernandez died in Tampa on April 3, 1905, at the age of 40 or 41.

"His death, like so much of his life, is a mystery," Vega said. "Was it natural or precipitated by clandestine events from his past? We will likely never know."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3320. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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