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  1. Opinion

Column: Notre Dame, Victor Hugo and Ybor City

Between 1886 and 1931, thousands of tabaqueros (cigar rollers) walked to one of the many factories in Ybor City, West Tampa and Palmetto Park. Some days were special, especially when el lector (the reader) started Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame.

El lector read stories that touched the hearts of Tampa's Latins: Spaniards, Cubans and Italians. The serialized novel was as meaningful to the lives of Latin immigrants in 1919 as it was in 1831, its publication date.

Hugo's heroes — los desheredados (the disinherited) — were their heroes: the struggling poet, the enchanting Esmeralda and her goats, and the crook-backed Quasimodo. Hugo's villains were their villains: the evil archdeacon Frollo and the authorities who hound social outcasts.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a classic because it touches the themes that have haunted and softened our lives for almost 200 years: immigration and intolerance, love and acceptance, authority and liberty. Hugo considered the Cathedral of Notre Dame a major character in the novel, calling it "a symphony in stone."

Local residents who never read the book saw the classic 1939 RKO film version at the Tampa Theater or St. Petersburg's La Plaza Theatre. In the film, a French gatekeeper halts a bedraggled caravan heading into Paris. A guard snarls at the strangers, "No Gypsies can enter Paris without a permit! It's the new law." Rejected, a Roma shrugs his shoulders and philosophizes, "Foreigners! You came yesterday, we come today."

Audiences wept in joy as Quasimodo swept down to rescue Esmeralda from the hangman's loose, spiriting her to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. He shouts to the delirious mob, "Sanctuary! Sanctuary!"

Ironically, at that very moment audiences cheered the hunchback's courage and audacity, 900 German-Jewish refugees aboard the German liner, the S.S. St. Louis, were seeking sanctuary in Miami. President Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to accept the refugees. "The voyage of the damned" returned to Europe, where many of the passengers died in concentration camps.

Tears also flowed at the cigar workers' workplaces in Ybor City and West Tampa. The immigrants identified with the Romas, for they too were once "strangers in the land." Sadly, there may not be a single cigarmaker alive who remembers the most celebrated readers — Manuel Aparicio or José Rodríguez — and their stentorian renditions of Hugo. The last reading occurred in 1931, meaning that an 18-year-old tabaquera in 1931 just turned 106!

But the voice of the reader and Hugo's tales of the great cathedral and the disfigured bell ringer spread far beyond the Perfecto-García and Cuesta-Rey factories. In 1984, I interviewed Domenico Giunta at his home in Ybor City. "What happened in my family no doubt happened in every other family," Mr. Giunta reminisced. He related that his older sister worked in a local cigar factory. "Each evening my sister would come home and give us verbally what had taken place. We stuck around the family table some 30 minutes or so after supper to hear my sister give us the episode of the day and the news she had heard from the lector."

Between 1977 and 1985, I interviewed hundreds of immigrants who worked in the cigar industry. Honorato Domínguez was a reader. He explained, "We were more than readers. We were also actors. We read in character. We read to make characters come alive."

My most memorable interview came in 1980. José Vega Díaz was 94 years old. His story mirrored the history of Ybor City: His father left Spain for Cuba in the 19th century and the family came to Ybor City in 1892. He thumped his fist on the table, emphasizing, "We came to Ybor City, not Tampa." Mr. Vega recalled hearing José Martí and seeing the Rough Riders.

When asked about the role of religion in Ybor City, Vega launched into a lengthy allegory. "You know what Victor Hugo say? In every town and every place they have a school teacher ... the school teacher is the light. And in every town there is someone who — whewww — try to blow away the light — the preachers!"

Fittingly, the success of Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame helped save the cathedral, which was crumbling in disrepair.

Vive Victor Hugo et Notre Dame!

Gary R. Mormino is scholar in residence at the Florida Humanities Council. In 2015, he received the Lifetime Achievement in Writing.