Immigrants, clubs and Cigar Industry...a melting pot ?
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Immigrants, clubs and cigar industry…a melting pot ?

_Today's Tampa is similar to what it was over one hundred years ago. People from other states and even from other countries come to the bay area to established a new residence. For different reasons sometimes the change was not that easy. In my research I found that the Tampa of the late 1870 to 1900's was very divided and in transition, in a way like today.

_Many of our new residents don't have a clear idea of our origins, some others know us as “ Cigar City”, but for others they only know the history from Busch Garden to now. A booming cosmopolitan city with rapid development. But in reality no always had been like we see it today…many social problems were brewing while the city was taking shape.


_Let's begin first with the original residents of the area they were the natives Indians Caloosan and Timucans, then traders from Cuba found easy to deal and established a relation. By the time that Col. George Mercer Brook came to the Tampa Bay in 1824, he found a small community call Caloosan, in which there were also some Spanish residents. For the first decade of operation of Fort Brooke , the relation with the natives and local residents of the area was very good among them, but later came the war.

_Almost over 60 years later, by 1888's, this factor will be very predominant; many black families move to the “new town in the south” looking for a better quality of life than in the north. A transition process was going in the American mind, right after the Civil War, and Afro-Americans from the southern states looking for better and equal opportunities came to town. African-American were not eager to socialize with either black or white Cubans. Black American who lived in West Tampa generally resided in the northern section of Ellinger City , near the Hillsborough River and Lincoln Beach . Hindered by language and cultural barrier, few African American were given the opportunity to enter the world of cigar makers. They mostly work as masons, carpenters or at the railroad. As a result, the two groups had little contact. Afro-American were clannish and tended not to socialize with either Cubans, the Spanish or Italians.

_At the same time in the 1888's, many black Cubans in West Tampa and Ybor City , encountered a system of segregation, and the easy social and cultural exchange that had existed between whites and blacks in Cuba was stopped. Not allow to live in some neighborhoods nor send their children to white schools, black Cuban found themselves isolated from the social mainstream that their Afro-American counterpart.

_A local black Cuban leader, Crecencio Arenas, as a kid found necessary to walk more than a mile to school in 1920's, despite living less than a block from the all-white Cuesta Rey School. Afro-American children so as black Cubans who could afford private schools attended classes with white children, and many blacks did live in close proximity to their white Cuban neighbors in Ybor City and West Tampa . The work place integrated, and white and black Cubans worked side by side making cigars; but the segregation between Cubans and Spanish whites or black was remarkable. The black Cuban lived in West Tampa about two miles to the north-west of Ellinger City . African-American had little in common with Cuban blacks.

_Social clubs were segregated by race. So in 1900, Black Cubans after many years and in order to overcome some of the social problems presented at the time they decided to created a club named, “La Sociedad Marty-Maseo Club”, later in 1909 change name to “La Union Marty-Maceo”, which still very active this days in Ybor City at 1226 E. 7 th Avenue.

Cuban Club -1916 (1300 E. 7th Avenue)

_For the other hand Italians immigrants began arriving in Tampa , in large numbers following the completion of Henry B. Plant's railroad. By 1905, a constant stream of Italian immigrants arrived daily in the city, thanks largely to the recruiting efforts of an Italian descendant, John Grimaldi, the immigration agent of the Seaboard Railway. Most of the new arrivals came from the villages of Alessandria della Rocca, Santo Stefano, Quisquina, Bivona, Cianciana, and Contessa Entellina in Sicily .

La Unione Italiana Club - 1917

_Primary farmers, the Italians continue to practice this profession in their new home and established vegetable gardens. The produce was sold to neighbors and to the groceries in the area. Later a few enterprising immigrants bought wagons and began to market their produce door-to-door. The grocery trade quickly became a predominant Italian venture, in addition to the fruit and vegetable market. Many Italians sought employment in the cigar factories, but only a few were able to be hired. . Owners were reluctant to admit to many newcomers for fear of disrupting the work place. But they earn their place, and no matter that in a a short time they were 20% of the labor force of the cigar industry at all levels by 1901.


Tendered to own their own businesses, Italians quickly became fluent in Spanish, since most of their customer, and the basic language in the area was Spanish. The early Italians immigrants also were clannish and tended not to socialize with either Cubans, the Spanish or Afro-American. Therefore in 1894 they organized their own social club, La Unione Italiana, later in West Tampa , the Sicilia Club.

Between 1850 and 1899, thousands of Spanish immigrants left the Iberian Peninsula to make their way to Cuba . Many left to avoid induction in the Spanish colonial army which was fighting the Moors in Africa , and others left the classic reason immigrants usually abandon their native land, to seek a better life. Most of the people who made their way to the island were from Spain 's northern provinces of from the Canary Islands . Largely unskilled, they possessed ambition and a willingness to work hard. While many females took jobs as maids or clerks in Havana , a large number of males entered apprentice programs at the cigar factories which dotted the island.

_Within a few years, these immigrants had managed to acquire some wealth and skills, and the 1880's, they constituted enough of an economic force in Cuba to influence the national economy and also in the United States.

Later in time the move was to the Tampa Bay area, Ybor City and West Tampa . Once they arrived, they naturally gravitated to kinsmen or friends who had immigrated from Cuba . This way for them the integration to their new area was easier. In order to help those in transition or those in need on October 22, 1891, the Centro Espanol was formed in Ybor City . Later another organization was formed, Centro Asturiano, in March 24, 1902. Both provided a variety of services to its members, including medical service.

_For Cubans (white) the situation was different, for many years (since 1865) they try to obtained their independence from Spain with no to much success. No matter that Tampa cigar makers were supporting economically to the rebellion, they were getting no were._By 1899 and after the Hispano-American War ended, the situation in the political scenario was better but economy was I in bad shape. At the time the United States control the island, and is not until 1903 that Cuba received independence. Is then, that many Cubans fully intended to return to Cuba once Spanish were gone, and many others decided to start all over in some place else.


Centro Asturiano

Centro Español (Ybor City - 1940's)

_ While others already in the United States spent extra income on trips back to the island to visit relatives or friends with frequency. Many Cubans who worked in Key West relocated permanently with the industry to Ybor City and West Tampa . Join the melting pot of cultures and man power that create the Tampa Cigar industry.

_As we can see the clubs were an important part of life for the new immigrants helping them to adapt to their new environment, and also maintained many of the customs and traditions of their homelands and help them over come the segregation.

_This city of ours had been across many changes and challenges in history sometimes similar to the ones that we encounter today. Therefore looking to the past we can learn for the future. As we can see Afro-Americans, Native Indians, Cubans whites and black, Italians, and Spanish planted the roots of today's Tampa .

_Many modern residents of West Tampa these days are new and not aware of our beautiful past. The old ones now look how their ancestors lived fifty or eighty years ago and disdainfully announce how glad they are that they do not live in that era. Yet, perhaps the snobbery of the present generation, with its high crime rate, its lack of a sense of neighborhood, the individualisms, its entertainment centers, and isolation, is misplaced. And let's remember those buildings, 24 survivors, that now stand vacant or vandalized, or serving as offices or churches, at one time were centers of production and activity for our cigar makers and our economy. (See map for locations)

_Residents, who grew up along with the City of West Tampa and in Ybor City , have a different perspective and answer. And in the minds of those who cherish these and other pleasure memories of a gone time the question arises, whose life and time are better? For them the answer is easy!!!



Reference: "Once Upon a Time in Tampa" - Author: W. Reyes, Ph.D. - 2014


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