Afro-Cubans in Ybor City, 1880s-Present - Part One
By Catherine Cueto, Kortlyn Dougherty, and Melina Santos
1: Jose Martí Speech in Tampa (1891)
Jose Martí is remembered as a national hero and the father of the Cuban independence movement. He was a writer and poet who devoted his life to the independence effort and worked to promote unity among Cubans. Recognizing that there was rift between white Cubans and black Cubans, he stressed the significance of unifying as one. On November 28, 1891, he came to Tampa to help raise funds for the war with Spain and to deliver a speech that denounced the division between black and white Cubans. He believed that the separation of races should not exist because all Cubans were fighting for the same cause. Division would only slow down the war effort and prevent Cuba from gaining independence. In spite of Martí’s call for unity, Afro-Cubans in Tampa soon began to experience discrimination at the hands of lighter-skinned Cubans, as well as the city’s English-speaking majority.
2: Photograph of Paulina Pedroso
Paulina Pedroso was an Afro-Cuban who became a prominent leader during the fight for Cuban independence. She moved to Ybor City in 1892 with her husband, Ruperto Pedroso. The Pedrosos worked as cigar makers and ran a boarding house. Inspired by the ideals of Jose Martí, they joined the fight against the Spanish. Paulina Pedroso and Jose Martí developed a friendship that symbolized the solidarity between white Cubans and Afro-Cubans. When Martí travelled to Tampa, her home was the only place that he felt safe. The Pedroso residence became important to those involved in the war effort because it was a place where they could openly discuss their plans. In addition, the Pedroso home was the site of the first meetings of La Union Martí-Maceo. Even though she didn’t have a formal education, Pedroso was effective as a speaker for the cause of independence in and around Ybor City.
3: 1902 Membership Dues, Sociedad La Unión Martí-Maceo
Sociedad La Unión Martí-Maceo was a mutual aid society as well as a social club primarily made up of Ybor City’s Afro-Cuban inhabitants. Although Afro-Cubans spoke Spanish and hailed from Cuba, they were not allowed to join Ybor City’s other Latin social clubs due to the color of their skin. The 1902 membership dues from Sociedad La Unión Martí-Maceo display the names of the male Afro-Cubans that were members of the club. The membership roll helps to document the presence of Afro-Cubans within Ybor City’s Latin community. The name Ruperto Pedroso appears on the sixty-first page of the document. Pedroso and his wife, Paulina, aided in forming Sociedad La Unión Martí-Maceo. The Pedrosos also ran a boarding house in which Cuban patriot Jose Martí stayed during his travels to Tampa.
4: Martí-Maceo Membership Photos
The Union Martí-Maceo was an aid organization that was born out of the racial divide between Afro-Cubans and the white community of Tampa. These photos from the mid-twentieth century display the members of La Union Martí-Maceo. Confronting discriminatory Jim Crow laws, the union focused on aiding Afro-Cubans by providing medical, financial, and social stability. The older photo is dated 1940 and displays twelve men, while the other, dated 1951, shows sixteen members. It is likely that these men were part of the board of directors. La Union Martí-Maceo was crucial for Afro-Cubans in Ybor City because it provided a voice for a community that was otherwise silenced by Jim Crow. In spite of their Cuban heritage, Afro-Cubans were treated similarly to African Americans in Tampa due to their skin color. Within the Cuban community, they were likewise discriminated against. La Union Martí-Maceo provided a space in which members could be both black and Cuban.
5: Francisco Rodriguez, Sr. Interview
This interview with Francisco Rodriguez, Sr. was conducted in 1978. Rodriguez was born in the Cuban province of Pinar del Río. He left Cuba and migrated to Tampa in 1909, where he worked as a cigar maker. Like Paulina Pedroso, he lacked a formal education, but he was a remarkable orator. His orating skills enabled him to become a local leader during the Cuban Revolution. In addition, Francisco Rodriguez Sr. was a prominent member of La Union Martí-Maceo. Rodriguez’s son, Francisco, Jr., was an attorney for the NAACP and a leader in the Civil Rights struggle in Tampa during the mid-twentieth century. In this clip, Rodriguez explains the formation of La Union Martí Maceo and why the Afro-Cuban population needed to form their own social club. He claims that before the Cuban Revolution ended, black and white Cubans joined together without the thought of race. They cared more about seeking independence than focusing attention on the color of their skin. However, once the war was over, they no longer shared a common interest. White Cubans embraced the laws of Jim Crow and excluded Afro-Cubans. Rodriguez’s experience as an Afro-Cuban living in Tampa during the Jim Crow era provides an insight to the everyday life of Afro-Cubans and their sense of isolation from other Cubans.
6: Photograph of Chick’s Lounge
Chick's lounge, or “El Chico,” was a bar opened in 1938 after the Mirabel brothers – Clemente, Frank, and Ferman (“Chick”) – hit the winning bolita numbers. The bolita was an underground lottery that ran throughout the mid-twentieth century. Because the Mirabel brothers' grandmother was an Afro-Cuban, they worked to create a nondiscriminatory environment within the lounge. Chick's Lounge was established in the heart of Ybor City at the time that Afro-Cubans were being discriminated against by both Anglo-Tampans and light-skinned Cubans. The lounge provided a safe place for Cubans of color to enjoy a drink and conversation. The photo offers a glimpse of the bar’s clientele. For Afro-Cubans in Ybor City, Chick’s Lounge offered a colorblind space in which they were welcome to be themselves.
7: Photographs of Frank Lopez and Roberta Campbell Lopez
Frank Lopez and his wife Roberta Campbell Lopez were related to the Mirabal family. The Mirabal family operated El Chico, or Chick's Lounge, and was highly involved with Afro-Cuban clubs like La Union Marti-Maceo. As seen in the photographs, Frank Lopez was much lighter in complexion than his wife. This posed challenges for a couple living in the Jim Crow South. In an interview, the couple’s granddaughter, Lydia Lopez, recalled her grandfather’s response to an incident of racial injustice. When Frank and Roberta Lopez boarded an electric trolley in Tampa, Frank was told that he must sit in the front while Roberta was asked to sit in the back because of her darker skin color. Frank Lopez pulled the string to stop the trolley, got off with his wife, and never rode on a trolley again. The photographs of this couple, along with Lydia Lopez's account, offer a reminder of the ways that Jim Crow laws personally affected Cubans in Tampa.
8: Photograph of Cigar Workers at the Perfecta Garcia Factory (1930)
These photographs of laborers from the Perfecta Garcia cigar factory, taken in 1930, offer a glimpse of Ybor City’s distinctive racial landscape. Cigar factories were integrated workplaces, employing Spaniards, Sicilians, Cubans, and Afro-Cubans. The photographs obviously do not supply definitive information on the race and ethnicity of individual subjects, however they do reveal a phenotypically diverse workforce. Most, if not all, of the individuals working in the Perfecta Garcia cigar factory were of Latin descent. While most of the South was racially stratified into black or white, Ybor City was distinctive. Ybor City’s racial complexity and diversity could not be contained within a biracial structure.