José Sanfeliz: Cigar Maker & Photographer

Posted in History on Thursday, March 17, 2011. Written by Lisa M. Figueredo

José Ramón Sanfeliz was born in Havana, Cuba, on September 21, 1870, and by age ten was working in a cigar factory. He found employment at the Hijos de Cabaña y Cajal Factory stripping the stems from the tobacco leaves. Two years later he worked with his father at La Concordia Sugar Mill and then, at age fourteen, began an apprenticeship at El Nuevo Mundo Cigar Factory. Sanfeliz would later write, “I distinctly remember this place as I received many beatings, many blows, and very poor food.” At age twenty he decided to leave the revolution torn island and come to America.

Once in Tampa, Sanfeliz found employment at Lozano, Pendás and Company. The cigar industry in Ybor City was growing in 1890 and there was plenty of work for someone with his experience. In later years he worked in other factories such as Ramón Monet and Ybor-Manrara as well as for Pancho Arango at Seidenberg and Company who produced La Rosa Española cigars. But Sanfeliz held a variety of jobs throughout his life. In addition to cigar making, he worked as a clothing salesman, bartender, dishwasher, timekeeper, rent collector, laxative salesman and notary. He also was a bookkeeper at a racehorse track, worked in the shipyards, at a theatre, newspaper, and liquor warehouse–AND–he took photographs. In 1922, he created the photograph album today housed at the University of South Florida, Special Collections Library. This album consists of 35 black and white prints taken between 1897 and 1905, which profile life around Ybor City. According to a note in the album, commercial photographer Mr. S. P. Burgert–whose sons founded Burgert Brothers Photography–developed the photographs. Sanfeliz dedicated the album to his good friend D. B. McKay, mayor of Tampa and publisher of the Tampa Daily Times.

The Sanfeliz collection contains photographs of El Liceo Cubano. This popular political and social club founded by Cubans in 1886 was located in a wooden tobacco-stripping house at 1226-7th Avenue, Ybor City. It was donated by Vicente Martínez Ybor. The political organization was known as the Caballeros de la Luz (Order of the Gentlemen of the Light), a cigar workers’ organization whose members sent money to Cuba to support the revolution. The El Liceo building became a part of history in November of 1886. José Martí, the Father of the Cuban Revolution, delivered two patriotic speeches there and drafted a resolution that became the program of the United Cuban Revolutionary Party.

On the day Sanfeliz took his photographs, he did not take pictures of José Martí or of the most current debate on the revolution. He was there to take pictures of the children who attended Spanish School in one of the club’s lodge rooms.  He titled his photograph Una Escuela Cubana (A Cuban School) and wrote, “In Key West and Tampa the Cubans paid a teacher of the Spanish language to teach their children the mother tongue.” In this photograph taken in 1898, the children’s faces clearly reflect that having to sit still for so long was not their idea of a fun recess.

In 1899 Sanfeliz took an intriguing photograph of a group of striking cigar workers. They had organized a soup kitchen and, in the photograph, you see an ethnic mix of men and young boys sitting with soup ladles. Their faces reflect the frustration and hardships they endured at the time.

The strike known as La Huelga de la Pesa (The Weight Strike) started in the Ybor-Manrara Cigar Factory. Factory owners were requiring cigar makers to use scales to weigh out the filler tobacco given to them at the beginning of the day. The skilled cigar makers were outraged and viewed the scales as an insult to their ability and a violation of custom. From April to August 1899, the strike caused great hardship to factory owners and the strikers. By July over 4,000 workers had left their benches. Thousands of them left Tampa to work in New York, Key West and Cuba. For those who stayed, soup kitchens were a way to help feed the workers and their families. Money was tight. Other striking workers would head down to Palmetto Beach to catch crabs and fish for their evening supper. People did what they had to do to survive.

After 98 days, the factory owners reluctantly agreed to eliminate the scales, giving the striking workers a complete victory. The scales stayed out of the factories and the cigar workers happily returned to work. Other strikes would follow in the coming years, but the weight strike was the only major strike Ybor’s cigar makers would win.

Sanfeliz went on to work for two local Spanish newspapers: the Prensa founded in Ybor City by Francisco de la Vallina and La Traducción (The Translation). As a Cuban patriot, raising money to fund the revolutionary forces in his homeland remained a priority for Sanfeliz. He was involved with two revolutionary clubs– The 24th of February Club and Los Vegadores de Maceo (Avengers of Maceo). Later in his career he became one of the founding members of Club Nacional Cubano (Cuban National Club), now known as the Cuban Club.

José Ramón Sanfeliz died December 7, 1957, and is buried with his wife Carlota in Myrtle Hill Memorial Park in Tampa.

Featured in Cigar City - Issue 5 - 2006

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About the Author

Lisa M. Figueredo

Lisa M. Figueredo

Founder of Cigar City Magazine. lisa is also the Publisher and Editor of Tampa's only history maagzine since 2005.

She can be reached at 813-358-3455 or by email.