In my years of growing up in Ybor City, which was the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, there was one man who stood out head and shoulders above the population. All who aspire to intellectualism, to appreciators of art and music, and to be leaders in the politics of that day, basically a long sputtering fight against communism, had to look up to Don Victoriano Manteiga. He was our leader.
One step below Don Victoriano was my grandfather, the Spanish Consul, Don Gustavo Jimenez. My first 10 years were spent on my grandfather’s knee. He had taken charge of teaching me to be a European child. I was to be instructed in art by a series of trips to Lake Wales, the Ringling Art Museum, which hosted Rembrandt, Goya, Velasquez and numbers of Impressionists. He made me sit in front of a giant painting as he dissected the painting, looking at design, coloring, figure drawing and overall composition. Then he would drive to Bok Towers, spread a blanket, and discuss the painting we had just studied. As we devoured our chocolate and churros, we would give our opinions. I loved to do that.
In music, he made us listen to the Saturday Metropolitan Opera programs. I hated those and still do. But Sunday made up for it. I had to get up on a chair and conduct Toscanini’s NBC Symphony with the number two Eagle pencil. Now, that was fun. From this, I got to know symphonies. I love the music. It’s tops.
The only time I saw our consulate in an uproar was when Don Manteiga, the Lector, was coming to supper. All the family was in awe of the tall, dignified Lector. Supper over, the dishes cleared off, the Lector took off on a long speech telling us about a civil war about to start in Spain, about the general poor state of civilization, East or West, trying to recover after the disastrous World War. Things looked bleak according to him. At my age, I would hang on every word. Most of it I couldn’t digest, but all I knew was we were headed for big trouble. After he left, my grandfather would try to explain what he had said. He still did not ameliorate the sense of danger. Meanwhile, in my schoolyard at Robert E. Lee Elementary, the children’s main concern was Babe Ruth’s batting average, who took Lindberg’s baby, and whether Hillsborough could beat Plant High in the annual Thanksgiving game. No one I knew, including my teachers, seemed to have heard of Hitler, Stalin, or Franco. We seemed to live in another world apart, all safe and sound.
Bad times come early for El Lector when the owners decided Lectors were a dangerous influence on the labor force. They wanted them thrown out of the factory. The workers rebelled. No Lectors. No work. They went out on an industry wide strike. No one worked for 10 months! It was a major disaster for all sides. The workers barely got along on starvation diets. The owners lost huge sums of money. The Lectors were out of work, most driven from the city to seek work in Key West, Havana or Mexico–never to return to Ybor City.
Don Victoriano, of course, was a heroic leader of the strike. He spoke almost every night at meetings in the cafes of Seventh Avenue, to the clubs, Centro Asturiano, Centro Espanol, Cuban Club and veterans' organizations. We had many meetings at the consulate where the chief attraction was a supper for Manteiga. For many, that represented the only taste of the great Spanish meal for the week. It was a tough time. The Lector was everywhere. Negotiating, fighting, writing articles, and encouraging workers to stick it out. After 10 months, they had to cave in.
The Lectors had to go. Victoriano had begun to publish a newspaper, La Gaceta, a trilingual newspaper. The entire town of Ybor depended on it for news and information. It was a big success. In 1938, Franco won his fight. The Loyalist Spanish government folded and was no more. My grandfather took it hard and did the only thing he could do, he died. By this time my father JB, a pharmacist, had accumulated enough money to move from a big house on Columbus Drive to a nice, comfortable, two-story house on Lamar Avenue in Tampa Heights.
I was very happy there because of the balance of my playmates. In Ybor City, I only had Spanish immigrant kids. On Lamar, I had Americans, Italians, Cubans, Spaniards and Jews. We all played together in peace.
The war started. All our neighborhood kids ran to join up, leaving us too-young kids to wait for our time to come. Upstairs, my very successful, good-looking uncle Ferdie lived in solitude. He was 37 years old, so was exempt from going. He had a crucial job in the food business so he was exempt from the Draft. Still, he had hid upstairs not going out as he had, not going to bars, restaurants, movies and anywhere where his good looks and virile figure would get him into fights with servicemen wondering why he was not in the army. My mother, feeling his loneliness, sent me (I was in his namesake, Ferdie) upstairs to live with him. I was in heaven. He was such fun and every night at 11:00 H.V. Kaltenbrun would come over NBC with the news. Then we made coffee and toast and discussed what we had just heard. You know, man-to-man.
One glorious day the war threw off a great piece of flotsam. I was told that Don Victoriano was coming to take the front bedroom, upstairs to share the room with Playboy Uncle Ferdie and I. Imagine the great hero of Ybor City and the publisher of La Gaceta at my house!
How this broke down was like this: I would be home by 4 p.m. at my study desk. At the same time, the Lector would arrive, hot and sweaty from the day of putting out the paper. He would jump into a cold tub of water. He’d come out in a bathrobe, sit down with me to ask me what I had learned, and then, in his way, he turned that into a lecture. What was happening in the world? It seemed never to be good news.
One of his continuing themes was the absence of intellectualism in Tampa. No one seemed to aspire to being a thinking man, an intellectual. Culture seemed unattainable. But he was. He was a very cultured figure and the reigning intellectual. He seemed intent on opening up the world to me. Seeing how I ate up history, he gave me books on the Conquest of the Spanish Conquistadores. I got a chance to read “The Conquest of Mexico” by Bernal Diaz in English translation, and discussed it in detail. I was on my way.
I was hooked on the Mexican Revolution of 1910.
Finally, I had to go off to college. I went to the University of Tennessee and lost contact with this vital man. I didn’t think to write.
The war went by. We won. Dr. Victoriano still wrote and edited La Gaceta, but he was now very old, and bent.
I had come to Indian Rocks to spend my usual month writing my novels and articles. I had married a vivacious young beauty, a famous flamenco dancer, and she was fascinated by my stories of Ybor City.
One day, finding out that my old mentor, the Lector, was still alive and working, I decided to drive in with my beauty, photograph him, and see if we could get a story or two out of him. It was after lunch at one o’clock when we came to his office on 15th Avenue. I was shocked by his appearance.
His most impressive feature was his straight-as-a-rod posture. He was about 6 ft. tall, taller than anyone in Ybor. He appeared taller.
Seeing me come in and taking a long, appreciative look at Luisita, my bride, he bid us to sit down, and started to regale us with stories of the past, of the bitter strike, of the war of the Lectors and the Mafia wars, and endless tales of Ybor City.
The afternoon sun was dropping over the rooftops of Ybor when he finally sat down. We took pictures, one of which turned into a portrait of him at 90. It hangs now at La Gaceta.
When we got home in Miami, Luisita said, “That is the most impressive man I ever met. You should write those stories up.” I agreed, and started writing a novel which I called The Lector. It came to 900 pages and took two years to write. I did research all over Ybor and in Teruel, Spain and Madrid. It was a wonderful book, complete in detail.
Repeated attempts to get it published failed. The time was not right. Publishing houses all responded the same:
1. What was a Lector and who cares?
2. What was the Cigar Industry and who cares?
3. What were union wars about and who cares?
4. Tobacco causes cancer and they were not that interested in it.
5. What was the Spanish Civil War and who cares?
What did that mean? Basically, no.
I withdrew it, and proceeded to publish 16 other books. I did close to 40 oil paintings of the Cigar factories and its Lectors, most at the $8,000 to $10,000 level and still no interest in the book.
I am now at the end of my life. I want the Lector to live! After I suffered a stroke three years ago, as I lay in bed contemplating my limited future, I decided to give the manuscript of the Lector to La Gaceta, still being published by his grandson Patrick Manteiga. He had already serialized the entire book chapter by chapter. Now, I want him to own it and sell the book through the newspaper for all time.
This will forever memorialize the splendid cultural intellectual giant, Don Victoriano Manteiga. Yes, we did have Intellectuals in Ybor City. Don Victor Manteiga was one.
By Ferdie Pacheco
Published in Cigar City Magazine - November/December 2005 print issue.