In 1886, the same year Ybor City was founded, the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in New York Harbor. These two events are more closely linked than might appear at first glance. Between 1880 and 1890, 5.2 million immigrants entered the U.S., seeking the freedom and opportunity that the Lady in the Harbor offered. Some of these early immigrants were destined for Ybor City, and over the decades between the neighborhood's founding and 1921 (when the great tide of immigration finally began to ebb), many more came to live and work in the town that Vicente Martinez Ybor–himself an immigrant–built. This is their story, and it is up to them to say How We Got Here.
Who We Were and Why We Left Home
“In this [Cuban] society, there was no social, racial, political, or economic integration. This was principally because Cuba was a Spanish colony, and the primary interest of the Spanish government was in holding its power by maintaining the polarized situation on the island; the more divided Cuba was, the easier it was for the Spaniards to exploit its economic resources and to preserve their political power.” - Frank Fernandez, Cuban Anarchism: The History of a Movement.
The largest and first group of immigrants to Ybor City–Cubans–followed the tobacco trade to Florida as manufacturers moved to Key West and, later, Ybor City. Work was not these immigrants’ only reason for leaving Cuba. The heavy hand of Spanish colonialism was heaviest on those least able to bear it: Cuba’s working poor. The working classes and peasants of the island were viewed as sources of insurgency and anarchism. In the 1890s, after two abortive revolutions, Valeriano Weyler (Captain-general of the island) imposed punitive measures. Thousands of campesinos (farm workers and small farm owners) were interned in towns and cities where they had no means of sustenance. This prolonged campaign of “re-concentration” resulted in widespread starvation and disease. By the time the U.S. entered the war for Cuban independence, at least 300,000 had died due to Spain’s “Reconcentration Decree.” When the “Splendid Little War” ended in December of 1898, a generation of Cuban exiles had already made homes and lives abroad, many of them in Ybor City. There, most either practiced the trade they had practiced in Cuba–cigar making–or took up the trade for the first time.
“The people who had lived for centuries in Sicilian villages perched on hilltops for protection from marauding bands and spent endless hours each day walking to and from the fields now faced a new and strange life on the flats of Ybor City.” - Tony Pizzo, The Italians in Tampa.
The Italians of Ybor arrived almost exclusively from Sicily. Life in that island off Italy’s southern coast was unimaginably hard in the mid- to late 1800s. Most of the immigrants whose eventual destination was Ybor City came from Sicily’s southwestern region, a hilly area containing the towns of Santo Stefano Quisquina, Alessandria della Rocca, Cianciana, and Bivona. Dependent on hardscrabble agrarian pursuits (including the cultivation of almonds, pistachios, flax, olives, wheat, and wool), mining, and limited trade contacts, the residents of the area struggled with farmed-out soil, malaria, bandits, low birth rates, high land rents, and absentee landlords. According to historian Giampiero Carocci, the population responded by exercising three options: “resignation, socialism, and emigration.”
The last option–emigration–was usually of the “chain” variety. Both through word of mouth and the activities of labor agents, Sicilians learned of job opportunities in America. Early sugar-producing communities in New Orleans, Louisiana, and St. Cloud, Florida, attracted many Sicilians, but the work and conditions were so grueling that many immigrants looked elsewhere. Completing the Plant System Railway to Tampa (1884) and Vicente Martinez Ybor’s incorporation of Ybor City (1886) made Tampa an attractive destination for these immigrants. Thousands–including the many Sicilians who either came directly to Tampa or moved there from their initial U.S. “landing spots”–found work in the cigar trade and in the myriad other enterprises that supported Italians in the community.
“Estamos muy enfermos: uno de los peores sintomas es la emigración, efecto de muchos errores juridicos y economicas, causa de innumerables males.” (“We are very sick: one of the worst symptoms is emigration, the result of many governance and economic errors, the cause of countless woes.”)
- Eduardo Gonzalez Velasco, Tipos y bocétos de la emigración astur.
Spaniards who immigrated to Ybor City (either directly from Spain or Cuba) came primarily from Cataluñya, the Canary Islands, Galicia, and Asturias. These areas, especially the northern Atlantic provinces, were cursed with arduous lifestyles and limited opportunities. Emigration to the New World promised relief from hard times in Spain, but the voyage was not without peril. For thousands, the transatlantic crossing was “el viaje sin retorno” (“the trip with no return”), as their immigrant ships foundered off Spain’s rocky coasts or at sea.
In addition to immigration directly from Spain, the expansion of the tobacco trade into Florida enticed many Spaniards living in Cuba to continue moving northwards. Stratified greatly by race, the cigar industry in Cuba allotted most upper management and salaried artisan positions to Spaniards; the custom was followed as the industry became established in Florida. Considered the economic and social elite of Ybor City, Spaniards created large cigar manufactories. The Centro Español, or Spanish social club, was an imposing structure at 7th Avenue and 16th Street and was described in 1892 by the newspaper Verdad as a “temple of the arts and education.”
During the Spanish-American War, anti-Spanish sentiment in Tampa ran high. The conflicted loyalties of many Spanish residents of Ybor City impelled them to return to Cuba. The membership of Centro Español dwindled, and, according to club records, “only three hundred paid their dues.” U.S. expeditionary forces occupied this, the grandest and most elegant of Ybor City’s social clubs, and it required action by the Tampa City Council to restore the Club to its ownership.
“In the month of June 1914, I arrived in this country, and at that time, there were two stations, one in Ybor City and one in Union Station. And by mistake, my brother waited for me in Ybor City...I had to walk eighteen blocks to get to my brother.” - Manuel Aronovitz, an early Jewish immigrant.
Some of Ybor City’s earliest and most adventurous immigrant residents were Jews. Ybor City’s Jews came primarily from Germany, Russia, and Romania, and many were fleeing pogroms and anti-Semitism in their native lands. Jews quickly responded to labor agents, posters, and handbills seeking workers for the cigar factories of Key West and Tampa. Some Jews found their way to Ybor City by word of mouth alone, like Louis Schein, whose family had fled Austria because of pogroms. Escaping lung ailments caused by New York’s climate, Schein came roundabout to Ybor City in the 1890s. Told, “There are Jews in Ybor City,” Schein went there and encountered Isidore Kaunitz (proprietor of the dry goods store El Sombrero Blanco.) Kaunitz, who had known Schein’s family in Austria, helped the newer immigrant enter the small but industrious group of Jews who called Ybor City home. Schein’s story exemplifies not only the “chain migration” that characterized much European immigration but also the resourcefulness and verve of Ybor City’s immigrant Jews.
HOW WE GOT HERE
Ships, modes of passage, and the conditions of travel.
“The practice of one member of a family going to America first, then saving to bring others over was common...It is believed that in 1890 between 25 and 50 percent of all immigrants arriving in America had prepaid tickets. In 1901, between 40 and 65 percent came either on prepaid tickets or with money sent to them from the United States.” - “The Immigrant Journey: Historical Highlights” Ellis Island and Statue of Liberty Magazine.
“Most immigrants lie in their berths for most of the voyage, in a stupor caused by the foul air. The food often repels them...It is almost impossible to keep personally clean. All of these conditions are naturally aggravated by the crowding.” - Report to Pres. William H. Taft by the United States Immigration Commission, 1911.
Passage to America for European emigrants involved a long and often dangerous Atlantic crossing. Ports of debarkation for Spanish emigrants who eventually arrived in Ybor City were usually Gijón and Avilés, Vigo, La Coruña, and Santander. From Sicily, emigrants departed from Palermo. From other European locales, various ports and cities served as points of departure for immigrants to America.
Many immigrants purchased inexpensive steerage accommodations. These, in the lower regions of ships, were crowded and dirty, and immigrants frequently contracted lice and disease in quarters that might contain as many as 2000 immigrants. The stormy Atlantic crossing took its toll on shipwrecks, and many immigrants found a watery grave instead of hope and opportunity in the New World.
Contrary to popular supposition, not all immigrants from the Old World to the New entered via Ellis Island. Other ports of entry, such as Boston, other Eastern Seaboard cities, and even Canada, opened the “golden door” to weary immigrants, many of whom got off the ship without a word of English or welcoming relatives to ease the shock of their arrival. Labor agents, handbills and posters, or word of mouth alerted some of these travelers to the possibilities of Ybor City, and, after a further journey by rail or ship, these early Yborciteñosmade their way to Tampa.
Cuban immigrants to Ybor City had the advantage of regular maritime traffic between Florida and “the pearl of the Antilles.” Such traffic, by sail and later steam, crossed the Florida Straits between Cuba and Key West, with goods and passengers sometimes transferring to other transport for destinations West and Northeast.
“About twenty Spaniards arrived on the Olivette Sunday from Havana. They will make their future homes in Tampa and are welcome. This is about the average number that has been arriving here on almost every boat for the past several months.” - The Tampa Daily Times, May 9, 1899.
In the mid-1880s, Henry Bradley Plant, the transportation magnate who brought the rail line to Tampa, initiated a steamship line that would service Havana, Key West, and Tampa. By the winter of 1885-86, the Mascotte was in service. This 215-foot ship represented the height of contemporary maritime design, with a 1000 horsepower engine and a cruising speed of 15 knots. In 1887, a sister ship, the Olivette, was added to the Plant line. Both the Olivette and Mascotte were designed for the luxury travel trade between the U.S. and the Caribbean, but they and other vessels also transported goods and several classes of passengers.
While Ybor City’s earliest Cuban immigrants traveled via the sail-assisted “vapor” Hutchinson, many later immigrants found passage on the Mascotte or the Olivette. The Plant System ships and those of other lines made the trip from Havana to Tampa in around a day. This was a far cry from the trip faced by European immigrants, who might spend weeks in the grueling passage to America.
WHAT WE FOUND HERE
“What I saw before me almost brought me to tears. There was nothing!... Ybor City was not connected to Tampa as it is today. There was a wilderness between the two cities...All of Ybor City was not worth more than one cent to me.” - Giovanni Cacciatore, “Life Histories of Italian Cigar Workers,” Federal Writers Project.
"We came to Tampa in 1892, [on the steamer] Olivette...At that time, no one loved Ybor City... No screen, no light, no electric.” - José Vega Diaz, an immigrant from Cuba.
Ybor City was a neighborhood built from scratch. The 40-plus acres of scrub that constituted the city’s original purchase were home to Florida wildlife and little else. For immigrants, the forbidding landscape bore little resemblance to the cultivated environs of their homelands. Nevertheless, by 1900, aggressive and visionary city planning combined with the tireless industry of immigrant residents to produce factories, schools, hospitals, social clubs, theaters, churches, stores, restaurants, sewers, city lighting, paved streets, fire, and police protection. Despite the much earlier incorporation of the City of Tampa (1849), Ybor City had, by the 1890s, outpaced that settlement in every respect: population, mercantile development, cultural activity, and economic productivity–striking when one considers the relative wasteland Ybor City represented at its outset.
WHAT WE DID HERE
“Parties of from 25 to 100 Italians are arriving in Tampa almost every week. Not one of them is starving. Not one of them is out of work.” - Tampa Morning Tribune, December 12, 1905.
Hard work was the operative phrase for successful adaptation to the Ybor City immigrant community. From the neighborhood’s outset, labor organized itself along ethnic lines. The Cuban immigrant population, already embedded in the cigar trade, continued to supply the largest group of workers for the industry in Ybor City. Far from an undifferentiated labor force, tobacco workers ran the gamut from leaf sorting and stripping to hand-rolling finished cigars.
Initially, both Cuban and Spanish workers resisted the penetration of the cigar trade by Sicilian immigrants. If they found work in the trade, they were usually relegated to menial tasks like sweeping the galería (workroom) or sorting materials. Some found work in chinchales (small, independent cigar establishments), where they might work with low or no pay for as long as a year while learning the trade. By 1910, however, Italian workers were the second largest group of rank-and-file cigar workers in Ybor City and some of the most proactive in labor organization and activism.
Mercantilism also claimed Sicilian involvement. Pasta factories, olive oil importers, fish merchants, wrought iron factories, and bakeries were some of the strongest economic endeavors in the neighborhood dominated by Sicilians. Truck and dairy farms (most clustered in the neighborhood’s east end) were also largely Sicilian-operated.
Children and women partly defined the labor landscape of early Ybor. While working children declined with increasing prosperity and the enactment of child labor laws in the early twentieth century, women remained key figures in Ybor City’s labor force. Ybor City’s women cigar workers were some of the highest paid in the nation, earning equal pay for equal work with men.
Racial equality also characterized the mass of laborers in the cigar industry in Ybor City. In a Jim Crow era and locale, Afro-Cuban immigrants and their descendants worked alongside whites in the cigar trade and maintained an occupational and sociocultural status that clearly deviated from the underclass to which people of color were consigned in the South.
A popular misconception is that Ybor City’s Jews were concentrated in the merchant trades, and it is true that a good number of successful and popular mercantile enterprises were Jewish-owned or operated. But Ybor City’s Jews–like its Spaniards, Cubans, and Italians–took advantage of the area's rapid growth and open environment to become teachers, real estate speculators, cigar workers, artisans, and a variety of other professionals.
A lively arts-cultural scene also prevailed in early Ybor, and immigrants of all races found work as artists and arts educators.
WHAT THEY SAID ABOUT US
“The Italian jewelry thief who was captured Saturday was tracked by a hound to his hiding place in a clump of palmettos. Another argument in favor of the City owning a pack of trained hounds.” - Tampa Morning Tribune, June 19, 1895.
“The Atlanta Journal says: ‘From Rome comes a report that 40,000 Italian emigrants are booked to leave for the United States during May. There is but oneway to stop this flood of spaghetti emigration and that is to prohibit sidewalk fruit stands.’” - Tampa Daily Times, May 1899.
“The foreign saloon element of Hillsborough County is composed largely of Spaniards. They want to sell liquor, are surly, and gamble all the time.”
- Tampa Morning Tribune, September 3, 1908, Sheriff’s report on Ybor City.
Immigrants to America did not always find warm welcomes. While they had their defenders, many immigrants, including those to Ybor City, faced cultural, linguistic, and racial bias. Reflected in slanted newspaper accounts of activities in immigrant neighborhoods, in editorial cartoons, and sometimes in blatant anti-immigrant diatribes, the prejudices of those to whom these newcomers seemed strange and threatening blot America’s history.
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- MARCH/APRIL 2007
Maureen J. Patrick
A Tampa native, Maureen J. Patrick was the President of the Tampa Historical Society from 2006-2009 and Editor of The Sunland Tribune (a journal of local history.) Patrick holds an advanced degree in cultural history.
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