During the 1940s, Tampa was embroiled in political corruption. Organized crime and political patronage were rampant. So, with the aid of a few close friends, Albert Knapp began publishing an underground newspaper. The mimeographed paper featured open letters mysteriously signed "Abispo Verdi" in a squiggly hand. Knapp certified each letter using a green stamp pad as "official" with the impression of an anopheles mosquito poised to strike. Albert selected the name Abispo Verdi to mimic the popular radio show, The Green Hornet. He wrote his manifestos in a broken English dialect using Spanish and Italian words that confused grammar and spelling. Each manifesto focused on a particular local scandal and illuminated dirty tricks and chicanery, often in verse and always in ingenuous and humorous terms, with names changed slightly: Raul became Baul (meaning footlocker); Spoto became Spots; Spicola became SpiCocaCola.
Some of Tampa's most prominent citizens felt the barb of Abispo Verdi. Anonymous threats increased when Albert became a "suspecto," and his picture appeared in the Tampa Tribune. After one particularly pointed manifesto appeared, a group of Ybor business and civic leaders, feeling Abispo's sting and suspecting Albert, a mail carrier, of being the perpetrator, stormed into the Tampa postmaster's office, demanding that he stop his clandestine activities. When the postmaster asked to see the offending letter, one of the men reached into his coat pocket and passed it to him. As the postmaster read, a smile passed across his face as he erupted into laughter. The angry citizens marched out of the office.
During the 1950s, most of Tampa's Latins were leaving Ybor City, relocating to suburban neighborhoods such as Davis Islands and Carrollwood. Albert would stay in his house on 22nd Avenue and 15th Street, even though Urban Renewal and long-standing political disputes destroyed much of Tampa's Latin Quarter. Abispo Verdi chided those who left by demanding the city build a subway connecting Ybor City to Davis Islands. "Then all Ybor City peoples who still work in Ybor City can commute more easily," he taunted in a mock broken English dialect, his signature writing style.
One year, the Town Council of Redington Beach made it clear that outsiders (notably Latins from Ybor City) were not welcome on the town-controlled easements leading to the beaches. According to the council, Latins would bring their food and drinks and leave their garbage on the beach. Abispo Verdi responded with a "woodshed lecture to the people of Redington Beach." He said Ybor City people do not have to go to Redington Beach to swim, "We have our own La Draga Beach." La Draga was the dirty, industrial waterfront that bordered Ybor City to the south. It was lined with creaky banana boats, warehouses, shacks, and a city dump. To show that he harbored no ill will, Abispo graciously invited the people of Redington Beach to enjoy a Sunday afternoon swim at La Draga Beach. He also invited Mayor George Coover of Redington Beach to dinner at the Columbia Restaurant with Abispo's representatives, Tony Pizzo, Alcalde of Ybor City, and Albert Knapp, Vice-Alcalde. The Mayor responded that Redington has no public beach, but "if and when we do have a public beach, no one shall precede you on our list of those to be invited." He also accepted the dinner invitation, apologized, and extended his town's good will.
Not long after the Redington Beach incident, a group of Sicilian-Americans decided to erect a statue of Christopher Columbus on Bayshore Boulevard. An argument broke out concerning what direction the legendary explorer should face. Some believed he should face the water he had conquered, while others said equally firmly that he should face the land he discovered. The debate raged for weeks until Abispo Verdi offered one of his typical solutions: "Make the estatue with two face, one, hes face the water; the other, hes face the land. That way, everybody hes happy." It was his way of putting the question in perspective while at the same time calling attention to the two-faced characters using the issue to gain publicity for themselves.
The mania for busts of ethnic heroes was in full force in the early 1950's. Abispo Verdi attacked the issue head-on in an open letter to the Optimist Club, where the "busto" craze was strongest. In part, it read: "For ten years, I put up a strong one-man campaign for put up plenty bustos in Ybor City. Union Italiano now has the busto for Giusseppi (Garibaldi) I congratulate, this make me very happy. Why you no get the Spanish peeples to put up big busto for Don Jose Gaspar (a pirate). This make the Spanish peeples very happy."
Recalling the origin of the Ybor City Alcalde Association, a Tribune article in the late 1950s stated, ". . . The newspaperman's comment was, 'Whatsa matta we ain't got no public officials in Ybor City,'" recalled Albert Knapp. Knapp, president of the Alcalde Association, present when the remark was made at a Ybor City Rotary Club meeting, says a resolution by Al Chiaramonte followed it. County School Board chairman, calling for the election of an Alcalde (Mayor) of Ybor City. "The resolution passed unanimously, without discussion," said Knapp. "Up to 15 years ago, Ybor City was looked upon as a place of vice and bolita. The alcalde celebration has opened people's eyes to Latins' keen sense of humor."
Announcing the first Alcalde election, Abispo Verdi wrote, "I enclose for everybody special Ballot of Peeples Candidates to be mailed to Rotary Club for tabulation. Ybor City peeples like to vote with cross (x). Some voters get all excite and make the double cross (xx). This time we no use the machine. Ybor City peeples like honest election. We bring back the old ballot box. This way we have no machine control votes," a clever double entendre referring to "political machines," an informal yet powerful behind-the-scenes party control and patronage system.
Of Alcalde candidates' campaign promises, the most serious were "artistic termites" (who will chomp beautiful designs in Ybor City's woodwork), pensions for everyone 15 or older, longer siestas, and longer loaves of Cuban bread. Ballot boxes were placed in Las Novedades Restaurant, The Columbia Restaurant Café, La Cruz Drug Store, and the Columbia Bank. When all the votes were counted in the first election, Tony Pizzo received several hundred votes, and Albert Knapp received one vote less than Pizzo. Knapp conceded with dignity and became "Vice Alcalde in charge of Vice." In every succeeding election for several years, Albert always lost by one vote and always served as Vice Alcalde.
Abispo Verdi's manifestos continued for about ten years. Most of the letters were topical and have lost their punch. However, when they first appeared, his manifestos sparked political debate. Changes and investigations usually followed because of Abispo's buzzing. Albert never publicly admitted authorship, but his close friends knew of his satirical alter ego. In the late 1950s, the editor of the Tampa Tribune asked Albert to write an occasional manifesto under the Abispo Verde byline. Albert gladly obliged, but his identity always remained a closely guarded secret.
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2007
Art & Photography Contributors: Hillsborough County Public Library, Tampa Bay History Center, The Florida State Archives, The Tampa Tribune/Tampa Bay Times, University of South Florida Department of Special Collections, Ybor City Museum Society, private collections and/or writer.
Jack was a true Renaissance Man. After retiring from the University in 1995, Jack began a second career writing three Tampa-based novels, many short stories, and poems. His most significant novelistic contribution to the Tampa scene was locally acclaimed Café Con Leche, which documented Ybor City’s multi-racial, multi-cultural melting pot as it existed in the cigar factories early the last century. Besides his novels and other writings, Jack became a genealogy researcher, wrote for La Gaceta, Cigar City Magazine, was a Tampa Tribune Community Columnist, and was a frequent lecturer at local book clubs. His historical scholarship won him the 2012 Ybor City Tony Pizzo Award. Jack E. Fernandez was the consummate Tampa boy. He was born and raised in Tampa and passed away on July 31, 2022. He will be missed by all who enjoyed his stories!
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