AN INCIDENT DURING THE CIGAR WORKERS STRIKE OF 1901:AN EXCERPT FROM THE MEMOIR OF LUIS BARCIA GUILABERT
Thus begins one of the most startling and fascinating memoirs I have ever encountered. I did not know the man or even heard of him, but his words were so hot and piercing that I could not put the manuscript down. He wrote in Castilian and his son-in-law had them translated into English. The English are somewhat strained, so I procured a copy of the original Castilian memoir from Barcia's grandson, John Diaz, Jr. In that typed copy, many of the letters were fused into smudges that were difficult to read. But the task was well worth the effort, for, by the turn of the century, Tampa emerged almost unrecognizable from the ashes of a cigar industry bound in strikes and turmoil. In it, we glimpse a century of society's evolution in a few pages.
I imagine the ninety-three-year-old man, white-haired, thin, aching, at his table, pen in hand, scratching out the pains, sufferings, triumphs, and defeats of an entire life. Luis Barcia wrote it for his family, but it speaks to all people, especially those of us who have lived in Tampa and recall the trials of living in a heterogeneous community of diverse interests and tastes.
Luis Barcia was born in Menorca, Spain, and moved to Cuba at thirteen, where he learned the printer's trade and later became a cigar maker. Travel between Cuba, Key West, and Tampa was frequent and common in those days, and he traveled among those cities frequently. By the mid-1890s, he had settled in Tampa with his wife, Carolina, and had been consumed by the fervor of labor injustices. He began to write pamphlets encouraging factory owners to pay workers a living wage. He became a leader in La Resistencia, a radical labor union of cigar workers. During a strike in late July 1901, a citizens committee of Tampa's leading citizens began their organized plan to rid the city of the leaders of La Resistencia, who had called for the strike. The result culminated in the committee's kidnapping of thirteen of La Resistencia's leadership members and abandoning them on a deserted beach in Honduras.
Though he complained of memory loss, Luis Barcia's narrative recounts his life in fine detail. According to his grandson, he was short, slight of stature, and spoke little. He stammered, which may account for his quiet personality. But his memoir reveals a courageous, determined, lucid man who lived according to the dictates of conscience.
Below are excerpts from his memoir that will illuminate the man's stature.
We had been on strike for over a week; everything was going well, and the people were happy and hopeful of victory. However, rumors soon began to spread that the police had arrested and jailed people on the city's outskirts. Before long, workers noticed that the secretary had not been seen and began to inquire until they learned that the so-called citizens (not all, because there were some protests) had appointed themselves in supreme authority to end the strike. They were clandestinely arresting and deporting those believed to be movement leaders. Their activities were to appear secret only to provide cover for the real authorities. Thus, a rumor spread that the city's mayor was hunting for eight days. This was undoubtedly to avoid witnessing the law violations and to allow the citizens to work freely. Clearly, this had been mutually understood!
As 11 o'clock approached, I found myself in the dining room, sitting at the table, writing a small manifesto to be distributed the following day. I worked under the light of a kerosene lamp on the table. I was alone. My family were all in bed, possibly sleeping. Having finished my labor, I wondered what I would do if those so-called citizens attacked me that night to take me with them.
At that moment, my thoughts turned to my wife and three daughters. I folded the pages of the manifesto I had just written, went to where my wife was sleeping, and said: "Carola, they are going around making arrests, and they could come in tonight looking for me, so I am giving you this manifesto. Keep it under your pillow and give it to whoever comes to see you from the Central Committee tomorrow."
Poor Carola! Two days before, she had given birth to another baby girl we named Azulina, who, Carola said, had to be fed with her breast milk poisoned by the so-called citizens of Tampa. Having given her the manifesto, I returned to the dining room and doused the flame in the lamp.
A short time later, I heard a commotion in the neighborhood. Next door to our house lived another member of the Central Committee, whose name I don't remember (I am losing my memory at a fast rate), whose home had already been violated by the kidnapping citizens. The head of the family had been kidnapped. When I learned about this, I knew they would soon come to my house and do the same to me. However, I planned to make it a little more difficult for them. The light was out. Darkness reigned throughout the house. A short time later, I heard a blow on my door, produced by an instrument used by the kidnapper citizens who kept on knocking harder and harder. I remained silent. Then they jumped over the high fence in the yard and resumed their terrible blows on the back door. Still, I did not answer. Then they returned to the front door and continued the assault until they ruptured a board on the door and the lock. With the door open, they did not dare to enter the house immediately. One of them stuck his neck inside as much as he could, but he could see nothing but darkness, even though a ray of light from a streetlamp on the Trujillo Factory across the street illuminated a portion of the living room entrance. The intruder did not see me because I was in a dark corner.
I was about to slip out unnoticed, but I saw several other vigilantes standing close to the door where I would exit. At that moment, a young worker boarding in our house left his room next to the living room. When the paid assassin-citizen saw him, he grabbed the young man, thinking it was me. The young man fought to free himself. He spoke in Spanish because he spoke no English. I made the mistake of advising him in a whisper, thinking they would not hear me. When they heard another voice, they looked around, trying to learn where it had come from, and found me in a dark corner of the living room.
When they grabbed me, I protested in the name of the Constitution and human rights, laws unknown to the paid assassins and ridiculed by their masters, the so-called citizens of Tampa.
Once in the street, they put me into a carriage, together with others, and took us to an undisclosed destination. We were traveling as fast as we could when I noticed that our kidnappers kept looking back, seemingly trying to see if any vehicle was following. In the meantime, I was tortured by the overbearing need to evacuate. Not foreseeing a quick end to our trip, I asked a fellow traveler who spoke English to ask the coachman to please stop for a few moments so that I could respond to nature's call. He replied that, at that moment, it was impossible to stop and asked me to wait a little longer. A short time later, he stopped and asked me to step down. I did so and walked to the side of the road, but it was useless. Seeing me delay, he said, "What is wrong with you?"
"I can't," I said.
"Then get on; if you feel the need again, let me know."
A few miles further on, I told him again of my need. He stopped, I stepped down and hid, evacuated, got back on, and the carriage raced on to its destination, where a railroad cattle car waited. There, we spent the whole night tormented by mosquitoes and surrounded by vigilantes.
The following day, they took us to a house, the only one in that desolate place at the end of the trolley line. The house belonged to a family where someone must have worked for the trolley car company. In that clean, courteous home, we were served an agreeable breakfast, for which we were grateful to these people, who undoubtedly did not form part of the immoral world of our kidnappers. After that pleasant breakfast, they returned us to the cattle car. It was not a birdcage but a car to take cattle to the slaughterhouse.
Finally came afternoon, followed by night, and they put us into a trolley car accompanied by several vigilantes. With all doors and windows closed and the lights out, the car left under a sepulchral silence, according to orders from their superiors. The trolley departed pompously into the unknown, through Ybor City and Tampa, with the object of arriving at the coast where we would find the pirate ship, chartered by those who falsely claim the title: Citizen Defenders of Liberty and Democracy and who betray their ideals and discredit their own country in the service of a bunch of greedy cigar manufacturers who were against thousands of underpaid workers who were requesting better wages.
Running rapidly along a Ybor street, the trolley passed a Spanish restaurant where several men sat. The kidnapping agents had told us to keep absolute silence, making the trolley look like a living tomb inside and outside. I was sitting on one of the rear seats. When I saw those men sitting in the front part of the restaurant who had to be cigar workers, I realized this was an opportunity to get their attention. I made as much noise as possible with my hand on the window. That insignificant noise seemed like an earthquake to the conductors of the trolley car, the kidnappers, and the rest of my fellow travelers. Shaken, they all tried to locate the daring man who had attempted to provoke a catastrophe. But since the men in the restaurant did not make a move, the men in the trolley calmed down, and the car continued on its journey.
We crossed all of Tampa without incident until the car reached the coast, where the pirate ship was at anchor offshore, apparently awaiting orders from the so-called citizens of Tampa. The car stopped, and they let us out. The grounds were clean and covered by short grass. However, the brush was sufficiently thick on the other side of the car for people to hide in. No sooner had we left the vehicle than a group of fifteen or twenty men holding menacing revolvers in their hands, all well dressed, erupted from the brush and surrounded us. They looked like a gang of highway robbers preying on their victims. We hardly paid any attention to them. What a pity that a photographer did not appear to take our picture at that moment! What an interesting spectacle it would have made: a group of well-dressed gentlemen with guns threatening six workers whose only crime was representing their fellow workers who requested a small wage raise.
The place was very convenient for such adventures: a small staircase to descend to the seaside and a species of small bridge, if I am correct. The pirate ship was out of sight because they didn't want people to see it. Finally, the moment came. They made us walk down the stairs and into a boat to take us to the ship. They all crowded above to see us leave. I was in the boat with my five companions when McKay, the owner and director of the newspaper The Daily Times, who appeared to be one of the principal organizers and clandestine directors of the outlaws who kidnapped us, spoke to the worker sitting next to me, a Puerto Rican whose name I do not recall, and told him to tell the leader of the Federation (me) that now I could go back to Africa to educate my parents.
I answered not a word. McKay believed this was a great offense. Poor man! He did not know that men are equally valuable whether they are from Africa, Europe, America, Asia, white, red, or black. And besides, I was never in Africa, nor was any of my relatives, nor could I go anywhere to educate my parents because they no longer existed. Therefore, leaving that madman to explode in his anger was better.
The boatman received his orders and sailed with us to the pirate ship. We reached it and climbed aboard. We were six and found seven more on board, totaling thirteen. Also on board, if I am not mistaken, were thirteen armed jailers. We had no weapons. Among them, acting as chief of this brutal force, was a former policeman from Tampa who was involved in assassinating a Negro newspaperman from another state who was in a store having a discussion. A shot was fired, and the Negro fell dead. It was not possible to determine who killed him.
The second man in charge of us was an intellectual. A printer by trade, he was charged to speak to us on behalf of Tampa's so-called citizens and tend to our necessities. He told us that the ship's departure had been delayed because the cook had deserted! And why? Simply because he learned that the ship had been converted into a pirate ship, and he did not want to be a pirate. They finally decided to leave without him, and we sailed into the unknown.
We finally left Cape San Antonio and Yucatan and sailed on a course known only to our kidnappers. We knew only that we were heading toward the Equator, the warm region. We were resigned, although, on occasion, I would think of the pirate ships of old, whose crews would throw to the sea crew members they had sequestered from plundered ships. And, of course, one must distrust pirates, old or modern.
After navigating for many days, we sensed that the disembarkation was near. The water depth had diminished so we could contemplate the beautiful seagrasses. The sea was calm, and the water was so transparently crystalline and blue like the sky that covered us. The imminence of our disembarkation put us in a good mood, for we preferred anything to remain prisoners of the pirates.
Finally, the ship stopped near a sandy beach and as would be expected, far from any inhabited place so no one could witness our landing. We had yet to determine the nation to which that territory belonged, though we guessed it was Central America. And whether because of the tide or other causes, they delayed our landing until late afternoon.
In the meantime, the outlaws, who called themselves the citizens of Tampa, appointed the printer as chief of the expedition of pirates who brought us to the deserted coast of Honduras, near Nicaragua. He rounded us up to explain the mission his bosses in Tampa entrusted to him. Among the goods he brought were ground coffee, several soda crackers, I am trying to remember how much, and five silver dollars in Honduran currency, equivalent to $2.50 in American currency. I do not remember if they gave us anything else.
Finally came the moment of landing. It was late afternoon. There were no landing boats for us. All they had was a small dinghy. The sea was relatively calm, although close to the beach, there were some waves. However, the boat's sailor was an expert and quickly overcame the waves breaking on the beach. I was among the first to jump to land if not the first. The beach was, if not wide, at least deep, and as soon as I felt myself in, I was so happy that I started running and jumping in the direction of terra firma. Those who remained in the pirate ship and those who disembarked after me watched me running and jumping and thought I had gone crazy. Some even ran to me, asking, "What is wrong?" I replied that nothing was wrong with me except I was now free from the pirates and preferred to live among the wild animals of the forest than in their midst.
Their mission thus accomplished; the pirate ship sailed away. What happiness we felt to find ourselves free! Free as the air when it encounters no obstacles!
Once reunited on the beach, we started a fire to brew coffee. Fortunately, we found fresh water nearby. At the same time, we explored our surroundings but found no signs of human life. A few hours later, however, as we sat around a fire, an Indian ran past. We stopped him and asked where we were. He replied he was in a hurry; he was going after his wife, who had escaped that day. However, he gave us the information we wanted and showed us a coastal route that would take us to Ciudad Trujillo. Since there were no roads or highways, we took the route the natives use, along the coast, principally along the beach.
The men trudged along the beach and finally found a ship to take them to Key West, where they encountered an enthusiastic reception. Luis Barcia brought his family to Cuba and later moved to St. Augustine, where he made cigars in the Carcaba factory, where he describes working conditions as ideal.
A few years later, after Mr. Carcaba died, Luis returned to Tampa. The 1910 U.S. Census shows him (age 46) working as a cigar maker and living at 227 Le Roy Street in West Tampa with his wife, Carolina, 45, and their four daughters, Atilia, 14; Zenaida, 11; Azulina, 8, and Luisa 5. Sometime later, he started a coffee and chocolate shop in Ybor City, where he lived with his family. His grandson, John Diaz, Jr., recalls the old man's house and shop on 16th Street and 15th Avenue. John was born in that house in 1927. Others who remember Luis Barcia tell me he made the best chocolate in Tampa. That was only to be expected from this unique and talented man.
Acknowledgments: I thank Mr. Barcia's grandson, John Diaz, Jr., for the photos and access to the manuscripts of his grandfather's memoir in English and Spanish. I also thank him for his recollections of Luis Barcia. I also thank Hilda Garcia Noroña, a neighbor of Luis Barcia, for details of his house and neighborhood and José Oural, whose father owned a grocery store in the same neighborhood and who bought Barcia chocolate because "It was the best chocolate in Tampa."
A final note: Luis Barcia's memoir has never been published and is unavailable commercially.
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- MAY/JUNE 2007
On retirement in 1995, Jack Fernandez immersed himself in his lifelong passion for writing. In 2005, he published his first novel, Café Con Leche. A second novel, Conquistador, was published in 2006. During his teaching career at USF, Jack authored five chemistry textbooks and fifty research articles and was a Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Madrid and the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. His grandparents followed the cigar trade to Florida in the 1860's and 1880's. Jack traveled extensively throughout Spain and brought a deep understanding of that country and its people to his writing.
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