In 1886, Tampa was a city in transition. A small outpost on the west coast of Florida, Tampa was a community of less than 800 residents in 1880. The arrival of Henry Plant’s South Florida Railway and the establishment of the cigar industry transformed Tampa into an ethnically diverse urban center in the New South. By 1900, over 5,000 people called Tampa home.
I knew the workers were anxiously awaiting my arrival to share with them the news in today’s morning Tampa Tribune. I would have to delay drinking my first cup of café con leche until after I read about yesterday’s daring bank robbery attempt. “Read Señor, please read and tell us what happened,” one voice yelled.
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 awoke early on this fourth day of April 1930 to an unusually cold day. My oil heater did little to keep the chill out of the wooden boarding house I called home. I looked down from my second-story window to the activity on the street below.
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.