La Rosa Blanca
(The White Rose)
I cultivate a white rose, in July as in January.
For the sincere friend who gives me his open hand.
And for the cruel one who tears out the heart that gives me life, I cultivate neither thistle nor weed, I cultivate a white rose.
Jose Martí, 1853-1895)
Once I was a reader in the cigar factories, but those days are long over. They ended in 1931 when the factory owners banned us. We were too political, they told us. It did not matter that we read what the workers asked us to read. I am an old man now. My voice is still strong, but my eyes are not as sharp as they once were. My hands shake, and my step is slow and unsteady.
When I heard they finally had a statue of Martí for the park in Ybor in his honor, my heart soared as it did when I heard him speak when he first visited Ybor in November of 1891. I remember it all so well.
I was a very young man, an apprentice lector, so young and idealistic. He spoke, imploring us to contribute our support and help fund the cause for freedom for Cuba. It was a galvanizing speech. We all cheered his words and mission to achieve freedom from domination by any country and a future "with all and for the good of all."
Today, I knew I would go to the park for the statue's dedication. We had waited so long to get one. I held my breath as they unveiled his statue. It is so magnificent tears stream from my eyes.
Someone in the crowd asked me where I was on another day which is also burned into my memory as firmly as that November day. It was a day in late May 1895 when we heard from the Partido Revolucionario Cubano in New York that Martí was dead. He died for the cause in combat in Cuba just as the war began.
A few in the crowd remembered that I was a factory lector and gathered around to hear my answer.
I remember my walk to the factory. My plans for the morning readings quickly changed as I remembered Martí and his ideals. I tell the listeners. I hold clutched in my hand my memories of the day I tore from my
journal. I began to read from my notes as if I was once again on the Lector's platform.
As I enter the factory on this warm and still May morning, the smell of the sun-warmed tobacco is pleasant, but I cannot appreciate the fragrance today. It is a sad day for all of us. The sounds in the factory are different from the usual trivial conversations and laughter I hear as the workers begin to cut and roll the first of many cigars for the day. Voices ring out shrill from the rage of injustice, followed by moments of silence as despair descends as a cloud. Eyes turn to follow me as I make my way along the rows of tables. Hats are tipped, and murmurs of greeting are muted. In the eyes of many, I can see a wistfulness. They hope I will tell them it is all a lie. In other eyes, I see resignation. My eyes must also reflect the realization that death has stilled the voice of our mighty freedom fighter.
Everyone has heard by now of the death of our beloved José Martí in Cuba on May 19, 1895. My announcement will only be a formality. The laying to rest, if you will, the hopes and dreams of many, along with the body of the brilliant man who wanted freedom for Cuba from any dominion and for all people.
As I momentarily stand beside my chair on the platform, everyone looks toward me. Slowly they rise one by one until all are standing motionless, waiting for me to speak. I know that they stand not to honor me, for I am such a young man. They stand in respect for the news I bear.
"It is with great sorrow I must begin this day with this sad news." I paused to still the tremble in my voice. A few whispers floated around the room as they anticipated my next words. "Don José Julián Martí y Perez has died at Dos Ríos, Cuba, in a battle for our freedom cause." Cries of anger and grief erupt again. Outside the windows, the women who had gathered close to hear the news they already feared was true were sobbing and wailing.
"Do you remember," I shouted to be heard by the mourning workers, "November 27, 1891" A resounding "Si!" filled the air. "Martí came to Ybor to visit the factory workers on the train Mr. Plant had recently built to Tampa. His speech, Los Pinos Nuevos, was inspired by a vision he saw from the train."
"Let us sing today an anthem to life before their well-remembered graves.
Yesterday I heard it rising from the earth as I crossed the dreary afternoon to this faithful town. Amidst the shredded clouds, a pine tree defied the storm and thrust the stately trunk upwards.
Suddenly, the sun broke through a forest clearing, and there, by a swift flash of light, I saw, rising from the yellowed grass amidst the blackened trunks of the fallen pines, the joyful shoots of the new pines. That is what we are: new pines!"
(José Martí - 1853-1895)
I fold the paper, return it to my pocket, and remove a handkerchief to wipe a tear from my eye.
"What else?" someone asks. "What else do you remember?"
I stare at the Martí statue and think for a moment.
"I remember el viente de mayo," I recall. "May 20, 1902. There was much celebration when the war ended, and Cuba was freed from Spain. It was seven years and one day after his death."
"A great celebration took place in Ybor City. At the club Nacional Cubano, a twenty-one gun salute honored the first President of the new Republic – Tomás Estrada Palma. The streets were decorated festively, and pictures of many of the heroes of the revolution, including Martí, Máximo Gómez, and Palma, hung from windows and doorways. The cigar workers were given the day off to enjoy the holiday. Many speeches were heard throughout the day, speeches of hope for the future of Cuba. At noon there was a special lunch at the Cuban National Club with Mayor Wing speaking. It was a day of parades, music, and joy. It was a day ending in fireworks." I paused and looked into the faces of the crowd.
"Our happiness, it is sad to say, was short-lived. Cuba was not to be the free and equal place Martí envisioned. That is a story for another time. It is not why we are here today. We are here to celebrate the person who had great dreams for our native country. Dreams that could not be kept alive without the man."
I got slowly to my feet. "It does not matter that the white roses we planted in his honor are gone, and the gates will be locked as we leave. Let us remember his wish for our people." I walked away from those who had gathered near me to hear me speak again. I stood at the statue and looked into his face.
"Martí, if only you had lived. What might we have today?" I asked.
The Lector in this story is purely fictional. The historical sources are: From Cuba to Florida, Miguel A. Bretos. Miami: Historical Association of Southern Florida, c1991. The Immigrant World of Ybor City, Gary R. Mormino and George E. Pozzetta c 1998. Tampa Morning Tribune, 1902, 1960. Tampa Times 1960. Writings of José Martí
Jose Martí (1853-1895) was a Cuban poet, essayist, orator, statesman, and the martyred revolutionary leader of Cuba's fight for independence from Spain. He visited Ybor City in November 1891 and gave a rousing speech from the steps of the Vicente Martinez Ybor Factory. The poetic Martí spoke eloquently of his yearning for Cuba Libre (free Cuba). As a result, he raised support and funding for the revolution.
In 1892 he formed the Cuban Revolutionary Party, but sadly, Marti died fighting for his homeland in 1895. He was advised to stay back, but Marti charged into direct battle with the Spanish troops. He did not live to see the defeat of the Spanish army in 1898 or a free Cuba in 1902.
Martí must have been able to foresee his future at the young age of sixteen. The Spanish imprisoned him and his lifelong friend Fermin Valdés Domínguez in 1869. Below is an excerpt from a letter he wrote to his mother dated November 10 of that same year:
"Madre Mía … I am sorry to be behind bars, but my imprisonment is very useful to me. It has given me plenty of lessons for my life, which I foresee will be short, and I will not fail to make use of them. I am sixteen years old, and many old men have told me I am like an old man. And they are right in a way; because while I have in full measure the recklessness and effervescence of my young age, I also have a heart as small as it is wounded. It is true that you are suffering greatly – but it is also true that I am suffering more. God willing, someday in happier times I will be able to tell you about the vicissitudes of my life!"
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2006
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.
Gail Ellis attended the University of South Florida, lived and worked in Tampa for 40 years. Devoting her time to writing now, she currently resides in New Port Richey, Florida. She told us the following, “Just so you know, you cannot get decent Cuban bread nor a cup of café con leche in Pasco County.”
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