In 1897, writer, social commentator, and beisbolero (baseball player) Wenceslao Gálvez y del Monte ("Wen Gálvez") published a small, first-person narrative entitled Tampa: Impresiones de Emigrado. The work critically observes Tampa and its residents. It is one of several turn-of-the-century, Spanish-language publications giving an account of Old Tampa–from its dusty roads to its marble facades.
Following is the first in a two-part series of Gálvez's text, as translated by Tomaro I. Taylor with select creative and literary license.
Part One: Tampa
Tampa–a city of 26,000 residents situated on the Hillsborough River–so difficult to pronounce but easy to navigate in a boat with an even keel. It is a modern city without tradition, where Jews, Cubans, Spaniards, Germans, Chinese, English, Greeks, Austrians, and Italians have taken advantage. There are some buildings of brick, some ice and broom factories, post offices, a courthouse–some commerce, small industries, hotels, electric cars, an aqueduct, bicycles, a customs office, gas and electric streetlights, many tobacco factories, and other things that leave me speechless.
Tampa's architecture must be defined with help. From a bird's eye view, it would appear that Tampa is a grand city extending and twisting like a rattlesnake. Sharp points rise from building towers where the town's religion is condensed, and the electric car and telephone lines cross the main streets. The city is united by cars, although divided by the neighborhoods themselves - no more so than West Tampa, which, without rational motivation, is presided over like a separate city. The neighborhoods, then, are Ybor City–of great expanse–and Hyde Park, in front of the Plant Hotel–elegant, ornate, and the pride of the "magical city," as those who have become rich through sales and manufacture call Tampa. Just as the tide seeks its level, the people search for their neighborhoods. A keen eye distinguishes, at first sight, the residents of Tampa, Ybor, West Tampa, and Hyde Park–especially those of Hyde Park who have a certain air of distinction, as if representing the "high life" of Florida.
The streets are of sand - sand is what they walk on, sand is all that extends in sight, sand is the dust–all sand, always sand! Fortunately, when it rains, this same sand hardens and becomes resistant to footwear, which leaves its steps wherever it treads–In times of drought, as in winter, and in seasons in which one must beg for rain, sand buries the ankles - the reason they frequently say that in Tampa, residents hurriedly walk one step forward and two steps back. For this same reason, Tampa is a mire that is difficult to leave.
Tampa's commerce is poor, and it can be said that it is reduced, primarily, to provisions and fruit. Where supply shops–shops that the Cubans call groserias (groceries–open, consumers do not abound. No market exists in the entire city, and vegetables are sold with other provisions. They are about to establish a beer factory and project a grand walk budgeted at $200,000. Also, they are about to build a theater on the patio of the Tampa Bay Hotel.
As in all of Florida, the Pitch Pine (a symbol of poverty according to the superstitious who believe that this is why the residents of Tampa are én la tea) abound. But, in spite of this poverty, vegetation is abundant, and good vegetables and oranges (which constitute one of the town's sources of riches) are produced when the cruel north wind does not bully the orange blossom flowers, drying out the poor orange tree with its treacherous caresses. For this reason, this year, in this country, no fleury l'orange.
Those who speak of Havana's commerce can describe the streets of Muralla, of Obispo, O'Reilly, del Monte, etc., but he who wants to leave Tampa's commerce at the back of his mind has to refer, unfailingly, to Franklin Street. Because there, on that street, to the right and the left, the business houses are lined without prejudice that one or two (of importance) stand scattered along other streets or other avenues.
Franklin starts at the beginning of town; it is wide and can accommodate several vehicles at once. A line of electric cars passes through the center. The Court and three banks are on that street: the First National (with its marble façade), the citizen's bank (which does not need its columns of polished marble), and one more.
The shops practically invade the sidewalks; those selling fruit, displayed in little boxes, arouse the gluttony of passersby. In the shop windows, linen, hats, shoes, furniture, sarcophaguses, fake jewels, trinkets, candies, shirts, and dishes are presented in capricious combinations; and, along the pavement - alternating with seasonal fruits, eggs, hens, and trash barrels. Barrels of cucumbers, swimming in a sea of vinegar, and open boxes and crates exhibiting rows of crackers, potatoes or beans are crowded at the doors of these establishments. Pharmacy windows are cluttered with medicines, fancy objects, hardware, stationery, knives, etc.
On Saturday nights, Franklin Street is a spectacle, as businesses stay open until rather late hours; some people go for walks, others for shopping, and those who carry packages resemble ants with their winter provisions. It is neither customary to haggle nor alter the price of goods, it being more common that each item's price is indicated. In spite of this, you can be assured that each article that is worth fifteen cents can be acquired two for twenty-five, because the peseta plays a very important role here, to the extreme of which all that costs twenty-five cents does not sell easily. Thus exists Tampa's shaky and staggering commerce.
The First National Bank
Frequently, the children of both "accommodated" and poor classes, although dressed cleanly and decently, go about without shoes or stockings; here, it seems that the clothes should not even reach the ankle. This custom disquiets the shoemaker- children of both sexes walk shoeless, not only in and around their homes but even in the streets. They have hats and clothes; shoes and socks are extra. This is so common, so universal, that laundresses and dishwashers go to their respective jobs with hats and bare feet.
The First National Bank seems to follow the same course, with a speckled marble façade and red-brick siding! The contrast is so brusque that it immediately erases the effect of the façade. And in demonstrating- and bragging of–the same richness or lavishness has a large stone of polished marble in the sidewalk for the purpose of fastening horses that draw nigh.
The bank stays open all night, illuminated by small electric pumps. And, it is said that businesses deposit the product of their sales here to avoid the inconvenience of guarding the money in their own offices.
On the last floor of the bank, by any of its windows, one can enjoy the view, contemplating the beautiful panorama of the city and its surroundings. To the distance, little West Tampa, with its small, wooden houses–the distribution in the soil of the picturesque little hovels of Noah's ark–reminds one of the innocent days of childhood in which there were hours of personal joy.
The Tampa Bay Hotel
A short distance from the city, between this town and the port, rises the majestic hotel of the Bay of Tampa, the Tampa Bay Hotel or the Bello Hotel as translated by its aficionados. In this hotel is where Mr. Plant, the man of la Florida, has relinquished the purse strings so that, without competition in elegance and luxury with the first-rate of the world, he does anything else to begrudge those of his class. The terrain itself is enough to garner attention; its special architecture (of questionable taste), its immense garden (through which passes the railway), its electric plant, its bathroom, its separate kitchen–all give appearance and an uncompromising air in this mansion of the lower middle class. The hotel is the pride of Tampa.
"Have you seen the Bay Hotel?" It is the first question asked to those who arrive because whatever the opinion surrounding Tampa, it has to be modified because, in reality, it has a hotel! Inside, almost everything happens automatically. The guests walk on fluffy carpets, always speaking in hushed tones without realizing that they resemble persons in mourning, and it is because they do not know each other: they come from Chicago, New York, and all of the United States-people who may never see each other again.
But this is the life of a respected hotel. The Cubans, although the most cultured, without realizing, are inhibited, and this character does not conform to the hypocrisy so common in the large world of hotels. For this reason, they miss the Cuban way of life in its diverse
manifestations, the Havana life, for example, despite its dirty streets, its detestable administration and as much trouble that is there through the fault of those who have it.
Like scared birds, some Cubans fearfully perch in the hotel until the few days they search for direction and orient themselves, fleeing from the rising fires, the booming canons, and the dogged persecution they encounter in the cities and town; frightened birds that wait for the opportune moment to do something and get moving.
If I were going to write a chronicle of the hotel, yes, I would take time to talk about the statues, the bronzes, and the oil paintings that adorn and recreate the pioneer's perspective because I am certain that some of the rich folks who spend the night in this hotel do not know the
artistic value of a Diana cast in bronze nor of a painting signed by a famous artist. They will know - and this is enough for them - if the fish is well prepared and if the roast beef gushes blood… But these delicacies of art, thousands and thousands of tasteful decorative objects, paintings, and terra cottas constitute the decoration and complements of modern homes and nearly all of the hotels despite the fact that they do not understand nor like them.
Without realizing, the guests themselves take away the best impression as they are out for a stroll and as they rent tilburries [two-wheeled carriages without tops], faetons and other little cars; they cross the same streets, and, it is clear, create the appearance that this is a town where everyone walks. It is pleasurable to see them in pilgrimage, or in groups, visiting those things worthy of being visited: the conservatory, the swimming pools, and the tobacco factories.
And to think that this hotel could not be built in Havana because it could not!
Ballast Point, a preferred place of recreation, is seven kilometers from Tampa by way of electric car. In short, dances, concerts, music, and different fiestas constantly are offered. And, after all, Ballast Point is no more than a wooden bower, painted yellow and red, the roof of which rises and falls with rough culebras of wood. At the bottom of the bower is a staircase that disappears into the sea urchin–and oyster-filled waters. The bower is rather spacious, and the smooth and polished floor - where hundreds of couples can surrender to the delights of the waltz–invites aficionados to dance.
The piano is situated in the center of the salon between columns. A pitiful piano that has provided enjoyment to two or three generations, it continues to entertain yet another. The more or less agile fingers of visitors indistinctly fall on the piano, making it groan, at times, in tune with the muñeira or other amusements by the sea. The visitors gradually lose themselves- the melancholic wail of the rouge- or convulsively move the keys to the sound of a frenzied gallop. In short, the piano, which has a corresponding pair of flats, is always open showing its yellow and black teeth.
The walk to Ballast Point is nice and picturesque, it twists and turns crossing small farms where green-leafed orange trees are aligned and the perfume of orange blossom flowers intoxicates, making one think of white veils and wedding nights, of enchantments and delights, always new. These farms, with their wooden houses painted anew, break the monotony of the stroll and of the walk planted with resinous pines.
By tacit agreement, Spaniards, Americans and Cubans do not congregate together in Ballast Point. Each has their own day to be "alone"; the Cubans prefer Sunday, which the Americans dedicate to God, "to a great God, who grows the apple and the rye," while the Cubans, without such preoccupation, go to the beach to lift their spirits, to see the sea that separates them from their dear homeland, or to swing calmly in the gardens singing The Hymn of Bayamo or Sobre las Olas. Or, they enjoy a modest picnic under the trees, the ducks delighting in leftover breadcrumbs.
What class of people meets in public dances? The working class, the employees, the shopkeepers–all of whom do not live the "high life." And, thus, they have fun without the spectacle of revolting drunkenness nor of tragedy; everyone has a good time and dances their own way, all in good harmony. After the party, when the stars barely illuminate the earth, what delight to come from the car to the second floor smelling the aroma of the pines and getting drunk with the perfume of oranges in bloom!
As the Americans are wont to exaggerate, they say "el Coney Island de la Florida á De Soto Park," a park where the symbolic palmetto sways and that has the best appeal of any place of recreation: the barroom is always open on Sundays and there are no parties to tend, although if there were parties, one would remain in the bar in spite of the Salvation Army, because De Soto Park belongs to the county of Fort Brooke, where it is not sinful to drink on Sundays.
For this reason, and because there is always some appeal, Palmetto is people on Sunday-all classes of people. The allure varies frequently: at times, it is a costumed juggler with little skill; at other times, a man that ascends in a balloon and descends by parachute; on another day, the drills of trained horses, dance, music, etc. The pretext never lacks. And, so, although there is no need for pretext, the magnificent spectacle of the eternally serene sea would remain - the boats, the baths and–the walk.
The water, like the vegetation, is poor. The wharf, at the end of which stand bath houses, advances more than 200 steps into the water, and, even there it gives pretense. One cannot see the bottom but can feel dirty, muddy water.
On both sides of the wharf, old boats without paint or sails rock rhythmically on the gray surface of water. At times, the water recedes a great deal; it is necessary to go and look there, where the wharf ends and the shoreline reddens like inflamed skin. They are small, red crabs that form an enormous colony and that, moving from side to side, makes one think of the plagues of Egypt.
Due to the lack of chairs, the bower cannot be more rustic; it has an appearance of tables around wooden seats where lager beer or soda water is drunk.
In the garden, the branches usually entwine allowing couples to enjoy a moment of apparent solitude. Farther away, a game of ninepin; to the other side, billiards; and to the far end, enclosed in a spacious pen, two tame and melancholy deer that represent the "Adam and Eve" of the species.
Signs abound wherever–On the scaly trunk of the palmetto, in clear, Castilian characters reads the following:
"It is not permitted to swim without clothes that completely cover the body."
Another sign: "It is prohibited to touch, cut or crush plants or trees along this walk. Those who do not comply with this order will be punished law."
Another sign: "All persons caught stealing boats to be persecuted by law. A liberal gratuity to the informant.”
It is always the law, the poor law, that is the symbol of justice and of equity, serving to frighten the spirit. And it is worse to think that the business of Palmetto is in the hands of a Spanish highlander that, according to reputation, is a man lucky in business. What a shame that he does not understand more grammar than la parda!
Another announcement and no more; this is in the bower and in English: "For decent whites only."
The people of color hear the music, which attracts them; they go to enter and, oh pain!, the ominous sign dissuades them. This sign does not say anything about the law, as if it did not exist, as if whites and blacks were not equal before her. Of course, whether the whites are decent or not they enter those bowers without bashfulness and are the ones who establish, by entering, that they already are decent.
Until now, there has been no reason for the whites to back down. Those of color do not even protest and go to get even by forming pairs in the banks around the palmettos.
On Sundays, Tampa overflows: passenger-filled cars crowd De Soto Park and later, at the fall of afternoon (given the lack of foresight by the urban car business), the electricity ends, the traffic is paralyzed and the caravan comes by foot-one or two thinking that this frustration is not relative to the pleasurable experience.
After all, as my nephew Raul says: 'Palmetto and vermin.'
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2008
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.
Tomaro is a faculty member at the University of South Florida Tampa Library, where she specializes in archival management, local history, and Latin American and Caribbean studies. A native of Tampa, Tomaro spent her formative years in Ybor City listening to Spanish-language music echoing from neighboring houses, roosters and the occasional siren; laughing and wreaking havoc with her Dominican, Puerto Rican, Italian, Cuban and Jamaican neighbors, and watching the honeysuckle bloom. Her personal and professional interests always harken back to Ybor, where she served on the Executive Board of the Ybor City Museum Society. Tomaro is a 2002 graduate of the USF School of Information’s Master of Arts in Library and Information Science program. Tomaro joined the USF Libraries in 2003 as the inaugural Dr. Henrietta M. Smith Resident Librarian. After the residency, Tomaro became a full-time Special Collections librarian and is now Director of Special Collections. Tomaro was promoted to University Librarian in 2019.
FOLLOW CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE