When an unknown woman showed up on her doorstep, Ignacia’s life changed dramatically. As the two women spoke, she discovered the man she loved and the father of her children had a secret of his own–he had a wife in another town. The two women spent the afternoon talking, comparing their lives and trying to make sense of the painful discovery. It became clear how easy it was for this man to lead two separate lives. His job as a railroad engineer took him from town to town for long periods of time.
Soon after their meeting Ignacia knew she needed to change her life, so she packed up her three youngest children and took them to the train station. The man she had loved followed and pleaded with Ignacia to stay, but she boarded the train for Barcelona and never looked back.
Barcelona was a larger city and Ignacia hoped there might be more opportunities. As time passed, it became increasingly difficult to provide for her children and Ignacia had to take action. She had begun to hear about an esteemed children’s theatrical company that performed around the world. The man who started this famous troupe was very well respected. Ignacia knew the children of the company were well cared for. They were tutored and given food and lodging on board the trains and ships as they traveled.
Ignacia also knew her little ones were quite talented. They would put on puppet shows known in America at that time as “Punch and Judy Shows”. The children enjoyed singing and performing for the little bit of change strangers offered. It was fun playing different roles and being whatever character they wanted to be.
After many sleepless nights, Ignacia finally made her difficult decision. Her children, Carmen age 6, Santiago age 7, and Pilar age 9, would join the children’s theatrical company. Ignacia assured her children they would reunite in a few months, but the tragic reality was she did not see her children again until they were adults.
Tears flowed as Ignacia stood on the dock next to the ship hugging her children. She tried to make them understand the great adventure ahead of them as they toured the world. She assured them the would meet other children, make friends and have fun playing on this big ship. But, Santiago and his sisters did not understand why they had to leave and why they could not just return home to play with the children on their own street. With one final hug they accepted her decision and their voyage began.
While onboard ship, Carmen, Santiago, Pilar and the rest of the children spent their weeks at sea being tutored on their school studies. Even more time was spent with the tutors who instructed them on dance, singing, acting and stage presence. There were costume fittings, instructions on how to apply stage makeup and everything else that went into training as a performer. And, certainly not to be forgotten was learning the proper etiquette to use when being introduced to the president of a country or even to a queen or king.
The children learned their lessons well as they developed their performance skills. Carmen liked to sing opera and act; Pilar liked comedy and could play either the male or female role; and Santiago did a little of everything. The company performed operettas known as Zarzuelas. They visited many countries–Chile, Columbia, Peru, Venezuela, France, Mexico and Cuba to name a few–as they traveled the world. Transportation in some of these countries was so primitive that they traveled by donkey through the mountains to reach their destination.
Hearing this story you might say they lived an exciting life, but it was a very demanding and lonely one for these young children. However, they were taught a profession that would serve them well. During the years that followed, they were never unemployed. No matter where they toured, people would always dig down deep in their pockets to buy a ticket for an evening’s performance. A highlight of their career was when they were chosen by the Spanish government in 1900 to perform at the World’s Fair in Paris. This talented troupe was showcased on an improvised stage on the River Seine. Setting a new world attendance record, over 50 million people visited the 1900 World’s Fair.
In 1910, Carmen married Ernesto Esperante, a bass fiddle musician and composer from El Ferrol, La Coruna, Spain. The musical conductor of the orchestra, Professor Luis Mayoqui, was performing with Carmen and Pilar in Cuba and introduced them. Since Mayoqui and Ernesto were good friends, Ernesto confided his romantic interest in Carmen. Ernesto wrote many anonymous love letters before finally revealing himself to her. At the same time, Mayoqui was falling in love with Pilar. Of the two couples, they were the first to marry–in 1904 in Cuba. Ernesto and Carmen married in 1910–also in Cuba in the town of Guines.
In 1912, while still living in Cuba, Carmen was invited by El Centro Español to Ybor City to perform. Their beautiful, brand new building was an extraordinary architectural mixture of Spanish, Moorish and French Renaissance influence. El Centro wanted the first performance held there to be very special, so they invited Carmen and her talented group of actors to Ybor City.
On November 6, 1912, Carmen sailed on the steamship Olivette from Havana to the Port of Tampa with the 40 person theatrical group “Companía Español de Operata Vienesa” to perform the operetta, “La Viuda Alegre” (“The Merry Widow”). Carmen was cast in one of the lead roles as “Ana,” written by Franz Lehar in 1905.
November 11, 1912 was a night filled with excitement. Tampa’s elite paid ticket prices ranging from $10 to $100 for this event and the proceeds benefited El Centro Español clubhouse. Present in the audience were very wealthy cigar manufacturers, railroad owners, attorneys, politicians, and physicians as well as the local residents of Tampa. Each was anxious to enter the theatre to see a performance that had never been witnessed in this city before. It was magical as the curtains came up and the lights dimmed.
The following morning the Tampa Tribune wrote a lengthy story on the operetta. Below are some of the most noteworthy quotes:
“The beauty and grace of Señora Ramirez’s ‘Ana’ impressed every member of the audience.”
“The handsomely appointed auditorium of the new Centro Español clubhouse proved admirably adapted to the unusual occasion and was filled with the leading Spanish citizens of Tampa and a number of prominent Americans as well.”
“Handsome men and beautifully gowned women graced the occasion and the leading figures in Tampa’s cigar industry beamed from the boxes upon the animated scene.”
It was truly a night to remember for this historic opening of the exquisite El Centro Español! The City of Ybor had fallen in love with Carmen, but she had also fallen in love with Ybor. In a few short years she would return–this time to stay!
It was now 1920, and Carmen and her husband Ernesto wanted to purchase a house in Ybor City within walking distance of 7th Avenue. They were drawn to this community by its mixture of Spanish, Cuban, Italian, Sicilian, Jewish and German nationalities. It was a city within a city and its people were proud and hardworking. Carmen felt it would be the perfect place to settle down and raise children. She and Ernesto had three when they settled in Ybor City, Carmen, Rosa, and Luisa. Pilar, Elisa, and Alicia were born later.
They eventually fell in love with a house on 13th Avenue, but did not have $2,000 for the down payment. When Luis and Pilar heard this, they made the down payment for them. Carmen and Ernesto soon moved in and went about raising their growing daughters. Pilar and Luis arrived later and moved in with them to help. Unable to have children of their own, Pilar and Luis loved being around their nieces. Also, Carmen and Pilar knew the importance of keeping family together and Ybor City is where they remained. Unfortunately, their brother Santiago died at a very young age after a successful stage career and was never able to come to the United States to join them.
The lives of the Esperante family were rich with activity, and their days were filled with music. People strolling past the house at 1623 13th Avenue were treated to melodic sounds permeating the air. In one bedroom you would find Carmen rehearsing for an upcoming performance or giving opera lessons; Pilar in another bedroom practicing a comedic skit; Ernesto creating a new arrangement for his orchestra; and Luis at the piano composing a new piece of music. But somewhere in the house you would find the girls laughing as they played with their mother’s wigs, costumes and makeup.
Carmen loved being involved in her new community. She volunteered her time and talents to a variety of Mutual Benefit Societies including the Centro Asturiano, the Cuban Club, Italian Club, Martí-Maceo Society and, of course, El Centro Español. These organizations served the residents of this multi-cultural community and she wanted to help. She organized many benefit performances in which she acted, directed, promoted the sale of tickets, and obtained advertising. She also performed for the betterment of the clubs’ hospitals and clinics.
Carmen also devoted her time to civic clubs and fraternities. She directed plays at Rollins College and, in 1959, worked with the University of Tampa’s Spanish Club to begin their Spanish Little Theatre. She shared her knowledge and performance skills with this young group of students. An expert on Spanish Zarzuelas, Carmen was excited about these young college students becoming interested in the art form she had always loved. Because of their dedication and her hopes that they would keep Zarzuela alive, she donated many personal items related to this style of Spanish performance.
The Spanish Little Theatre eventually changed its name to Spanish Lyric Theatre and now operates independently of the University of Tampa. This troupe continues to perform today, marking 47 years of existence.
As the years passed, Carmen Ramirez was recognized time and again by the clubs who honored her and expressed their appreciation for her tireless efforts to arrange many benefits for their organizations. In November of 2001 she was one of the women featured in the Ybor City Museum’s exhibit titled, “Matriarchs and Mantillas”, which profiled many of the outstanding women of Ybor City. The exhibit description under her name quoted a Tampa Times’ theatre review from the 1920’s, which described her as “the most alluring, captivating Cleopatra that any modern Anthony might desire.” Her sister Pilar Ramirez Mayoqui was also profiled in the museum exhibit.
Carmen Ramirez Esperante died on March 3, 1973 at the age of 81. It was requested that her funeral procession pass by the theatres and buildings she helped throughout the years. The request was honored and a final tribute was paid to this “Lady of Spain” by the city of Ybor. This veteran actress of the stage was remembered one last time for all her contributions.
Note: Marilyn Esperante Figueredo, the granddaughter and Lisa Figueredo, Founder & Publisher of Cigar City Magazine is the great granddaughter of Carmen Ramirez Esperante.
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2005
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.
MARILYN L. FIGUEREDO
Marilyn was Cigar City Magazine's co-owner and managing editor until her passing in 2007. Marilyn was born in 1948 in Tampa, where she lived her entire life and, more specifically, her early childhood in Ybor City. After a successful 30-year career at Delta Air Lines, Marilyn embarked on what became her true passion: reinvigorating the colorful, multicultural history of Ybor City through the lives and personal stories of the families and individuals who made up the uniqueness of this Tampa quarter. She did this primarily through Cigar City Magazine, serving on various committees and organizations, and attending cultural events throughout Tampa. Her work alongside her niece Lisa Figueredo, founder and Publisher, was instrumental in producing Cigar City Magazine.
Marilyn's legacy will live forever throughout the pages of Tampa's first historical magazine–CigarCityMagazine
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