The Cigar Industry Changes Florida

Documents and Media

WPA Stories: Ybor City

The WPA Stories Collection on Florida Memory

The WPA Stories were created by writers working for the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Project Administration (WPA) in Florida. These writings present a variety of subject matter, from folk stories and nature writings to scientific research and Florida history, in mostly short pieces intended for use in Florida classrooms.

Ybor City was compiled by workers of the Writers' Program of the Work Projects Administration in 1941. Although the research included in the WPA stories was undoubtedly incorporated into publications from the Florida Writers Project such as the Florida guidebook, this collection was never published.

Ybor City
Ybor City
Published 1941

March 31, 1941


Tampa's Latin Colony

Ybor City, (pronounced E-bo), called the Havana of America, is
Tampa's largest Latin quarter, and its exotic show window. Peopled almost
exclusively by Spaniards, Cubans, and Italians, this foreign city-within-a-
city reflects the passions and gayeties of Mediterranean capitals. With
polyglot tongues and strange customs, Ybor City presents scenes as foreign
as those of Havana, Naples, or Barcelona.

Shop window signs are in Spanish and English; (lurid) movie posters
feature Mexican and Cuban films; dark-skinned strollers chatter along the
narrow walks and peculiar murals are on display at gay restaurants.

Approximately 10,000 Cubans, 8,000 Spaniards, and 6,000 Italians
live here, very much as in their native lands. Some sections are peopled by
one nationality exclusively, but in most cases Italians, Cubans, and
Spaniards live side by side, and intermarriage is common. The majority,
both men and women, are employed in the 150 cigar factories of the city.
The factories loom above the shacks of the 45,000 workmen.

Children scream and play along the narrow streets or in the sandy, picket-
fenced yards. Women, old at 30, rock placidly on their small porches, while
their men argue over their cafe con leche in hole-in-the-wall cafes. Sleek
youths, with their hair combed in imitation of the current Great Lover of the
screen, loaf about the streets. Song and laugher from grilled windows, click
of dominoes in club rooms, and the cry, "La Primera

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Bola" from belita shops, are audible signs of a people busied in relaxation. Odors of hot Cuban bread, roasting coffee, and tang of bright-leaf tobacco mellowing in the dungeons of the cigar factories, pervade the atmosphere.

Each nationality has imported its native cuisine. Perhaps the cocinero will defile his art for gold and prepare steaks American style, but he would rather concoct the famed arros con pollo (chicken and rice), yellow with saffron, and the black bean soup, or the garbanza sopa, (Spanish bean soup). These delectable dishes are served with gracious smiles, string music, and often with floor shows. For those who lack funds or capacity to enjoy the elaborate dinners, the Cuban sandwich, at a dime, is equal to a five-course meal. Blanketed between chunks of hard-crusted bread cut from a yard-long loaf is a generous portion of seasoned meats.

The cigar factories have given Tampa the title of "The Cigar City," and as none of the factories use steam, it also has been characterized as "Smokeless City of Smokes." The factories turn out an average of more than 1,000,000 clear Havana, hand-rolled cigars a day, giving Tampa world supremacy in this field.

The cigar industry came to Tampa in 1886 with the visit of V. M. Ybor, Ignacio Haya, and Gavino Gutierrez. These men, experiencing labor troubles in their cigar factories at Key West, were persuaded to settle in the

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vicinity, and a new city was born. It was named in honor of Ybor, its founder.

From the beginning, the cigar industry has been hampered by strikes, and there have been times when Tampa was in danger of losing the entire industry. Both workers and employers have blamed each other for troubles. In later years, citizen's committees have joined with workers and manufacturers to arbitrate and most of them have been terminated in this way.

In the better factories, those specializing in hand-made clear Havana products, the finest grade of Cuban tobacco is used. This is called vuelto abajo. Cigars made from this leaf are so popular that the royalty of Europe looked to Tampa for their cigars. Two manufacturers were knighted for the excellence of their products. Establishments turning out cheaper, or machine made cigars, use various mixtures of Cuban and domestic tobacco. Each leading manufacturer keeps a trusted representative in Cuba to select his tobacco and arrange for exportation to this country. After purchase in Cuba the leaf is shipped to Tampa in bond and stored in a Government warehouse. The manufacturer is allowed to remove the leaf as needed, paying duty only on that in immediate use. Visitors are welcomed in the factories and an expert guide accompanies any party wishing to inspect the plant.

Many of the cheaper cigars are made in small household factories known as "Buckeyes" or Chinchaleries (bed-bugs). In these a section of a

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cottage is separated from the living quarters by chicken wire in order to conform to Government regulations. Every member of the family helps in the rolling and packing of cigars.

An old Spanish resident of Ybor City described it facetiously but graphically in these words; "Ybor City's principal industries are cigar- making and gambling; its principal recreations are love-making and arguing."

Gambling, closely tied to the political life of the colony, is not only a popular pastime but a lucrative "industry" as well. Most of the Latins are addicts of games of chance such as lotteries, bolita, and slot machines. The annual "take" from these devices runs into millions of dollars, and the telephone company reports a peak load at the time bolita is thrown. Bolita or "little ball" is played with 100 balls and a sack. The balls, placed in the sack are shaken up and tossed to someone near the dealer. The sack is caught, and the ball in hand is cut out and displayed as the winning number. A small "piece" can be bought for 10 cents, and the winner gets 80 to 1.

The profits from gambling are so enormous that the professionals are unabled [sic] to buy up elections in some precints [sic], thus protecting their establishments. Voting together almost solidly on all political issues, the Latin element in Tampa experiences a powerful influence even in State issues. An increasing number of Latins are being elected and appointed

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to public positions. They usually vote en masse according to the instructions of their leaders.

Latins are politically-minded. From the days of 1898, when they supported the revolutionists that freed Cuba, through the later revolution that displaced Machada, and the sending of funds to the Loyalist party in Spain, they are as intensely interested in politics in their native lands as in affairs at home.

Even the poorest has a favorite coffee house, restaurant, or private club in which to spend evenings in search of discussion and recreation. The colony's national club buildings rank well in architecture and equipment. Most of these clubs originated as societies of mutual aid to members in sickness and financial distress. About 75 per cent of all Latins belong to one or other of these orders, dues being as low as 20 cents a week. The leading clubs maintain their own hospitals for members.

The cultural, philanthropic, and social activities of the Italian, Spanish, and Cuban clubs have been important factors in the community's development. Upon their stages are heard grand opera by local talent and star casts from Havana and Madrid; leading concert artists; variety bills by Spanish, Italian and American performers. The clubs sponsor such typically Latin festivals as La Verbena Del Tabaco.

The Verbena is in a true sense a fiesta or folk gathering, usually held before the beginning of the Lenten season. The largest Latin clubs--

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Centre Espanol, Circulo Cubano, Centro Asturiano, and L-Unions Italiano-- present a three-day program featuring native folk dances and songs of their respective countries. More than 500 men and women take part in the dances, wearing native folk dances and add songs to their picturesque interpretations. Famous folk dances, such as the Comparsa, Tarantella, Fandango and Danza Montanez are rendered by experts. A corps of Spanish bagpipe and drum strollers walk among the crowd playing native airs.

A street parade follows the special features. The procession progresses through the heart of Ybor City along streets gay with bunting, and at night soft lanterns and multicolored streamers of light make a picturesque background for the gayety of the fiesta in honor of King Tobacco.

Another elaborate celebration is held each February when Tampa honors the pirate Gasparilla, a Spanish freebooter who scoured the shores of Tampa Bay in the early 1880's. The Latin colonies contribute elaborate floats to the Gasparilla parade, and many are members of the "crew" that captures the city.

Spaniards of advanced education take an active interest in cultural activities and mingle freely in the social life of Tampa. Following the traditional custom of Spain, the Ybor City mother exercises a rigid system of chaperonage over her marriageable daughter. From girlhood until marriage she is carefully watched and protected.

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Generally the Spanish youth attends the public schools, but those of the more religious families are placed in parochial institutions. Of the poorer classes, the majority, few advance beyond the eighth grade, and many quit school at the fourth or fifth grades. This is due to economic conditions rather than to lack of ambition. The children of the more prosperous go through high school and a large number receive college educations. Some of the outstanding professional men of Tampa are of Latin birth.

The lot of the uneducated Spaniard is one of toil and meager wages. Cigar-factory employees go to work each morning without any breakfast except a cup of coffee, and perhaps a piece of bread. About 10 o'clock factories allow a half-hour intermission, when all the employees have coffee and rolls. For years the factories permitted professional readers or lectors to read to employees at work, but this custom was abolished in 1932, because it is said, the lectors read so much literature of a radical nature that they kept the factories on the verge of strike most of the time.

Virtually all customs of the Spanish are also typical of the Cubans, except that the latter are less bound by traditions of Spain, and their physical and cultural characteristics have been influenced by their mixed ancestry. Most Cubans are descendants of the Spanish inhabitants of Cuba, others are Negroes, some Creoles, and others of various blood blends. The complexity of racial lines in the Cuban is better realized when it is considered that racial distinctions are not closely drawn.

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For many years Cuba has been peopled by descendants from Spain, France, Africa, China as well as the aboriginal Cuban Indians, probably Caribs or Mayans. There has been intermarriage of all these groups, but centuries of Spanish rule have made the Cuban people generally Hispanic in customs and characteristics.

The few Cuban Negroes of distinctly African descent are similar in appearance to the Afro-American type, as both groups are of the same racial origin through the early importation of slaves from Africa. The Cuban Negroes are less tractable and more aggressive than their Afro-American brethren, and are not as religious. They show the influence of the Roman Catholic country of their birth but few of them are devout. The Cuban Negroes employed in the cigar factories work with the whites without opposition, and are highly skilled in cigar making.

Most of the Italians in Ybor City have lived so long among the Spanish and Cuban peoples they have to some extent assimilated their customs and characteristics. The majority of Italians here are descendants of Sicilians, Sardinians, or people from other parts of southern Italy. Most of them came to Ybor City in its early days, and their descendants have grown up as neighbors and associates of the other Latin groups. Italians are industrious, thrifty, and ambitious for the educational advancement of their children. Some of Tampa's most prominent business and professional men are of this race. A love of art and music prevails among them, and they have co-operated with their Spanish neighbors in the furtherance of musical culture and art in the community.

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Italians and Spaniards mingle socially and intermarry to a considerable extent.

The Latin districts have their own stores, theatres, movie houses, schools, churches, and newspapers, as well as clubs, hospitals, and clinics. Stores advertise their wares in both Spanish and English. One sees signs on the store-fronts; Aqui se Habla Ingles (English spoken here), while barber shops, grocery stores, bakeries, and meat markets are labeled respectively as Barberia, Bodega, Panaderia, and Carneceria. As comparatively few of the older Latin generations speak or read the English language, there are three daily papers printed in Spanish. La Panza and La Traduccionare are published each morning except Sundays. La Gaeeta, an afternoon paper, issues a syndicated Sunday magazine under the name of El Heraldo Dominical. This contains fiction, rotogravure sections, and comic supplements in Spanish. The newspaper are fine examples of modern journalism, featuring news and gossip from Spain, Cuba, and Italy, as well as affairs of the United States. Their advertising columns are used liberally by Spanish-American merchants.

Since Ybor City has been taken into the corporate limits of the City of Tampa, there has been considerable social and material improvements. More schools have been erected, sanitary conditions have been improved, and streets have been paved.