A Legacy of Smoke:  Spanish Immigrants in Tampa

For the most part, the case of Tampa, Florida follows the general trajectory outlined above.  Spanish immigrants begin to arrive steadily in the late nineteenth- and into the early twentieth-century, attracted primarily by the relocation to Tampa of cigar factories from Key West and Havana, Cuba.  Tampa received Spaniards who were re-emigrating from Cuba, and eventually, immigrants who left Spain with Tampa as their destination.  They tended to settle in two main enclaves, Ybor City and West Tampa, where they lived and worked among Cubans, and eventually Sicilians; there were also Germans –many involved in the graphic design end of cigar production (boxes, labels, rings, etc.)—and Jews –who were often small business owners.   Like Spanish immigrants elsewhere, those in Tampa banded together in mutual aid societies, small and large, to provide for themselves the kind of safety net that was not available otherwise.  By the time of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, the Spanish colony in Tampa was large and relatively united; the war galvanized the colony even further, and the mobilization efforts on behalf of the Republic were truly extraordinary.  Like everywhere else, however, the height of cohesiveness and vibrancy of the Spanish colony of Tampa in the mid to late 1930s coincides with the beginning of what would be a rapid decline and dissolution of the colonia.  The cigar business was in trouble since the late 20s, as cigar smoking was falling out of favor, and cigar –and more importantly, cigarette—production was being intensely mechanized.  The other dissolving factors did their work as well; the realization that there was no going back to Spain, the relative prosperity and the reduced need to rely on community-generated social services in the post WW II period; these things, joined with the assimilation and mobility of the immigrants’ children and grandchildren contributed to the gradual dissolution of Spanish Tampa as a vibrant, organic community.  The construction, in the 1960s, of an interstate highway right through the heart of what had been Ybor City, is an eloquent emblem of the forces that drove the dissolution of Tampa’s Spanish community.

But if, in general terms, the history of the Spanish colony in Tampa follows the overall contours of other Spanish enclaves in the US, in many ways the case of Spanish Tampa is unique.  Our documentary project will aim to capture some of the unique characteristics of the Tampa story, such as:

1.  Origins

The throngs of Spanish immigrants that began arriving to Tampa in 1886 did not have to insert themselves into a pre-existing economy and social order.  In significant ways, the arrival of cigar manufacturing coincides with –and in fact, is largely responsible for—the origin and development of Tampa as a modern city.  This basic fact –immigrants in Tampa were, in important ways, founders of their own community— is the basis of Tampa’s uniqueness among Spanish enclaves.

2. Cuban connection

If Ellis Island is the point of entry for the vast majority of Spanish immigrants who will fan out to enclaves throughout the United States, in the case of tampeños we need to look elsewhere for the source.  The history of Tampa’s Spanish colony is inextricably interwoven with the history and economy of the island of Cuba, from start to finish.  Political unrest on the island is what spurred Spanish cigar makers to move their businesses to the US: first, Key West, in the 1860s and 70s, then Tampa) in the 1880s; the 1962 embargo on Cuban exports –including tobacco— can be thought of as the symbolic endpoint of the story of Spanish Tampa.

3. Scale

Although numerically there may have been, at certain points, more Spanish immigrants in New York than in Tampa, the concentrated nature of Tampa’s colonia –in and around the cigar trade, in and around either Ybor City or West Tampa—gave the community a gravity and a projection which were unparallelled elsewhere.  The fact that non-Spanish-speaking immigrants –Sicilians or Jews, for example—almost always learned Spanish in order to thrive in Tampa, is an illustration of how, in some ways, Spanish-language culture was not exactly a minority culture, at least within the limits of Ybor City and West Tampa.

4.  Architectural patrimony, built environment

Tampa is also unique among Spanish-immigrant enclaves in the US because of the richness of its architectural heritage.  Despite the ravages of decades of “urban renewal,” a significant portion of the colonia’s built environment has survived  to this day.  From the palatial social clubs and massive cigar factories to the sprawling cemeteries and humble casitas built for cigar factory workers, the city is full of these remnants of, and mute witnesses to, a vast and vibrant Spanish enclave of unprecedented scale.

A Legacy of Smoke:  Spanish Immigrants in Tampa  is a 50-minute no-budget non-fiction film, that offers a “fly-on-the-wall” perspective of a handful of tampeños as theygo about their lives during two days in 2013…

On Day 1 of the film:

Angel Rañón and José Oural have spent years compiling a list of over 1,000 nicknames of Spanish tampeños; in the bar of the Centro Asturiano, these two Spanish-born nonagenarians go over the list, while they reminisce about the tight-knit community that is sketched out by the list of nicknames.

Elba Ruilova, on the day after her 100th birthday celebration, gives Marlene Menéndez her weekly piano lesson, in which they focus on music by Ernesto Lecuona and Tampa’s own Leopoldo González, author of the Spanish Civil War anthem, “¡No pasarán!”

Cathy Varón invites her father over to her house, to eat some Spanish tortilla, and to rehearse a presentation Cathy needs to make for a creative writing class, about her rediscovery of her mother’s family archive.

On Day 2 of the film:

Rañón, Oural and Eduardo Varón head over to the majestic theater of Tampa’s Centro Asturiano, to view home movie footage that was shot in Tampa in 1938, and that has been preserved in the archives of the University of South Florida.

The palatial Centro Asturiano, the encyclopedia of nicknames, the musical repertoire, the family archive, and the scenes captured in the old home movie footage; all of these things evoke Tampa’s once vast and vibrant Spanish community, as it is cherished –and, in a certain sense, mourned– by the heirs of a “Legacy of Smoke.”

4 Responses to Tampa

  1. Nestor Lopez says:

    I missed the screening at Tampa Theatre. I really would love to see the documentary. Can you help?

  2. Betty C. Hagan says:

    Is THE LEGACY OF SMOKE available on DVD?

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