Tampa: a city with a rich Latino history
The site of the upcoming Republican National Convention owes much of its early growth and cultural identity to Cuban immigrants. But unlike Miami, whose influx of Cubans came in waves in the early 60′s and 80′s, Tampa’s Cuban immigrants came here in the late 1800′s and early 1900′s and helped turn a small fledgling town into one of the richest and most vibrant cities in the United States.
At one point, between the early 1900′s and 1950 — with an influx of Italian and other European immigrants — Tampa became the most diverse city in the U.S. south.
Like much of Florida, Tampa’s original population was made up of Native Americans who lived and fished around Tampa Bay. Spanish conquistadors came to the area in 1513, but didn’t settle because there was no gold and the area held no strategic value. Except for Native Americans and runaway slaves, Tampa had no significant population and remained mostly uninhabited for almost two hundred years.
A couple of years after the U.S. purchased Florida from the Spanish in 1821, the U.S. Army set up Ft. Brooke in what is now downtown Tampa. But the area remained sparsely populated until phosphate was discovered, and Henry Plant built a railroad that connected Tampa to the North and started a steamship line from Tampa to Havana.
At the time, the Cuban population in Tampa was made up of only a handful of seasonal fishermen who came from Cuba to catch and smoke mullet at the mouth of the Hillsborough River. Tampa’s real boom with Cuban immigrants started when Vicente Martinez Ybor, a Spanish born Cuban cigar manufacturer, made Tampa his home base.
Ybor owned the Prince of Wales brand cigars in Havana. When the Ten Years’ War broke out in Cuba in 1868, Ybor, who sympathized and helped finance the Cuban rebels fighting for independence, left Havana for Key West. But Key West had its own problems, and in 1885, Ybor purchased 40 acres of land west of Tampa. He built a company town: Ybor City and moved his cigar making operations there.
The official seal of the city of Tampa shows Henry Plant’s Mascotte steamship, which sailed the Tampa, Key West, Havana route from the 1880′s through the early 1900′s bringing in thousands of Cuban cigar torcedores, and tons of Cuban tobacco leaf. By the early 1900′s, Tampa had become famous as the Cigar Capital of the World, shipping out hundreds of millions of cigars.
Ybor built housing for his Cuban workers and encouraged other cigar manufacturers to come to Tampa. Italian and other European immigrants came to Ybor and opened businesses that catered to the cigar makers. Ybor City boomed. In 1887 Tampa annexed Ybor City.
Tampa played a crucial role in Cuba gaining its independence from Spain and during the Spanish American War. According to a historical plaque in Ybor City, El Liceo Cubano, a building that had been a Cuban social center around the turn of the century, was the cradle of Cuban Independence.
Jose Martí, the poet and father of Cuban independence visited Tampa many times to give speeches and raise funds for the cause. According to the plaque, Martí delivered the speeches: “Con Todos y Para Todos” and “Los Pinos Nuevos,” and drafted “Las Resoluciones” which became the program of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, at El Liceo.
In the summer of 1898, Tampa became the port of embarkation for the U.S. Army as they moved to Cuba and Puerto Rico to fight the Spanish after the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor earlier that year. Among the soldiers leaving from Tampa for the Caribbean: Lieutenant Theodore Roosevelt.
Today, Latinos comprise the largest minority in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, at about half a million.
Despite its long and important history with Cuban immigrants, Mexicans migrating into the area in the last two decades have become the largest Latino group in Tampa, followed by Puerto Rican and then Cubans.