Treasure Hunt: The 20-Year Search for the Lost Lines of Tampa’s Cuban Playwrights

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Show at Circulo Cubano.

In the early 1990’s, a young professor in the Department of Modern Languages at Carnegie Mellon University happened to join a walking tour of Ybor City with renowned local history experts, Dr. Gary Mormino and E.J. Salcines, during a small gathering of peers at the University of South Florida.

The tour concluded in the ornate theater at Centro Asturiano, one of the many Ybor City social clubs and mutual aid societies, a relic of the turn-of-the-century heyday of Ybor as a cigar boomtown. As Dr. Mormino launched into his explanation of the Spanish history of the club, E.J. Salcines leaned to the ear of the young professor.

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Joyce Baby Cermeño and Emiliano El Chaval Salcines.

“I grew up in this theater,” he whispered, voice full of nostalgia and mischief. “This was our life.” Under the script of the formal lecture, E.J. Salcines, sotto voce, wove an enchanting picture of growing up in the rich culture of Ybor City, an anomaly in the American South—a thriving, interdependent, multi-immigrant society devoid of racial violence despite the ethic discrimination of the times. He shared colorful anecdotes of music and theater, of seeing Placido Domingo’s parents perform on the very stage of Centro Asturiano.

The young professor, Dr. Kenya Dworkin, whose dissertation concerned the Cuban identity between colonial rule to the first republic, fell under the spell.

“The idea that the Cubans here were continuing the tradition of Cuban-style theater from the island, adapting it and presenting it to the local community fascinated me,” says Dworkin. “But I knew nothing about it.”

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Cast of It Can’t Happen Here rehearsing in 1937.

She returned to Pittsburgh with a new intellectual curiosity on fire: given the importance the Ybor City cigar workers played in Cuban independence, what about Cuban theater of Tampa? The cigar workers organized that, too. What were the plays like? Who was writing them? What did they say about the people, the times?

She needed artifacts, evidence.

Surely, somewhere, someone had a stockpile of manuscripts from this creative outpouring of Cubans in Tampa.

She searched. She found nothing.

Then, Dworkin stumbled upon one other scholar—just one, out of the entire United States—who cared enough to peep into the cultural history of Ybor City, one of the most fascinating social experiments of the American 19th century.

Dr. Nicolás Kanellos, Brown Foundation Professor for Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston, was directing a major national research project: Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Heritage of the United States. He had one reference in his book.

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Martí-Maceo Theater circular, 1940.

Dworkin eventually learned through E.J. Salcines that the New Deal Works Project Administration funded one Spanish-speaking theater company through the Federal Theater Project, and that company came from Cubans and Spaniards in Tampa/Ybor City and performed at Centro Asturiano.

“Then I discovered from looking into this group that at the Library of Congress there was a small collection called the Fernando Mesa Collection. In the Mesa collection, I found several photographs and paraphernalia. Mesa was a Tampa native and very involved. He had a collection, so I thought he was dead,” says Dworkin.

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The Centro Asturiano made history in 1936 when the WPA Federal Theater Project opened to the public under Manuel Aparicio, noted actor and director.

On summer break from the university, Dworkin traveled to Tampa on the trail of the missing manuscripts and in search of anyone who could fill in the gaping holes on the subject. She remembered visiting the offices of La Gaceta, the oldest family-owned, minority-owned newspaper in the country, on her tour with Gary Mormino, so she stopped in. Unannounced.

“The editor ended up being very charming, but at the time he gave me that ‘go away little girl, you’re bothering me’ attitude. Put his feet up on the desk. I thought, oh my gosh, this isn’t going to go anywhere,” says Dworkin. “Then I mentioned I was in Washington at the Fernando Mesa collection. All the sudden his eyes opened, he put his feet down, and calls out to his secretary, says ‘Call Fernando Mesa, someone wants to talk to him.’ So—to my shock—Fernando Mesa was alive.”

Dworkin’s sincere fascination on the subject of their plays and theater works led Mesa and Salcines to trust her enough to let her into the real world of Tampa’s Cubans. She was allowed into the men-only cantina at Centro Asturiano to hear the tales of Ybor’s golden age of cigar workers and their social contributions as actors, singers, dancer and playwrights.

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She found herself the lone female in the Saturday Cuban/Spanish coffee klatch and the Sunday Sicilian coffee klatch. “I was one of the boys,” she says, “and in time they would say anything in front of me.” Eventually, she met the wiliest rooster of them all, the local legend Salvador Toledo, who was the most prolific of all the Ybor cigar worker playwrights and a great comic actor. After coming around for years and immersing herself in the community, Dworkin found herself with a proposition to become a permanent part of the family. Toledo, at 88 years old and a widower, offered her a marriage proposal, which she respectfully declined.

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Salvador Toledo and his fumas.

“I felt more at home there [in Tampa] than anywhere on earth except maybe New York. I fell in love with the people who were resilient. Inspirational. By the time I started hanging out at the cantina, I was already obsessed. I was truly fascinated by their stories, and no one had paid attention to them except Nicolás.”

From 1995-2008, Dworkin gathered evidence. She collected hours and hours of video and audio interviews, photos, whatever she could get her hands on. In an unmarked folder at USF, Dworkin finally discovered what she’d been after: manuscripts of the plays. Despite what she knew after the hours of interviews—that there had to have been hundreds and hundreds of plays—the folder contained a mere seven scripts. “It was a disappointing yield,” she says.

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A page from the script of Familia Tinguillo, 1947.

During the years, Dworkin found other plays tucked away in suitcases or stashed as afterthoughts in homes in West Tampa and Ybor. Her book took shape, the names of people and their creative contributions to the soul of their American life inked into the pages of history.  But where were the rest of the manuscripts?

Dworkin’s big break came when word arrived that a trove of artifacts from the Cubans was in the Circulo Cubano, the Cubans’ mutual aid society and social club. But before she could mine the archives, another scholar intercepted the works, retained them at his house and withheld access to certain people working on Cuban identity—especially in regards to race and class. Dworkin and her book, stymied by professional rivalries, sat idle for 10 long years.

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The audience at a show in the Circulo Cubano (Cuban Club), 1942.

Patience proved her virtue. The professor eventually bequeathed the stash of Cuban cultural artifacts to USF’s Special Collections. Finally, Dworkin was able to see what he’d been hiding. “I found out he’d turned in the theater material to USF,” she says. “I was in Tampa last August and September [2015], and that’s when I found the major stash. But, I’ve been unable to finish my book for 20 years.”

Dworkin found 47 physical plays in the USF stash which she says “is very incomplete” due to the appearance of a register book listing an additional 81 plays by Tampa Cuban playwrights. The sheer volume of their work—mostly slapstick comedies mixed with social commentary, explorations of their new American identities, racism and their perspectives of salient issues like the atomic bomb and the plight of black Cubans in Havana—speaks to the surfeit of Cuban creativity in Tampa and the cultural need to express and share in their artistic talents.

“At the time, there was no art person to archive what they were doing. They didn’t see the value the way I do, looking from a historical perspective. The plays were lowbrow, farce . . . something ‘the workers’ did. The performances were ephemeral, many scripts were handwritten. Making plays was part of their everyday life. Little did they know how valuable it would be later,” she says.

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First pages of the script of Un blackout en Ybor City.

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First pages of the script of Un blackout en Ybor City.

 

But the value, in time, rose to the surface. Years ago, Dworkin came to Tampa to give an intimate talk at USF about her research, to read letters penned by Tampa Cuban and Spanish actors to Roosevelt to not disband the Federal Theater Project. She pulled her favorite letter from the bunch and read it. From the silent crowd, a man stood and said, “That was me. I wrote that letter.”

“I have to honor their memory,” Dworkin says. “What they did here is a tremendous value as a window into a community. They lived a curriculum of culture, supported all the other social clubs and their art. They want to be acknowledged for what they did and for the value of the role of theater in this community.”

Dr. Dworkin’s book, tentatively titled Before Latino: How Cuban Theater in Tampa Shaped an American Immigrant Society, will be the first of its kind to document the excitement and value of the performing arts to our Cuban community of Ybor City.

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Dr. Kenya Dworkin

 

If you have artifacts to share with her—programs, photos, manuscripts, anything—or if you are interested in having her tell more stories of her adventures with the colorful characters of Ybor City with your group or organization, please contact Dr. Dworkin at kdworkin@andrew.cmu.edu.

 

Somos Todos Tampeños

The Tampa-Cuba cultural connection

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Floridano Sexteto. Photo courtesy of Dr. Susan Greenbaum.

There was a time not so long ago when Tampa belonged, in heart and mind, to Cuba. In late 19th century Ybor City and West Tampa, Cuban immigrants recreated  their homeland, to the best of their ability, while they powered the burgeoning cigar-making industry. Cuban-flavored Spanish rippled through the factories as the lectors, whose only job was to read to the cigar workers, sat on their platforms and performed the day’s text: newspapers and literary prose, often with revolutionary tones. Afro-Cubans, who contributed the indelible mark of African percussion to the Cuban sound and inspired the creation of the national music, son, and the development of rumba rhythms and dances, labored with their compatriots to establish the first real wealth in this area — economically and cross-culturally.

2016 marks more than 500 years of relationship between Tampa and Cuba, starting with the Spanish colonial appropriation of both Florida and Cuba in the 1500s. The two purloined lands shared a Spanish governor, Hernando de Soto, whose name became something of a Florida brand for parks and counties. In the early 1800s, a thriving settlement of Cuban fishermen lived on the shores of what is now Bayshore Boulevard. Years later, when Vincente Martinez Ybor and others built the lucrative cigar industries in Ybor City (originally “Cuba Town”) and West Tampa (originally “Cuba City”), donations from their workers funded the legendary Cuban fight for independence from Spain headed by José Marti and Antonio Maceo. Marti, beloved poet, patriot, revolutionary and orator, spent much time in Ybor stoking the fires for independence and equality. “Somos todos Cubanos,” he would say, walking with his trusted friend and lauded activist Paulina Pedroso down the streets of Ybor. We are all Cubans; his motto for the right attitude necessary for Cuban unity. This historical foundation so inextricably tied Tampa and Cuba that Pedroso Park on 8th Avenue in Ybor City is still owned by the Cuban government, who purchased the land because of its historic significance prior to the U.S. and Cuban governments’ fall-out in 1959.

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Tampa’s Cesar Gonzmart, a talented violinist, performed with famed Cuban composer and pianist Ernesto Lecuona.

“For much of Tampa’s history, Cuba was the dominant partner,” says USF Professor Emeritus of History and author of The Immigrant World of Ybor City, Dr. Gary Mormino.

In Tampa, we possess the legacy of not only being the seat of Cuban independence, but also as a seat of trans-culturation that happened in the formation of Tampa as an American city.

“The sheer amount of creativity coming out of the social clubs was astounding,” Mormino says. The clubs, structured mutual aid societies that included health care and social opportunities, included ballrooms and theaters. Long before The Straz, plays, concerts and select performances of opera singers took place in the Cuban clubs — as well as in their Spanish, Italian and German counterparts.

In fact, Tampa’s first theatrical venue was a wooden cigar factory Martinez Ybor gave to his workers who repurposed it as El Liceo Cubano, a theater for arts, politics, education and cultural activities. El Liceo mounted the very first theatrical performance of any kind in Tampa — a performance of Amor de Madre in 1887.

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A performance at the Cuban Club. Photo courtesy of USF Special Collections.

Many cigar makers moonlighted as playwrights, actors and directors. Regular Spanish-language plays ran at La Sociedad La Union Marti-Maceo as well, many of them socially-conscious works including a production of Hambre (Hunger), an attack on ruling class exploitation of poor people. In the Depression Era, Tampa-Cuban actress Chela Martinez opened a theater company featuring well-known actresses Carmen and Pilar Ramirez, and many of our Cuban thespians joined Tampa Federal Theatre Project, the only Spanish-language theater to come out of the New Deal.

Cuban music and dance, a complex cuisine of multi-cultural influences, was dished out in the streets and social clubs of Ybor City and West Tampa. The most potent flavors — son, danzon, bolero, rumba, cha cha cha and the lesser-known sacred Afro-Cuban Santeria songs and rhythms — traveled from the island to Tampa. Cigar maker Ramon Padron played part time with Floridano Sexteto, one of the most popular local Cuban ensembles, and famed Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona (who wrote “Melaguena”) often spent time in Ybor City. The clubs hosted regular gatherings of local and touring Cuban artists, filling Tampa with the incomparable spirit of Cuban culture.

Now, as the political fetters fall away, we are in a unique position to rejoin the beloved island that gave us so much music, dance and theater. Cuba helped shape us culturally as an extension of its vibrant sound and exuberant energy, bringing to Tampa its exquisite artistry and giving birth to our identity in America.

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The Habana Compás Dance company was founded in 2004 under the direction of dancer and choreographer Liliet Rivera.

Habana Compás Dance

We celebrate the Tampa-Cuba connection with the American debut of Habana Compás Dance on April 22 in Ferguson Hall. Direct from Havana, this electrifying company showcases the new artistry emerging in Cuba, a mix of tradition and vision that exalts the rhythmic complexities of the culture.

 

Many thanks to Dr. Susan Greenbaum, professor emerita of anthropology, University of South Florida, and author of More than Black: Afro-Cubans in Tampa, for photos and her insightful contributions to this article.