Alicia Alonso: La Reina de Todo

Ella es la reina del baile. La reina de musica. La reina … de todo.

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Alicia Alonso, artistic director of Ballet Nacional de Cuba is such a superstar we gave her the Warhol treatment.

Ask Cubans “who is Alicia Alonso?“ and you will hear this short, comprehensive explanation: she is the queen of dance. The queen of music. The queen … of everything.

Alonso, born in Havana in 1920, possessed a gift for dance so profound, so prodigious that she and anyone who watched her early training knew she was a born legend. She became an instant star of American Ballet Theatre in the 1940s with searing portrayals of Giselle and Carmen that are still unequaled. She returned to Cuba in the ‘40s to establish professional classical ballet, and she did – creating one of the most rigorous, largest ballet schools in the world.

There is dance; then there is The Dance. Alicia Alonso is The Dance. They are synonyms. The words might as well be Spanish-to-English translations.

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Like everything else, dance and audience expectations of dance morphed with the digital age, ushering in a new era of commercial dance guided by the “wow” factor of competition dance broadcast on television reality shows and through social media. Often, today’s young dancers and companies possess hyper-flexibility, video-game standards of leaps and tricks and operatic emoting that, while exciting, suits a needs-to-go-viral aesthetic that misses the mark with The Dance.

Insulated and isolated from America after President Kennedy’s 1962 trade embargo, Alonso and Cuba worked, lived, loved and danced unaffected by the technological revolution. She taught and choreographed in the enduring timelessness of one anointed by the dance gods to transmit the heavenly conversation between dancers and their audiences. As Martha Graham noted, “dance is the language of the soul.”

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So it is with Ballet Nacional de Cuba. When they dance, it is a conversation of souls unlike any other ballet company. Alonso, la reina de todo, taught them that.

Alonso’s signature ballet, Giselle, arrives at the Straz Center on May 23 as part of an exclusive, limited American tour. The last time the company appeared at The Straz was in October 2003, so it’s been a long absence. The stop here this month, orchestrated in part by arts benefactor, Straz Center namesake and Liberian ambassador-at-large David A. Straz, Jr., took three years of negotiations and diplomacy. Straz, known for his enthusiastic embrace of the historic Tampa-Cuba connections and love of the island’s culture, visited Cuba the first time in 2001, eventually working on behalf of the Tampa Bay area’s Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation.

 

As an informal cultural attaché for Tampa, Straz hosted a dinner party in Cuba between the Straz Center Board of Directors and President/CEO Judy Lisi and Cuba’s then-deputy minister of culture, Rosa Teresa Rodriguez, and the government representative for Alonso’s Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Because Cuba has such deep artistic roots in West Tampa, Ybor City and parts of Tampa proper, offering the country’s premier dance company a home on the Morsani stage seemed logical and necessary.

“It’s really important to Tampa to have them here because of the number of Cuban people who live here,” Straz says. “The places are so close to each other; we should have good relations. Their ballet is some of the finest in the world,” he continues. “Everyone should take the opportunity to see them; this is a big deal for Tampa, and who knows when the opportunity will come back. I hope Alicia will be able to come.”

Alonso, now in her mid-90s and almost completely blind after losing most of her eyesight early in her career, made an express trip to the ballet to sit with Straz during his visit to Cuba last October. In the state box at Gran Teatro de La Habana for an evening performance by Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Straz experienced the “Alicia effect” when she arrived, bedecked in her signature red head wrap with matching ruby red lipstick. Because of her health, Alonso had not been able to attend any other performances of the season.

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Catherine and David Straz (left) with Alicia Alonso and Ballet Nacional de Cuba staffers at The Gran Teatro de La Habana.

“I was with Alicia for the final performance of their season. She came that night and sat with me,” he says. “When she arrived, the place exploded in applause, everyone was on their feet. Everyone in the country knows her. At the end of the performance, she stood up in the box and leaned into the railing with her arms outstretched – it was such a balletic gesture and even at her age, so marvelous. There she is, in all red, arms outstretched, to thunderous applause and a standing ovation.”

Alonso and Straz spent time after the show conversing at length in her dressing room with the help of translators. “My Spanish is poquito,” he laughs. “That’s the extent of it. But she is so important. I invited her to Tampa. She said, ‘it’s possible.’ So, we’ll see.” Although a visit by the prima ballerina assoluta, the highest and rarest rank for a ballerina, is unlikely, we would love to host the grand dame of dance in the vivid red backdrop of Morsani Hall, befitting her majestic and magical legend.

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Ballet Nacional de Cuba performing Giselle. (Photo: Carlos Quezada)

Ballet Nacional de Cuba performs their hallmark ballet Giselle on May 23 at 8pm in Morsani Hall. Get tickets here.

A Real American Story: Tampa’s Fortune and a Tale of Straz Land

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PROLOGUE:

JOSE PERFINO
EL INDIO
A CUBAN PIRATE
KILLED 1850

MR. HUBBARD
A CUBAN PIRATE
FOUND DEAD IN WOODS
JUNE 18, 1850

Just beyond these square chunks of gray granite nestled amid the carpet of dead leaves in Oaklawn Cemetery lurks the city bus station. People get on and off the buses. The buses heave, sigh, trundle into traffic. Beyond the bus station, cars streak across I-275 shuttling between St. Pete and Orlando, yet only several yards away from Mr. Hubbard and El Indio, a gleaming alabaster mausoleum looms. It’s the final resting place of an important man; that’s plain to see. This smooth rock shrine houses the remains of Vincente Martinez Ybor, patron of Ybor City, cigar boss and wealthy entrepreneur whom local history remembers as a man who charted the course for one of the most promising money-making multi-cultural cigar cities of the United States.

Between the pirates and the man who invented Ybor City rests yet another humble granite marker, about the size of a medium Amazon delivery box, of another Tampa entrepreneur who cultivated fruits from her large parcel of land next to the Hillsborough River, made pies and sold them to any one of the 6,000 people who called Tampa home back in her day.

This marker says

TAYLOR
FORTUNE
1825-1906

She shares the space on the granite’s face with her husband Benjamin; yet, if you dig, you won’t find their remains. Not under that marker, anyway. Their bodies are somewhere else in Oaklawn, cast into that nebulous, undocumented section of history called The Slave Section.

Even though neither one was a slave.

Not when they died, anyway. Which brings us to the start of our story. But you will have to stop and sit awhile, if you want to know what we just found out about Fortune Taylor and what she has to do with The Straz.

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In the mid-1800s, there was a white couple named Howell using slave labor in South Carolina. Two of those enslaved people were a man and a woman. They loved each other.

Their names were Benjamin and Fortune.

The Howells moved to Hernando County to set up an orange grove, bringing Benjamin and Fortune with them. The end of slavery arrived in 1865. So, by 1866, Benjamin and Fortune had left the Howells in their rearview mirror and staked out a new life for themselves in a desolate, cattle-rustling, drunk and disorderly town called Tampa. For the Taylors, it was freedom. They went to the courthouse and married as free people.

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Fortune and Benjamin’s marriage license in the bottom right corner, deciphered below:

To the Clerk of the Circuit Court for the County of Hillsborough and the State of Florida. Whereas Benjamin Taylor, a Freedman and Fortune Taylor a freed woman have applied as one to join them in Marriage, And whereas they have lived harmoniously together as man and wife for several years. I have this day joined the above named Benjamin Taylor and Fortune Taylor in the bonds of holy Matrimony, according to the Act of the Legislation of the State of Florida passed as it’s late Session.

(signed) F Branch
Local Elder of the M. E. Church [South]
Tampa Fla
5th May 1866

They knew the land. They knew work. They knew how to use both to grow things that made life and money. On January 20, 1869, Benjamin filed a claim to homestead 33 acres next to the Hillsborough River. Benjamin and Fortune took to their land to make life grow: peaches, guavas, oranges. The ownership of self. Of land. Of labor.

The future looked like acres of sweet, delicious fruit. They survived the yellow fever epidemic of 1867 and the ensuing epidemic of Reconstruction Republicans who came shortly thereafter to enforce the post-Civil War policies of the federal government. But what is a Reconstructionist to a human being who survived enslavement to become a successful citrus farmer? Not much.

Then, Benjamin died. Late in 1869, less than three years after their wedding day, Fortune Taylor found herself widowed, newly free and now head of almost three dozen acres of land as an African American woman almost as far South as you could go.

But Fortune was fortune. She was an entrepreneur, too, beloved by her community, and anointed with a high title. Maybe she wasn’t a patron, or a tabaquero, or a mayor or city councilman—all of those titles were denied her because of her gender and skin color—but in her life, in her circumstances, in her neighborhood, they called her Madame. She earned that respect for building something meaningful and dignified in Tampa during a time when the town itself was struggling to be something more than a chaotic river outpost.

So, the woman with the baked goods, the woman with the land, was known around Tampa as Madame Fortune Taylor, by white and black alike. Remembered as a “short, stout woman,”* Madame Fortune Taylor donated some of her property to start St. Paul’s, the second oldest church in Tampa today. Another section she sold to Mayor Edward Clarke so he could develop a subdivision in 1878.

The road leading from downtown Tampa to her homestead? That became Fortune Street—the same one that exists in downtown Tampa today. Take Fortune Street to Doyle Carlton to the door of the Patel Conservatory and you’ll be on Madame Fortune Taylor’s old orange groves. We’d like to imagine she’d be happy with the legacy of her land becoming a place for arts education for kids, as she was known as someone who loved and was loved by children.

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Take Fortune Street all the way to the end in the other direction and guess where you’ll be?

At the bus station that lurks right next to Oaklawn Cemetery. Somewhere, in there, she and Benjamin watch us now, pulling their names from the shadows of history into the light of our present day. They were not pirates; they were not slaves. They were builders and survivors, creators and lovers, free people with an important story to tell.

 

 

EPILOGUE:

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Ersula K. Odom and Gloria Jean Royster, active members of the Friends of Madame Fortune Taylor society.

So, we wish we could tell you that we came into this amazing story on our own through our own coolness and research into Straz land history, but we did not.

We’re riding the coattails of people like historians Fred Hearns and Canter Brown, men who have dug, fought for and unearthed exquisite stories from African-American history, Tampa’s in particular, and who have been writing and speaking about Madame Fortune Taylor for years. We also relied heavily on Lucy Jones’s 2007 article on the history of the Fortune Street Bridge in Cigar City Magazine, and tampapix.com’s history of the bridge as well.

But, none of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for two important women working with Tampa’s history now:

We came to know Madame Fortune Taylor through two incredibly cool ladies, writers, researchers, and performing artists themselves, Gloria Jean Royster and Ersula K. Odom, who are active members of the Friends of Madame Fortune Taylor society. They contacted our executive administrative assistant extraordinaire, Patricia Griggs, to ask if The Straz would be interested in sponsoring the banner for the Fortune Taylor Bridge dedication ceremony on May 20, 2018—since we now sit on part of Madame Fortune’s estate.

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Executive Administrative Assistant Patricia Griggs’ office overlooks the Fortune Taylor Bridge and most of the Taylor homestead. Today, we know the Taylors’ land as the area roughly from I-275 at the river to the Patel Conservatory.

We loved Gloria Jean and Ersula so much we brought them into our offices for an exclusive interview about the Fortune Taylor Bridge, their research into Madame Fortune Taylor and the kind of connection historical information awakens in people living today.

You can hear the highlights of that interview on Act2, our official Straz Center podcast, going live on our Soundcloud station May 10. Subscribe by finding Act2 on the iTunes Store, the Podcasts app for iOS, or on the Google Play Music app for Android by searching “Straz Center.”

The dedication of Fortune Taylor Bridge takes place Sunday, May 20 at 10 a.m. on the east bank of the Hillsborough River. You can keep tabs on this tale by following Fortune’s Friends on Facebook.

Madame Fortune Banner Art

We also wish we could tell you we know all of Madame Fortune Taylor’s story, but we do not know that, either. Some years have been lost, and some land transactions can’t be proven without records.

However, thanks to many devoted researchers working with spotty, racially discriminatory records that excluded so many valuable members of society, a skein of Madame Fortune Taylor’s story exists today. The Straz knows more about itself because of their efforts.

We would also like to thank David Parsons and Todd Ciardiello, librarians at the John F. Germany Library next door, who helped us tremendously in tracking down photographs and information from the Florida history archives. We used photos from the Florida Memory Project and the Burgert Brothers Collection from the Germany Library’s digital archives.

If you have any information on what happened to Madame Fortune Taylor from 1878-1885, please contact us. We are also looking for photos and for any transactional records about her selling her land after 1885.

*this quote is from Canter Brown’s oral history interview of Dr. Robert W. Saunders, Jr.

The Man Behind the Mission

Governor and former Tampa mayor Bob Martinez on growing up Tampanian, the creation of The Straz and what it meant for the growth of Tampa.

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Construction of Festival Hall, now Carol Morsani Hall.

With Caribbean blue eyes, an easy smile and a rambling drawl that flows through stories of Tampa history like the Hillsborough River ambles through this vast county, Robert “Bob” Martinez makes for an enchanting conversationalist on the subject of The Straz and what Tampa was like all those many years before it housed a world-class performing arts center.

This season, we celebrate 30 years of The Straz. As part of this celebration, we are gathering stories, “the million little stories that make up who we are,” and we decided that we might as well start at the beginning – with Bob Martinez.

Martinez’s grandparents came to Tampa from Spain, mingling with the other immigrant cultures of Ybor City and West Tampa – Italians, Cubans and Germans – and, like those new Americans, Martinez’s grandparents joined the mutual aid societies of the area.

“I grew up here, and we belonged to Centro Español. For twenty-five cents or fifty cents a week for your whole family, you had hospital care, a clubhouse, doctors, a cemetery. It really was care from birth to death,” Martinez recounts from the penthouse conference room in the Regions Bank building where, though in his 80s, he works as a senior policy advisor for Holland & Knight, LLP. From this bird’s-eye view, the swooping lines of the deep blue Hillsborough Bay hug the sprawling cluster of white and terra cotta rooftops. Like exotic hot air balloons, railroad tycoon Henry B. Plant’s Moorish minarets spring skyward, an opulent reminder of Tampa’s first renaissance, now on the campus of University of Tampa, home to the Bob Martinez Athletic Center. This view looks like it does now mostly because of Martinez’s mayoral agenda in the early ’80s, the second renaissance for Tampa.

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Robert “Bob” Martinez.

As worker-centered social clubs, the mutual aid societies came to represent the hard-working and community-centered ethos that would dominate Tampa until the abrupt socio-economic changes of the mid-20th century. Part of the vital fabric of the mutual aid societies was culture. “I went to live productions all the time,” Martinez says. “We had live talent [at the mutual aid societies], and I was taken to all the shows at five and six years old even though I probably fidgeted through most of them.”

In school, Martinez worked on the grade plays – 6th, 9th and senior year – as crew. “I wasn’t a participant. They were mostly musicals.” (He confided later to a singing ability so bad he won’t even attempt to exercise it in the shower or car. However, he’s a crackerjack dancer.)

Dirt roads led in and out of his neighborhood, near where Raymond James Stadium sits today. To get to any excitement, you had to board a streetcar that would click and clack to the action: downtown. “In the ’40s and ’50s, the entertainment center was Downtown Tampa,” he recalls. “Movie houses, hotels. All the hotels had restaurants and live entertainment. I dated my future wife, Mary Jane Marino, at every movie house in Downtown Tampa. Downtown was the core, and that probably stuck in my mind. All the streetcars led to downtown – that’s impressionable to someone young, as I was then. I probably got it in my mind that anything that would happen for Tampa would happen downtown.”

By the 1970s, Martinez, who had been a much-loved high school teacher, bought Café Sevilla, a Spanish restaurant with a reputation for attracting a who’s-who from business, politics and entertainment. “If any famous actors were in town filming a movie, somebody would bring them by Café Sevilla,” Martinez says. “We had Ricardo Montalban, Vikki Carr, Fernando Lamas.” People knew Bob Martinez, and a month after he took over the restaurant, then-Governor Reubin Askew called Martinez to serve on the board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The call jump-started Martinez’s political life, and, in 1979, he announced his mayoral bid. The major focus of his platform?

“I announced I wanted to build a performing arts center. Downtown.”

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Photo of downtown Tampa before the Straz Center was built.

Martinez, who would later advance to Governor of Florida and eventually serve as Drug Czar under President George H. W. Bush, saw that the Downtown Tampa of his youth had stagnated, mired in random industrialization and unable to revitalize after the cigar industry collapsed. “In July of ’79, I released three white papers, the first one explaining how job creation and economic development were tied to the performing arts center. You see, in order to attract new businesses, the CEOs and their spouses would need something to do, a reason to want to be here. They wouldn’t want to come to a place with limited culture. That’s how I sold it. I tied it to economic development. Nobody was going to come here without some kind of culture.”

At a candidate forum on Davis Islands, Martinez openly spoke about his vision for Tampa and how that vision depended on 1) a performing arts center and 2) everybody’s buy-in. “I explained that bringing a performing arts center to Tampa allowed middle-class people and others to enjoy Broadway and other shows. For a lot of people, it would be the first time in their lives. But it was more than that. A performing arts center would give children who were arts-oriented a chance to develop their strengths and talents. Children who were arts-oriented ought to have the same opportunities to develop those talents as children who have athletic talent, and we had Little League fields all over the county.”

The idea took. The daily papers supported the platform, and Martinez received almost zero push-back on the proposal – impressive, considering it carried a multi-million-dollar price tag that taxpayers, would, in part, cover. He won the 1979 election.

“As soon as I was elected, I gathered a task force to figure out how to build one [a performing arts center]. I called H.L. Culbreath, who was a good friend and customer at the restaurant, and I wanted him to chair the task force. We compiled a list of names, H.L. made the calls, and we had it.”

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The groundbreaking for the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, now the Straz Center.

Martinez and the performing arts center task force faced a formidable challenge: how to raise the funds. “This had never been done in Tampa before, raising that much money,” Martinez says. The $15 million he thought would cover the one-hall center was a far cry from the 25-cents-a-week price tag of the mutual aid societies. But, the community spirit was still there, carried on the wind from the remaining shells of cigar factories lining West Tampa and Ybor City. “We realized, though, that if people were going to have to give, it should be to a non-profit organization, not the local government,” Martinez remembers, “so the city doesn’t run it, but the non-profit does.”

The design phases of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center (renamed the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in 2009) proved challenging, with a few hiccups along the way but no major bumps in the road. The biggest problem – if you could call it that – was that everyone involved with the concept and construction wanted the best of the best. “The biggest surprise in the whole project was how big it ended up being,” he laughs. “I thought it would be one hall – not two or three or four! But, H.L. kept saying ‘I think we need to add this … ’ and it just sort of grew. The people on the committee were all local business and community leaders, we were doing this for our community, for the growth of Tampa, and a lot of the people involved in the construction were local. We wanted to do it right.” The total costs far exceeded Martinez’s initial thoughts, but the community commitment and business leadership followed through to the end, when the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center opened for business in 1987.

The success of The Straz’s public-private partnerships set the standard of business for what Martinez calls “a community ticket facility.” “It’s the best model,” he says. “We used the same non-profit concept we established for the performing arts center for the zoo and all the museums with ticket sales.”

Many people don’t know that, before the plans for The Straz began in earnest, a group of “baseball enthusiasts” courted Martinez over lunch to build a pro baseball stadium instead of the performing arts center. Martinez enjoyed his meal, thanked the enthusiasts and said no. “I ran on building a performing arts center, not a baseball stadium. I had to keep my promise.” Martinez, himself a baseball talent who passed on a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers to get married and attend college, saw that the zeitgeist for Tampa’s second renaissance would be in the arts.

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Grand opening celebration of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in 1987. (Photo: Cliff McBride)

“If, for some reason the performing arts center hadn’t materialized, it would have been first a denial to the young people who needed arts education. Second, it would have been a denial to people who can’t afford to go to Broadway. It would have had an adverse impact on recruiting business. A performing arts center showed that we were a growing, sophisticated community,” Martinez says. “If we hadn’t built the Straz Center, Tampa wouldn’t have seen growth of the same magnitude.”

An unintended outcome of building a performing arts center as a juggernaut of metropolitan growth was the effect The Straz’s success had on subsequent projects. “Building a performing arts center opened the citizens of Tampa Bay’s pocketbooks for other organizations. The zoo, the history center … once you invest, you’re an advocate. You have skin in the game,” he says. “As you can see, I’m real proud of our community.”

Martinez left Tampa for several years to follow his political trajectory – which, incidentally, led to a parallel side-job related to the performing arts. He landed a walk-on role as a customs officer in the James Bond film License to Kill after meeting with producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who invited him to the set in Key West. Broccoli later allowed Martinez to use pre-release screenings of the film to raise funds for a children’s organ transplant foundation. Martinez then got a speaking part on a “drugs and go-fast boats” pilot for a television movie called Thunder Boat Row but it didn’t get picked up.

Despite the fact that he has both an IMDb (Internet Movie Database) listing and a former place in the Presidential Cabinet, Martinez returned home, to the place of his cherished memories, his grandkids and to the bustling city poised on the next renaissance. In his spare time, he works towards efforts to restore and renovate Centro Español, the mutual aid society building of his youth. But, he is not riding on nostalgia.

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“The future looks wonderful. For a city our size to have two sports teams, arena football and all of our cultural institutions with hardly any corporate headquarters … that’s one great story to tell about the Tampa people. That they wanted these things for themselves. To me, it’s an incredible story,” he says. “And what we have at the Straz Center is second to none.”

Bob Martinez gambled on the economic savvy of relying on the performing arts to drive growth – and won. This incredible story started simply enough, with a teacher-turned-restaurateur who knew that the power of culture could transform a town into an international destination.

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.

Kenya C. Dworkin

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.

Rumba Cultural: Cuba and Tampa-Ybor City

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By guest blogger, Marlowe Fairbanks

Over the summer I traveled to Cuba for 16 days to study popular and folkloric dance. It was an extraordinary opportunity as an American artist, but especially as a dancer living in Tampa, given the status of dance in Cuba and the deep roots that bind Tampa and the island. Not many people know that the orders to incite the War for Cuban Independence (a.k.a. the Spanish-American War) were rolled into a cigar on Feb. 21, 1895, at a West Tampa cigar factory only 1.8 miles from where the Straz Center is today. That cigar traveled to Havana, and the rest, as they say, is history.

For anyone new to dance or just beginning your appreciation of the language, let me first explain that Cuban dance is el espiritu, a sense of national identity, a force all on its own: dance is life, it means everything — whether that dance is classical ballet or guanguanco (a form of rumba). In other words, a Cuban modern dancer is not interchangeable with an American modern dancer or a European modern dancer. There are technical differences like spinal articulation and a slight forward tilt in the neutral position, but the real difference is in the Cuban dancer’s sense of the music and projection of that power of the spirit outside of herself.

Dance and music are, of course, inextricable in Cuba, where the influences of the Spanish, African slaves, and court dances of Europe intermingled into a distinctly Cuban sound and movement. In Cuba, it’s knowing the steps as well as sensing the movement, expressing the needs of el espiritu moving within the music. Frankly, it’s incredible to experience dance there, as an observer and as a participant, and I found myself in constant company with working Cuban artists whose technical training matched an impeccable standard of pure artistry. “We have nothing,” one dancer said to me, “and yet we can make everything.”

As a Tampan, one of my favorite things to do is head over to Ybor City, where the cigar industry started with Vincente Martinez Ybor, a Spanish-born Cuban, in the mid-1880’s. It’s a short bike ride from The Straz, maybe two miles. I enjoy walking through the old immigrant neighborhoods, now renewed and full of bars, tattoo parlors and boutiques, and imagine what life was like on the corner where Jose Marti gave his famous speeches to the thousands of Cubans and Afro-Cubans in Ybor City who helped support that revolution. There are still a few shops left where Cubans and Afro-Cubans hand roll cigars. I feel the history as very much alive, and I felt it, too, from the other side of the Florida Straits when I toured the streets of Old Havana. Our part of Florida and Cuba belong together — the real Cuban sandwich exists because of Cubans in Ybor City, for goodness sakes — and I gained unexpected, deeper appreciations of our historical connections and of being a dancer because of the time that I spent in Santiago and Havana.

Cuba, culturally, occupies such a special place in artistic history. And so do Tampa and Ybor City. The beauty of a true cultural exchange lies in the appreciation of a culture’s artistic contributions to humanity and our contributions to each other right now. This giving-and-receiving occurs for both artists and audiences, and dance and rhythm are some of our oldest methods for communicating with each other.

Within the realm of the performing arts, we share the intersecting paths of el espiritu and experience that ineffable quality called “the human spirit.” I was distressed in Havana knowing that most Americans would never be able to see Cuban life the way I had, or see Cuba at all. But, we are fortunate to have opportunities to experience great Cuban musicians in our area, and I recently had a delightful conversation with Ivonne Lemus, the ballet mistress for the Patel Conservatory, who is Cuban and is passing along her traditions in classical Cuban ballet to our dancers here. We are all fortunate to have her keeping the legacy alive for the next generation.

Would I go back to Cuba? Yes. Today. Right now. When my longing gets painful enough, I’ll go to Ybor City and visit the marble bust of Jose Marti on the Avenida Republica de Cuba and hope for the sounds of bata drums. Ah, el espiritu.

Marlowe Moore Fairbanks is a writer, dancer, choreographer and naturalist. She is currently working on a full-length dance/film collaboration, Gods of Florida, inspired by her study of sacred Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Cuban dances. She works part-time as the copywriter for the Straz Center. She chronicles her experiences in art and nature on her blog, marlowemoore.wordpress.com.

Photo above: Dance company in Santiago de Cuba. Photo credit: Prakash Math