A piece of Cuban history

He peered through his glasses, grumbling to himself in Spanish. You get the sense he’s been standing there all day. A policeman quickly strides up the street behind him, smacking the sandwich board with both hands, loud and hard.

“You’re in big trouble, boy!” he yells in a gruff, southern drawl.

Two teenage boys handing out fliers up and down La Septima rush to the sign-bearer’s aide, grappling with the cop to distract him and trying to get away when he turns to them.

“What’s your name, boy?” he says as he holds one by the collar.

“Me no speaka good English! Me no understand!”

“It’s 1931, the Depression has hit. The tobacco workers all work by hand,” explained Denis Calandra, the play’s writer and director.

Cuban Bread tells the story of a young Ybor City where liberal Latin culture meets the Deep South.

Many of the immigrants may have been illiterate, said Calandra, but they were not uneducated. “A people of stories,” factory workers auditioned and paid lectors to read to them the news and literature of the day as they prepared tobacco and cigars.

“I didn’t know of any other industry in which this occurred,” he said. “It struck me as an eminently theatrical idea.”

Calandra researched the city extensively by speaking with some of the old workers. They told Calandra the lectors were often bilingual, sometimes even trilingual men with extensive libraries.

In 1988, Calandra wrote an early draft of the play which won an honorable mention in a statewide contest. He worked as a producer for USF’s Theatre Department for several years before deciding to rewrite the piece in 2002.

“It’s a play about freedom of expression and specific cultural circumstances that allow for and encourage a kind of openness towards other people (and) other lives,” he said. “It deals with issues that never go away in this country.”

Although the factories were not devoid of racism, it was decades before the Civil Rights movement and mainstream views represented in well-established newspapers deemed ideas like socialism and labor unions as “godless, communist ideology.”

Management saw Cubans as an industrial asset or a political threat.

“Those were real fears but they were also conveniently exaggerated fears,” Calandra said.

In 1921 a series of strikes resulted in the abolishment of the lectors by manufacturers who saw them as “potential rabble-rousers, organizers and political speechmakers,” Calandra said.

“There were some who were fairly radical, some who were middle of the road, some who were probably leaning to the right,” he said.

Assistant professor David Mann portrays lector Alfonso Rivera, the main character caught between multiple political and emotional extremes and “trying not to give in to passion”.

A quiet advocate for anarchy, Rivera was out of work for years when his position was abolished. He watched people get swept up by the political movements, hurt and even killed.

“He is trying to keep the ones he loves from going down that route again,” Mann said. “And it’s a difficult thing to try to do.”

Although Mann said the play is replete with history and political struggles, Cuban Bread is no history lesson. Humor and romance make the characters real and their stories personal.

“Does it treat it fairly? If by ‘fairly’ you mean ‘dispassionately’ or ‘objectively,’ then no. I don’t think that anyone can treat anything objectively,” he said.

Jessie Wintermute plays Luis, a 14-year-old coffee boy who serves coffee to the workers in Reagan’s (Burk) Factory.

Wintermute studied under David Mann and won a top prize in an undergraduate colloquium last week for his research on the process of a character.

He said he learned about the culture the immigrants brought over, like Latin dance moves. Jessie found how to connect his love of dance with his character Luis’s love of baseball.

“In modern dance class, we do this one leap, and I noticed in baseball they do the same thing, just modified. Athletes are basically dancing,” he said.

Carolina Garcia plays the passionate Cuban cigar roller, Rosa Ramirez. She said she grew up around cigars and understands their importance in her culture.

“(Ramirez) is the person, I believe, (who) is the most honestly trying to still fight for the voice of the workers,” Garcia said.

Garcia said she can absolutely relate with Rosa’s character.

“To be Cuban-American in these days and to feel the way I do, is kind of a hard position to be in because the majority of Cubans, (especially) in this state, feel very differently (politically).”

Even the walls talk. Theater design senior and scenic designer Edward Ross said recreating 1931 Ybor started over two months ago.

From touring factories and houses in Ybor to working through several sketches and building a full-color 4 by 2-foot tall half-inch scale model, Ross wanted to “create a place you could really believe they lived in.”

Tomorrow night, sepia-colored “brick” walls, wooden beams and staircases will come alive as a barber shop, a cigar factory, a Latin kitchen and a labor temple.

“You can look at pictures and look all you want, but it’s what those buildings felt like,” Ross said.

As a teacher, Calandra said he gets great joy from watching the students grow into their parts. Calandra added he modeled the characters after the “expressive, emotional brilliant kind of people” he observed in the Latin culture, even naming some of them after a godfather or uncle.

“Theatre is a collaborative art,” Mann said. “It’s not like a painter sitting alone in his studio. It depends on everybody involved.”

“It’s been a trying process, but one which I think will pay off in the end.”