A puff of Ybor’s history

To many people, Ybor City is just a place to go clubbing on the weekends, but to many others it is so much more. The history of Ybor City prior to its makeover was the main theme of the lecture, “The Immigrant Experience in Ybor City,” which took place at The Cuban Club on Sunday.

Three local figures tied to the city spoke, including Frank Urso, a Sicilian-American and author of A Stranger in the Barillo: Memoir of a Tampa Sicilian, Judge E.J. Salcines, a Spanish-American, and retired chemistry professor and Cuban-American Jack Fernandez, author of Cafe con Leche, a novel about racial tension set in Ybor.

The lecture was a part of “Florida Conversations,” a series of informal discussions and lectures about life in Florida. Art, politics, history, archeology, literature and architecture are common topics.

The discussion was mainly centered around Latin history in Ybor in the 1940s, when the city was the cigar-rolling factory capital of the world.

The authors talked about what it was like growing up in Ybor City and the West Tampa area around that time, coming from different backgrounds but essentially being one group of foreigners, the “Latinos.” The questions ranged from how their holidays were celebrated to who their heroes were to what their most defining moments were as children.Urso recalls what it was like being a child at the end of World War II and as a minority among minorities.

“We were part of the enemies, the Sicilian part of Ybor City, somewhat like the Japanese and the Germans were, so there was a feeling of anti-Italian in Ybor City,” he said.His parents didn’t want to sacrifice their heritage, and he felt it was his generation’s duty to keep alive a strong sense of ethnic pride.

Fernandez touched on the tension between Tampa’s minorities.

“During my childhood, I remember hearing people talk about hating the Spaniards,” he said.

Urso’s parents didn’t last very long in American schools before becoming cigar rollers.

“Papa started at eight, Mama started at twelve,” he said. “Get a job with a necktie,” Urso’s parents would tell him.

Salcines recalled his parents making sure that he got the education they were never able to obtain.

“I remember when I graduated from high school, that was a major event, because my mother hadn’t even gone to grade school and my father hadn’t gone to the third grade.”

The lecture provided a large dose of nostalgia for much of the audience, comprised mainly of elderly Tampa residents, some with the same memories as the speakers.

Afterward Tom Keating, the president of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce, commented on the importance of understanding Ybor City’s roots.

“(Ybor City) is one of the richest areas in the South in terms of being the first Latin community,” he said “The tradition still exists. We still have the Columbia (Restaurant), Tropicana (Field) and the Italian restaurants. It still actually exists; you can actually enjoy it.”