Ybor City: Crucible of the Latina South (Review)

Sarah McNamara’s book traces the politics of Cuban immigrants and their descendants, the central role of women, and histories of labor organizing in a Tampa area cigar making community.

June 30, 2023

Ybor City tells a very different Cuban story than the one with which we are most familiar—that of the exiles who arrived in the United States post-Castro. Centering Cuban immigrant women, their Latina descendants, and their changing politics, Sarah McNamara’s well-researched book begins with a family history. McNamara tell us about Amelia Alvarez, her great great grandmother, who was born in Cuba in 1890 and left the island at sixteen, after the second U.S. occupation in the teen’s life. Amelia, her sister and brother-in-law, their children, and three aunts arrived in Tampa and shortly thereafter boarded a streetcar to a neighborhood called Ybor City, where the family and their descendants would live for more than a century. This family history enlivens what we learn about Florida, labor, and politics in a community that serves as the global capital of the Cuban cigar industry. Challenging common tropes of Cuban migration, many of the Cubans who left in the early 20th century were communist supporters or sympathizers and members of grassroots unions who found their way to leftist radicalism though labor activism in the cigar factories.

There are two central themes in the book: the crucial role women played in making this southern community, and the negotiation and recalibration of political perspectives once Cubans were in the United States, including children and grandchildren disavowing their elders’ radical leftist politics. McNamara organizes the book chronologically around the community’s experiences of “building,” “resisting,” “surviving,” and “remaking,” and draws from a plethora of sources including official archives and newspapers and, more importantly, oral histories conducted at different times with multiple generations. Weaving multiple sources together to cover a series of events over a decade or two offers the reader a nuanced and localized perspective on regional, national, and international politics.

Ybor City traces the history of the city and the greater Tampa area over a century, from the 1860s to the 1960s, beginning with the establishment of the cigarmaking industry. Vicente Martínez Ybor, a Spanish-born Cuban cigar factory owner, left Havana in 1869, fleeing the turmoil later known as the Ten Years’ War as Cubans fought for independence from Spain. In exile, Martínez Ybor achieved what he and other businessmen sought on the island—increased revenue. Producing and selling cigars in the United States had the immediate benefit of avoiding Spanish taxes and U.S. tariffs on imported goods. The growth of the Cuban cigar industry was based on two important factors: place and people. The Key West climate was very similar to that of the island, which meant that Martínez Ybor did not have to buy expensive humidors to grow tobacco. The area provided a favorable environment and also offered room to grow and build factories. The Cubans who had fled to Key West during the Ten Years’ War tended to be working class, folks who had already worked as cigar workers, so Martínez Ybor was able to draw from a skilled and eager workforce. He went on to build a company town that, due to the workers themselves, became a community of immigrant power and organizing. By the 20th century, the company town had been incorporated into Tampa and nearly everything in the city “revolved around Ybor City and the Cuban cigar industry.”

The Cuban cigar industry in Florida thrived for several decades until, like so many other industries, it was devasted by the Great Depression. In a bid to salvage the business, many manufacturers fired the men and hired women because they could pay them less. McNamara’s first photo is that of a tabaquera, a woman working with a tobacco leaf. We see her manicured hands, though a couple of nails have chipped, and a string of rings on her fingers—the workers “looked as though they were in their finest attire” whenever they toiled. The focus of the picture is the tobacco leaf she is holding and we only see a bit of her torso and her frock with some lace details as she sits working. This shift in the workforce from largely male to female was a complicated community negotiation; though women were underpaid, they now had their own income they could contribute to their households, thus changing the family dynamics.

It was into this milieu that organizer Luisa Moreno, then working for the American Federation of Labor (AFL), arrived in 1935. The AFL sent Moreno to recruit Latinas to join the Cigar Makers’ International Union (CMIU); instead, she learned that the women had a comprehensive critique of the social dynamics they were experiencing. They “objected to the de-skilling and mechanization of the Cuban cigar industry; the effect of unemployment and underemployment on their sons, brothers, and husbands” and the prejudices they experienced as an ethnic community; and the United States’ weak stance against rising fascism, especially regarding the Spanish Civil War. Confronted with such an analysis, Moreno put aside the AFL’s goals and instead “collaborated with Latinas in Ybor to support a popular front movement that sought to overcome local economic inequalities and social injustices.”

The Popular Front blended Latin American, European, and American ways of resistance and reflected the experiences of Cuban immigrants and second and third generation Cuban Americans; the former remembered their own families’ experiences while the latter allied out of ethnic identity and community solidarity. In November 1936, the AFL convention was held in Tampa with members split roughly between two camps—one that wanted to fight against fascism and the other anti-interventionist. It was amidst this tension that Moreno pleaded with members to reject “any AFL-negotiated contract and connecting the oppression of manufacturers and the lack of strength from the union to fight against all forms of fascism.” A few months later, the AFL moved Moreno to Philadelphia and her connection to Ybor City was severed. Cigar making in Florida post-Depression never recovered and the city’s economic base declined substantially.

Second and third generation Cuban Americans felt a sense of belonging to Tampa, Florida, and to the United States, and during World War II they demonstrated their commitment by contributing to the war effort at home or by enlisting in the armed forces and serving abroad. McNamara argues that the political power that Cuban Americans gained in Ybor City occurred largely from 1948 to 1970 through three important moments: the 1948 Henry Wallace presidential campaign, the 1955 visit of Fidel Castro to Ybor City and the subsequent Cuban Revolution, and urban renewal in the 1960s. The presidential campaign reached out through the Progressive Party and established the political organization Amigos de Wallace (Friends of Wallace), which mobilized youth in ways that harkened back to the anarchist, socialist, and communist sympathies of their elders. However, by the time Fidel Castro visited Ybor City, there was minimal support for his goals.

This shift in politics is important because it represents a process of adaptation that is based on acquiescing to or embracing dominant ideologies about race. McNamara argues that the sense of belonging was also created by defining “themselves against Blackness to transform their image from foreign subversives to acceptable to U.S. citizens. The result of this shift was the creating of a new ethnic, non-Black identity as well as proximity to Anglo society and the gain of political power.” Cubans are a racially diverse community with folks who are racialized as white, Black, mixed, and everything in between, and whose experiences in the United States during and after de jure segregation break down along these lines. The Cubans in Ybor City represented to a certain extent the diversity of the island and sometimes reproduced the anti-Blackness they learned on the island. For example, employers often paid Black Cubans lower wages than other workers and many of them were also forced to toil in lower paid non-cigar work.

Ybor City helps us understand the ebbs and flows of a community over a century and how Latinas were central to the formation of a city, region, and state. In addition, the book positions the personal as political by including the story of the author’s own great great grandmother Amelia Alvarez, who participated in an antifacism march in May 1937 and taught her descendants the importance of people, politics, and place. We should all be so fortunate to uncover and learn from our tatarabuela’s activism, strength, and determination. Ybor City: Crucible of the Latina South is the best that Latinx history has to offer—deeply researched and rigorous but with respect toward diasporic peoples and the rich communities they build and evolve within.

Perla M. Guerrero is Associate Professor of American Studies and Latinx Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research interests include relational race and ethnicity with a focus on Latinxs and Asian Americans, space and place, immigration and legality, labor, and U.S. history. She is the author of Nuevo South: Latinas/os, Asians, and the Remaking of Place, and is working on her second book about deportation and coerced return to Mexico.

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