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American Waves
    Race, Ethnicity, & Cultural Identity
Issue Date: 10 / 1997    
   
Legacy in Smoke: Ybor City's Role in Cigar Manufacturing

Inside a glass-enclosed corner of her grandson's cigar store, just a stone's throw away from the enclosed fountains, potted trees, glass elevators, and trendy restaurants that decorate the lobby of Tampa's Sheraton Grand Hotel, Carmela Cammarata Varsalona is still rolling along. Her dexterity and nimble fingers belie her ninety years. She selects a leafy piece of Honduran-grown tobacco, deftly cuts away the veins, stems, and imperfections, then rolls an already pressed piece of tobacco filler into the leafy wrapping. Finally, she glues down and smooths over the rounded end of the new cigar, cuts it to size, and briefly examines her handiwork.

       The whole process takes about two minutes to complete. She acknowledges curious onlookers who have stopped to watch her work with a warm smile, then moves on to the next cigar.
       
       Varsalona started rolling cigars when she was just thirteen years old, sitting between her parents at a factory table while they worked. One day, as she was learning her craft, the foreman of the shop came by and inspected the cigars she had made. "She's good enough," Varsalona remembers the supervisor telling her parents. "Let her start working."
       
       Since then, she has rolled over five million cigars. Much of her work was in some of the largest and best of the cigar factories that, earlier this century, dotted the Tampa, Florida, neighborhood of Ybor City. Las fŠbricas (the factories), which once employed thousands of cigar rollers, are now long gone. The area has suffered decades of decline and neglect. But, like the bouquet of a good cigar, the aura of Ybor City's smoky heritage still seems to hang in the air.
       
       Today, Varsalona works at a desk that is a replica of those once used in the now-closed factories. As she interacts with customers and passersby, her memories of relatives, coworkers, and times in the factories seem to come as fast as the cigars she produces. Though she has lived as far away as Milwaukee, working in the "buckeyes," or small cigar-rolling shops, of the Wisconsin city, her heart was always in Ybor City. "I liked that better than any other place," she recalls.
       
       Cigar capital of the world
       
        Ybor (pronounced EE-bore) City's path to becoming "the cigar capital of the world" started in 1885 with the purchase of forty mosquito-and alligator-laden acres by its namesake, Don Vincente Martínez Ybor. Ybor was a Spaniard who had moved to Cuba and become a tobacco merchant. Concerned that the Cubans weren't properly cultivating the industry, he branched out his operations. He went briefly to Key West, until labor problems there forced him to look for another site for his operations, then moved his operations to Tampa, attracted by the port and the availability of cheap land.
       
       On April 13, 1886, Ybor opened his first cigar factory in the Tampa area. He was quickly followed by other manufacturers who began to move their factories and tabaqueros (workers) to the region. In the first year alone, over one million cigars were produced. By 1900, thirty thousand Cuban, Spanish, Italian, and German immigrants had settled in Ybor City, and twelve thousand of them found work in the two hundred factories then in operation. At their peak, the cigar makers annually produced nearly 100 million cigars. Because of their high quality, Ybor City's cigars were in demand the world over.
       
       A number of factors contributed to Ybor City's quick rise and to the acculturation of the Cuban, Spanish, and Italian immigrants attracted by the town's growing prosperity. According to Rosann García, whose grandparents arrived from Sicily, one of those factors was Ybor's decision to plan a housing community for the cigar workers. Ybor's company built the heart-pine structures, then rented them to workers. A portion of the rent the employee paid was applied toward his eventual purchase of the home. The quality housing "provided incentives for workers to move their families here," says García. Typically, the shotgun-style homes featured a greeting room at the front, a master bedroom and children's bedroom along a hallway, and kitchen and bath in the back. An outhouse was usually found in the backyard.
       
       The recent arrivals, despite their diverse backgrounds, also shared a common interest in hard work. The owners of the cigar factories capitalized on this attitude by offering work to women as well as men. Like Varsalona, García's mother was a cigar roller who followed in the footsteps of her parents. It was a good support industry, García believes. Because it was piecework (i.e., workers were paid a set amount per cigar produced), "you made a lot of money, if you were good at making cigars."
       
       Tony Saitta, sixty-seven, agrees. His mother and father rolled cigars in the factories and eventually started a cigar store, El Sol Cigars, that is still in operation on Seventh Avenue in Ybor City. "It was perfect," he recalls. "Women could make as much as men."
       
       Saitta also believes that the close quarters of the factories helped the community overcome social barriers caused by the quick influx of new arrivals. In the shops, Italian workers often learned Spanish because "it was a Spanish industry," he explains. He believes this helped increase cross-cultural understanding and camaraderie in the community.
       
       Another way workers in the shops built esprit de corps and acculturated themselves to their new society was through the use of a lector. In the rolling factories, each worker would contribute a few cents of his pay to hire someone who would read newspapers or literature to them while they silently rolled cigars. One such lector, Victoriano Manteiga, was highly regarded. A learned man, he used his earnings as a lector to open a newspaper, La Gaceta, one of twenty-five such journals then published in Ybor City. Seventy-five years later, the weekly is still produced by his descendants, Roland and Patrick Manteiga, and is the only trilingual paper published in America.
       
       Because of the values and close quarters they shared, Saitta remembers, workers in the cigar factories often looked after one another. "If one person was having trouble making his quota, other rollers would help," he recounts. "There was no sweatshop mentality."
       
       But there were other ways to stay in the good graces of the supervisors. "If a foreman saw you making 'sausages' [poorly made cigars], or not making enough cigars, it would often lead to a pink slip," Saitta recounts. To get around that, workers sometimes bribed the foreman.
       
       Each cigar roller was assigned a number to attach to the bundles of cigars he produced. The rollers would attach that number, Saitta says, to a chicken they would anonymously toss into the backyard of their foreman, hoping the boss would remember the worker and the gift come performance-evaluation time.
       
       It didn't always work, though. "One time, somebody tossed a chicken over the fence into our yard," says Saitta. The problem was, neither of his parents were supervisors. "I don't know what happened to that worker," he laughs.
       
       Cradles of mutual aid
       
        The harsh sunlight of a Thursday afternoon lazily filters into the bar of the Centro Asturiano de Tampa, a social club whose ornate, three-story yellow brick and stone building sits on Nebraska Avenue at the edge of Ybor City. Inside, about twelve club members, mostly older men, are gathered for a few hours of playing dominoes, and cards, or sharing animated stories. They are continuing a gregarious tradition that probably goes all the way to the club's founding in 1914.
       
       In The Immigrant World of Ybor City (1987), Gary Mormino and George Pozzetta inform us that while the cigar factories functioned as the settlement's economic heart, where speakers of various languages could work together in relative harmony, the social aid societies served as its soul. At the Asturiano, L'Unione Italiana, El Círculo Cubano, or a host of other clubs in the area, residents could enjoy dinner, dancing, lectures, and performances of plays and operas. The Asturiano even operated one of the country's first HMOs: For their membership fee, members received routine medical care and reduced costs at a hospital owned by the club. The hospital closed a few years ago after membership had fallen to a level that forced the club to withdraw its financial support of the institution.
       
       Stan Tipton, the building manager of the Círculo Cubano, says the versatility of that club and the many others in Ybor City was the key to their appeal. "You might spend some time in the cantina, kids and younger people might be doing something on the patio, or you might take in a band performance in the theater. Cab Calloway played here one time," he recalls. "In its heyday, all these areas [of the building] would be in use at once."
       
       The popularity of these clubs was tremendous. Many longtime residents still remember Ybor City as much for the ethnic clubs as they do for the cigar factories. By the middle 1920s, Tipton says, the Círculo Cubano membership list included as many as six thousand people. And when the L'Unione Italiana inaugurated a new building in 1918, the party lasted for three days. Festivities included speeches, balls, and a three-act play, La Fuera.
       
       Ironically, however, the clubs' success in providing a cultural way station for the mostly Latin immigrants helped hasten the demise of these social institutions. As Ybor City's now second-and third-generation population began to enter the American mainstream, the clubs' influence and appeal began to diminish.

       
       Worse, the acculturation process was taking place at the same time as the Great Depression, lessening domestic demand for cigars. Finally, automation was coming to the industry, and the few factories left had less need for cigar rollers. As a result, many families left Ybor City for the suburbs, or beyond. In 1932 Saitta's family, for example, moved their cigar store to New York City. By the 1960s, when an ill-conceived "urban renewal" project served only to bulldoze many of Ybor City's remaining buildings, such as the Martí-Macio Club on Seventh Avenue, the cigar factories were gone. The residents who remained and the social clubs that had survived (though usually in serious disrepair) were left to sort through the ashes.
       
       Ybor revival
       
        Círculo Cubano was such a club. Tipton recounts how members, after taking out a second mortgage on the building a few years ago and using the money for repairs, were unable to make payments on the loan. "The club was five days away from foreclosure, when a group of Ybor City friends and businessmen bought the building," says Tipton.
       
       Now the group, called the Cuban Club Foundation, leases the building back to the members for a dollar a year and oversees obtaining financing for renovating the once-grand structure. Already, the club's cantina has been refurbished, and with the help of a recently received $300,000 matching grant from the state, more improvements are planned.
       
       Similar works are under way at L'Unione Italiana. Moreover, in 1990, many of the restaurants, former factories, and social clubs that gave Ybor City its character were designated as being a National Historic Landmark District, one of only three in Florida. In 1992, club members, citizens, and government representatives formed the Heritage Structures Consortium of Ybor City, a collaborative effort aimed at recapturing the pride and identity of the social clubs. Organizers hope that, like the blend of a good cigar, the revitalized clubs will be an important ingredient in Ybor City's continuing economic renaissance.
       
       García is helping that effort. For a while she had taken a teaching job in Alabama. Eventually she came back, to teach and sell real estate, but found she wasn't completely satisfied. "I decided to do what I love to do--promote Ybor City," she smiles.
       
       Today she has a company, Historic Tours and Events, that organizes customized tours through stops that include a former cigar factory turned into a shopping center, a third-generation, family-owned bakery that produces wonderfully aromatic Cuban bread, the Ybor City State Museum, and the Columbia Restaurant, a local landmark that has been serving excellent Spanish cuisine since 1905.
       
       "People are breathing new life into this city," García says but adds that much of that vitality is coming from nightlife. Since the late 1980s an array of nightclubs have opened, making Ybor City such a popular attraction that on Friday nights, Seventh Avenue, the area's commercial spine, is closed off to traffic. The cacophonous mix of a wide array of music, from jazz to alternative, floats over the brick-lined streets.
       
       Most, however, have taken care to keep their exterior decor in conformity with Ybor City's turn-of-the-century tenor. And García says that while taking in the glitzy nightlife, it's easy to miss something deeper. "If you just came [for the entertainment], you wouldn't know what we have here," she contends. "If you didn't investigate, you'd miss the whole picture." She says efforts to preserve Ybor City's heritage and history are its "underlying strength."
       
       Saitta, whose family returned to Ybor City in 1970 and now operates a cigar store on Seventh Avenue, says most residents, young and old, welcome the recent changes in the community. "People work all week, they need to be entertained," he says. He welcomes the attention the new clubs have brought to Ybor City. Before, he says, "it was a genuine area, but nobody saw it. Now people are seeing it."
       
       

by Craig J. Renner
Craig J. Renner is an editor of the Culture section of The World & I.
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