Black Cuban, Black American: An Ybor City Tour
Welcome to our Ybor City tour based on the book Black Cuban, Black American: A Memoir by Evelio Grillo!
Ybor City Photo Tour
Using excerpts from the book as a guide, this Ybor City photo tour summarizes our recent trip to Tampa to see first-hand the locations of Black Cuban, Black American and reflect on its themes.
In the introduction, Kenya Dworkin y Méndez summarizes the book as “the story of one Afro-Cuban’s adventures in identity reconstruction… Evelio Grillo’s intimate account of his costly but effective triumph over racial and ethnic ambiguity and disempowerment — a journey from Afro-Cubanness to African-Americanness.”
But, the story is not merely a history lesson, as Dworkin y Méndez concludes that “this book forces us to question… the racial and ethnic categories that continue to operate in contemporary American society.” Furthermore, it “sheds light on seldom-discussed issues of Hispanicity with relation to blackness and the black experience in the United States.”
Thus, Black Cuban, Black American makes numerous and frequent cultural comparisons among white Cubans, black Cubans and black Americans, connecting cultural products, practices and perspectives related to education, work, family, food, social life and religion.
Prior to departing on our journey, it is noteworthy, however, that the introduction cautions against generalization, as does the author Evelio Grillo, stating, “No single broad statement can encompass the relationship between black Cubans and their American counterparts.”
Join us on our Ybor City tour as we share pictures along with the quote from Black Cuban, Black American that brought us to each location!
Chapter 2: Black Cubans and White Cubans
While maintaining its identity as a distinctly Latin community, Ybor City, my birthplace, lies completely within the city of Tampa, Florida.
Culturally, socially, and economically a small city within a city, its residents were a mixture of white Cubans, Italians, black Cubans, black Americans, Spaniards, and a not very visible number of white Americans of European extraction.
During the years between roughly 1880 and 1930, Tampa flourished at the center of the worldwide cigar-making industry. A great portion of the industry was in Ybor City, giving Tampa the identity of “Cigar-Making Capital of the World.”
Ybor City (pronounced EE-bor) took its name from Vicente Martínez Ybor, one of the earliest manufacturers to build a cigar factory in Tampa.
[Black Cubans] served in the military without restrictions. The general who had led the Cuban revolution against Spain was a dark mulatto, Antonio Maceo.
As Cubans entered Ybor City, however, they were sorted out. Black Cubans went to a neighborhood, immediately east of Nebraska Avenue, inhabited by black Americans and a scattering of poor whites. White Cubans had a much wider range of choices, though most of them chose to remain in Ybor City… Nebraska Avenue formed the western boundary of Ybor City. Twenty-second Street formed, roughly, the eastern boundary. The avenues ran east and west, with Sixteeneth Avenue forming a northern limit, and Sixth Avenue a southern one.
Black Cubans had their own mutual benefit society and social center, La Unión Martí-Maceo.
Black Cubans and white Cubans worked side by side in the cigar-making industry. But I know of only one black Cuban who won a status above that of worker: Facundo Accion, who achieved the highly honored position of lector, the reader.
Black Cubans and white Cubans interacted in the streets and in public places such as grocery stores, produce stands, meat markets, and in the corner saloon, where men who were not at work gathered in the afternoon to watch the throwing of the bolita bag, and the selection of the day’s number, which paid lucky ticket holders five dollars for every penny waged.
Bolita was Tampa’s version of the numbers game. A hundred small balls, each numbered, were placed in a cloth bag. A small crowd of men gathered to watch the proceedings. At the appointed hour, the bag, carefully sewn tight under the watchful eyes of the onlookers, was thrown randomly across the room to an onlooker. He, in turn, would gather one ball carefully into his hand, through the cloth of the bag, and let the other ninety-nine dangle below. One person tied a string around the lucky numbered ball and cut that section of the cloth away. Finally, the person holding the lucky ball showed it and announced the number.
Chapter 3: Black Cubans and Black Americans
Most black Americans lived west of Nebraska Avenue. No black Cubans lived there. This large section of the city above Nebraska housed solidly black American neighborhoods… Central Avenue provided the bustling commercial center.
Along its seven- or eight-block stretch were found the offices of the local dentist and the local doctor; a large drugstore (complete with modern fountain); the storefront “colored” branch of the public library; a shoemaker; two barber shops; several restaurants; real estate offices; the town’s largest saloon, Moon’s; the “colored” movie house, the Central Theater; and various other small businesses.
We traveled by trolley or we walked. That meant that we had to walk through the black American neighborhoods above Nebraska Avenue if we wanted to go to the Central Theater.
In Tampa they [Black Cubans] had substantial roles in the politics of Cuba; they helped to finance the Cuban war of independence against Spain and harbored the leaders of the insurrection.
Moreover, they had a Spanish daily newspaper to read.
We had a full calendar of community events at La Unión Martí-Maceo, our own black Cuban community center: Frequent Latin dances, travelling vaudeville shows from Cuba, and an occasional play in Spanish that we staged ourselves rounded out a busy schedule for our community.
In the early 1930s a “colored” movie theater, constructed in Ybor City, drew nightly a thoroughly mixed crowd of black Americans and black Cubans. The theater served also as a stopping place for road shows. Our community fluttered for days in anticipation of the appearance of Cab Calloway, then at the height of his career.
There was one week during the year, however, during which the entire black American and black Cuban communities became one. Gasparilla Day and the South Florida Fair, held in conjunction with each other and during the same week, helped greatly to cement our identities as part of one large black community…
The South Florida Fair held two Children’s Days. On the first, called simply Children’s Day, all white children entered free of charge. They included some very light mulatto (mixed black and white) children whose families were “passing” (counting themselves as white), and were allowed to do so by the white Cubans and the white American and Italian community, which had now begun to develop power in the governance of Tampa. On Colored Children’s Day, the succeeding day, black children could enter free of charge, and the two black ghettoes would empty of children early in the morning.
Chapter 4: Mother
After she left, we scurried around the house getting ready for school, fixing our bologna sandwiches, eating buttered bread and drinking café con leche (coffee with milk), our daily breakfast.
Mother worked in the cigar factory five and one-half days a week as one of the boncheras, the women who bunched the fillers of the cigars with good but rough tobacco, before the cigars went into the wooden molds to be firmly pressed into shape and passed on to the master craftsmen for finishing.
I became familiar with the aristocrat of the cigar-making industry, the lector or reader, chosen for his erudition, his command of the language, and his ability to read with dramatic fervor. Chosen by the workers, he received his pay individually from the workers themselves. At fifteen cents per worker per week, that came to more than thirty dollars a week—handsome pay indeed. The black Cuban community was very proud of the only black lector, Facundo Accion, who carried himself with great dignity. He was, without question, the black Cuban community’s recognized leading intellectual. Perched on a platform above the tables where the cigar makers worked, the lector read the newspaper from cover to cover in the morning: news, features, sports, business. Then, from two to four in the afternoon, he brought alive a great novel. Les Miserables was the novel I remember most vividly, because of the enthusiastic discussion it generated among my mother and her fellow workers… Cervantes’ Don Quixote drew great attention also.
Chapter 5: Seventh Avenue
Seventh Avenue seemed like a county fair every day, but especially so on Saturdays. When I walk along its ten blocks of activity now, I wonder how I could have thought it so long, so wide, so utterly beautiful and enchanting.
Its Old World charm, wrought-iron balconies over sidewalks, and large European-style buildings that housed the social clubs, were all wasted on us. We were too excited about spending our money!
Nearby, and on the same side of the street stood S. H. Kress Co., the “expensive” five- and ten-cent store. We never went into it. Most of its prices exceeded our means by twenty cents or a quarter.
Moving farther up to Eighteenth Street we passed all the forbidden places: the elegant and famous Las Novedades Restaurant, where waiters all suited up in tuxedos tossed veritable snowstorms of white tablecloths around. Totally fascinated, I watched the patrons come and go, not understanding how one could become wealthy enough to afford to dine in a place so special.
Then we would pass the clubs: on Twentieth Street the Italian Club, where people hurried in and out preparing for the night’s festivities…
…and the Asturian (Spanish) Club, which seemed more subdued. The Asturians also had a large building and an elaborate program. The Asturians puzzled me because I could not place them. I was in college before I learned that they came from Asturias, a province in Spain.
Chapter 6: Noche Buena: The Good Night
At every meal, we ate Cuban bread, provided by the ubiquitous small bakeries.
Chapter 7: Tally Wop
We attended St. Peter Claver’s, a Catholic school for blacks, located two blocks on the “other” side of Nebraska Avenue, the psychological boundary between the black American and black Cuban ghettoes.
Despite their unreserved commitment to an excellent education for black children, despite the close and affectionate bonds they formed with us, there was one thing they could not teach us: the black culture.
Our black culture was subsumed, if not denied. In its place we were handed a European culture, complete with icons, heroes and heroines. It never occurred to me that it could or should be otherwise. At the time, I accepted all of this as a matter of course. It is only from the perspective developed by living my adult life within the black American society that I am able to discern these important subtleties.
In the ninth grade we transferred to the public school, Booker T. Washington High School, a very crowded and difficult school, physically… There I was introduced to black history on a daily basis as we memorialized black heroes, or celebrated famous artists and scholars… The faculty was all black, and this distinguished them from the largely white faculties of the parochial schools…
This school did make the subjects of slavery, of discrimination, and of prejudice palpable. The faculty of Booker Washington High fully confirmed our identity as black youth. Some great teachers provided the symbols and the ceremonies to support that identity…
They placed the mission ever before us: nothing less than freedom and equality. In our daily contacts with them they made us feel as co-conspirators in the struggle to bring the walls of racial injustice and discrimination down.
Chapter 9: Going Up North
We stopped at a restaurant. Mr. Martin, impelled by the desire to provide new experiences for me, suggested that I have a club sandwich. He must have known that I had never had one before. In fact, I never had eaten in a restaurant before this trip. Nor had I ever eaten turkey. The club sandwich was a transforming experience. I gazed with fascination at the layers of turkey, ham, and strips of bacon, the slices of tomato, and the garnish of lettuce. Even the mayonnaise was a new taste for me. In my home, a sandwich had been, invariably, a slice of bologna between two slices of white bread lightly splashed with mustard, nothing else. Three slices of bread contained this sandwich. More than one sandwich, as I knew sandwiches. I took my time eating this new, huge, delicious concoction, savoring every mouthful.
Follow-up Reflection Questions
- According to Evelio Grillo, what aspect of a person’s identity was considered most important in American society during his youth? Do you think this is still the case? How does this book ‘force you to reflect on the racial and ethnic categories that continue to operate in American society’?
- How did immigrant blacks ‘thoroughly challenge the established notions of race’ in US society?
- How were black Cubans ‘doubly (but not equally) marginalized by members of their own communities and outsiders’?
- How does this book ‘shed light on issues of Hispanicity with relation to blackness’?
- How does Evelio Grillo’s experience relate to the AP Spanish context of Personal & Public Identities: Alienation and Assimilation?
- Seek out classmates from AP US History and US Literature. What cross-curricular connections can you make together? (examples: Cuban War of Independence, Spanish-American War, Evolution of US national identity in relation to the individual)