Cigar City Magazine Jan-Feb 2006

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Brighter • Smarter • Faster

Fueling Tampa’s Growth Since 1931.

T HE R ADIANT G ROUP, LLC 1320 E. 9th Avenue, Tampa, FL 33605 (813) 247-4731



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Welcome to Cuban Sandwich City


The Beginning of Gasparilla


Hecho a Mano


The Neighborhood of Chiaroscuro

24 36 48

West Tampa: The Living Museum Cigar Production in Tampa and Ybor City 1886–1939

El Lector Remembers Martí Ybor City - Paradise Lost (Part 2)

With a Song in Their Heart

A Conversation with Tampa’s Arena Twins






Not So Trivial


The Kitchen



Lost Landmarks

Mama Knows

Visit our web site at








(813) 875-4929


I saw the article in the Tribune about your new magazine and wondered how we can get a copy sent here to Afghanistan. I am from Tampa (Town and Country) and am currently deployed here in Camp Phoenix Afghanistan with Tampa’s own 53rd Infantry Brigade. I took interest in Tampa’s cigar history when my wife used to work at Ybor City Brewing Company. The brewery is located in an old cigar factory off of 12th in Ybor City. I also coach baseball at Wellswood when I am not deployed! Hearing some of the stories from the guys (J.C. Prado, Tino Martinez, Pete Milan, and Tony Alfonso) I coach with about Tampa’s cigar history has always amazed me. You should do a story on Tino Martinez as you might have known he grew up working in the cigar business with his late father Rene. … He probably has some great stories. Any copies you can send would be greatly appreciated. MSG Paul J. McGarr HHC 53rd IN BDE (SEP)

Kudos to you and your staff! What a Great magazine! My 96 year old mother read it cover to cover and really enjoyed the information about West Tampa, cigar factories etc. . . . and, especially Mama’s “lavana” advice! I congratulate you and wish you great success. Mary Sopkin



I have been telling many of my friends and relatives about your magazine and they are very excited. Where can I get more copies? I would like to send one to my mother and I have several relatives who would really like it. They have great memories of the time you are writing about. Jacquie LoCicero A list of distribution locations and information about home delivery can be found on our website: For $17.70 you will receive the next six issues. You can also write us at Cigar City Magazine, P. O. Box 18613, Tampa, Florida, 33679. Just enclose your check, made payable to Cigar City Magazine in the amount of $17.70 and the mailing address. – Editor It has taken me all day, but I couldn’t put it down or stop reading…if everyone is like me, I hunger for more. I especially like Mama. De Maniscalco I really like Mama. I really had a good laugh, especially the letter about the enema. Who is Mama? Vilma Seber Mama is the wit and wisdom in all of us that sees the lighter side of life and will always tell you the truth, no matter how devastating. –Editor




Tampa’s Gasparilla Pirate Fest is scheduled for

January 28, 2006. The festival’s early days (above and on cover) are featured on page 19.

Special thanks to Franco Silva, WMNF 88.5 Community Radio, Andy Huse and David

Pullen at University of South Florida, Tampa

Library, Special Collections, Tampa Bay History Center, Patrick Grace at Tampa Public Library, Pete at Red Onions, Debbie

Geehring, Mary Frances Granell, Jinkey

Barker and Frank Rey Studio Dancers, Alicia Ramos, Isabel Fernandez Gonzalez and Janel

Gonzalez Derrah.



hen we distributed the first issue of Cigar City Magazine on October 26, we were unaware of the whirlwind of excitement that was about to occur. We began receiving emails, letters and telephone calls from many of you telling us how much you liked the magazine. We also heard from many people who wanted to tell us their family stories. One gentleman shared remembrances of his grandfather who was once an “el lector” and later became mayor of West Tampa; another spoke of the 400 cigars a day her grandmother rolled by hand which was pretty good production; then there was the grandson who had wonderful memories of working in his great grandfather’s grocery store for 10 cents a day. The history that exists in this city is amazing and we are thrilled people want to contribute their stories. Alright, so get up off that couch, chair, bed or wherever you are reading our magazine, and go dig out that old box of pictures, letters, papers, etc. Blow the dust off and start going through those valuable ancient treasures. It is your responsibility–who else is going to do it? Are you waiting until you head for the Big Guava Plantation in the sky? Then your poor family is going to have to be the ones to sadly go through and wonder, “Who are these people?” in the photograph. Have I put enough guilt on you? I hope so. Now listen carefully–on the back of the picture, put the following: place, date (don’t forget month, day and year) and the names of those pictured (left to right). Not just, “Uncle Bobby and Aunt Pili”–got it? O.K., now this is where we come in. If you find some really neat pictures of “la familia”, then contact us here at the magazine and tell us what you found, and the story behind the picture. You might be surprised and find them published in an upcoming issue of Cigar City Magazine. Thanks again for all of your support and kind words of encouragement. It means a lot to us here at the magazine–it is what keeps us inspired. Have a café con leche kind of day! Marilyn Esperante Figueredo



his magazine could have easily been named after the Cuban Sandwich. These days, Tampa can be more easily identified by that savory creation than the cigar. Like Cuban cigars, it can be mighty difficult to find a fine Cuban sandwich. Unlike Cuban Cigars, one could argue that the so-called Cuban sandwich is more Tampa than Havana. As Cigar City Magazine launches its second issue, it is especially appropriate to re-examine our town’s distinctive sandwich. 16


University of South Florida, Tampa Library, Special Collections Department


People in Miami often talk as if they invented the Cuban sandwich, but they are pretenders to the throne. In the early 1900s, workers in Cuba brought simple “mixto” sandwiches to work or bought them at cafes. These cold-cut concoctions took on a new character in Tampa, influenced by Ybor City’s vibrant mix of immigrant cultures. By the 1920s, the old “mixtos” coalesced into something more distinct–the Cuban sandwiches we know and love–an original Tampa creation. Beginning in 1886, immigrants from Spain, Italy, and Cuba fled poverty and warfare to seek new lives in Tampa. The tumultuous cigar industry provided some shocks of its own. Violence, strikes and work stoppages in the cigar factories reminded all how tough things could be on a regular basis. An erratic cycle of feast and famine continued in Ybor City for fifty years. The Cuban sandwich rose in popularity during the 1920s, when electric sandwich presses and toasters became more common. During the Great Depression, the filling sandwiches served as a Latin-flavored equivalent of New Orleans’ “Po’ Boy.”

During tough times, Ybor City had the example of Cuban bread to follow. When Cuba struggled for independence from Spain in the late 1800s, citizens there faced hunger and hardship. Cuban bakers responded by stretching their bread into long, thin loaves to provide small slices for rationing. The practice never changed in Tampa; but today, bread in Cuba (when it can be obtained at all) is short and more round. Perhaps today’s Cuban citizens would do well to emulate the stretching practice of their ancestors. Ybor City’s struggling immigrants turned misfortune to their advantage. Tampa’s most famous sandwich would not be possible without the stretched Cuban loaf. Ybor City split the loaf and filled it with mojo roast pork, sugarcured ham, salami, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard. Each of the main ingredients came from Ybor City’s dominant ethnic groups: the Spaniards supplied fine glazed ham; bread and mojo pork came from the Cubans; and the Italians supplied salami. The sandwich’s popularity elevated the Silver Ring Café from a front for Bolita (illegal lottery) sales to a destination for hungry workers and tourists. That café was one among several to set the standard for Cuban sandwiches in the Tampa area. I enjoyed my first Cuban sandwich there fifteen years ago.

Tell us where we can find a great Cuban sandwich. Email


any of the sandwiches I’ve had in recent years disappoint me, and I am not alone. On the food-related website, a curious web-surfer asked, “What is the deal with Cuban sandwiches?” After going to one of Tampa’s most respected sandwich stands, she said, “It just tasted like a ham sandwich to me; not bad, but not particularly great.” Not every restaurant owner invests the same amount of work into their sandwiches, but the other half of the problem is people who expect gourmet quality for a mere three dollars. Another visitor to Chowhound recently asserted, “A Cuban sandwich should never be over five bucks. It should be in the three-dollar range, but never over five. If it’s over five, you’re getting ripped off.” I must beg to differ. Almost no one on this good earth is willing to go to great culinary lengths to sell a three-dollar sandwich. For three dollars, let them eat subs. I’d be willing to spend bigger bucks for an honest to goodness Cuban. When one examines the labor that went in to making an old-fashioned Cuban, it is more understandable that today’s sandwiches fall short so often. Like so many simple things in early Ybor City, the Cuban sandwich was elevated to an art and craft. Restaurateurs prepared every ingredient in painstaking fashion. If modern sandwich slingers take some short cuts, it is hard to blame them. Their profits may not suffer, but the cult of the Cuban does. Tampa’s Cuban sandwich is a dying culinary breed. By the time it became a recognized and revered tradition in the 1940s, the real thing was already fading fast. The true Cuban sandwich–conceived in Cuba and perfected in Tampa – lived and died with Ybor City. And for the uninitiated, Ybor City died some time between the Great Depression and urban renewal’s bulldozers in 1965. Wet, cheap boiled ham and processed pork loaves give us little indication of what a real Cuban sandwich should taste like. It doesn’t help that most places pile on lettuce, mayo, and tomato, which is like adding a glass of water–it dilutes the flavor. When done right, the sandwich showcases the contrast between the

“Sandwich Maker” by Tony Mendoza Tony Mendoza is a Cuban American artist who creates vibrant works of art inspired by his childhood in Little Havana.



dry crust of Cuban bread with the rich mingling of melted fats within. The bold combination of salty ham and salami, the garlic and vinegar overtones of the roast pork, the sharp taste of pickle and mustard–are all married by the bread and subtle charm of Swiss cheese.


n 1957, Manuel Torres, a long-time Ybor restaurant worker, volunteered to make Cuban sandwiches in what even then was known as the “old fashioned way” for a reporter. Torres soaked a select pork roast overnight in a mojo marinade of lemon juice, salt, fresh garlic, oregano and vinegar. He then parboiled the pork with onions, celery and garlic and then roasted it. A whole smoked ham was then parboiled in the same mixture. Torres trimmed excess fat from the ham and coated it in sugar. He then melted the sugar onto the ham with a hot iron. The resulting caramelized sugar gives the ham a distinctive taste. Drawn by the irresistible aroma, salivating onlookers gathered around the storefront as the sugar transformed into a thin amber glaze. Torres then carved the meat into thin slices: pork, ham and peppered Genoa salami. Imported Swiss cheese, sour dill pickles, mustard and Cuban bread rounded out the sandwich. He layered the ingredients onto the bread in traditional order:



first the ham, then pork, salami, cheese, pickle, and mustard spread only on the top slice of the sandwich. “It is always done that way,” Torres said. I’ve stopped by a couple classic Tampa eateries in recent weeks to eat sandwiches, but usually left unimpressed. A sandwich at the Museum Café in Old Homosassa, of all places, recently reminded me how great a Cuban sandwich can be. When the sandwiches arrived, the bread and the smell immediately impressed me. The sandwich there has perfect proportions of crusty bread and savory meats. The roast pork, sliced thin and piled high, supplied great flavor. The salami is wisely placed on top of the other meats, so when the sandwich is pressed, the salami’s juices moisten the rest, mingling flavors. The proprietor orders most of his ingredients from Ybor’s Tropicana. The other surprise that day stood at the center of the table. The display card read, “Original Cuban sandwiches come from Ybor City; everything else is just a sub.” The name on that card was yours truly, Andrew Huse. Andy Huse is Assistant Librarian, USF, Tampa Library Special Collections Department / Florida Studies Center.

The Beginning of

Gasparilla W

By Gail Ellis

University of South Florida, Tampa Library, Special Collections Department

ho was Gasparilla? The answer to that depends on who you ask. It is one of the first things people want to know when they come to our town for the annual Gasparilla Invasion and Festival. There have been a number of theories over the years and someone back in time penned the following poetic explanation. Who was Gasparilla, asks the stranger in our gate. Listen: then, and we’ll the tale relate. Gasparilla was a pirate in the happy days of old Who made a living off of other people’s gold. He ravaged up and down this coast for many a bloody day ’Till finally they hanged him, down at Lemon Bay. There were obviously a lot of pirates marauding around the seas in the 1700s and José Gaspar could have very well been one of them. Other people, because of lack of evidence that he did exist, have decided that he is just a fictional character. Both camps are equally sure of their conclusion. It doesn’t really matter anymore, does it? For those of you who haven’t heard the stories, and there are several, here is one in a nutshell.




he history of José Gaspar explained, another question people ask is, “When did it start?” The invasion by Ye Mystic Krewe started pretty much as just another event planned to give some carnival appeal to the fledgling, but ambitious, May Festival celebration in 1904. The first festival in May 1903 was named the May Music Festival because much of the agenda revolved around music in many forms. This second May Festival, a much more ambitious project, was to be a celebration of music, bowling and shooting events, military drill team displays, parades, a political rally and a masquerade ball. 20


1920 Gasparilla Pirate Ship

University of South Florida, Tampa Library, Special Collections Department


popular account portrays José Gaspar as a well educated Spanish aristocrat and brilliant naval officer who turned into a swashbuckling buccaneer of the high seas when he became disenchanted with Spain in the 1770s. He was accused of stealing the crown jewels. When he jilted the daughter-in-law of King Charles III for a beautiful lady of the Court, the spurned woman and accomplice stole the jewels and concocted the story accusing Gaspar. Hearing he was about to be arrested by the king and fueled by the desire for revenge, he stole a ship and with a crew of escaped criminals sailed to Florida. Finding life at sea desirable and wishing to continue his revenge on Spain, he wreaked havoc in the Gulf of Mexico. He seized many Spanish ships, robbing and burning them. The men and women who were crew and passengers were taken from the ships and murdered or made into slaves and concubines. Children and those, for other reasons, found undesirable were simply thrown overboard. Towns were seized, burned and robbed. Some of the captured rich were held for ransom and then were set free on one of the islands such as Puerto Rico or Cuba once the ransom was paid. Eventually Gasparilla, as he now called himself, made his headquarters around Gasparilla Island on the south west Gulf coast of Florida.

The May Festival of 1904 is where our story really begins. Music in many forms was still very much a part of the festival. On the agenda were daily concerts and musical events. Having heard his concerts before, the arrival of Prof. C. M. Parker of Binghamton, N. Y. was eagerly anticipated by the citizens of Tampa. He would be in charge of a great chorus. He arrived a month ahead of time to assure the finest performance. A group of 50 lady minstrels would perform. There would be orchestras, cantatas, an oratorio, the Tampa Glee Club. All would perform throughout the six day event starting May 2, 1904. The Tampa Bay Hotel’s enthusiastic new manager, Mr. Thomas J. Laud-Brown, was very much involved in the planning. In one of his efforts to keep the faltering hotel profitable, he suggested the hotel as a location for the first convention to consider the benefits of building the Panama Canal. Mr. W. R. Fuller, President of the Tampa Board of Trade, liked the idea and eventually Governor W. S. Jennings issued invitations to all the Governors of the southern states

to come or send delegates. Mayors from all over the south attended, including Tampa’s own Mayor James McKay. President Roosevelt was expected to send George B. Cortelyou, Secretary of the Department of Commerce and Labor, as his representative. The convention was to be held starting May 4th in the Tampa Bay Hotel. The delegates would be staying at the hotel and would be honored at many of the events of the festival. A political rally would also be a major part of the event. It would be the last opportunity for candidates for various state offices to speak before the primaries were to be held later in May. The recently organized Rod and Gun Club promised competition from marksmen from around the state with prizes of $400.00 to be divided among the “crack shots” in the pigeon shoot. Up to 40 participants were expected. There would be running races, trotting races and match races for horsemen with entries from as far away as Jacksonville. The floral parade would be beautiful with all of the men, women and children of the city dressed in their finest, riding in several–still novel–automobiles, on wagons and carts all decorated with flowers and streamers, and on horses in blankets made of flowers. They would leave from the Tampa Bay Hotel, then park and wind the streets along side the military drill team and bands. The Grand Ball signaling the end of the glorious week would be a grand finale. It, too, would be held at the ballroom of the Tampa Bay Hotel. Yes, the festival was going to be much more than just music this year. Starting months in advance, the Tampa Morning Tribune announced plans and activities on a regular basis.

The Morning Tribune, on April 5th, announced a membership of society men being gathered to become a permanent carnival ball organization. The upcoming ball would feature a May Pole dance and members of the association would be en masque and wearing magnificent velvet and silk costumes. It was to be a charming evening.


he possibility of a mysterious invasion was announced by the Morning Tribune on April 23rd. It seemed that a group of pirates were planning to come to town for the festival. The Morning Tribune published a proclamation announcing the first annual visit of Ye Mystic Krewe. The communication advised: “After a century of obscurity and retirement in this His Royal Majesty’s dominion, it has been deemed expedient and desirable by His Royal Majesty that the Royal Court of Gasparilla shall once again, as of yore visit our beloved friends in the fair and prosperous city of Tampa. Tis long ago since our gracious forefathers of honored memory held court in your beloved city, and mayhap in these many changes of generations our beloved friends have become ignorant of the details of our Royal history.” The proclamation went on to explain that of the ranks of pirates of long ago, thought dead of the Yellow Fever epidemic, a few escaped–including lineal descendents of Gasparilla who established a dominion in obscurity on a small island on Florida’s southwest coast that they named Gasparilla in honor of their beloved Sovereign. We were going to be visited by the current Sovereign – “King Gasparilla the ’Steenth.” The letter was signed


Tampa Bay History Center

“GOSSIPPO Lord High Chamberlain; Guardian of the Pantry Key.”

1904 First Gasparilla Parade

xcitement was now growing as this latest announcement raced around the city. As time grew nearer to the festival merchants got into the act offering “May Festival prices” on some of the items suitable for the attendees of the various events. C.R. Pippin of 1008 Franklin St. had bargains for the ladies such as umbrellas with a “paragon frame, steel rod and fancy handle” originally $1.25 on sale for 75 cents; walking hats in new shapes and styles, a $2.00 value for only $1.50. In a rallying effort for community support, one newspaper announcement urged JANUARY – FEBRUARY 2006


Tampa Public Library

1904 Gasparilla Parade

Let every Tampa-ite have a glad hand and a cheerful smile this week.”

The Tampa Bay Hotel, which is now H. B. Plant Hall for the University of Tampa, was the center of most of the events, including the opening ceremonies which were held on the grounds of the hotel at Tampa Bay Park. Tampa Mayor James McKay, President W.R. Fuller of the Board of Trade, President Vicente Guerra of el Centro Español and other prominent citizens were on hand for the formalities. The restaurant at the Tampa Bay Hotel had a prix fixe dinner for $1.00. The going rate for a nice dinner at other places was 50 cents, so it was a little pricey, but certainly affordable for such a special evening. On the eve of the convention the menu offerings for the May 3rd evening, “Mock Turtle Anglaise with Cucumbers, Pickles and chow-chow Fillets of Bluefish a la Bordelaise with Potatoes Hollandaise Boiled Tongue Piquant Calves Head a la Vinaigrette, Spaghetti a la Alesmetane with Banana Fritters with Rum Sauce Prime Ribs of Western Beef, Drip Gravy Roast Philadelphia Capon with Currant Jelly.”




Also offered were a variety of potatoes, rice, string-less beans and several desserts listed were Lemon Custard Pie, Cottage Pudding, Apple Pie and Orange Ice. All served with either coffee or tea. I can’t help but wonder how many ordered the boiled tongue? We were told that Gasparilla along with his entire crew would sail to Tampa and into the mouth of the Hillsborough River on their pirate ship, the Octopus, before daybreak on day of the big parade, Wednesday, May 4th. They would remain at a secret rendezvous site ashore until time for the big parade which was planned for that afternoon. I imagine staying in hiding was prudent, since he was surely wanted by the authorities for questioning about some of his more questionable activities on the raging seas.

he parade was indeed a big fun event of the week. The Tampa Bay Hotel was still the center of attention since the parade would begin there. The hotel and grounds were groomed and decorated with buntings and streamers. Office buildings downtown festooned their doors with colorful buntings and flags. Ybor City made quite a showing according to the Seventh Avenue Tribune Bureau. The flags of the U.S., Cuba, Spain, and Mexico were hung at the offices of Centro Asturiano. In the parade, Dr. Maximo Díaz entered his “little black Italian pony and diminutive phaeton” were decorated with more flags and roses and streamers. The Tampa Box Company had a two-horse delivery wagon filled with cigar boxes and covered in flags and streamers, “making a fine picture.” The Reina Brothers also had two wagons decorated with the flags of the U.S., Germany, Cuba, and Spain. They only regretted that they couldn’t find an Italian flag to represent their own country. Also on this festive Wednesday, Ye Mystic Krewe arrived and the first invading masked pirates rode into town on horseback. The pirates proved themselves to be as adept in the saddle as they were out on the bucking, raging seas. It was also announced that trusted members of the crew would be roaming the city in search of the most attractive of the fair young ladies of the town and report back to their captain with the “comparative excellencies” of the maidens. After their introduction to the city at the parade, the pirate king and his crew would go back into hiding until Friday night when His

Majesty and his crew would host the festival ball for all the prominent citizens of Tampa being held at the grand ballroom of the Tampa Bay hotel. When they arrived at the Festival Ball they were attired in all their regal finery to announce the selection of the “Queen of the Festival” and her maids of honor. At a dramatic moment during the evening on the pirate king’s command, silence would fall over the hall as all of Ye Mystic Krewe removed their masks to reveal their true identity. The first festival revealed the Pirate King to be none other than the Honorable Edward R. Gunby, a noted lawyer who had aspirations for political office. The Queen of the Festival was declared to be Miss Mary Lee Douglass. The crown she wore was made especially for the event. It was beautifully bejeweled and had been sitting in the window of Kistenmacher’s on view for the entire city to see in the days leading up to the event. The Queen also had a court of esteemed maidens revealed to be the Misses Woolridge, Carnes, Glenn and Stevens. After all the ceremonies, they danced the night away until the music ended suddenly and the pirates slipped away into the night to return to their ship and out to sea. In a moment of honor, Gasparilla left behind his Queen and her maids as

well as all the jewels and gold of the city. That is likely the reason he has been welcomed back to town almost every year since. The Gasparilla Invasion was a huge success. Unfortunately, the May Festival, as ambitious and grand as it was, didn’t last. That was its last year. The following year the Gasparilla Festival moved to the fall to coincide with the fair and later, as an event on its own, it moved to February. It wasn’t until 1911 that the invasion came by sea for the first time when the pirates sailed into Tampa Bay. For many years the invasion and parade were held on Mondays and it was a local holiday for many. School children had the day off and most of the downtown offices closed in celebration of the Festival. The official holiday eventually faded away and in 1988 the festival moved to Saturdays. Since businesses and schools were no longer allowed the holiday, it was decided that more people would be able to attend if the festival was held on Saturday. Over time the sailing crews have grown in numbers and size. Now a new year, 2006 is upon us and rumor has it the pirate ships have been seen making their way toward Tampa. They are planning another invasion on January 28, 2006 so get your pirate gear ready. Come on down to the bay and



WEST TAMPA: THE LIVING MUSEUM Tampeño culture is alive and well in West Tampa.

(top to bottom) Antojitos, Paracas, and La Teresita Grocery.




By Maura Barrios

t’s dawn and the cafes are alive with construction and landscape workers taking a café con leche to go. Later, the retirees arrive for a leisurely café with toast and lots of conversation. Life-long friends who grew up in the same barrio commune with the spirits of West Tampa. It is a ritual honoring the cigarmaker ancestors who built the community 100 years ago. Like the ancestors, they have their coffee with news of the world, politics, and local gossip. While the neighborhood changed dramatically when the cigar factories shut down, the social relations remain. This is cultural preservation at its best. All day long ladies with umbrellas and children walk to the corner store– to the bodega. West Tampa is home to many of these small grocery stores that cater to the needs of immigrants. They include imported goods for Italian, Spanish, Cuban, Dominican, African American, Puerto Rican or Mexican desires. Bodegas can tell you more about the population and cultural changes in our community than any U.S. census. I am especially fond of the new immigrant restaurant/cafeterias, like the Colombian “Antojitos” or Peruvian “Paracas”; and the Puerto Rican “Mi Pueblo” added to the many Spanish and Cuban restaurants along Boliche Boulevard (Columbus Drive). And, don’t forget this is the South, we have great barbecue food too. West Tampa’s Latino population grew when urban renewal and the Interstate destroyed many homes in Ybor City. The Cuban Revolution of 1959 also influenced the growing population, expanding West Tampa north and west in the ’60s and ’70s. Today, new immigrants from Latin America join Tampeños and Cubanos, adding more diversity to our little Latin America in the heart of Tampa. To get there: Cross the border at Kennedy Boulevard, or walk across the river west of downtown. Maura Barrios, M.A., operates La Tampeña Tours throughout Tampa, offering custom-tailored tours to fit the needs of your group. Maura is bi-lingual and a native of Tampa with a Master’s Degree in History. Tours include Historic Tampa (South Tampa, Ybor City, Latin American zone, and the best places to live). She can be reached at (813) 875-2159 or email her at


ow were cigars made? What was the process by which tobacco was cultivated, harvested, and formed into a “Clear Havana” cigar? In this article we’ll look at the physical aspects of the cigar industry in Tampa, Florida beginning with the opening of Vicente Martinez Ybor’s factory in 1886 through the industry’s decline in the late 1930s. How did the industry develop? How did the factories operate? Who worked in them? What jobs did they perform? Though you may be familiar with the “Ybor City Story,” sometimes the simple questions get overlooked.


Cigar Production in Tampa and Ybor City 1886-1939 By EManuEl lEto

University of South Florida, Tampa Library, Special Collections Department

Several events transpired in the mid-1880s that set into motion the founding of Ybor City and the industry that came to define it. In 1883, the United States Congress passed the Morrison Act. An attempt to spur domestic production of cigars, the Morrison Act placed a higher tariff on the importation of finished cigars than on the raw tobacco used to make them. The result proved advantageous for manufacturers like Vicente Martinez Ybor, who had already moved his cigar factory from Cuba to Key West due to the outbreak of the Ten Years War with Spain in 1868.

In 1884, a Spanish jelly importer and civil engineer would visit Tampa looking for a suitable domestic climate to grow guava trees and establish a cannery. “Don” Gavino Guiterrez, an acquaintance of Martinez Ybor and New York factory owner, Ignacio Haya, suggested the two tobacco magnates consider relocating to Tampa. Citing a deep-water port, a humid climate similar to Cuba’s, and the extension of Henry Plant’s railroad connecting Key West and Tampa to cities in the north, he convinced the two industrialists to relocate. With the Morrison Act guaranteeing low import duties, a humid climate, and its close proximity to Cuba, Tampa assured the cigar manufacturers quick and easy access to a quality product. The quality tobacco that established Tampa as the leading producer of “Clear Havanas” originated in the Vuelta Abajo, a rich, tobacco-producing region located on Cuba’s western coasts. Most of the tobacco used in Tampa’s factories came from within this fertile “triangle.” In 1909, 173,874 bales of tobacco received in the Port of Tampa originated in the Vuelta Abajo, more bales than from four other regions in Cuba combined. In total, Tampa factories were responsible for 27 percent of all unfinished tobacco imported into the United States in 1909, which represented Tampa’s “most important commodity import.” In fact, it was the type of tobacco used that distinguished Tampa and Ybor City from other cigar manufacturing centers in the United States. Cigar factories in the Northeast or Midwest often used domestic tobacco from Connecticut or Wisconsin and generally produced a lower quality, “5-cent”cigar. The production of “Clear Havana” cigars, which contained 100 percent Cuban-grown tobacco, made Tampa unique. When compared to manufacturers in the Northeast, Tampa’s production of Clear Havanas “rivaled Havana itself.”


uality Cuban tobacco begins in the growing fields and farms of the Vuelta Abajo. “The soil’s influence is such that each vega (fertile valley) produces a different vintage tobacco_just as individual vineyards in France claim that each of their wines is unique.” The planting season begins in October and continues through January when the seeds are first planted in semilleros, special plots designated for young seedlings. When they have grown to a height of 6-8 inches, the posturas (young plants) are carefully and quickly transported to the vegas where they grow to their ideal height of approximately 3-1/2 feet in about 45 days.

The veguero (farmer), after meticulously guiding the young seedlings to maturity, can now begin to harvest the tall, green crop. Harvesting consists of six cuttings beginning with the libres de pie (lowest leaves). With each passing week the nexthighest leaves are cut allowing each set of leaves to reach maturity. The top, Corona leaf, is harvested last. Once harvested, the green leaves are hung upside down inside the casa de tobacco (tobacco house), a small curing barn located on the vega used for drying the moist plant. Humidity levels are carefully maintained; the leaves may become neither too moist nor too dry. The casa de tobacco is monitored daily during this stage of the harvest. In the casa, leaves are hung from large drying racks for 6 to 8 weeks where they lose approximately 85 percent of their moisture and begin to turn golden brown in color. It is here that the leaves begin to develop a distinct aroma. In addition to encouraging the flavor of the leaves to surface, this fermentation process reduces nicotine and resin content. After the leaves are dried and fermented, they are ready for shipping. The leaves are first sorted, graded, and stacked into “hands.” 40-70 leaves are stacked into one hand. The hands are then wrapped into bales made of burlap and palm bark. Four hands equal one carrot and 80 carrots equal one bale weighing 80 pounds containing 16,000 tobacco leaves. In the bustling days of the Ybor City cigar trade, the bales were loaded onto a steamer and unloaded in the Port of Tampa where they were received and picked up by employees of the nearby factories. igar production in the late 19th and early 20th century was an intricate and detailed process requiring several stages and a distinct division of skilled labor. Once the bales were delivered, the tobacco traveled an extensive network before it was crafted into something resembling a cigar. “In big plants, each cigar [went] through 8 hands before it [was] turned out.” Before rolling could even begin, the bales of tobacco were re-humidified, stripped of their midrib, sorted into either filler leaf or wrapper leaf, graded for color and texture, and blended together to form a distinct taste and aroma. Once rolled, the cigars were then “selected” for uniformity and packed into cedar boxes. Finally, each cigar was banded with the company’s label, and each box affixed with a tax stamp. According to one factory worker, “The basement was where the baby was born.” The basement was where the bales of rough tobacco were received and stored until they were ready for use. Often, basements contained the casing department where employees loosened the wrapper tobacco




University of South Florida, Tampa Library, Special Collections Department

Workers prepare re-humidified leaves.

and prepared it for the stripping process. Casers, or mojadores, emptied the bales into large bins or troughs and sprayed them with water to restore the leaves’ pliability. Company records were also sometimes kept in the basement. The V.M. Ybor factory, still standing at 14th Street and 9th Avenue, kept the casing department in the basement with a tunnel leading to an additional “stemmery” building where stripping or removal of the tobacco stems took place. “Hundreds of girls [were] busily engaged” in the stripping department of the Ybor factory. In general, stripping, which required delicate handling of the tobacco leaves and nimble fingers, was a job held almost exclusively by women. These Espilladoras carefully removed the stems of the tobacco leaf, careful not to rip or tear them. After wrapper leaves were re-humidified and stripped, they went to Selectors, men who graded the leaves according to color and texture. Because the wrapper leaves would eventually define a cigar’s finished appearance, selecting was an important step in production. Distinctions were made between filler and wrapper leaves. Wrapper leaves are usually “shade grown” under cheesecloth or a latticed covering to protect it from direct sunlight. After the curing and drying stage on the vega, wrapper leaves or Corojo leaves are separated from the filler and binder or Criollo leaves, and packed separately for export. During these years, wrapper leaves were assessed a higher duty than filler leaves. Due to the high cost of importing wrapper leaf, some factories instead used a domestic wrapper grown in Connecticut from Cuban 30


seed known as “Connecticut Broadleaf”. Still others used wrappers imported from Sumatra and to a lesser-extent Puerto Rico or the Philippines. The entire second floor of most large factories was designated as the workroom or galaria. Here, room for hundreds of workers was available. It was in the galaria that the rollers sat at their tables, working silently while listening to “el lector,” the reader, read news and literature from an elevated platform. The third floor was usually used for blending. A meticulous task requiring experience and knowledge of different types of tobacco, the blending department was responsible for giving different tastes, flavors and aromas to the cigars. The blending of tobacco in Tampa factories was done entirely by hand, usually in large piles or troughs, and stored in wooden barrels for further fermentation. In some factories this arrangement was reversed, with the blending department on the second floor and the rolling on the third. Once the bales were received, re-humidified, sorted and selected, and the filler leaves blended, the rolling process could finally begin. There are two basic parts of a cigar: the body or bunch, and the outer covering or wrapper leaf. The bunch forms the core of the cigar and contains several types of filler tobacco. As mentioned earlier, each blend was specific to the factory that developed it. A proper or distinct blend could take months or years to develop and was a secret “as closely guarded as the recipe for Coke.”

Filler leaves may take two forms, long or short. Short filler refers to chopped-up or cut leaves and was often a blend of varied grades of tobacco both imported and domestic. Short filler, domestic tobacco was usually found in cheaper, 5-cent cigars. The better quality, un-cut, Long Filler Havana tobacco, was used in the more expensive 15 and 20-cent brands for which Tampa and Ybor City were nearly synonymous.


University of South Florida, Tampa Library, Special Collections Department

nce the precise blend was developed, and the wrapper leaf selected, the cigar roller could begin his work. The process of creating a fine, “Clear Havana” cigar was closer to an old-time artisan’s craft. A cigar roller, or torcedor, in the early days of Ybor City considered himself “more of an artist than a worker.” Entry into the trade was self-regulated by workers’ unions through lengthy apprenticeships and stern opposition to mechanization. The Spanish Method, used exclusively until around 1910, required only a rolling table and a chaveta, a small knife with a rounded blade. Seated at his table, the rollers hands became his most important tool in the construction of a cigar. First, the torcedor placed the tobacco blend into his hand aligning the leaves in the same direction, with the tips of the leaves at the lighting end, and began to form the bunch. The judgment of how much filler tobacco to use for the bunch was an estimate gained after years of experience. Laying the bunch on his rolling table, the worker rolled the blend into a tight cylinder

covered by the binder leaf. “The bunch-making stage required great skill and sensitivity because the actual smoking value of the cigar depended on it.” A bunch that was too loose or too tight would not burn evenly. Once the bunch was rolled tightly (but not too tightly) into the binder leaf, the final outer leaf was added. The wrapper leaf was usually a single leaf. It is the wrapper leaf that provides the cigar its uniform exterior and distinct aroma and only a skilled artisan could manipulate a single wrapper leaf around the whole of a cigar. The torcedor flattened the delicate wrapper leaf onto his table, smoothing it with his hands and cutting it to the size of the cigar using his chaveta. The bunch was rolled into the wrapper using a spiral motion eventually covering the entire cigar. When the torcedor worked his way to the head or smoking end of the cigar, the part of the wrapper leaf that remained was smoothed around the end of the cigar. A small amount of glue, a clear, tasteless adhesive imported from Iran, was applied to create a consistent, uniform, look with no obvious seams. Once rolled and stacked into bundles of about 50, the finished cigars were collected by the foreman and sent to the packing department where they were placed into boxes for shipping. The escojedores, or packers, were responsible for the outward presentation or “salability” of the cigars. Each box had to present a uniform product. The packer graded an array of colors from light, greenish-brown, to very dark, almost black

Selectors carefully determine the color, texture, and quality of the tobacco. JANUARY – FEBRUARY 2006


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“With the mold system the bunch was placed into the grooves of wooden cigar molds. The closed molds were then stacked into a large, vice-like cigar press...Once removed from the mold, a wrapper leaf was applied and the process was complete.� 32


cigars. This job usually took place on the first or second floors on the north end of the building to capitalize on the best natural light. Once boxed, the cigars were banded with the company logo, a small ring placed at the end of each cigar. The boxes were then sealed and affixed with a tax stamp.


igar factory construction suited the product it produced. Few records exist detailing the exact production flow in Tampa’s cigar factories however some examples are documented. Perhaps the best example is the factory originally owned by V.M. Ybor. Built in 1886, the factory reached full production by 1887 and is currently the oldest brick factory in Ybor City. Located on 14th Street between 8th and 9th avenues, the building occupies a full block. Additions included a one-story packing room, a two-story northern wing and a three-story stemmery building, both added in 1902. In 1886, Mr. Ybor’s factory was the largest building in the state of Florida and was praised by local papers which stated, “The mammoth three-story brick cigar nearing completion; there is not a more substantial structure in the state of Florida...No expense has been spared to make it both handsome and convenient.” Mr. Ybor’s factory was a grand achievement even without the subsequent additions. The original threestory structure, however, came to typify the era. Brick construction, large arch windows, and a division of the departments of labor were traits shared by all factories in the area. Ybor City was “originally laid out for cigar manufacturing.” Because of this designation, many if not all factories in the area shared similar characteristics. Today, the remaining cigar factories are instantly recognizable, distinct in their uniformity. The Monne Brother’s Factory built in 1890 is Ybor City’s only remaining wood-framed factory. The 50 x 200 foot structure still stands at 19th Street and Palm Avenue. Seven windows across the front edifice and 76 along the north and south sides provided ample light for the factory’s first workers, a typical characteristic of all Ybor City factories. The first floor, like the V.M. Ybor factory, contained offices on the northeast side with the rest of the floor space available for the packing department. Rolling took place on the second floor where there was room for 1,200 rolling tables and a stripping department. Drying racks were located on the third floor for sorting and selecting of the tobacco blends. Separate additions were built for the warehousing and casing of the tobacco bales.

One feature often overlooked is the factories’ orientations. Most cigar factories, like the V.M Ybor and Monne factories, face either east or west. In the absence of electric light, the use of natural light was of primary importance. The east-west orientation combined with the placement of large windows running the length of the buildings allowed the most possible natural light to fill the factories’ workspaces. Work began as the first rays of light broke over the horizon and ended as the sun began to set in the west. On cloudy days, those in charge of grading and packing the finished cigars were sent home due to poor lighting. In addition to the placement of factories “on the compass line,” they shared other characteristics. Most were three stories, most were 100 x 150 feet or very close to those measurements, and nearly all were made of brick. An 1894 Tampa Morning Tribune article mentions three factories under construction in the Ybor area with several more under construction in West Tampa. The three Ybor factories – Seidenburg & Co.; Gonzalez, Moore and Co.; and Trujillo & Benemalis–measured, according to the article, 100 x 150, 75 x 150, and 50 x 100 feet respectively. It is not known why the semi-standardized lengths and widths were adhered to. Estimates regarding the number of factories in Tampa vary. In April 1902 the Untied States Tobacco Journal reported, “151 factories in the City of Tampa employ six to seven thousand workers, pay out $3,500,000 in payroll a year and turn out a product valued at $1,000,000 a month.” The numbers are awe-inspiring considering that 16 years earlier in 1886, Tampa was a tiny agrarian community with less than 800 inhabitants. 1902 was only the beginning for an industry whose yearly output would reach a peak of 410 million cigars in 1919. The 1921 Tampa telephone directory lists 166 cigar factories operating in Tampa, Ybor City, Palmetto Beach and West Tampa. Still, other sources from the period estimate the number of cigar companies at over 300.


ot all cigar production took place in a factory. Buckeyes or Chinchales were smaller shops that employed as few as two or three cigar rollers. Buckeyes often served as points of entry into the cigar industry for newly-arrived immigrants who could apprentice at a buckeye before moving into a larger factory. A Buckeye could also serve as a point of entry for factory owners, as it did for Standard Cigar Company owner, J.C. Newman. Originally from Cleveland, Newman began rolling cigars in his family’s barn. His one-man operation eventually grew into one of the largest tobacco concerns in America. The firm relocated to JANUARY – FEBRUARY 2006


University of South Florida, Tampa Library, Special Collections Department


Torcedor demonstrates his craft.

ampa in 1954 and is still operated by members of the Newman family today. It is almost impossible to know how many people may have produced cigars in their homes, barns, or garages. A 1920 Tampa Times article states that of the 311 factories in Tampa, “90 are big institutions.” If the Times article is accurate, with 311 companies, only 90 “large concerns,” and only 166 operations listed in the 1921 Tampa Directory, there could have been hundreds of small buckeyes operating in Tampa.


efore 1910, the factories of Ybor City relied exclusively on the Spanish Method, producing only handrolled cigars. Every job–blending, selecting, stripping, rolling, banding–was done by hand. In 1910, cigar molds were introduced along with the Mold Team System. With the mold system the bunch was placed into the grooves of wooden cigar molds. The closed molds were then stacked into a large, vice-like cigar press. The applied pressure helped the bunch maintain its shape. Once removed from the mold, a wrapper leaf was applied and the process was complete. Cigar rollers worked together in a “team” system. One worker prepared the bunch and rolled it into the binder leaf. The completed bunches were placed into the grooves of the mold which was then placed into the press for 15 to 30 minutes. Once the mold was removed from the press, rollers 34


applied wrapper leaves to the molded bunches. Because bunches could be quickly made using the mold, two torcedors applying the wrapper leaves were kept busy, concentrating on one job instead of several. After 1910 almost all factories in Ybor City used the mold system, especially for their short-filler products. Cigar molds and the team system set into motion the gradual mechanization of Ybor City’s factories. Always seeking more efficient production methods, manufacturers tried to streamline factory operations through the use of automated blending and banding machines, and more efficient rolling methods. Eventually, hand rolled production, even with the use of molds, declined as short filler cigars became more popular and cheaper to produce than the more expensive hand rolled Clear Havanas. The workers were not happy. Indeed, mechanization undermined the cigar makers’ notion of cigar making as a skilled art. “The cigar machines are ruining, not only the cigar makers, but the manufacturers as well. The factories must compete with other factories in the country. This competition is ruinous...” claimed one worker. Mechanization–and opposition to it–contributed to the industry’s decline. Between 1920 and 1938, the total number of cigar factories in the United States dropped from 11,323 to 4,157. “The ‘very scientific’ machineries have come for making cigars which have displaced in this locality 1,500 operations,” claimed a disgruntled Ybor City cigar worker. By 1939, factory output in Ybor City was in a state of decline. Ybor City’s manufacturers encountered competition from Northern factories producing a less-expensive product with lower overhead. Despite the mechanization of some departments such as banding, the largely by-hand operations in Ybor City could not compete. Additionally, the great depression lessened the demand for high-priced cigars, as did the rise in popularity of cigarettes. Ultimately, the Spanish Method and the attention to quality that helped give Ybor City its reputation as the “cigar capitol of the world” played a part in the city’s demise. Emanuel Leto is the Director of Community Outreach for the Ybor City Museum Society. This article is abridged from the original study, Hecho a Mano, Cigar Production in Ybor City available at the Ybor City Museum. Sources are available by request from the



Many of Tampa’s Sicilians came from a beautiful, small town called Santo Stefano Quisquina, Sicily. It was founded in approximately 1300 during the rein of Federico II of Aragona and belonged to Lord Giovanni Caltagirone. Later, it was bestowed to nobleman Ruggero Sinisi. In 1396, the Larcan family, who ruled until the XVI century, acquired the town. The town’s last lords were the Ventimiglia, who reigned until the abolition of feudality. Today, approximately 5600 people still live in this quaint village. The Ybor Presbyterian Church began in 1908 and offered services in three languages – Spanish, Italian and English. On April 13, 1886, Cigar Manufacturer Ignacio Haya’s factory produced the first cigar in Ybor City. On November 12, 1891 a fire broke out in Ybor City. The fire started in a hotel and spread quickly and destroyed two more hotels, one boarding house, four barrooms, three barbershops, one drug store, four restaurants, six grocery stores, six dry good stores, one jewelry store, one boot and shoe store, and a market house. Loss was estimated to be $300,000 with only about $125,000 covered by insurance. Most of the owners were Spaniards or Cubans. A hurricane hit Florida in September of 1903 and two lives were lost in West Tampa. Louis Baron, a cigar maker, was struck by part of the cornice of the Diaz Building and died the next day after being injured. T. Y. Hunnicut, a motorman, was killed near the Cuesta Rey Cigar Factory, when he attempted to remove a wire that was lying across the railroad track and was electrocuted.



La Rosa Blanca

(The White Rose)

I cultivate a white rose, In July as in January. For the sincere friend who gives me his open hand.

And for the cruel one who tears out the heart that gives me life, I cultivate neither thistle nor weed, I cultivate a white rose. Jose MartĂ­, 1853-1895)



nce I was a reader in the cigar factories, but those days are long over. They ended in 1931 when the factory owners banned us. We were too political they told us. It did not matter that we read what the workers asked us to read. I am an old man now. My voice is still strong, but my eyes are not as sharp as they once were. My hands shake and my step is slow and unsteady. When I heard they finally had a statue of Martí for the park in Ybor in his honor, my heart soared as it did when I heard him speak when he first visited Ybor in November of 1891. I remember it all so well. I was a very young man, an apprentice lector, so young and so idealistic. He spoke, beseeching us to contribute our support and help fund the cause for freedom for Cuba. It was a galvanizing speech. We all cheered his words and mission to achieve freedom from domination by any country and a future “with all and for the good of all”. I knew I would come to the park for the dedication of the statue today unless I, too, had departed this earth. We had waited so long to get one for our park. I held my breath as they unveiled his statue. It is so magnificent tears stream from my eyes. Someone in the today crowd asked me where I was on another day which is also burned into my memory as firmly as that November day. It was a day in late May 1895 when we heard from the Partido Revolucionario Cubano in New York that Martí was indeed dead. He died for the cause in combat in Cuba just as the war was beginning. A few in the crowd remember that I was a lector in the factories and gather around to hear my answer. I remember my walk to the factory. My plans for the morning readings quickly changed as I remembered

Martí and his ideals. I tell the listeners. I hold clutched in my hand my memories of the day I tore from my journal. I began to read from my notes, as if I was once again on the lector’s platform. As I enter the factory on this warm and still May morning, the smell of the sun warmed tobacco is pleasant, but I cannot appreciate the fragrance today. It is a sad day for all of us. The sounds in the factory are different from the usual trivial conversations and laughter I hear as the workers begin to cut and roll the first of many cigars for the day. Voices ring out shrill from the rage of injustice. Soon followed by moments of silence as despair descends as a cloud. Eyes turn to follow me as I make my way along the rows of tables. Hats are tipped and murmurs of greeting are muted. In the eyes of many I can see a wistfulness. It seems they hope I will tell them it is all a lie. In other eyes I see resignation. My eyes must also reflect the realization that death has stilled the voice of our mighty freedom fighter. Everyone has heard by now of the death of our beloved José Martí in Cuba on May 19, 1895. My announcement will only be a formality. The laying to rest, if you will, the hopes and dreams of many along with the body of the brilliant man who wanted freedom for Cuba from any dominion and for all people. As I stand beside my chair on the platform for a few moments everyone is looking toward me. Slowly they begin to rise one by one until all are standing motionless waiting for me to speak. I know that they stand not to honor me for I am such a young man. They stand in respect for the news I bear. “It is with great sorrow I must begin this day with this sad news.” I paused to still the tremble in my voice. A few whispers floated around the room as they anticipated my next words. “Don José Julián Martí y Perez has JANUARY – FEBRUARY 2006


died at Dos Ríos, Cuba, in battle for our freedom cause.” Cries of anger and grief erupt again. Outside the windows the women who had gathered close to hear the news they already feared was true were sobbing and wailing. “Do you remember,” I shouted to be heard by the mourning workers. “November 27, 1891?” A resounding “Si!” filled the air. “Martí came to Ybor to visit the factory workers on the train that Mr. Plant had recently built to Tampa. The speech he delivered, Los Pinos Nuevos, was inspired by a vision he saw from the train.” “Let us sing today an anthem to life before their well remembered graves. Yesterday I heard it, rising from the earth itself as I crossed the dreary afternoon on my way to this faithful town... Amidst the shredded clouds, a pine tree defied the storm and thrust the stately trunk upwards. Suddenly, the sun broke through a forest clearing, and there, by a swift flash of light I saw, rising from the yellowed grass amidst the blackened trunks of the fallen pines, the joyful shoots of the new pines. That is what we are: new pines!” (José Martí - 1853-1895) I fold the paper and return it to my pocket and remove a handkerchief to wipe a tear from my eye.

“What else?” someone asks. “What else do you remember?” I stare at the Martí statue and think for a moment. “I remember el viente de mayo.” I recall. “May 20th, 1902. There was much celebration when the war was victorious and Cuba was freed from Spain. It was seven years and one day after his death.” “A great celebration took place in Ybor City. At the club Nacional Cubano, a twenty-one gun salute honored the first President of the new Republic – Tomás Estrada Palma. The streets were decorated festively and



pictures of many of the heroes of the revolution including Martí, Máximo Gómez and Palma hung from windows and doorways. The cigar workers were given the day off to enjoy the holiday. Many speeches were heard throughout the day, speeches of hope for the future of Cuba. At noon there was a special lunch at the Cuban National Club with Mayor Wing speaking. It was a day of parades, music and joy. It was a day ending in fireworks.” I paused and looked into the faces of the crowd. “Our happiness, it is sad to say, was short lived. Cuba was not to be the free and equal place Martí envisioned. That is a story for another time. It is not why we are here today. We are here to celebrate the person who had great dreams for our native country. Dreams that could not be kept alive without the man.” I got slowly to my feet. “It does not matter that the white roses we planted in his honor are gone and the gates will be locked as we leave. Let us remember his wish for our people.” I walked away from those who had gathered near me to hear me speak again. I stood at the statue and looked into his face. “Martí, if only you had lived. What might we have today?” I asked.

The Lector in this story is purely fictional. Any resemblance to any actual person, living or dead is a coincidence. The historical sources are: From Cuba to Florida, Miguel A. Bretos. Miami: Historical Association of Southern Florida, c1991. The Immigrant World of Ybor City, Gary R. Mormino and George E. Pozzetta c 1998. Tampa Morning Tribune, 1902, 1960 Tampa Times 1960 Writings of José Martí



Jose Martí (1853-1895) was a Cuban poet, essayist, orator, statesman, and the martyred revolutionary leader of Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain. He visited Ybor City in November 1891 and gave a rousing speech from the steps of the Vicente Martinez Ybor Factory. The poetic Martí spoke eloquently of his yearning for Cuba Libre (free Cuba). As a result he was able to raise support and funding for the revolution. In 1892 he formed the Cuban Revolutionary Party, but sadly, Marti died fighting for his homeland in 1895. He was advised to stay back, but Marti charged into direct battle with the Spanish troops. He did not live to see the defeat of the Spanish army in 1898 or a free Cuba in 1902. Martí must have been able to foresee his future at the young age of sixteen. The Spanish imprisoned him and his lifelong friend Fermin Valdés Domínguez in 1869. Below is an excerpt from a letter he wrote to his mother dated, November 10th of that same year: “Madre Mía … I am sorry to be behind bars, but my imprisonment is very useful to me. It has given me plenty of lessons for my life, which I foresee will be short, and I will not fail to make use of them. I am sixteen years old, and many old men have told me I am like an old man. And they are right in a way; because while I have in full measure the recklessness and effervescence of my young age, I also have a heart as small as it is wounded. It is true that you are suffering greatly – but it is also true that I am suffering more. God willing, someday in happier times I will be able to tell you about the vicissitudes of my life!” Visit Ybor City and stop at Jose Marti Park located at 1303 8th Avenue. It contains a life-size statue of Marti. The park was built where Afro-Cuban patriot, Pauline Pedrosa’s house once stood. Marti would stay with her and her husband when visiting Ybor City.



This is the conclusion of “The Neighborhood of Chiaroscuro” originally written in April of 1996. This series of in depth interviews provide a feel of how life was in Ybor City prior to Urban Renewal. Part 1 introduced the art technique known as Chiaroscuro (pronounced “kee-AHR-oh-SKOO-roh”), an Italian word that means “light and shade” or “dark”. It is believed Leonardo da Vinci was the father and master of this Renaissance technique. Writer Capitano uses this style of painting to represent the ethnic blend that existed in Ybor City’s neighborhoods.

The Neighborhood of


(Ybor City – Paradise Lost, Part 2)


George Spoto




interviewed a Sicilian-American by the name of George Spoto whose father, Salvatore Spoto, came to Tampa at the age of eleven from Santo Stefano, Sicily. He explained that his father had been in the clothing business in Ybor City since 1930, opening up next door to L’Unione Italiana (Italian Club). In the 1920s, his grandfather owned Spoto’s Grocery on 19th Street and 7th Avenue where La Tropicana, a favorite sandwich shop, is now located. In 1943 George went into partnership with his father. Later, his Uncle Peter joined them as a third partner. The store, located on 7th Avenue and 17th Street, was called Spoto’s Men’s Shop. George told his father that he would enter in partnership with him only if they did not sell riffas at their store, and they had to be exclusively a men’s clothing store. Riffa was similar to a “suit club”. One could put $1.00 a week towards a $25.00 clothing reward. Names were drawn weekly so customers could win a riffa. George did not want his dad to go from door-to-door on Sundays collecting the customers’ dollar bills for the riffa. “Besides,” says Mr. Spoto, “there was an 18% loss by the owner for every $25.00.” The elder Spoto listened to him. “Riffas were a big, big thing in Ybor City,” George remarked. In 1945, the riffas were stopped by a Federal law. The downtown merchants called it gambling, yet some of it still continued.

Inside Cuervo’s Cafe – purchased by Julian Garcia in 1933. Jaime Julian Garcia (right), son of the original owner.



n La Séptima (7th Avenue) and 18th Street for 35 years, Cuervo’s Café was the politicians’ favorite hangout the way La Tropicana is today. Julian Garcia purchased Cuervo’s in early 1933. His three sons, Alfonso, Jaime and Joe operated it from 1945. The restaurant opened at 4:00 a.m. daily and closed at 2:00 a.m. for only two hours to clean up and restock. This continued until 1970 when urban renewal caused business to dwindle. When I interviewed Alfonso’s son, Alfonso, Jr., he said that every day of the week there was a special dish on the menu. Some of the entrees were as follows: Mondongo, which is tripe with garbanzo beans; pigs feet or oxtail; boliche with black beans; or yellow rice and chicken. For dessert there was Spanish Crème, Bread Pudding and Flan. Café con leche, hot pressed Cuban bread and butter, and Cuban sandwiches were mainstays at Cuervo’s.



arry Rutigliano, a well-known native West Tampan and interior designer, had several stories relating to the bright and dark side of Ybor City. He spoke of his days as window dresser for Ybor City’s famous department store, Fernandez and Garcia. It was located on the corner of La Séptima and 15th Street, right across from the Ritz Theatre. Larry was known for the magnificent window displays he designed. All ethnic groups would walk La Séptima to marvel at Rutigliano’s dressed windows. “Art is an expression of our civilization,” Mr. Rutigliano said in an interview. “These people that passed by our windows felt so enriched upon seeing our displays. Our Easter, Fourth of July, Harvest, and Christmas, etc., you name it, were done on a grand scale,” he remarked, “and my budget was $50.00 a week for the windows.” “I used cheesecloth to create moss, or a fogging machine used for termites to create a misty fog. The message got across to these people who seemed so hungry for art design. Once I used fabrics of purple, yellow and red. The window shopping people on La Séptima were furious,” he recalled. He said he didn’t realize these were Franco’s fascist colors, and immediately had to tear down the design. Another time he decided to paint all the mannequins an ebony color; the black community could not relate and they were furious–to them it seemed racist. The white community was also outraged. “This was too early; they didn’t understand.” Pertaining to the fabric stores on La Séptima, the window designer said, “Little Katz, featuring its logo as a series University of South Florida, Tampa Library, Special Collections Department

Courtesy of Cynthia Garcia Damaso

“We were very successful in Ybor City. Our customers were a mixture of Spanish, Italians, Jews, Anglo-Saxons and Cubans,” commented Mr. Spoto. “In the early 1960s, Spoto’s Men’s Shop closed up. We were overcome by the new rage–the shopping mall. I love Ybor City – it was the pulse of our lives. My wife and I enjoyed the dances at the Italian Club, the Spanish Casino, and the Matinees. The camaraderie was beautiful and it was a grand place to be a merchant.”

Little Katz JANUARY – FEBRUARY 2006


USF, Tampa Library, Special Collections Department

Fernandez & Garcia

of cats, was owned by Mrs. Katz, a Jewish lady. It was a famous fabric store. People came from all over to shop at Little Katz, located right on La Séptima. Jews had control of the garment, fabric and furniture business. Wolfson’s Trimming Store was famous for exquisite imported laces. Most brides at that time had their gowns handmade and Wolfson’s was the first place they would visit with their dressmakers. Brides of all ethnic backgrounds shopped at Wolfson’s. It was operated by a Jewish couple, Mr. and Mrs. Wolfson.” Larry also had an interesting story to tell me about bolita. Bolita was a numbers game based on the old Cuban lottery. One must remember that in the mix and blend of chiaroscuro there is a dark side. Ybor City and Tampa certainly had its dark side with the rise of bolita. Bolita was looked upon as a principal source of revenue. What was once a pastime in the Latin Quarter became a lurking shadow, reaching out for victims. Bolita needed political protection but, by 1947, it was vice-versa. Only gamblers could afford to finance elections. Bolita became a part of Ybor City’s Latin culture as Cubans, Spaniards and, ultimately, Italians came to regard it as an accepted future. Charlie Wall, the kingpin of bolita until his murder in 1955 at the age of 75, was a mixture of this chiaroscuro. Wall came from an affluent pioneer family. He was a McKay on his mother’s side. His father, Dr. John Wall, was a medical doctor 42


and his uncle Joseph Wall, a judge. The bright light of his family mixed with the darkness of the shady character that he chose to become added up to the masterpiece that was Ybor City. “At Fernandez and Garcia, we had a mannequin that was three-quarters,” Larry said. “She had no legs and sat on a platform with a full skirt and billowed petticoat. This was inside the store at the women’s department. There was a little old man, who shuffled his feet quickly when he walked, who placed high fashion magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar under or around her skirt. The ladies in the store would place their bolita bets on a piece of paper and place them inside the magazines. He would then shuffle in and collect the magazines. Later on or the next day, he brought the magazines back with the winnings inserted inside and laid the magazines back under the mannequin’s skirt. This became a ritual.” Another bolita ritual famous at this department store revolved around the soda fountain. “It seemed everybody met there,” Mr. Rutigliano said. “In the 1950s, Fernandez and Garcia’s soda fountain was very popular. Cops would be sitting at one end of the counter and at the other end a man would be sipping his coffee. While people appeared to be greeting him, they were actually betting numbers. Either the cop did not know what was going on or, if he did, he looked the other way.”

Larry continued by remarking that these people even had a “dream book”. It was a book of numbers and a person would bet the number value based on whatever he dreamed about the night before. For instance, a nun is number 55. Mr. Rutigliano concluded that this was a wonderful period with a different mixture of ethnic groups and agrees it was a period of chiaroscuro. He remained at Fernandez and Garcia until Mr. Colin Belk and Mr. William Lindsey bought them out around 1957.



ené González, director of the Spanish Lyric Theatre, lived at 1700 La Séptima and 17th Street. In 1943, his family purchased the corner property, which included his mother’s store of fine laces and trimmings. The shop, called La Casa D’arta (The House of Art), is where he was raised. René said, “Yes, Ybor City as a neighborhood definitely was chiaroscuro. My mother was raised among Sicilians,” René reminisced. “La Casa D’arta sold fine handmade baby dresses, Spanish soaps and perfumes. My sister would sew and the young black ladies loved to come in and purchase her dresses.” La Casa D’arta remained open until 1985.



n April 9, 1996, Jacob Buchman, who lives on Harbor Island, was asked questions about his Jewish background and the part his family played in the heartbeat of Ybor City’s past. His grandparents were Jacob and Jennie Buchman. His grandfather Jacob emigrated from Odessa, Russia along with his two brothers in 1896. They lived for a while in Plant City, Florida, before settling in Ybor City. “My father Louis was raised right on 7th Avenue and 19th Street. In 1906 my grandfather opened Buchman’s Department Store and it closed in 1970 or so, after Urban Renewal had affected the merchants in Ybor City,” recalls Buchman. Louis Buchman spoke Yiddish, English, Spanish and Italian. “My grandfather wanted his children to speak Spanish and Italian, so they could better deal with everyone in town,” says Jacob as he continued. “We grew up right on La Séptima–he made his living there and he lived there until he got married. In 1948 he opened Modern Home Furnishings, and operated it for quite some time.”



Buchman’s Department Store was a dry goods store and its employees were from different ethnic backgrounds. “There were many Jewish merchants there,” said Buchman. “The Warsaws, whose daughter Sandy Warsaw Freedman later served Tampa as its first female mayor, had the Jewel Box jewelry store on La Séptima.” Sammy Argintar, along with his son Andy, still owns and operates Max Argintar Men’s Wear located at 1522 E. 7th Avenue, which his father Max started in 1908. These stores were open late – until the customers left. Mr. Buchman continued, “I can assure you the Jewish merchants made good use of the Ritz Theatre as a babysitter for their children. I can still remember my Dad giving me a nickel for the movies and 25 cents for ice cream. My parents made me work in the store after school hours. Mom worked right along with Dad. The blacks had no choice but to buy from an all white ethnic group, because there were no black proprietors.” “Dad and Mom went to all the dances at the Italian Club. They developed close relationships with the Italians,” recalled Buchman. “When I was growing up, most of my friends were Italian – the Diecidues, the Datos.” Jacob Buchman concluded with, “Ybor City will never be a neighborhood of families again. It is too expensive. It is for entertainment because the square footage price cannot be afforded by a family.”



essie Vaccaro Vacanti, of Sicilian parents, grew up on 11th Avenue and 15th Street but now lives in Tampa Heights. “We had a grocery store around the corner ’til the big supermarkets opened up. They killed all the small stores,” she said. “We had a lot of Cuban and Spanish neighbors because this was considered West Ybor, and most Italians lived east,” she remarked. She remembered her father going towards Palmetto Beach in South Ybor City to a fig farm. They were the most gorgeous figs she has ever seen in her life. “They didn’t seem real,” she said. Mrs. Vacanti feels her neighborhood was safe and friendly. Even though ethnically mixed, they got along together. Her daughter Angie Vacanti Cannella grew up at 2403 14th Avenue between 24th and 25th Streets. In an interview, she told us she had Italian neighbors as well as several black families because this was East Ybor. “‘Miss Rose’, an AfroAmerican (sic), lived next door to us. She was a super-ironing lady, and we treated her like family. She’d come and iron in our home,” she recalled. “The house next door to ‘Miss Rose’ was 44


the large Valenti family who later made it big in produce. We felt we were all good neighbors,” said Mrs. Cannella. She remembers when in 1946 her grandmother, Angelina Greco Vacanti, transformed her living room for the feast of St. Joseph. “Nana had 26 young people representing different saints sitting around a huge table. People came from all around Ybor to pay homage to St. Joseph and to eat a plate of meatless, cheese-less (which is the custom) spaghetti. Many people, including the Valenti family and [the] Ficarrottas, came to help in the preparation of sfingi (beignet), gidi, carduna and fried cauliflower,” Angie recalled. “No grated cheese was used over the spaghetti; the custom is to brown bread crumbs (mudica) in a hot skillet until replace the cheese. This represented the ‘sawdust’ of St. Joseph’s occupation since he was a carpenter.”



illie Delain, an Afro-American(sic), is 74 years old and lives at 1820 4th Avenue in Ybor City. In a personal interview on April 9, 1996 (which took place on her front porch), she said she has lived in Ybor a long time. When her grandmother brought her from Brooksville 67 years ago as a very young child, they lived in northeast Ybor. This is where the interstate is now, and is called ‘the bottom’ by some people. Perhaps “La Séptima” was considered their downtown if northeast of Ybor was considered “the bottom”. Her son James, whom she calls “Perk”, lives with her. “There was nothing here but houses on 4th Avenue and some bars,” recalled Lillie, “from 6th Avenue across the railroad tracks to Maryland Avenue.” “One generation of us would stay and live with the next generation,” said Mrs. Delain. She pointed to the house across the street and said, “Look at it; it’s awful. It’s been vacant too long.” She says she is probably the oldest one around in the area. Her sister Willie May worked in Nick Nuccio’s home for a time when he lived across 22nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. “We used to have 10 cent stores, a shoe repair shop, a bakery; there is only Blue Ribbon Grocery now,” remarked Lillie. “There is no neighborhood now. The children you see or hear around here are here only because the grandmothers are taking care of them; they go home in the evening to their parents,” said Lillie. Her son Perk was interviewed at Tamborello’s Service Station where he works alongside an Italian-American, Joe Tamborello. He has been friends with Joe since he was 9 years

old. Perk said he attended St. Benedict the Moor School, an all black school in Ybor City, from 1951 to 1954. He remembers going to Catholic mass every school morning under Mother Nativida’s watchful eye, even though he never became a Catholic. “The nuns were white and very good to us students,” recalls Perk Delain.


persed. Tampa was the first city in Florida to receive federal funds for urban renewal. Good intentions and broken promises stand as a testimony of its results. City fathers gutted Tampa’s historic jewel, Ybor City. In the 1960s neighborhoods changed for the residents. Factories lay abandoned and blacks quickly moved to replace Latins as the dominant residential


Courtesy of Capitano Family

ick Capitano, president of Radiant Oil Company of Tampa, Inc. says his first petroleum distribution plant (located at 1023 2nd Avenue) came down in the first phase of Urban Renewal with the Maryland Project of 1965. This is when the “Scrub” area was torn down to improve the very poor blacks’ living conditions, but a good majority made new living quarters in the Ybor City area. Mr. Capitano was located there from 1941 to 1966, and then moved to Durham and 21st Street. He served all ethnic groups with his home fuel delivery. (from left) Gacinto Castellano, Joseph Capitano, Sr. (age 10) and Nick Capitano in 1948 at the site of the original Radiant Oil Co. on Maryland Avenue (now Radiant Oil Group LLC). He grew up at 2207 12th Avenue and 22nd Street. He walked to Gary School and Franklin Junior High School. He group. Even though a renaissance was predicted in 1965, Ybor remembers going to school with “only white kids.” City became an urban renewal wasteland. Today he is not far from his first address. He has always Homes, businesses and factories were demolished and been a part of Ybor City – being a loyal, active member of the nothing was replaced. Neighborhoods leaving meant the loss Ybor City Optimist Club for 50 years – even though he has of children. Without children, schools eventually closed their made his home in Brandon for the past 29 years. doors. Most Holy Name Church and School were the first to close their doors. They were torn down soon thereafter. URBAN RENEWAL The federal bulldozer also found its way to pull down Our Lady of Perpetual Help Academy. No one noticed. Neighborhoods n “The Federal Bulldozer” (a book by Martin Anderson in Ybor City died without even a requiem. No one attended a on Urban Renewal), one may observe that in 1960 the wake for the death of the neighborhoods, but it was felt in the nation faced tremendous growth within the city hearts of so many families. A second exodus was their only structure. Tampa was no exception. On bent knees, Ybor City choice. This time, however, they exited with their children edugave in to the newest arrival–Urban Renewal. The construction cated. of an interstate chewed-up neighborhoods and families disWhere are they now? An educated and affluent young gen-




eration headed for suburbs such as Carrollwood. Private clubs like Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club, health clubs, and Krewe of the Knights of Sant’Yago have taken the place of the Mutual Aid Society. The generations that grew up in Ybor City and were educated there feel lucky because they know what they have, but also what they have lost. Somehow immigrants who knew nothing but rural life and hardships discovered an innate sense of entrepreneurship in Tampa. Even with the onset of Urban Renewal and the exodus of neighborhoods, some history of Ybor City remains with its survivors: Columbia Restaurant, El Encanto Cleaners, Tamborellos, Radiant Oil Company of Tampa (now The Radiant Group, LLC), Mr. Dominic V. Guinta, Max Argintar’s Men’s Wear, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, Blue Ribbon Grocery, Silver Ring and Naviera Coffee Mill. What were our “City Fathers” thinking during the process of this Federal Urban Renewal Program! They could almost be categorized in the same context as Euripedes’ character Medea when, as she is about to destroy her children, she says: I know perfectly well what I am about to do. But, my passion is greater than my understanding. Their passion for improvement was so great; their desire to improve upon housing in Ybor City was greater than their understanding of the whole long-range process. Ybor’s children lived–even though they now survive in suburbs.


In Conclusion

eonardo’s chiaroscuro has produced many images of light and dark. So too, in this regard, has Ybor City produced its own masterpiece. For those who lived in Ybor City’s past, sometimes a passing word, smell, sound, taste or song makes one for a brief moment feel that he or she has experienced Paradise Regained.





This institution was established in 1883. Most of the

residents of Tampa frequented this small wood structure

located on Lafayette St. while others had more confi-

Recognize this lost landmark?

USF, Tampa Library, Special Collections Dept.

dence in their mattresses.

You can win a Cigar City Magazine t-shirt by correctly

identifying this landmark. Simply mail the name of the

structure and your contact information to Cigar City

Magazine at P.O. Box 18613, Tampa, Florida 33679 by February 1, 2005. All correct entries will be entered into

a drawing and one name will be selected as the winner.

Good luck!

Previous Lost Landmark: The Rivoli Theatre

The building that sits at 1503 E. 7th Avenue in Ybor City was built in 1917. It has had many different names, but it was first known as the Rivoli Theatre. Then it became the Ritz Theatre and operated into the 1970s before it suffered a very bad fire. In the 1980s the seats were removed and the empty theatre was used for concerts and housed an alternative dance club called The Masquerade. The Masquerade moved to a different location in the 1980s, but the Ritz continued to be used for concerts. In the late 1990s The Masquerade reopened at the Ritz and is still there today. Congratulations to Darlene Fabelo who correctly identified the theatre and won a Cigar City Magazine tshirt. Darlene Fabelo JANUARY – FEBRUARY 2006


Courtesy of Sam and Sndrew Arena


A Conversation with Tampa’s Arena Twins



egend has it when Sammy and Andrew were born, they came out singing and they

haven’t stopped since. Their last name, “Arena”, should have tipped us all off in

advance that they were destined for show business! When I called Sammy and

asked where they wanted to meet, he said, “The West Tampa Coffee Shop” – it is one of

their favorite hangouts. We met on August 30, 2005. The noise level at this local coffee shop is deafening, but the “café con leche” is excellent!

CCM: All right, let’s get started. Sammy, do you want to go first?

Sammy: “Hi, my name is Sammy and I’m four minutes older than Andy.”

Andrew: “And, I’m Andrew, born in the City of Tampa at El Centro Asturiano. We were the first twins born at that hospital on Lake Avenue.” CCM: When were you born?

Sammy: “We were born on September 1, 1931 and the day after tomorrow we will be 74 years old!” CCM: How many siblings do you have?

Sammy: “There are four of us–Anthony who was born 15 months after the twins, and then our sister Irene who was born after him.” CCM: Tell us about your mother and father.

Sammy: “Our mother came from Italy with her family when she was 9 months old and she was raised in Ybor City. She was a cigar maker and worked at Corral-Wodiska Cigar Factory. Our father came from the same little town outside of Palermo, Sicily as our mother did.” CCM: Did they meet in Ybor City?

Sammy: “Yes, our father came here during WWI when he was just 17 years old and that is when he met our grandfather. Our grandfather introduced our mother and father and said, ‘Grace, this is going to be your husband, and Tony, this is going to be your wife’, and that was it.”

Andrew: “Our father received 5 bronze stars and 1 Silver Star and served in Germany. After the war, he went back to New Jersey where his family lived and then returned to Florida. He then married our mother and four years later the twins were born.”

A few times during our conversation, the twins would speak of themselves in the third person. It seems the tie that bonds these two is so strong, it takes on a life of its own. CCM: You lived in New Jersey for a while didn’t you?

Sammy: “Yes, our family left when we were 6 months old and we lived in New Jersey until we were 12 years old. It was 1944 when we moved back to Tampa. We were real poor then. Anthony and the two of us shined shoes on 7th Avenue and also sold papers. We gave all the money to the house and our mother would give us something like 50 cents to spend on ourselves. Our father wasn’t well then.”

CCM: How old were you when you first started singing?

Sammy: “We were 7 years old and sang in front of our father’s grocery store on Staten Island, N.Y. One day a man came by and said, ‘I’d like to hear the boys sing ’, and they put us in the closet.”

Andrew: “No, no, we got in the closet because we were scared and wanted to hide. But eventually we sang for him.”

Sammy: “We sang the song, ‘Polly Wolly Doodle All Day’. He wanted to take the two of us for five years and, believe it or not, he was one of the people that chose the first Mouseketeers. Our mother said, ‘No, I’m an Italian mother and you aren’t taking my kids anywhere.’”

As if on queue, they both started belting out the first verse of this classic song.

CCM: So singing obviously came naturally to you.

Sammy: “Yes, it did, and we don’t even know how to read music and yet we have sung with all kinds of bands and musical instruments. We can learn a melody like nothing, but it can take us weeks to learn the lyrics.”



CCM: When were you first on stage?

Sammy: “We were about 14 years old and there was a program called, ‘Fiesta in Tampa’. Mr. Ruben Fabelo, who put on this show, was sitting in the window of the Rainbow Record Store. I walked up to him and said I wanted to sing. He told me to go see this lady on 8th Avenue who played the piano for the show to see what she thought of my singing. She played a song and I sang, and then that Sunday I performed on the show at the Cuban Club in Ybor City. The week after that, Andrew said he wanted to go. So he did, and that is when we started singing together because, to tell the truth, we were so scared to sing it was better to do it together than by ourselves. That was the beginning; Fiesta in Tampa gave us the chance. Then we sang at different places around Tampa, basically singing for our food.” CCM: When did your professional career begin?

Sammy: “We both served in Korea–Andrew was a cook and I was a machine gun sergeant. We sang with lots of stars like Lloyd Price who was real popular at the time. He was known for the song ‘Stagger Lee.’ We also met Terry Moore–a

beautiful movie star, Marilyn Monroe, and Bob Hope–but we didn’t sing with him. We were on some of the USO shows in Korea and then, when we got out of the service, we saved some money and went to New York and started pounding the streets. Our brother Anthony would help us and send money every once in awhile. We would go to different agencies trying to get a recording contract.”

CCM: Did you record any songs?

Sammy: “Yes, we met a man named Bernie Wayne; he was the guy that wrote the Miss America song, ‘Blue Velvet,’ and a few other popular songs. With his help we did a demo record of an original song called, ‘Mama Cara Mama’ and we took it to Kapp Records and they signed us immediately. To this day we have that song on our CD and we sell most of our CDs because of that song.” CCM: What was your most favorite venue?

Sammy: “We performed at the largest Italian Festival in the U.S. which was held in Milwaukee. There were 9 different stages and it was a four-day affair. We had the idea to bring this type of festival to Tampa and ‘Festa Italiana’ was the result of us bringing the idea back with us, and it has been a great success.” CCM: Where are you performing these days?

Courtesy of Sam and Sndrew Arena

Sammy: “We perform everywhere, but do most of our shows in south Florida anywhere between Hollywood, Florida and West Palm Beach. In our shows we sing in Yiddish, Italian, Spanish and English. We love to sing the National Anthem–it is one of our specialties–and we even sang it in Yankee Stadium. CCM: Sammy, wasn’t that around the time of your kidney transplant?

Sammy: “Yes it was, and my transplant hasn’t stopped me. In fact after the transplant, it kind of gave us the push in 1994 to re-dedicate ourselves to show business.” CCM: Whenever you aren’t singing, if that is ever the case, what do you do? Andrew: “Vacation! I enjoy going on vacation.”

An early publicity shot of the Arena twins.



Sammy: “Well, we are developers, you know–30 years ago we developed buildings on Madeira Beach–we built lots of houses while still singing. We also built some condominiums and shopping centers. We also

“We did a demo record of an original song called, ‘Mama Cara Mama’ and we took it to Kapp Records and they signed us immediately.” have been in the ceramic tile business.”

CCM: Who sings harmony?

Sammy: “I sing lead and Andrew sings harmony, but we both sing individually in our shows.” CCM: How many children and grandchildren do each of you have?

Andrew: “My wife Judy and I have two sons – Andrew, who is in land development, and Richie, who runs Arena Tile and Stone–and one daughter, Melody who teaches at the Academy of the Holy Names. We have 7 grandchildren, but Richie is getting married soon and 2 more grandchildren will be added to the Arena family and another is on the way.

Sammy: “I have three boys–Sammy, who is a senior adviser in minor league baseball; Jimmy, a pharmaceutical representative; and Christopher who is in the Marines and fighting in Iraq. He will be coming home on October 17th. I also have three grandchildren.

man, which I think I am. I keep my family together as much as possible. My singing is very important, and I have a wife and family that understand that. And they know now that we do it (singing) because people enjoy it and we enjoy it. As long as that keeps happening, we are going to keep on doing it.”


ndrew and Sammy Arena were awarded the Great American Award by the United States Government for the work they did while performing with the USO during the war. Throughout the years, the Arena twins have given countless benefit performances for civic clubs, various organizations and have also helped to raise money for individuals who have serious illnesses. They continue to work with Lifelink of Florida, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the recovery and transplantation of organs and tissues for transplant therapy. For more information on Lifelink, visit their website at

CCM: I was going to ask the two of you what your greatest accomplishment is, but I think you just told us that. It doesn’t sound like either one of you are planning on slowing down any time soon? Sammy: “We are 74 years old and we aren’t slowing down as long as we are healthy enough and they keep calling us to sing–singing is like a vitamin or tonic; it keeps us going!”

CCM: Now, if someone wants to get in touch with you about performing what do they need to do? Andrew: “Call the Arena Twins at 813-966-2081” Sammy: “Or 966-2079.”

CCM: One last question. When it is all said and done, how do you want to be remembered?

Sammy: “As nice guys who don’t turn their heads on their friends–people that love life and appreciate everything that God has given us in the way of voices. Because it is a ‘God given talent.’”

Andrew: “I want to be known as a person who is a great family




Mama Rosa’s Tuna Fish Croquettes BY


From as early as I can remember, if Mama was in the kitchen cooking–it was off limits to the rest of the family. I am not sure when this law was enacted, but it existed as long as I could remember. This was especially true when she was making her famous “Tuna Fish Croquettes”. Mama Rosa couldn’t stand people watching her as she cooked–I guess she had to be totally alone in order to concentrate on her creation. Having people in her kitchen made her nervous–real nervous. If you were brave enough to enter her kitchen when she was cooking and she broke a dish or glass, or God forbid, dropped the food on the floor, it would be your fault. As a kid I would run to the refrigerator to get a drink of water or something to eat, not realizing Mama was in the kitchen. Upon seeing her, I would stop dead in my tracks, shut my eyes and say a little prayer under my breath. She would whip around, face me with the spoon or fork or whatever she happened to have in her hand at the time, and wave it at me like some type of crazy woman! Then her face would contort as she clinched her teeth together and said, “vaya afuera y juegue y déjeme en paz” (go outside and play and leave me in peace). It didn’t take long for me to heed her words and “get the heck out of Dodge!”

On one particular day, I decided I needed to secure the secret recipe for her tuna fish croquettes. After everyone in the house had gone to bed, I snuck downstairs to the kitchen. It was the type of covert operation the Special Forces would be proud to call their own. There we were, my dog Spotty and me, armed with the cowgirl whip Mama bought me at the Florida State Fair that year. The mission was a success and I hope you appreciate what I went through to share her special recipe with you. Mama died in 1996, so I think she would be happy to know her tuna croquettes will live on forever.



2 (6 oz.) cans tuna fish in oil orwater 1 (12 oz.) can evaporated milk 1 medium onion 3 heaping Tbsp. flour 1 small green pepper 1 stick butter or margarine 1 clove of garlic salt and pepper Italian bread crumbs 2 eggs

Chop onion, green pepper and garlic very fine. In a large saucepan, melt butter or margarine slowly. Add onion, green pepper and garlic until done. In a small bowl, mix 3 heaping tablespoons of flour with a little bit of the evaporated milk. Mix well with a spoon so mixture is like a pancake batter texture. Add remaining milk, tuna fish (drained well), and salt and pepper to saucepan of cooked onion, pepper, and garlic mixture. Bring to a boil and add remaining milk. Blend well over medium heat until it all thickens. Remove from heat and spread thinly on a platter and refrigerate for approximately 4 hours. You are then ready to roll croquettes. In a separate dish, place Italian breadcrumbs and in another dish beat the eggs. Form tuna mixture into small croquettes with your hands. Dip into egg mixture, then bread crumb mixture and set aside. After you have rolled all your croquettes, deep-fry them in corn or vegetable oil. Makes approximately 10 croquettes.

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Dear Mama: My grandmother told me that the nail next to the front door of the cigar makers casita was used to hang the Cuban bread when it was delivered to your door. I don’t know if what she is saying is true – she’s pretty old. – Clavo Dear Clavo: Of course it’s true! Why would your grandmother tell you something that’s not true? The nail was used by the delivery man to hang the fresh loaf of Cuban bread so that it wouldn’t bend. Another thing the nail was used for was hanging kids by the back of their shirt when they were a pain in the butt! I bet you would have been hung on the nail often! – Mama



Dear Mama: How many black beans do you think I could fit in my mouth? – Freddie Frijole Dear Freddie: If your brain and mouth are relative in size, then you won’t be able to fit too many in there. I’m an old lady and I don’t have much time left. So stop wasting it with stupid questions. Go find something useful to do … like run behind the mosquito truck. – Mama Dear Mama: My husband’s 95-year-old Cuban grandmother is visiting from Miami. She got mad at me the other day when I blew out the candle next to one of her Saints on the dresser. We were going to church and I didn’t want to leave the candle lit for safety reasons. She got very upset and said something about a trombone. – Sally from Ohio Dear Sally: What she said was “trompon.” That’s Spanish for “a fist to the body.” I’m surprised she didn’t give you a “cocotaso”, a “punetazo” or a “golpe.” You gotta respect the Saints.

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