Cuba Connections Run Deep

The Jose Marti Park in Ybor City
The Jose Marti Park in Ybor City
YBOR CITY (2009-03-17) -

For most Floridians, the mention of Cuba generates immediate thoughts of Fidel Castro, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Mariel Boat Lift and the United States' long-standing trade embargo.

But, Florida and specifically the Tampa Bay area have longer, deeper and richer ties to that island nation than what's occurred in the last half century.

One of Tampa's oldest links to Cuba is Spanish Town, a Cuban fishing village established before Ft. Brooke in what is now Hyde Park according to Rodney Kite-Powel. He's the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center.

"You can go back to the early Spanish explorers when Ponce De Leon came to Florida, particularly the second time, he came from Cuba," Kite-Powell says.

Connections to Cuba are evident everywhere as we walk through the Tampa Bay History Center after hours. Powel points to a replica of a turn-of-the-century cigar store. "We're looking at an old Hav-a-Tampa sign. Of course the Hav-a part is not just a play on words 'have a cigar' but Hava being Havana all those little word links are in there. Tampa-Cuba is a cigar brand," Powell says.

Take a drive through South Tampa and there are signs everywhere, according to Manny Leto, "The street names in South Tampa mirror those names of streets in old Havana the old section of the town of Havana."

Leto is editor of "Cigar City Magazine" and education coordinator at the history center. Another link is the Jose Marti Park in Ybor City. Leto says Marti is the George Washington of Cuban Independence and important to Tampa's history as well. Leto says Marti visited the area 20 different times and organized a branch of the Cuban revolutionary party in Tampa.

The park sits on the site that was once the home of Paulina and Ruperto Pedroso where Jose Marti often stayed. Ownership changed several times until the land was donated to Estado Cubano, The Republic of Cuba, on September 10, 1956 for a park honoring Marti.

A stone archway frames the entrance. A tiled walkway leads directly to a life-size statue of Marti. It's flanked by the Cuban and American flags. The Cuban government technically owns the land. Bob Alorda is an Ybor City Ambassador. Among his duties is conducting tours. Alorda has plenty of stories about Marti and the park - like the legend that it contains soil from each of Cuba's provinces.

"We cannot document, so we can't say it's true. But, I remember my grandfather telling me and my father telling me the same story," Alorda says. "A lot of Cubans came here during that time from that era and they were bringing sand inside of their suitcases, duffle bags."

Such lore earned Marti Park the designation as the only "free" Cuban soil after the island went under communist control. Yet, it may surprise many that at one time pre-communist Fidel Castro was welcomed by some in Tampa.

Leto says when Fidel Castro visited the US he directly followed in the steps of Jose Marti, visiting the same cities, such as Tampa where spoke at the union hall and visited some homes. There are even historical photos of Castro sitting down at a kitchen table in Ybor City.

It's been more than 50 years since Castro sat in that kitchen and more than a century since Marti stayed at the Pedroso's home. But, the link between Cuba and Tampa remains.

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