A quiet visit to Ybor City last week provided another reminder of the historic connection: A delegation from the island nation, in Tampa for rare talks on cross-Caribbean cooperation, slipped away for an hour to see the haunts of José Martí — the Cuban revolutionary who made Tampa his second home in the late 1800s.
Their tour guide Saturday morning was E.J. Salcines, retired state appellate court judge and a lifelong student of relations between Tampa and Cuba.
“We never once discussed anything political,” Salcines said. “This was about our common appreciation of history. Cuba’s history cannot be written without a chapter on Tampa and the history of Tampa cannot be written without many chapters on Cuba and the Cuban people. Martí is at the center of it all.”
The seven members of the Cuba delegation included Jesus Perz, secretary of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington D.C., and Yuri Gala Lopez, former Cuban ambassador to Jamaica and current executive at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Havana.
The delegation was in town primarily for a multi-lateral workshop in St. Petersburg among Cuba, the U.S., Mexico, Bahamas and Jamaica on a response to any future oil spill in the Caribbean that crosses the host nation’s borders.
The members of the delegation are political heirs to the 1959 Communist revolution in Cuba, which led to a trade and travel embargo that continues to this day.
In seeking out Martí, they harkened to an earlier revolution — the Cuban War of Independence from 1895-1898 that ultimately drove Spain from the island and won Cuba its freedom from colonial rule.
Said Salcines, “I made sure to point out to the delegation they we have more busts and statues of Marti in Tampa than we do Washington or JFK.”
Elizabeth McCoy, curator at the Ybor City Museum, called Martí the George Washington of Cuba.
Much of Marti’s planning and fundraising took place in Ybor City, said McCoy. The Latin district’s Cuban immigrants during that era were new to the U.S. and still had strong family ties to Cuba.
“They, too, wanted to see Cuba free more than anything else in the world,” said McCoy.
Martí later died in the war and became a martyr for the cause of freedom, said Rachel May, director of the University of South Florida’s Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean.
“Even Fidel Castro and the modern Cuban Revolution make reference to Martí,” May said. “He is the universal symbol of Cuban nationalism.”
It makes sense for anyone interested in Cuban history to tour Ybor City, said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the Tampa Bay History Center.
“Tampa is the cradle of Cuban liberty,” Powell said.
Ybor City was considered Martí favorite city outside of Cuba.
“He called Ybor City his faithful little town,” Salcines said.
The visiting delegates got the message.
“They were moved by the historic significance of where they were visiting,” Salcines said. “At one point they said to me, ‘Jose Martí once stood where we are standing’ and were earnestly amazed by that.”
On Thursday after noon, the delegation participated in the Access Intelligence-Clean Gulf Expo 2013 at the Tampa Convention Center. On Friday, members took part in the multi-lateral oil spill workshop.
With just an hour of free time on Saturday before they had to leave Tampa Bay, they asked Al Fox, president of the Alliance for a Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, if he could arrange a Cuban history tour of Tampa.
“Who is better than E.J. to do that?” Fox said. “He’s the best public speaker in the city and he knows everything there is to know about its history.”
It was a short window of time so Salcines concentrated on a two-block radius of Ybor City that includes some of Martí’s most significant moments in Tampa.
He brought the Cuban delegation to the steps of Ybor Square at 1901 N. 13th St., which no houses Spaghetti Warehouse, Creative Loafing and the Church of Scientology. In the late 1800s, it was home to the V.M. Ybor Cigar Factory and in 1893 it was the backdrop for a famous photo in the history of both Tampa and Cuba.
“It is a photo of Martí surrounded by cigar workers and supporters of Cuban independence,” Salcines said. “It was the only photo of Martí ever taken in Tampa and it later was used on a Cuban stamp both before and after Castro.”
Some places Salcines showed the delegation bear no resemblance to their historic past.
These include the former home of the Pedroso family, now the location of Jose Marti Park at the corner of 8th Avenue and 13th Street. The Pedrosos saved Martí’s life after he was poisoned by Spanish spies. The family later regularly housed him during his visits.
Salcines also led the delegation to the corner of 13th Street and Seventh Avenue. Today it is a brick building housing Larmon Furniture. In the late 1800s, it was the site of the wooden El Liceo Cubano (The Cuban Liceum), Tampa’s original Cuban Club and the scene of some of Martí’s most historic speeches.
The words, if not the place, were familiar to the delegates.
“They could quote the speeches Marti had given in that now-gone building,” Salcines said.
Given more time, Salcines said, he would have taken them to West Tampa, where he said a cigar was rolled with Martí’s secret order to start the revolution then smuggled to Cuba.
Fox, who joined the tour, thought it was just right as it was.
“Judge Salcines did a perfect job of articulating the historic ties of Tampa and Cuba.”