Tampa Bay fails to get enough credit for its role in the history of America in the 1500s, and the role it played again three centuries later, says E.J. Salcines.
Salcines, a prominent West Tampa native, a first-generation American and a descendant and promoter of Spain – knighted by King Juan Carlos – calls the 1500s the forgotten century in American history. And Tampa Bay's historical significance seems underplayed as well.
"All of the original European civilization enters what is now the continental United States through Tampa Bay," he says, lecturing from the driver's seat of his Cadillac.
Salcines points out that the 1528 Narvaez expedition proved costly; out of 400 Spanish troops setting out from present-day St. Petersburg, only Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca and three others walked into Mexico eight years later.
But on this day, however, Salcines wants to concentrate on the sites – and sights – of the second Spanish invasion of the Tampa Bay area.
That happened in 1886, when Spanish cigar manufacturers led by Vicente Martinez Ybor moved their factories to Tampa from Key West. Thousands of Spanish, Cuban and Italian cigar makers followed, giving Tampa a flavor that endures.
Salcines, 73, a former Tampa state attorney and a retired appellate judge, often addresses students, civic clubs and audiences at the Tampa Bay History Center about the city's immigrant roots. He tells of "Cigar City," which emerged in Tampa from the mid-1880s through the 1920s, when factories in Ybor City and West Tampa turned out more than 300 million hand-rolled cigars a year.
As we pass hulking three-story brick rectangles, some now used as office buildings, that feature huge windows on the north and south, Salcines notes that every cigar factory was built from east to west.
"Why? Because originally there was no lighting. You depended on natural lighting," he says.
In these cigar factories, hundreds of workers – men, women, black, brown and white – rolled cigars. As they worked, they listened to the lector, who read from an elevated stand.
"The morning readings, which was an hour and a half… that was newspapers," Salcines says. "The afternoon was novels."
Around the cigar factories, a host of businesses sprung up. There were groceries, bakeries, coffee shops and restaurants, among them Ybor City's famous Columbia, the oldest restaurant in Florida. Casimiro Hernandez Sr., a Cuban immigrant, opened the restaurant in 1905. His family still runs the sprawling, block-long restaurant.
"When the Columbia gets started, what they have is a café," Salcines says, pressed inside the doorway of the original room, talking over the lunchtime chatter. "That tells you what they serve – café."
And it drew people there. Salcines points out that the streetcar would stop at the corner of the Columbia. "The conductor would jump out, come over here quickly, drink his coffee and jump back on the streetcar to continue. This was a required stop."
Workers sipped dark roast, the kind still made by Naviera Coffee Mills, a 90-year-old family business. We follow the aroma of roasting beans across Seventh Avenue and step into the coffee shop, where windows to the back show workers roasting and packaging beans. The founder, a Spanish immigrant, started out delivering coffee to factory workers.
"In the cigar factories, coffee was brought in twice a day, in the morning and the afternoon," says Salcines.
"The cafetero, the coffee man, would come in with two containers'" he adds. "One of boiling milk, one of strong Cuban coffee. He already knew his customers, what they liked: He liked his café con leche oscuro, dark, so he poured more coffee than milk. You like your café con leche claro, lighter, so more milk, less coffee. She drank only espresso, café solo."
Each immigrant group built clubhouses. Several of these stately edifices stand today. Dues-paying members could visit the doctor there, or get a haircut.
"They could play cards, they could play billiards, they could play chess," says Salcines, sitting in the boardroom of Centro Asturiano, the Spanish club. "They could play pool. They could meet. They could have a drink. They could have a dance."
Outside the Cuban Club looms a bust of Cuban revolutionary hero José Martí. He appealed to Tampa's Cuban community for support in the revolution against the island's Spanish occupiers.
"Over a period of three-and-a-half years, he made 20 speeches in Tampa," frequently talking from the steps of Ybor's factory, Salcines recounts. "Martinez Ybor's wife, Mercedes, was a revolutionary. She wanted independence for Cuba."
Martí died in battle in Cuba in 1895. He would have had few patriots to address in Tampa if Spaniard Gavino Gutierrez had not stopped by a few years earlier.
Gutierrez' bust resides just outside Centro Asturiano. The tip of the stone nose has broken off, but the New York businessman who sparked Cigar City retains a dignified air.
The exporter of jams and jellies traveled to what was then called Tampa Town in hopes of setting up a guava jelly plant, Salcines explains. He would ship the product on Henry B. Plant's railroad, which had just reached Tampa in 1884. The guavas weren't plentiful enough, so Gutierrez decided to sail to Key West to visit his friend, Vicente Martinez Ybor.
Gutierrez was ushered into Ybor's office just as Ybor and fellow manufacturer Ignacio Haya were talking about moving their factories to the Gulf Coast, weighing the pros and cons of Galveston, New Orleans and Mobile.
Gutierrez spoke up.
"'Why are you all thinking about going so far, when you all have a tremendous port just north of here called Tampa Town?'" Salcines relates. "He converts himself unknowingly to being the representative of the Tampa Chamber of Commerce."