In-depth: How immigrant workers brought a new industry that put Tampa on the map

Tampa was a fishing village in 1886 before becoming a boomtown
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Posted at 12:47 PM, Sep 06, 2021

TAMPA, Fla. — For many people, Labor Day is just another day off, but it turns out that if it weren’t for the immigrant workers who came here, the Tampa we know may have looked completely different.

ABC Action News in-depth reporter Anthony Hill brings us the history of how a small fishing village turned into one of Florida’s biggest cities and the fight for workers’ rights.

In 1886, Tampa was still a small, fishing village, but one industry would change all of that.

“The whole story has to do with the Cuban Cigar industry,” said Anthony Carreño, a historian with the Ybor City Museum Society. He said Tampa had a population of about 750 people.

"Some of the major cigar manufacturers were anxious to relocate their cigar industry, their big cigar factories to somewhere in the United States," Carreño said.

The import tariff on a Cuban cigar was considered very expensive, while just the tobacco leaves were not.

“So, there was an economic advantage to actually making the cigars in the United States.”

Carreño said the cigar industry was seriously looking at relocating to either Mobile, Alabama or Galveston, Texas.

“No one had ever heard of Tampa. They had pretty much decided to go to Galveston. However, at the last minute, there was a Spaniard businessman living in New York named Gavino Gutierrez. He owned a business that made jelly and marmalade. He had heard a rumor that guava, a popular Latin American fruit, grew in Tampa. So, he decided to pay a visit. He decided it was a little too cold to grow them commercially, but while he was in Tampa in 1885, he noticed there was this new railroad. He noticed a huge, deep-water port and the Tampa Board of Trade was anxious to start developing the city. They wanted to attract new industry.”

After no luck in the Tampa Bay area, Gutierrez visited his friend Vincente Martinez Ybor in Key West.

“Who was one of the major cigar manufacturers in Havana, who had a factory in Key West, as well. When he got to Key West, he said, ‘you know, Vincente, you really should check out this place called Tampa right up the coast here. It’s half the distance to Havana compared to Galveston and Mobile and nobody had ever heard of it.”

When Ybor arrived, he loved Tampa and saw potential.

“They made a deal on the purchase of 40 acres northeast of what was then the little village of Tampa and that became Ybor City.”

Just like that, a little fishing village had a huge industry that would put it on the map.

“And logically, what followed after that, or at the same time, were the workers to roll the cigars. Rolling is a craft. It’s not something you can learn very quickly. So, hundreds of experienced, primarily Cuban cigar rollers accompanied the relocation of the factories from Key West and then ultimately from Havana, followed closely by Spaniards, and a little bit later, the Sicilians began to come in.”

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Hands rolling cigar, photo

Carreño says the growth was incredibly fast making Tampa a boomtown.

“By 1910/1915, Tampa peaked with almost 300 cigar factories.”

By the early 1900s, thousands of people, many of whom were immigrants, called Tampa home, and with the increase in industry, came the collective consciousness of workers’ rights and eventually unions.

“The south, in general, was definitely against unions. Tampa is an Island in the south,” said Dr. Gary Mormino, professor emeritus of history at USF. “They understand the value of their work.”

“You had strikes over, believe it or not, over the right to drink coffee on the job. Café con Leche was the caffeinated fuel of the workforce.”

In fact, he says, cigar makers elected a person called “El Cafetero.” Twice a day, they would come into the factories with hot milk and espresso. The workers also fought to retain a person called "el lector." During their shift, el lector would read literature and newspapers aloud.

“And, ultimately, management figured, ‘well, if it makes them happy, if they’re more energized, you know, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”