TAMPA, Fla. — As we continue our Hispanic Heritage Month coverage, we take an in-depth look at the life of an Afro-Cuban woman who was instrumental in helping Cuban liberator Jose Martí.
In-depth reporter Anthony Hill spoke with two historians about the legacy Paulina Pedroso left in Tampa and Cuba.
She’s known as “The Black Mother” of Cuban independence leader Jose Martí. An Afro Cubana who moved to Ybor City in 1892, by way of Key West. This is the story of Paulina Pedroso.
When Paulina and her husband came to Tampa, they had saved up enough money to buy land in Ybor City and build a boarding house. “There was a huge demand for boarding houses in Ybor City because there were many single men who were cigar workers,” said Kenya Carmen Dworkin y Mendez, Professor of Hispanic Studies at Carnegie Mellon University. Paulina’s house was knocked down in the 1950s and is now the Jose Martí Park.
Martí would often come to Tampa and on one of his trips here, there was an assassination attempt when two Spaniards poisoned his wine. “A doctor was called in and he was taken to the boarding house and, there, he was administered to and Paulina became his nurse and his defender,” said Professor Dworkin. Susan Greenbaum, Professor Emerita of Anthropology at USF said, “What they decided was that Martí was not safe in a public hotel. In order to avoid future dangers of that sort, he stayed at their boarding house.”
Martí grew fond of Paulina. “He would go out with Paulina Pedroso and walk up and down the avenue of Ybor City with her arm on, said Professor Dworkin. “And this was part of the ‘do you see what that guy is doing?’” said Professor Greenbaum. “This was not a common sight, obviously,” said Professor Dworkin. “So, this was a way of him performing this racial unity and he did that with her.”
Martí wanted to unite all Cubans regardless of race. Professor Dworkin said, “There was a lot of pressure on White Cubans to distance themselves from Black Cubans.” He believed in a free and independent Cuba and Paulina was instrumental in helping Martí raise money in Tampa to fund the war of independence in Cuba. “She would exhort the workers ‘come on! Pony up. We got to do this!” said Professor Greenbaum.
After living in Ybor City for 18 years and contributing to this community, she decided to move back to Cuba. “She was going blind. She was very ill and so she went home, which was common for people to go home and she basically wanted to die on her home soil,” said Professor Dworkin.
Paulina carried around an autographed photograph of Martí . “The one thing that she requested for when she died was that she’d be buried with that photograph and her casket.” She died a poor woman in Cuba in 1925.
Paulina Pedroso was inducted into the Florida Women's Hall of Fame in 1993. Her legacy as a leader, working for the greater good of the community still lives on.