Consciousness of Classes: A Story About Ybor City, Cuba and Cigars

Image: Celia y Yunior, Varaentierra, 2017. wood, tobacco leaves and stems, landscaping fabric, vinyl
USFCAM Commission

Cuba played an important role in the development of 19th century Tampa and the 1880s dramatically altered Tampa’s future. In 1886, Spanish born Vicente Martínez Ybor chose Tampa as the site of a cigar-manufacturing center in what is now a section of Tampa called Ybor City. Thousands of Cuban and Spanish immigrants followed to produce hand-rolled cigars and a passionate Latin culture was born.

Ybor City earned a richly deserved reputation for labor unrest and revolutionary politics. Spaniards, Cubans, and Sicilians each brought a heightened sense of class consciousness to Ybor City and in the 1890s one cause dominated political debate: Cuba Libre (Free Cuba)–Cuba’s independence from Spain. Immigrants established an intricate institutional network to foster Cuban independence. Trade union activity practically ceased in respect to the cause and newspapers, schools, debating clubs, and patriotic organizations also embraced Cuba Libre.

No institution symbolized the intellectual passions of the cigar makers or catalyzed the workforce more than el Lector (the reader). Lectores read novels, as well as items from the radical and labor union news. Cigar workers decided which readers were chosen, how they were paid, and selected what would be read. Workers listened to el Lector’s accounts of Cuba’s war for independence while crowds gathered outside in front of the factories to hear news of the revolution. As such, readers served as a conduit for the labor movement and figured prominently in protest for Cuba Libre.

In 1891, exiled Cuban leader Jose Martí was invited to Tampa, which he visited over twenty times until his death in 1895 during a battle in Cuba. Martí was instrumental in unifying issues such as economic oppression, racial injustice, and the Spanish colonialism. In 1892 Martí helped to organize the Cuban Revolutionary Party and cigar makers financed the movement. Allegedly, incendiary orders were written in Tampa, then rolled into cigars and smuggled into Cuba. Because of these activities, Martí is called the “Apostle of Cuban liberty”.

Gum tragacanth is a type of natural glue from the sap of a tree grown in Iran.

Tampa remained “Cigar City,” an economy dependent upon the popularity of cigars. But the success of Cuban liberation was both an end and a beginning for the cigar makers in Ybor City who had supported the Cuban War of Independence. New corporate interests began to control Tampa’s cigar factories with a strengthened forcefulness toward the workforce and in response, ferocious strikes developed. In 1899, Latin cigar makers declared a strike when owners installed scales, thereby challenging the integrity of the workers. A four-month strike ensued, resulting in the deportation of union leaders, mass evictions, and new levels of violence. Large numbers of Cubans left Tampa during the months of la huelga de la pesa (the weight strike) whereas other cigar workers organized La Resistencia, an activist union. The tensions between cigar maker and factory owner escalated and during the 1910 strike Tampa vigilantes hanged two workers as a warning to strikers.

Despite the opposition, the hand-rolled cigar industry flourished until the economy collapsed in the 1930s. Symbolizing the demise of cigar manufacturing was the abolition of the Lectores in 1931. Machines began to replace the skilled cigar makers, and eventually the U.S. government’s embargo against Cuban tobacco in 1961 crippled the Tampa-Cuba tobacco connection and Ybor City’s cigar industry.

Crafting Cigars in Ybor City

The Cigar workers in Ybor City were artisans, and the goal was to produce perfect handcrafted cigars. The first step in cigar manufacturing was to age the tobacco filler, binder, and wrapper leaves under controlled climate conditions. Next, the tobacco was prepared for blending with various tobacco types to create different flavors.

Workers called “strippers” selected and stripped leaves from the tobacco plant and then piled the leaves beside each worker. Small or broken leaves are used as fillers, large leaves are used for the inner wrappings, and the finest leaves are used for the outer wrapper. The cigar maker would choose several leaves and lay each one on the palm of their hand until the artisan sensed that there was just the right amount for a cigar. Each leaf had to be oriented in the right direction so that the cigar would burn evenly and hold its ash once lit. These “filler” leaves were then wrapped with a binder to form a “bunch”. Next, a “wrapper” leaf was placed on a wooden board and trimmed. The “bunch” was placed on top of the wrapper leaf, the cigar was rolled in one smooth, flowing motion and sealed with a dab of gum tragacanth. Lastly the cigar maker trimmed the finished cigar with his blade and the cigar was ready to be seasoned (up to 3 years) before it was considered aged enough to be sold.

Large tobacco leaves drying.

After aging, “pickers” sorted the finished cigars according to color, size and shade to ensure that all cigars in a box looked unified. “Banders” then placed a paper ring on each cigar and “packers” put them into beautiful, handcrafted cigar boxes to be shipped and sold.

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