Facing Fascism, in Tampa, Florida, for example

March 30, 2012

Tampa, Florida was a sleepy town of just a few thousand inhabitants when, in 1885, the Spanish cigarmakers Vicente Martínez Ybor and Ignacio Haya decided to relocate their “clear Havana tobacco” cigar factories to the area from Key West.  (They had relocated in 1869 from Havana to Key West to avoid both the high tariffs on cigars produced in Cuba, and the violence of what would become known as the “Ten Years War.”) Thousands of workers soon poured into “Ybor City,” primarily from Spain (Asturias, in particular) and Cuba.  By 1893, there were so many Cuban and Spanish cigar workers in Tampa that in that year José Martí would travel there from New York to generate support and raise funds for the last push of Cuba’s war of independence from Spain (1895-98).

Immigration to Tampa from Spain, often via Cuba, continued unabated during the first decades of the twentieth century.  Thanks in large part to the presence of a considerable population of working-class Spanish immigrants, Tampa would also be a hotbed of pro-Republican fundraising and mobilization during the Spanish Civil War.   “No pasarán”, the rousing pasodoble that became the unofficial anthem of people facing fascism all over the United States, was composed by Leopoldo González, a Tampa-based cigar-factory “lector” or “reader” from Asturias.  In her book Stars for Spain, Marta Rey García uses figures from the US State Department to show that between the start of the war and March of 1939, Tampa’s Comité Popular Democrático de Socorro a España raised a whopping $145,000; by way of comparison, in the same period, the nation-wide umbrella organization called Spanish Societies Confederated to Aid Spain raised $375,000, and the largest of all the aid organizations, the Medical Bureau and North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, raised $805,000.

Alicia C. Menéndez was a child in Tampa during the war: she reminisced about the mobilization of tampeños in this interview conducted in 1997 by Ana Varela Lago, a historian who has gone on to do ground-breaking work on the history of Spaniards in the US.

So that’s when everybody started to help. All the clubs here in Tampa, they started to help. They started to have different kinds of benefits, plays that they put on, and picnics that they had. And all kinds of things that they had to make money. And they did make a lot of money. Because—I had read books, you know. And it tells you about all the money that was raised here in Tampa; to be a small city like Tampa was, with the enthusiasm that everybody went into this, and how they made big amounts of money to buy things for Spain. And, we had the children participating not only the grownups—the grownups did their thing, what was in their power to do—but we, as, and then the, the young people, you know, Las Damas and all that, they had their little things that they did— which brought in a few dollars too every time they had a benefit for this, or that. And then the children—we were taught that this was a very important thing that was going on in Spain. And we heard the talk all the time.

So, we did all these things with a lot of willingness and enthusiasm too because we, when you’re a kid and they ask you to do something to help, it makes you feel very big and very important, you know. So we learned all kinds of things. We learned all the songs that they taught us. And we learned dances that they did in Spain to do at picnics; to make the people want to go to the picnic. And there was one time when we had this picnic that we danced la danza montañesa. There were quite a few teary eyes there because it reminded them of what they had in Tampa, you know. So with all these things, I know that we made a lot of money because of the sums that I have read, and that it was always, it was also published in newspapers in New York that we did, according to the size of the city, we did as much if not more, than other bigger cities, with bigger populations that we had, that we raised more money…

Every club was vying—one, with the other—either sometimes a little jealously, I wanna do more than you or something, and sometimes pulling together, to do whatever was able to be done. And, we had a lot of Spaniards here that were very good speakers. Our own speakers from our clubs and all that. And whenever they had something, they always had two or three speakers that used to give—I always loved to listen to people talk—I always loved that. And it was, they spoke with such passion, you know, that it stirred up everybody. And even if you didn’t have too much money in your pocket, you would dig in our pocket after the speeches and everybody would leave the little contribution…

Alicia C. Menéndez interviewed by Ana M. Varela-Lago, March 19, 1997 Tampa, Florida, Spanish Civil War Oral History Project, Oral History Program, Florida Studies Center, University of South Florida, Tampa Library

See entire interview, and others at:



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