Book Review: Ybor City & the Latina South

November 18, 2023

Sarah McNamara, Ybor City: Crucible of the Latina South, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2023, 266 pp.

Florida is widely known as a bastion of conservative politics, and especially of Latino conservative politics. Since 1959, the Sunshine State has seen an influx of Cuban and other Latin American immigrants whose experiences have been shaped by the Cold War and anti-communist politics. But Sarah McNamara’s insightful history Ybor City: Crucible of the Latina South takes us back to an earlier chapter of Latino political organizing in Florida, to a community that was overwhelmingly working-class, politically left-wing, and wholeheartedly committed to the antifascist cause. Drawing from a wide array of sources, including oral histories, newspaper reporting, and institutional records, Ybor City examines the establishment, growth, and political development of this Latino enclave, once known as the “Cigar Capital of the World,” and now incorporated as a historic neighborhood of Tampa, Florida. McNamara shows how Latino and Latina cigar workers―with their commitment to anarcho-syndicalist principles and socialist sympathies, their history of interracial organizing, and their collectivist traditions, such as that of the lector who read aloud leftwing literature to the workers while they rolled cigars―built a vibrant and politically progressive community in the face of what was often brutal labor repression and racial intimidation. Their story broadens our understanding of Latino politics in the state and of labor and ethno-racial community organizing in the American South more broadly, while also providing a formidable example of Latino solidarity, ever timelier in the wake of the renewed far-right politics of the Florida of today.

The Spanish Civil War represents an important episode in this local history. Ybor City’s second chapter, “Resisting,” shows how the cause of Spain and the international Popular Front movement helped coalesce the culture of labor unionism and leftist political ideologies that circulated among Latino/a workers at the time, inspiring them to fight both international and homegrown fascism. Ybor City in the 1930s saw the decline of the Cuban cigar industry in the wake of the Great Depression, as well as the rise of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and other white supremacist vigilante groups. Yet rather than feel economic despair and fear, Latino/a workers, galvanized by the Spain’s antifascist crusade, resisted and organized, demanding better working conditions and state protection. Central to these efforts were women, Latina leaders like the famed labor organizer, Guatemala-born Luisa Moreno, who is a main figure in the chapter. Moreno is largely remembered for her important role as founding member of the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA), but McNamara reframes this important later work as an outgrowth of Moreno’s experiences and lessons in interracial, antifascist labor organizing in Ybor City.

Ybor City’s support for a beleaguered republican Spain was swift and decisive. Community members, a large percentage of whom hailed from Cuba and Spain, felt a personal connection to the conflict and mobilized collectively. Mere weeks after the outbreak of the war, in August 1936, community leaders organized a large meeting that included representatives from organized labor, socialists, communists, and liberal political organizations, as well as protestants groups and ethnic mutual aid societies. The result was the creation of the Comité de Defensa del Frente Popular Español, which remained active until 1939. The popular Spanish-language local newspaper, La Gaceta, adopted an anti-fascist editorial line, covering local politics, union activities, instances of domestic racial violence, and other community news within the context of the fight against fascism, while also rallying support for the Spanish Republic. The Comité, in tandem with other sympathetic labor and ethnic associations, organized parades, marches, rallies, letter-writing campaigns, and numerous fundraising events, from picnics and sporting events to theater performances and movie screenings. Their efforts were impressive:

Over the course of three years, the community sent 30 tons of beans, 20,000 pounds of clothing, 1,000 cans of milk, 20,000 cigars, 4 ambulances, an X-ray machine, and upwards of $7,000 in medication. [Women] planned picnics to raise funds, while those who worked in Cuban cigar factories donated a portion of their weekly paycheck to support the republican cause […] Monthly collection efforts typically ranged between $5,000 and $9,000, an impressive sum considering the national and local economic strains these women and men weathered.

Some 24 men from Ybor City joined the International Brigades and traveled to Spain, risking their lives to fight for the Spanish Republic and the ideals it represented.

While showcasing the coalitions that were strengthened by the cause of Spain, Ybor City does not overlook the schisms and tensions that also impacted the community. Efforts to expand the political purview of unions, for example, were not always welcomed. While the CIO aligned itself with the Popular Front, the AFL refused to join, threatened by the CIO’s growing political clout and fearing that the Popular Front challenged its authority. McNamara highlights the sexist and homophobic language at times mobilized by progressive leaders and organizations. Strikebreakers were deemed “afeminados” (effeminate), while male workers often undermined or failed to adequately support women’s causes. Racial dynamics were also far from straightforward. In the context of the segregated south, Latinos’ multiethnic racial composition and tradition of interracial organizing defied white supremacy and its white-black racial strictures. At the same time, McNamara highlights how racial hierarchies persisted even within the more benign racial climate of the Latino community.

These contradictions highlight the remarkably dynamic, multiethnic community that flourished despite the odds, shaped by antifascist and leftist principles. McNamara shows that Latino/a collective endeavors, before, during and after the years of the Spanish Civil War, were impressive in scale and scope. Latino/a workers led and supported militant labor unions, mutual aid associations, and ethnic organizations that challenged racial codes, nativism, and economic injustice while serving as unheralded crucible for intellectual, racial and ideological exchange in the American South.

Cristina Pérez Jiménez, an ALBA board member, is an associate professor of English at Manhattan College.