Readers: One rainy night in late November 1891, a man stepped off a train in Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood. He had come to solicit money for the effort to free his homeland from four centuries of colonial oppression.
He’d come here because of the large population of expatriates, who dated to 1885, when the neighborhood was settled by fellow Cuban Vicente Martinez Ybor. A man who was in the business of rolling cigars.
At the factories, workers lined up in rows of wooden tables and performed the frenzied but nearly silent task of rolling tobacco leaves into a cone, stuffing cut tobacco into it then trimming it. They moved the cut tobacco across the table with a small wooden hand tool similar in appearance and function to the scraper waiters now use to move breadcrumbs off of your tablecloth.
During the cigar workers’ tedious and repetitive tasks, they would be entertained by a man who loomed over them in a tall chair and read to them from a book, magazine or the day’s newspaper. He was called, naturally, “the reader.” El lector.
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Many of the news articles the workers heard were about “Cuba libre,” the continuing struggle to eject the Spanish from the island. And now, on this night, no less than Jose Marti himself stood before them. The man, just 38, had organized Freedom Clubs from New York to Key West.
Two decades earlier, Spanish authorities had executed 20 medical students in Havana. Now, on this November night, in a jammed hall, Marti called those 20 the first martyrs of the struggle for independence, and said their slayings were not an end, but a beginning.
He found his metaphor in a patch of burned pines he recalled having recently seen as he traveled across Florida by rail.
“The sun suddenly broke through a clearing in the forest,” he said. “I saw above the yellowish grass around the black trunks of the fallen pines, the joyful bunches of new pines. That is what we are. New pines!”
The cigar workers exploded with emotion. Their ovation came not in the form of clapping. Instead, even as rain pounded on the cigar factory’s roof, the workers banged their scraping tools on the tables. It was a deafening cacophony of emotion.
The electrifying “nuevos pinos” speech is one of Marti’s most dramatic moments in Florida. And one of his last major public speeches.
On Jan. 10, 1895, he and others would load three boats in Florida for an incursion into Cuba, but the U.S. government would seize the vessels. Marti would later sneak back onto the island. On May 19, 1895, some six months after Tampa, he was killed in battle.
But many others rose like new pines, and when the sinking of the Maine in 1898 brought America to war, Cuba’s dream of independence from Spain was realized. What happened in Cuba in the decades after that is a story for another day.
Next week: Houses of Refuge.
Eliot Kleinberg has been a staff writer for the past three decades at the Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, and is the author of 10 books about Florida (www.ekfla.com). Submit your questions, comments or memories to FloridaTime@Gatehousemedia.com. Include your full name and hometown. Sorry, no personal replies.