Thursday, March 30, 2017

Tampa Italians

We generally think of Americans of Italian origin as associated with the Northeast (well, with the exception of New Orleans.) But another Southern town has a significant presence of Italian-Americans, and they started coming around 1885. That city is Tampa in Florida.

The history of the Tampa Italians (who were overwhelmingly of Sicilian origin) began with the establishment around that time of Ybor City. The area, just outside the downtown center of Tampa (which was tiny at the time), was founded by Spanish-born Vicente Martinez-Ybor (EE-bor). He set up cigar factories in Key West; subsequently, when the Key West Cubans (of whom my paternal grandfather was one!) got uppity, he decamped to Tampa. He and other Spaniards built a number of factories, which were mostly manned by Cubans but also a number of Italians (including many Italian women, who were relegated to the less desirable and less skilled task of stripping the tobacco leaves.)

Other immigrants were attracted, such as Germans (who specialized in the decorative cigar boxes) and Jews (who were often merchants). Italians in the cigar industry spoke Spanish. The various ethnic groups began separate social clubs/organizations, which provided instruction, entertainment, socializing and even medical care. Here is the Unione Italiana in the center of Ybor City (7th Avenue). It is still active (probably less active than it could be.)

Most of the Ybor Sicilians came from the province of Agrigento in the South of Sicily (chiefly known for its magnificent Greek ruins). Specifically, they came from two villages, Santo Stefano Quisquina and Alessandria della Rocca. Another immigrant came from nearby Cianciana- Santo Trafficante. He and his son Santo were heavily involved in the Tampa Mafia, with his son Santo Trafficante Jr. becoming (improbably) one of the biggest mobsters in the US during his lifetime. It should go without saying that the great majority of the Tampa Sicilians were not involved with the Mafia. At present, there are a number of peeps of Sicilian origin in Tampa, many of them in prominent positions.

Ybor City and its immigrants is a fascinating topic. You can find out more by reading these books (which I have read and recommend): Mormino, The Immigrant world of Ybor City and Urso, A Stranger in the Barrio: memoir of a Tampa Sicilian.