Tampa’s diverse immigrant communities cross paths in a single story.

By Janet Scherberger

In the late 1880s, Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood emerged as a center of Florida’s immigrant community, bringing groups together from all around the world. Many of them came from Cuba and worked in Tampa’s renowned cigar industry or provided goods and services to those who did. They established traditions and laid the foundation for the diverse cultural fabric evident in modern-day Tampa.

“Following Fernando’s Footsteps: A Tale of Tampa’s Invisible Immigrants” tells their story. 

Written by local author Tony Carreño, “Fernando’s Footsteps” follows the life of an 18-year-old Spanish immigrant—who by way of Cuba— arrives in Tampa in 1900 to work in a cigar factory. He becomes part of the city’s multicultural fabric, which includes people from Italy, Germany, Spain, Cuba as well as people of Jewish descent. 

“I’m using Fernando, who is our central character, to personify all these various historical threads,” Carreño says.  

Supported by a $10,000 Community Project Grant from Florida Humanities, the Ybor City Museum Society will create a special exhibition based on Carreño’s work and organize related community programming at historic sites. 

Carreño based the story on personal recollections and conversations as a native “Tampeño” of Spanish and Sicilian descent. Surrounding programming includes a “Fernando’s Footsteps Walking Tour” of Ybor City and events in buildings significant to Tampa’s cultural heritage. 

An opening event in October was held at the J.C. Newman Cigar Factory, Tampa’s last functioning cigar factory. Carreño played the historic role of the lector, who read books and newspapers to workers in cigar factories, as he read selections from “Fernando’s Footsteps” to an audience seated among cigar rollers at work. 

Documentaries will be screened in Centro Asturiano de Tampa, a historic theater in a building that once served as a mutual aid society and social club for Spanish immigrants. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. And a panel discussion will be held in Centro Español de Tampa, built in 1912 as a social club. 

“The very fact that Tampa had a very large immigrant population that came directly or indirectly from Spain is in itself unique because Spanish immigration to the United States was minuscule compared to what it was from the other European countries,” Carreño says. “Tampa had arguably the United States’ largest concentration of Spaniards in that era up until the World War II period.” 

The target audience for “Fernando’s Footsteps,” Carreño says, are fourth- and fifth-generation descendants of original immigrants to Tampa, a dwindling population. 

“It’s important to tell their stories,” he says.  

The “Fernando’s Footsteps” exhibit opens Nov. 10 at the Ybor City Museum. For more information, go to ybormuseum.org. 

FORUM Fall 2022 Cover

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2022 Issue of FORUM Magazine. Visit our collection at the USFSP Digital Archive by clicking here.