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Reading 3: Ybor City, José Martí, and the Spanish–American War

It has been said that the revolutionary activities that took place in Ybor City in the late 1880s and the 1890s caused the Spanish-American War of 1898. Although that may be an exaggeration, the immigrant Cuban population in the city was deeply involved in Cuba's efforts to free itself from Spain.

Resenting their Spanish rulers who had become increasingly harsh, the Cuban people began sporadic rebellions as early as the 1860s. Some of the people who immigrated to Ybor City in the late 1880s were in exile because of their participation in such activities. Because of their proximity to Cuba, Ybor City and Key West became major centers for those who pushed for Cuba's independence. The lectors in the cigar factories often read from revolutionary newspapers and the cigar factory workers supported the revolution with cash donations.

Into this receptive climate came the great revolutionary known as the "George Washington of Cuba." José Martí, born in Cuba in 1853, was a teacher and a writer who advocated the overthrow of the Spanish who controlled his native land. He was exiled twice–in 1871 and again in 1879. From 1881 to 1895, Martí lived in New York City where he spent most of his time writing poetry, essays, and newspaper articles in support of Cuban freedom.

Martí often made long visits to Ybor City. On November 26 and 27, 1891, he delivered two speeches there—Con Todos Y Para Todos ("With All and For All"), and Los Pinos Nueyog ("The New Growth")—which outlined the goals of the United Cuban Revolutionary Party. Both speeches were reproduced in newspapers and journals in the United States and Cuba and inflamed Cuban desire for independence. In 1893 Martí delivered the speech that many feel led directly to war. More than 10,000 Cubans jammed into a small outdoor area in front of the V.M. Ybor Cigar Factory, punctuating Martí's speech with cries of "Cuba Libre!" (Free Cuba!) Following that rousing evening, workers from all the factories pledged to give one day's pay a week to the revolutionary fund. Hundreds of cigar makers and other workers formed infantry companies to begin preparing themselves for battle. From the revolutionary fund they bought a few rifles and some ammunition, as well as many machetes–a weapon with a sharp blade that is a cross between a sword and an axe. Martí returned to Cuba with a small army of these men and led the insurrection of 1895. Martí and many members of his Ybor City army died in a skirmish. Their deaths further inflamed public opinion against Spain.

Newspapers across the country emblazoned Martí's efforts in huge headlines and detailed stories. His death brought more pressure for full-scale revolution with help from the United States. When the U.S. declared war against Spain in 1898, American troops passed through the port of Tampa on their way to Cuba, and many Cuban immigrants were part of that army. Martí was still so revered as a great Cuban freedom fighter many years later that when Fidel Castro imposed a dictatorship on Cuba in 1959, the U.S. government named its shortwave radio broadcasts to Cuba "Radio Martí."

Questions for Reading 3

1. Who was José Martí, and why was he considered to be a martyr to the cause of Cuba's freedom?

2. How did Martí's work in Ybor City help the Cuban revolutionary cause?

3. Why was it logical that American troops embarked for Cuba from Tampa, Florida?

Compiled from James H. Charleton, "Ybor City Historic District" (Hillsborough County, Florida) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1990; and Charles A. Harner, A Pictorial History of Ybor City (Tampa: Trend Publications, Inc., 1975).


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