Fernando’s Footsteps

by Tony Carreño

 

The Great Depression had begun that fateful afternoon of October 29, 1929, now known as "Black Tuesday". Two years into this cataclysmic financial collapse, every part of the American economy had been severely affected. The cigar industry was changing rapidly. Massive layoffs, though necessary, fueled disillusionment of the capitalist system. Labor unrest was increasing. The year 1929 had been a banner year for the industry, with Tampa's 287 factories hand-rolling almost 500 million cigars. However, hard times were ahead for the "Cigar Capital of the World".

"Gaitero,que sorpresa! No esperaba verte aquí."

Ignacio expressed surprise at seeing Fernando. The two men embraced warmly.

"Yo sé que hay riesgo en lo que hago. Pero esta son mi gente, y tengo que mostrar apoyo a su causa."

Fernando, without hesitation, replied that he knew there was a risk in what he was doing. However, these are "his people", and he had to show support for their cause.

Fernando and Ignacio joined the throngs of people filing into the magnificent theater of the Centro Asturiano clubhouse. Many people approached Fernando, hugging him and thanking him for his support. The palatial building, at the southeast corner of Nebraska and Palm Avenues, was considered to be among Tampa's most impressive structures. The theater, ranked among the finest in all of Florida, had a capacity of approximately 1,100 people. On this October evening in 1931, it was filled beyond its seating capacity. 

Several months prior, the cigar workers' union had called for a general strike. Central among the many issues was the subject of the "lectores" or readers. Factory owners had grown concerned that the readers were "poisoning" the minds of the workers by reading progressive, left-leaning newspapers and works of literature. The factory owners were barring the readers from the factories. Following peaceful demonstrations, many factories had locked out their workers, offering their jobs back at substantially lower wages. Negotiations were progressing poorly. The union leaders had called for a general meeting at the Centro Asturiano theater.

Fernando knew that as a manager, he was expected to support the factory owners. After much introspection, he decided that his loyalty lay with the workers. He fully expected to lose his job, a price he was willing to pay. 

"Zapato, hace años que no trabajas como tabaquero, y ahora es el dueño de un negocio privado. También me quedo sorprendido verte aquí."

As the two men were taking their seats, Fernando similarly expressed surprise at seeing Ignacio at the strike meeting. It had been years since Ignacio stopped working as a cigar maker. A few years after Fernando married, Ignacio married Sofia Faedo. Her family had a small dairy farm in the northwest part of West Tampa. The demand for dairy products had grown rapidly along with Tampa's population. Ignacio and Sofia had successfully built her family's business into one of the larger and better-known dairy farms in the Tampa area. 

"Gaitero, como tú, mi corazón todavía queda con esta comunidad. También, el éxito de mi lechería depende mucho que la gente puedan comprar mis productos. También, es nuestro elemento.....recordamos de dónde vinimos, verdad?"

Ignacio told Fernando that his heart still remained with the community of the workers. He felt it was their basic element, remembering from where they came. On a more pragmatic level, he also reminded Fernando that the success of his dairy business depended on the ability of people to buy his products. He had seen proof that a prosperous middle class was very good for private businesses. 

There was a long table on the stage. Sitting at the table were four men and one woman. The first person to speak was Belarmino Pedroso. Though visibly older, his passion for, and dedication to, his struggle for the common person was more evident than ever.

"Al pueblo tampeño, le digo que ahora es el momento de unirse contra las fuerzas que quieren quitarles sus derechos. Su derecho a ganar un salario con el que pueda vivir de una manera decente. Su derecho a trabajar en condiciones humanas. Su derecho a escuchar a personas o ideas cuyos objetivos son darle una manera de mejorar su vida."

Belarmino appealed to the workers of Tampa to unite against those forces that were trying to take away their rights. He spoke of the rights to a decent wage and humane working conditions. Above all, he championed the right to listen to any person or idea, even those that conflicted with his political opinions. As he concluded, the audience rose to their feet in thunderous applause. 

As the next speaker rose and approached the dais, the audience, still standing, began shouting words of adulation and praise. The older gentleman about to speak was Armando Nogueira Yglesias, the reader who had translated for Fernando the day he first arrived at Port Tampa. Now in his late 60s, he was no longer working as a reader. He was the owner and publisher of a progressive newspaper, "El Obrero Iluminado" ("The Enlightened Worker"). This newspaper was well respected by union leaders across the country, and local politicians vied for its endorsement during elections.

Armando spoke passionately and eloquently about the right of the people to be informed and educated. He warned that when ideas and free speech become the enemy, dictatorships can take hold. He cautioned that the elimination of the factory readers was about more than losing a form of entertainment. It was an attempt to deprive workers of an education, a form of control.

The evening ended with a frank and pessimistic assessment of what lay ahead. The reality was that the strike was going the way of the factory owners. Workers were desperate, as their savings were depleted. Jobs in other industries were all but nonexistent. Emergency assistance funds, such as those offered by the Centro Asturiano, were rapidly being spent. While the spirit of cooperation was impressive, it was probably not going to be enough to win the strike. The cigar industry in Tampa was forever changed. Opportunity and security were no longer limitless. 

As Fernando and Ignacio walked to the parking area, Ignacio reminded Fernando that his son's birthday celebration was scheduled for the next Sunday afternoon at his home. Ignacio and Sofia had two sons and one daughter. Rafael, their youngest child, was a bit older than Luciano. Like their fathers, the two boys were very close friends. Over the years, the special bond between Fernando and Ignacio had extended to their families as well.

"Hijos, vamos! Estamos un poco tarde. Zapato y la familia nos esperan!"

Fernando, always punctual, asked his kids to hurry up. They were running a bit late for Rafael's birthday celebration. They piled into the car, holding trays of Spanish and Sicilian food. Giuseppina, an excellent cook, had become legendary for being a guest that never arrives empty-handed. 

Soon after crossing the Michigan Ave. bridge, Fernando turned right on Armenia Ave. This was a newer area of West Tampa, and known as "Los Cien" ("The One Hundred"). The name was taken from the fact that several of the large cigar factories in the area had built one hundred homes and then offered them at cost to their workers. This was done as an incentive to draw and keep workers. They employed a lottery system to decide who could make a purchase, since the demand exceeded the supply. Large factories such as Gracia y Vega, Celestino Vega, Andrés Díaz, and Calixto Lopez were the dominant employers in this northernmost part of West Tampa. Soon they were headed west on Tampa Bay Blvd. After a few blocks, just past Tampa Bay Blvd. elementary school, the paved road gave way to sand and gravel. They rolled up their windows to avoid the dust. After a few more blocks, the roadway ended. Just in front of them was a large wooden house surrounded by beautiful live oak trees. Many horse-drawn wagons and automobiles were parked on either side of the gate. Beyond the house were large fields with what appeared to be an infinite number of cows grazing. The unmistakable combination of smells unique to dairy farms instantly transported Fernando back to his native Candamo, Asturias. To the left of a large, opened gate was a sign that read "Sunny South Dairy". As would frequently happen, Fernando was reminded of how he, Ignacio, and so many other immigrants had achieved the "American Dream". Because of recent events, he was no longer sure of how enduring this dream would be.

After lunch and the traditional birthday cake, Fernando and several other men entertained most of the guests with traditional Galician and Asturian bagpipe songs. Several couples performed the traditional jig dances of these northern Spanish provinces. Called "jotas", they're lively Irish-like dances popular at festivals and parties. The children and younger adults had gone inside the house and were listening to jazz and a new type of American music called "swing" or "big band".

Following the music and dancing, most of the men retreated to play dominoes or cards, and discuss politics. The women were helping Sofia in the kitchen.  A few months prior, Spain had formed a democratically-elected Republic, a staunch rejection of the monarchy and the Catholic Church. Believing a "new Spain" was emerging, many of the conversations were focused on the possibility of returning to their beloved homeland. Fernando and Ignacio were seated at a table, no one else was with them.

"Bueno, Zapato. Lo que yo esperaba, ocurrió. Hace dos días que me botaron de mi trabajo. Me dijieron que mi presencia en la reunión de la huelga la otra noche es el razón."

Fernando confessed to Ignacio that he was fired from his job at Sanchez y Haya two days prior. What he had predicted had, indeed, happened. 

"Vaya, hombre. Que vas a hacer? Quieres trabajar aquí en la lechería hasta que encuentras algo mejor? La buena cosa es que, aunque hay la crisis, la gente todavía tienen que comer."

Zapato, shaken by the news, wondered what Fernando was going to do. He offered him a job at the dairy until he could find something better. Ignacio commented that although there was an ongoing economic depression, people still had to eat.

Fernando hesitatingly replied that the Licata family had offered him a position with the family business, and that he had accepted the offer. There was an agreement that Fernando would not get directly involved in any activity that was untoward, or illegal. Gaetano and his sons agreed, and Fernando would become the office manager and accountant at Licata's Fruits and Vegetables.

--

This is a work of fiction. With the exception of references to known and publicly documented historical entities, the following apply:

Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. ©Tony Carreño 2020