In “Cuban Pathways,” a flagship exhibit from the Tampa Bay History Center, you can admire the beauty and blood that has punctuated Cuba’s history for centuries.
“I have never seen anything so beautiful,” exclaimed 15th-century explorer Christopher Columbus when he first saw Cuba.
And yet, this largest island in the Caribbean, which has seen more than 500 years of migration, has also seen thousands of refugees flee this tropical paradise.
“Cuban Pathways,” a fascinating and well-researched exhibit mounted by the History Center, exposes these contradictions and shows a picture of a land with long and close ties to Tampa.
A 1603 map from the collection of the central Touchton Map Library shows Cuba 777 miles long, roughly in the shape of a crocodile.
The exhibit includes coins minted from the gold that attracted the Spaniards to the island. When the gold ran out, the settlers turned to cattle ranching and sugar cane plantations. Along the way, Chinese laborers were brought in. They joined the native Tainos, the indigenous people of the Caribbean, in being enslaved with black people brought from West Africa.
Visitors to the exhibition can listen to the music of that era in the recorded animated sounds of “sound”, the musical rhythm that echoes the sounds of West Africa.
The exhibit, with its rich mix of artifacts, maps, and music, provides an overview of Cuba’s evolution.
“We wanted to tell the long story of Cuban history,” explains Brad Massey, curator of the exhibition. “We talk about local Tampa history that often gets lost in post-Castro conversation.”
Cuba and Tampa have long-standing ties, from the Ybor City statue of Cuban revolutionary leader Jose Marti, who came to Tampa in 1891, to the cigar workers whose photos you can find here.
“People don’t realize that Tampa has been tied to Cuba since the 1860s, living and working in Tampa almost 100 years longer than in Miami,” said Maruchi Azorin, the show’s sponsor with her husband, the Dr. Rafael W. .Blanco. Azorin, originally from Cuba, immigrated to the United States with his family in 1960 and grew up in Plant City, just east of Tampa. She owns Villa Rosa Distinctive Linens in South Tampa. Commission on the Status of Women.
“Tampa is the Ellis Island of the South,” says Cuban Club president Patrick Manteiga, third-generation editor and publisher of La Gaceta newspaper in Tampa. La Gaceta has been in circulation since 1922 and is one of the country’s oldest minority-owned family newspapers and “the country’s only trilingual newspaper”.
Havana was a bustling vacation destination for Americans from the 1920s through the 1950s, as seen in an assortment of mid-century travel brochures.
Fidel Castro’s rise to power changed all that, triggering a relentless flow of refugees who attempted to cross the 90 miles from Cuba to Florida in flimsy boats.
This representation is the most heartbreaking part of the exhibition.
The images on display show boats painstakingly crafted from aluminum sheets and blue tarpaulins. Never forget a child’s pink and blue sneakers and a snorkel fashioned from part of a beach chair.
Unforgettable are the words written by a refugee on an oar he used to cross the Florida Strait: “We have reached the goal, thank God.
The Cuban Pathways exhibition opened on February 11. Special programming includes:
- Members evening (annual membership starts at $35)
Members of the History Center are invited to a special reception and talk with Dr. Brad Massey on Thursday, February 24, 5:30-7:30 p.m.
- Conversations in Florida
Dive deeper into Tampa-Cuba connections during a special talk on Florida hosted by Lissette Campos on Wednesday, April 13 at 6:30 p.m. Join us in person or with Zoom.
For more information, visit Cuban Pathways at the Tampa Bay History Center.
Funding for this story was made possible through a subscription partnership between 83 Degrees Media and the Tampa Bay History Center.