A Piece of Cuba in Florida
February 6, 2017 by PR@VisitTampaBay.com
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A Piece of Cuba in Florida
By Thorsten Keller
Berlin Morning Post, January 22, 2017
Whoever listens to Wallace Reyes, quickly senses the enthusiasm with which the 62-year-old speaks about his home Ybor City, a 5,000-resident neighborhood on the east side of Tampa on Florida’s West Coast.
“The history of Tampa can be divided into the time BC and AC – ‘before cigars’ and ‘after cigars,” says Wallace Reyes, jokingly referring to BC and AC, with which, in English, actually, the time before Christ (“Before Christ”) and the time after Christ (“After Christ”) is separated. The arrival of Vicente Martinez Ybor, a Spanish cigar producer, on the west coast of Florida in 1885 made a similar division.
Vicente Martinez Ybor bought land and in 1886 built a cigar factory, the cornerstone for an industry that at its peak in the 1920s employed ten thousand people.
Ybor City and Cuba compete for the longest cigar in the world
“Then there were more than 200 factories here in which almost 600 million cigars a year were hand-made,” says Wallace Reyes, who many only call “Wally.” Wally is the soul of cigar production in Ybor City. His family came to the west coast of Florida from Puerto Rico four generations ago, and up to now cigar production appears to be his family business. He portrays the history of Ybor City, the tour guide and the cigar producer in a single person.
Next to his wife Margarita, Puerto Rican Patricio Pena and Cuban José Castelar, Wally is one of four “Grand Master” cigar makers worldwide, who have made special contributions to the interest of cigar production.
On November 18, 2006, during the Tampa Cigar Heritage Festival, Wally earned his title as he, together with a 14-person team, produced the longest cigar in the world: 30.78 meters, 24 kilos in weight, with selected tobacco leaves from Honduras, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. When the cigar was finished after 76 hours, they had worked with more than $3,500 worth of materials. Yet the world record held one three months – until Patricio Pena in Puerto Rico rolled a 41.2 meter long cigar and José Castelar from Cuba just a few months later refined a 45 meter long cigar. What the Cuban didn’t anticipate – Wally Reyes was planning a yet-longer on, his second, the ultimate world record.
At the end of 2009 it was finally so far. This time Wally Reyes gathered 98 volunteers around him. His team needed 24 days. At the end, the longest cigar in the world stood at 59.82 meters long, 50.8 kilos in weight.
“Yet I had anticipated, with a Cuban, they would not let that sit,” says Wally smirking as he looks back on the competition with José Castelar, who in May 2011 finally set the world record for the longest cigar in the world for now with a 81.8 meter cigar.
In Ybor City, which Wally Reyes on his walk-about call “my playground” only scattered shops remain in which a few cigar rollers go about their trade. “In the past year, 60,000 cigars were still produced here,” said the Grand Master Cigar Maker, who family relocated its main business away from Ybor City to Honduras in 2008. The golden age of cigar production here is long in the past – and actually ended with the collapse of the world economy in October 1929. The strength of trade unions, the mechanization of production – many factors led to one of the most important cigar production in the United States to decline – and Ybor City over decades with it.
Cheap rents draw in ever more alternative population
The renaissance of the neighborhood began in the 1990s. “That became what it is today was not planned. But the rents were cheap, that drew in many alternatives,” says Kevin Wiatrowski. What remains of the glory days of cigar production make up the core of the hip Ybor entertainment district – the historic buildings around La Sétima, the 7th Avenue East in the Spanish Quarter, then as now the pulsing artery of Ybor City.
Florida’s first hotel with an electric elevator, one built with financing from John D. Rockefeller, lies just around the corner. The Columbia Restaurant, which opened with 60 seats in 1905 – today Florida’s oldest restaurant – is situated directly on La Sétima. At 52,000 square meters of guest space for up to 1,700 people, it is usually booked up for lunch, which includes another typically local Cuban Sandiwch on the menu.
The largest cigar factory in Ybor City closed in 1935. Once it produced 120,000 cigars a day and its humidor stored up to five million cigars. Unfortunately, the Scientology Church has established itself there. The organization spent just over five million dollars to buy the historic building, more than that on its preservation.
However, Wally Reyes absolutely wants to go to another place in Ybor City. He stops in front of the gates of a fenced-off 600 square meter large park: “Here is Cuba. The only place in the United States until the reopening of the Cuban Embassy in Washington recognized as Cuban territory. And that since 1956,” the tour guide reports.
Back then, before the Revolution in the Caribbean island state, the United States gave the park named after Cuban national poet and freedom fighter José Martí to the island under the Property Protection Act. “But no one wrote in the contract what happens if the relationship between Cuba and the USA deteriorates,” says Wally, grinning. It happened as it had to. As Cuba and the USA froze their relationship, the park was closed and locked – for decades. In the meantime, the Cuban piece of US soil is again freely accessible nine hours a day and also Sundays when the big cruise ships lie at the port of Tampa.
No one who wants to visit this Cuban national territory in the middle of the United States needs a passport. In it there are a statue of José Martí, a mosaic map of Cuba and some plants to see -- and a lot of historic charm. In this one place the Cuban flag and that of the State of Florida wave freely in harmony next to each other, and after 55 years of crisis between the USA and Cuba, refer to common traditions.