Tampa Bay’s Cuban community keeps its spirit alive through history, family and growing connections to Cuba.
Sounds of conversation echo through the dining room of La Teresita, voices rising over Cuban music and the clinking of plates being served. The dining room, with marigold-colored walls and bright sun coming through the windows, is full on this Saturday afternoon as some of Tampa Bay’s Cuban community gathers to eat, listen to music and, most of all, to socialize.
I’m here to reconnect with my Cuban roots, and I’m not alone.
In the restaurants of West Tampa and Ybor City—from the welcoming dining at La Teresita, to the modest white stucco building of La Tropicana Café, to the tables along Arco Iris’ colorful murals—stories of the old days are told and café con leche is enjoyed.
Walking into these places is an immersion in Cuban culture and customs; a pocket of Havana in the United States. For so many, this is an area that evokes the warmth of home.
“People come here to be in touch with other Cubans,” says Luis Pedraza, the manager for La Teresita. “They don’t rush; they spend hours talking. The community has always been close and this is how they gather.”
That focus on community is on my mind as I later walk the historic streets of Ybor City at sunset—the animated conversations spilling out from storefronts and following me into the open air—exploring the strong bonds that Tampa Bay shares with its island neighbor a 70-minute plane ride to the south.
Though I wasn’t born in Cuba, I can see the influences of its radiant culture of music and food everywhere I look in Ybor City: In the historic buildings and houses; in the restaurants filled with conversation and acoustic music; in the aromas of cigar smoke, freshly brewed coffee and Spanish spices; and in the well-marked historic sites that celebrate Tampa Bay’s connection with Cuba.
For those who left the country in the last half century, the architecture throughout Ybor City—the cobblestone streets, preserved cottages and numerous cigar shops—brings back memories. While the old cigar factories have mostly been converted into shops, office space or restaurants, a walk down 7th Avenue can transport you back in time.
Ybor City was born from Cuban cigar makers who relocated with their factories in the 1880s. It soon became an enclave brought to life by a thriving Cuban community that kept strong ties to and love for their homeland.
“Anytime I feel nostalgic for my country, I go to Ybor CIty,” says the Cuban-born Pedraza. “It is the atmosphere, the people walking freely. When I get a cup of coffee and see people with a cigar in their hand, it reminds me of the old country.”
As I reach the statue of José Martí—a Cuban poet, journalist and revolutionary who campaigned for independence from Spain—that stands near Ybor’s Cuban Club, I’m reminded of my recent visit to Cuba and my own heritage. Seeing the country of my mother’s birth, a place I had heard so many stories about while growing up, was a long-dreamed journey for me. I was able to learn about, and also explore, a land where I had roots and connections. Cuban immigrants who come to Tampa Bay are also able to reconnect with their culture and history in Ybor City.
With the loosening of travel restrictions from the U.S. to Cuba, including nonstop commercial flights between Tampa Bay and Havana, I expect the connections between Tampa Bay and Cuba will become even stronger.
If it’s time to eat and you haven’t been to the Columbia Restaurant yet, go. Spanning a full city block (there’s even a walking tour of the premises), the Columbia is adorned with photographs and newspaper articles on its walls, with indoor palm trees and fountains contributing to its coastal Florida vibe. The restaurant opened in 1905 and, as Florida’s oldest restaurant, still serves its original recipe for the Cuban sandwich and other staples of Cuban cuisine, such as palomilla steak and ropa vieja (shredded beef).
I settle in for dinner here after a day of wandering and reflection. Richard Gonzmart, whose family has owned the restaurant since it opened, echoes the sentiments I had heard from others in Tampa Bay’s Cuban community: “The influence (of Cuba) may be seen—and felt—all over this area in the food, architecture, the history, the heritage and even in the last names of the generations of descendants of those original residents.”
As I get back in my car, I know I leave having felt Tampa Bay’s link to Cuba and its Cuban community—my community. It’s the same feeling I remember after I left Havana: There’s no place like home.