top of page

Key West, Ybor City, and José Martí

The culture of the South is as diverse as it is complex. The contributions of so many cultures continue to inspire and push for that more perfect tomorrow. Key West, Ybor City, and José Martí highlight some of the history, hopes, and dreams for those from Cuba and of Cuban descent. We can all learn from the words of José Martí.

Today let’s do something a little different and take a stroll together. Let’s go south, all the way south. The southernmost point of the US kind of south. Yep, Key West.

Depending on your background and experience, you may associate Key West with a whole host of different things. Everything from Ernest Hemingway, the Harry S. Truman Little White House, cruise ships, hurricanes, and more. But there is something more not mentioned in that list.

The Cuban people.

You see, the South does not exist solely as a monocultural behemeth of dirt roads, farms, and a simple way of life. It is a menagerie of cultures and complex history that has filled up substantial numbers of literary works. These cultures range from the Gullah, French, Indigenous, Spanish, Mexican, Haitian, Scotch-Irish, and on and on. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and each culture provides a richness beyond the length I have available to me in this article.

Let’s start with a little history and background

Cubans have shaped this region and country well before the era of Fidel Castro, and it is a disservice to think otherwise. Spanish and Cuban fisherman inhabited the area of what is now Tampa before Spain ceded Florida to the US in 1819. Tampa grew slowly, but then saw a rapid increase in immigration in the mid to late 1800’s, as cigar manufacturers located to Ybor City (two miles north of Tampa at that time). Soon Ybor City became part of the City of Tampa.

Ybor City was a diverse, company town wherein the majority spoke English as a second language. Cubans made up the largest demographic, 15% of which were African Cubans. After the arrival of Spaniards in the late 1800’s, other populations soon followed, including Italians, Germans, Jews, and Chinese.

Most of the employment was in cigar-rolling or in trades supporting the cigar business. Some Cuban workers came to Ybor City directly, and others via Key West. Eventually, Ybor City beat Havana in the production of quality cigars.

Ybor City was known as the “Cigar Capital of the World” by 1900 and had over ten cigar factories. The rich cultural heritage can still be seen in the buildings, streets, and historical sites that were saved by civic organizations after a 1960’s project and interstate split the area and leveled it in large part.

Key West is known for being only ninety miles from Cuba. But did you know that you can visit Cuba without leaving the continental US?

Parque Amigos de José Martí (Friends of José Martí Park) within Ybor City is a small park honoring José Martí, a Cuban patriot and martyr in the struggle for Cuban independence from Spain. The park contains soil from each of Cuba’s provinces, and the title was donated to Cuba in 1956. While Cuba owns the land, it is maintained by the City of Tampa and managed by the Tampa Cuban-American community.

Key West from a different perspective

When you visit Key West, it is almost obligatory to see the monument at the southernmost tip of the US. But something else is more moving, and they are the two pictures you see below. One is located by the monument, and another on the sidewalk a ways down.

Perhaps better than any other words I can attempt to weave, they encapsulate the past and future dreams, hopes, and prayers of so many.

"In honor of the generosity of the people of the United States of America to the people of Cuba.

This memorial is dedicated in honor of the thousands of Cubans, that have lost their lives at sea, looking for freedom and social justice in this great melting pot, America, the leader in democracy."

Ninety Miles

Oh, Havana

Coffee-colored dreams of rainy streets

Boys playing with balls

La Playa Santa Maria

If only I could get to you

And your people could come to me

Jennifer Grafiada

The legacy of José Martí

José Martí was a patriot that devoted his life to liberty and independence, giving his life in its pursuit. But he was also a poet, and one of his more well-known poems was "Cultivo una Rosa Blanca”. His poem is below in Spanish with an English translation following.

The words of José Martí are as important now as when they were first written.

Cultivo una Rosa Blanca

José Martí

Cultivo una rosa blanca,

En julio como en enero,

Para el amigo sincero

Que me da su mano franca.

Y para el cruel que me arranca

El corazon con que vivo,

Cardo ni oruga cultivo

Cultivo una rosa blanca.

I have a white rose to tend,

In July as in January,

I give it to the true friend

Who offers his frank hand to me.

And to the cruel one whose blows

Break the heart by which I live,

Thistle nor thorn do I give

For him, too, I have a white rose.


I can think of no better way to conclude this article than with the incomparable and timeless Celia Cruz singing “Guantanamera", which pulls some of its lyrics from "Cultivo una Rosa Blanca”.

Recent Posts

See All

2 commenti

Thank you for a very educational article. I knew of the history as I have been to Key West, but I learned a lot more from your information.

Mi piace
Holly Bills
Holly Bills
27 gen 2023
Risposta a

Happy you were able to learn some things you didn't know. 😀

Mi piace
bottom of page