Tampa Bay History Center exhibit focuses on Cuban history and relationship to Tampa

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TAMPA — When Maruchi Azorín left Cuba with her family when she was just 8, once Fidel Castro took over, she thought it wouldn’t be for long. She harbored the hope that her father, Rogelio, and her uncles, Manolo and Antonio, would find their business and their home in Camagüey.

More than six decades have passed since his family left the island to flee the communist regime. His family would tell them stories about Cuba and their reasons for leaving when Castro came to power. Nothing has returned to what it was before, but the legacy of its roots has never failed to point to the past of an island rich in tradition and history.

More than six decades have passed and nothing has changed in Cuba. But despite the circumstances, the Azorins have managed to keep their history alive and their commitment to forging a new path in the United States.

This legacy is part of a meticulous exhibit called “Cuban Pathways” by the Tampa Bay History Center. The exhibition tells the story of 500 years of Cuba invented by Spanish explorers, their travels, the waves of new immigrants and the efforts of their independence leaders in search of freedom.

The exhibit has been in development for two years and occupies 2,000 square feet of gallery space. It features more than 100 artifacts such as the first map of the Caribbean basin, published in 1511, and a homemade refugee boat that made the 90-mile journey to Key West with 12 people on board.

Cuban Pathways – which runs for a year – features documents, music and images of men and women who are part of Cuba’s history and diversity. The list includes names like Paulina Pedroso, an Afro-Cuban revolutionary against Spain in 1895, who sheltered Cuban freedom fighter José Martí during a visit to Tampa when he was poisoned; Rogelio Azorín, whose family established a manufacturing business after arriving from Spain at the end of the 19th century; and Francisco Changsut, who emigrated from China to Cuba around 1900.

The current exhibit covers the Taino Indians, early Spanish settlements, and the arrival of the first Africans to the island, among others. The exhibit also chronicles Ybor City’s first working class; Cuban music and culture; tobacco “torcedores” or cigar rollers; the first urbanizations born in the wake of modernity; and the “Mutual Aid Societies”, voluntary associations which fulfilled a social task of great importance by helping members faced with difficult circumstances.

“Given our region’s deep ties to Cuba, this story is part of Tampa Bay’s history,” CJ Roberts, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay History Center, said in a statement.

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Ybor City was a fundamental part of local history, consolidating itself as an urban center that attracted projects and initiatives of all kinds. Shops, mansions and hotels were born as new opportunities presented themselves, but their destiny changed forever with the tobacco industry and the vision of an entrepreneur, Vicente Martínez Ybor, who founded the city of Ybor in 1885. Later more than 150 tobacco factories were established with an annual output of over 500 million cigars.

Curator Dr. Brad Massey talks about the new Cuban Pathways exhibit covering 500 years of Cuban history inside the Tampa Bay History Center in Tampa on Friday.
Curator Dr. Brad Massey talks about the new Cuban Pathways exhibit covering 500 years of Cuban history inside the Tampa Bay History Center in Tampa on Friday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Another chapter in modern Cuban history is Operation Pedro Pan, a plan that transferred 14,048 Cuban children to US territory. Children left Cuba without their parents on flights from Havana to Miami between 1960 and 1962. It was by far the most dramatic child exodus in modern history. But it was also a race against time as many Cuban parents were convinced that the new regime would exert control over the future of their children.

The collection is not unaware of the mass exodus of Cuban migrants during the Mariel boat lift in 1980, the fall of the Soviet Union and the “special period” of the 1990s when the Cuban economy entered serious crisis, and the drama of 35,000 rafters. who fled Cuba in 1994. For added realism, the exhibit uses a giant slide viewer that shows photos of Cuba before the communist revolution and a rustic boat used by a group of people who left the island last September. According to organizers, the chug boat, powered by a diesel engine, carried 12 people to the shore of Key West, near the famous buoy marking the southernmost point of the continental United States.

A giant Viewmaster featuring images of Cuban tourism and historical images from the Cuban Pathways exhibit covering 500 years of Cuban history photographed inside the Tampa Bay History Center Friday in Tampa.
A giant Viewmaster featuring images of Cuban tourism and historical images from the Cuban Pathways exhibit covering 500 years of Cuban history photographed inside the Tampa Bay History Center Friday in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
A homemade refugee boat that made the 90-mile trip to Key West in September 2021 with 12 people on board displayed at the Cuban Pathways exhibit covering 500 years of Cuban history photographed inside the History Center of Tampa Bay Friday in Tampa.
A homemade refugee boat that made the 90-mile trip to Key West in September 2021 with 12 people on board displayed at the Cuban Pathways exhibit covering 500 years of Cuban history photographed inside the History Center of Tampa Bay Friday in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Azorín, one of the exhibit’s sponsors, along with her husband, Dr. Rafael W. Blanco, said “Cuban Ways” showcases the diversity of the Cuban people as well as the importance and relevance of Tampa.

“Many Tampeños born in Cuba in the 20th century visit the exhibit and relive childhood memories, good and bad, that impacted their lives and who they are today,” Azorín said.

Cuban Pathways is presented in English and Spanish at the Tampa Bay History Center, 801 Water Street. For more information, visit www.tampabayhistorycenter.org

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