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He still remembers when the name Fidel Castro invoked words such as hope, promise, potential and freedom.
This was pre-Communist Fidel Castro, a Fidel Castro who Raul Villamia said excited Cubans around the United States with his charisma, ideals, and desire to free the nation of Cuba from the rule of a president many Cubans considered to be a tyrant. In Tampa, Villamia pledged his support to the pre-Communist Castro’s cause, meeting personally with the young revolutionary, and helping to raise money and collect supplies for his revolution.
Of course, in the end, Castro led Cuba down what most consider another bleak path. But on the day that former Cuban President Fulgencio Batista was overthrown, Villamia and many residents of Ybor City thought a better day for Cuba had finally arrived, and they were proud to tell the world that they had a hand in the victory. Especially Villamia, who was hand picked by pre-Communist Castro to become secretary of Tampa’s 26th of July Movement, a revolutionary group led by Castro with fundraising and support organizations in every city in the United States with a heavy Cuban population.
“On January 1, 1959, I woke up around 7 a.m. and listened to the radio and heard that Batista fled Cuba and Fidel Castro was taking power,” said the 81-year-old Villamia. “Ybor City went crazy with happiness,” he continued. “Cars were all over the place, people were yelling and singing. People loved Fidel Castro in Ybor.”
In 1961, everything changed when Castro admitted he was a Communist. The name Castro, which six years earlier during his first visit to Tampa was synonymous with hope, was now the name of a new dictator. And the residents of Ybor City who just two years earlier celebrated their local 26th of July Movement’s contributions to the Cuban revolution, turned on their one-time heroes and ransacked the movement’s headquarters in Ybor City.
Despite the movement’s good intentions at the time, many anti-Castro Cubans still look at the movement’s members in a negative light. Over 40 years later, though, Villamia, one of the last surviving members of Tampa’s movement, still believes he did the right thing under the circumstances of the times.
“I would not have joined the movement if I knew it would promote Communism. But, there is no difference between Batista and Fidel Castro except Fidel Castro confiscated property while Batista took people’s money,” said Villamia.
To see pictures of a young, handsome, baby-faced Villamia one would never think he was once an influential political figure in Tampa, a man who once sat side-by-side one of the world’s most historic and infamous dictators during his trips to Tampa. When some think of the 26th of July Movement, they think of revolutionaries, and revolutionaries are often thought of as men wearing military fatigues. Villamia and the 26th of July Movement supporters in Tampa never looked the part, because they weren’t so much revolutionaries as they were missionaries. They were doctors, lawyers, cigar rollers, construction workers, and writers. They were not warriors. They were everyday Tampa residents who wanted to help the suffering citizens of Cuba overthrow Batista.
“We supported Fidel Castro because we thought he would help Cuba,” said Villamia. “Instead, he returned Cuba to a tyranny and killed a lot of people. I am still angry, but I am not an anti-Castro person. A lot of the anti-Castro people were Batistians. Batista was a terrible man. All I wanted was a better Cuba. I love Cuba. It is my home.”
Born and raised in Cuba, Villamia was the second youngest of seven children (four boys and three girls). His family was never rich, but Villamia said the fact that they owned their house and a car made them better off than many families. His father drove a horse and carriage into the late 1920s, and later drove a taxicab. His oldest brothers owned a cafeteria and later went into the diamond cutting business.
When Villamia entered adulthood, he joined his brothers as a diamond cutter, but his true occupation was baseball.
At the age of 21 he won a championship with Sociedad de Pilar and was making a name for himself as one of Cuba’s up-and-coming stars. In 1947, after a tournament game at the University of Havana, a scout approached Villamia and offered him a job pitching for the Washington Senators. He talked it over with his family and decided it was an opportunity he could not pass up. Shortly thereafter he signed the contract and was off to Big Spring, Texas to pitch in the minor leagues.
For the next six years, Villamia traveled the country, pitching in a number of minor league divisions, looking for his shot at the major leagues. He pitched in Connecticut, Alabama, Virginia, Georgia and Florida. He won 16 games in Dublin, Georgia with an ERA of 1.63. And he played with Jackie Robinson during Spring Training in 1949 while pitching for a Brooklyn Dodgers’ minor league affiliate. He would pitch for six months and then return to Cuba for another six, as he could only obtain a six-month work visa.
In 1953 Villamia’s brother in New York helped him obtain fulltime U.S. residency. While playing for a team in Deland, Florida in 1951, Villamia visited and fell in love with Ybor City, so he chose the Latin community as his new fulltime home.
While waiting for the minor league season to begin, Villamia stayed in shape by playing in Ybor City’s inter-social baseball league. The league found him work at the Corral Wodiska Cigar Factory and an apartment above the Ritz Theater. While walking to work every morning, a beautiful woman, Nora Rodriguez, at the bus stop would catch his eye. When he finally found the nerve to approach her and ask her out, she said yes, and less than one year later they were married. Another year later their first daughter was born.
When baseball season began that spring, for the first time since he was a boy, Villamia was not on a team.
“I decided I needed to raise my family,” he said. “And get involved in politics.”
Though a resident of the United States, Villamia could not stop thinking about the volatile situation brewing in Cuba. On July 26, 1953, an army led by Fidel Castro failed in their attempt to overthrow Batista. Castro was captured and jailed. When he was released in 1955, he reformed his revolutionary group in Mexico under the name “The 26th of July Movement.” Before he led a second military revolution in Cuba, though, Castro wanted to strengthen his army. To do so, he formed 26th of July Movement groups throughout the United States, meeting personally with the leaders in each city, ensuring them that their support would lead to a better Cuba.
“In Cuba I was never involved in politics,” explained Villamia, “but in Tampa I became very interested in what Fidel Castro was doing in Cuba. I would listen to him speak on the radio and read about him in the newspapers. I knew that Batista was treating people badly in Cuba and wanted to see Fidel Castro succeed. Fidel Castro had Jose Marti ideas. When Jose Marti came to the United States he took organized clubs to support the independence of Cuba. When I learned that Fidel Castro wanted to come to Ybor City and form a club here, I wanted to help.”
One of Castro’s top aides arrived in Ybor City prior to Castro’s visit to organize Tampa’s 26th of July Movement. He tabbed Victoriano Manteiga, who Villamia said was known as an intellectual and progressive man who spoke out against dictators, as president of the local movement.
“Castro planned to speak to his Tampa supporters on November 27, 1955,” said Villamia. “This is a famous day for Cubans because on this day [in 1871] eight Cuban students were arrested and later shot by the Spanish government for wanting Cuba to be free from Spain. November 27 was also the date that Jose Marti spoke in Tampa. Everything Fidel Castro was doing was like Marti.”
Manteiga rented the Italian Club for Castro’s speech. With everything set, Castro arrived on November 22 and met with his supporters at La Gaceta newspaper to discuss his big speech planned for November 27.
“I was working so I didn’t witness the first meeting at La Gaceta,” remembered Villamia. “But after work someone called me and said I should hurry over there because he was still there. When I got to La Gaceta, Victoriano told me Fidel Castro had just left. But, he said in their conversation Fidel Castro had specifically asked to meet me.”
Villamia’s brother, Mario, was already instrumental in the 26th of July Movement in New York, helping to raise funds and obtain guns for the revolution. When Mario learned that Castro would be visiting Tampa, he told him to seek out his brother, who was willing to be a leader.
Villamia hurried over to the home where Castro was staying in Ybor City. It was there that Castro explained to Villamia and a handful of other men what he needed them to do.
“He said we needed to take Batista out of office because he is a dictator and is killing our people,” said Villamia. “To do this, he needed our help raising money for his revolution and telling people of the horrible things Batista was doing. On November 24, 1955 Fidel Castro officially named Victoriano Manteiga president and me secretary, and Tampa’s 26th of July Movement was formed.”
A day later, the Italian Club officers contacted Manteiga and said they could no longer allow Castro to use their club because “there is a connection to some people who belonged to the Italian Club with Batista,” explained Villamia. “Fidel Castro said we didn’t need a hall, though. He said he’d give his speech in a park or on the streets of Ybor. He said it was the message that was important.”
But, a local union leader stepped up and allowed the 26th of July Movement to use his union hall for free. On November 27, 1955, as planned, Fidel Castro spoke to 300 supporters in Tampa, energizing them to support his cause. The next day, Castro went to Miami to organize his support group there, leaving Manteiga and Villamia in charge in Tampa.
“Over the years, a lot of people changed in and out of the club,” said Villamia. “We always had around 40 members and Victoriano and I were always there.”
After Castro overthrew Batista and was named president of Cuba, Villamia and Manteiga rented a space in the El Pasaje building in Ybor City to house the 26th of July Movement. The revolution was over, but there was still a lot of work to do, as Castro still needed funds to successfully launch his new government.
Tampa’s 26th of July Movement continued to raise money for the new government and continued to collect supplies such as clothes and food for the people. They also raised money to erect the Jose Marti statue in Jose Marti Park in Ybor City as to continue to illicit pride in Ybor City’s Cuban population.
As relations between the United States and Castro’s Cuba began to deteriorate, so did the 26th of July Movement in Tampa. Finally, in 1961, the 26th of July Movement closed its office in the El Pasaje building and disbanded for good.
Villamia stepped away from political activism and instead concentrated on his family and his new career with the City of Tampa’s Transportation Department. In 1988, he retired and has since, “traveled and spent time with my children, and done nothing,” he laughed. “I worked enough when I was young. Now I just want to relax and remember my younger days.”
And no matter what people say, he still remembers his time as a political activist in a positive light, reiterating, “We did what we thought was right.”
"Filmlook" is ©2008 by Paul Guzzo. All graphics unless otherwise noted are creations of Nolan B. Canova. All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2008 by Nolan B. Canova.