Olas del Caribe



Today we share a morsel of South Florida history and its visceral connection with the Caribbean. SoFla IWW member, Monica Kostas, gives us an illustration called “Olas del Caribe” and tells us a bit about what inspired her drawing.


By Monica Kostas


Lately, I’ve been researching the buried radical labor history of Florida and South Florida in particular. Today, we look around us, and the level of political activity is less than lively, but there’s a context obviously-our conditions are inseparable from the larger socio-economic situation of the US and the world at large. The crisis of 2008 has rippled beyond its foreseeable scope leaving the general population stumbling through a scarcity of jobs, rising debt, and the repercussions of a mortgage crisis. Inevitably, the climate of South Florida is no stranger to these ill consequences symptomatic of capitalist workings. But this goes back before the crisis, speaking more specifically about work, the lack of political turbulence points to the ever refinement of the boot that quells resistance through various ploys: atomization of work, labor bureaucracy, exploitation of immigrants, to name a few.

Nevertheless, the crushing step of the sole was not always the same, there were times in Florida history when rebel workers scared the crap out of bosses and capitalists. Let me explain. Digging a bit below our feet, there isn’t only the sand upon which we build, but also the waters that take us all around the Caribbean and back, the same waters that many organizers and activists from the islands used as an escape route to evade repression.
It is incredible to think that Key West, today a capital of bros, beers, and spring break was the center of political turmoil at the turn of the 20th century.
As the southern tip of the southernmost state of the US, the piece that hangs off so fragilely like an extended hand that bridges the Caribbean to the land of blank slates, or as some of us would say, the land that allows un buen borrón y cuenta nueva, Florida was not only a new horizon for people in search for work and a more comfortable life; these shores were also seen as uncharted territory for fleeing latin socialists, and anarcho-syndicalists who thirsted for new land to spark revolutions. Dreams of a better future were not only reserved for utopians however, capitalists who wished to expand business in the Caribbean, yet wanted not to deal with bureaucratic guidelines from Spain also bet on their future in the Sunshine state.
In the late 1800s, while the cigar industry sprouted (and boomed explosively) in Key West with a wave of Cuban immigrants, the strikes and labor unrest soon caught up as well. As tycoons the world over started to get familiar with the popular Havana cigars, their hopes to open up factories in Key West were soon halted as they heard the news about factory workers being too unruly to deal with. The discord carried out by the organized workforces of Key West chased businessmen north to the city of Tampa where they were forced to build Ybor City as a cigar town where they could set the guidelines and play by their rules.
Because of the proximity of Florida to Cuba, workers in these new factory towns in the US were able to follow closely the labor organizing happening in Cuba. One such event for instance was the victory of a prolonged cigar strike in 1902 that sparked a multitudinous parade of thousands of Latin workers marching from Ybor City to West Tampa where celebrations erupted.
Two years later, the first labor walkout among Havana laundry workers is organized in Cuba, solely by women, mostly Afro-Cubans, many of whom were arrested when police suppressed the strike.
“Olas del Caribe” aims to depict this relationship; in particular this dialogue between the women laundry workers in Havana and the women in the cigar factories in Tampa. Las olas that rippled from the island to the mainland carried with them the wisdom, inspiration, and militants that influenced an important facet of radical labor history in Florida; in turn, the woman in focus cyclically points back to the island for her compañeras to look at the laundry workers as a way to incentivize their own organizing efforts. The drawing thus tries to grasp an emblematic instance of the ceaseless exchange that weaves indivisibly the shores of Florida to the Caribbean at large.
For more info on this subject, you can check out:
“The Immigrant World of Ybor City” by Gary R. Mormino, & George E. Pozzetta
“Southern Discomfort – Women’s Activism in Tampa, Florida, 1880s-1920s” by Nancy A. Hewitt
“Miami’s Hidden Labor History” by Thomas A. Castillo (Published in The Florida Historical Quarterly)