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Friday, Aug 01, 2014
Commentary

Cigar factory origins endure in newspaper

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It was a lector who started it all. The person hired to read to workers while they rolled cigars. Sitting atop a raised platform in the workshop, the lector would read aloud books, magazines, and newspaper articles, enlightening the workers of the world beyond the brick walls of the factory. This was Tampa, 1913, and Victoriano Manteiga was fresh from Cuba. Becoming a lector was his first opportunity in this new world of America and Ybor City.

From his daily readings, Victoriano cultivated a reputation as being somewhat of an intellectual. So it was only natural that when cigar factory strikes doomed the lector business, (the lectors were thought to be strike instigators) he decided to gamble on a new venture: newspaper publishing.

At first, it was in Spanish and was delivered Monday through Saturday. Victoriano wrote a column; the paper contained everything from recipes and poetry to news, both local and dispatches from Spain and Cuba. The newspaper was well received by the Spanish-speaking newcomers.

La Gaceta was born.

Today, in its third generation, La Gaceta is run by Victoriano’s grandson, Patrick Manteiga. Housed in Ybor City on 7th Avenue, the weekly is the nation’s only tri-lingual newspaper: English, Spanish and Italian. Since 1922, La Gaceta has played a role in Tampa’s growth and its politics, consistently a voice for the Latin community, for the worker, the underdog. Although the world of newspaper publishing has dramatically changed over the decades, La Gaceta has remained very much the same.

It was Roland Manteiga, Victoriano’s son, who, in 1955, established a political column called “As We Heard It.” Roland talked to people other reporters didn’t know. He listened to the folks who hung around the police station and City Hall, in the coffee shops and at Agliano’s fish market in Ybor City. People told Roland things they wouldn’t tell others. He had the ability to sort out fact from fiction. When he published a piece of political “gossip,” it was likely to be true.

Roland may have been intimidated by his father’s reputation as an intellectual, but he quickly developed his own unique style that others may have found daunting. Roland often wore a white linen suit and had his own corner table at the bustling La Tropicana restaurant in Ybor City where public officials and political candidates came to seek his endorsement or advice. Over Cuban toast and café con leche, Roland listened more than he spoke, casting a discerning eye upon each prospective office seeker.

From the mid-1950s, to his death in 1998, those seeking public office in Hillsborough County, or the state of Florida, paid a visit to Roland Manteiga. From City Council to presidential candidates, Roland met them all.

I first visited Roland in 1983, just two years out of college, when I was in the early stages of considering a future run for public office. It was nerve-racking. His long periods of silence made my palms sweat. He could have easily been dismissive of someone so young and inexperienced. But Roland cared more about what you stood for — what kind of politician were you going to be. If he saw someone who would give voice to the less powerful, he would place his bet on you.

When Roland died, the job of keeping both the newspaper going and the political column relevant, fell to his son, Patrick. History repeats: Roland’s reputation was tough to follow and impossible to emulate. But just as Roland staked out his own distinctive style from Victoriano, so too has Patrick. “As We Heard It” continues to be a must read for people interested in politics.

When you visit the La Gaceta offices, be prepared for a trip back through time. The walls are lined with photos of Victoriano, Roland and Patrick visiting with presidents, governors, mayors and civic leaders from decades past. You can almost smell the ink, picture Victoriano laying out the pages, Roland giving one last look at the proofs before sending them to print.

Visitors are greeted by the barks of a Papillon named Vegas that never stops wagging her tail. And it is still very much a family affair: Patrick’s wife, Angie, works beside her husband, mother Peggy greets guests at the front door, and daughter Erin has assumed the future role as the fourth generation of Manteiga to run the family newspaper.

Time stands still here. There is no Twitter feed, no emphasis on social media.

Patrick still saves his political tidbits and insights for his once-a-week column. Speed is not his priority, and it hasn’t always mattered to the readers of La Gaceta. The column usually has information no one else has, so being fast isn’t the model. Besides, says Patrick, “I don’t know how to immediately see something and know what to say to the public.” An old-fashioned notion in today’s media where instant information and analysis is the norm. But in the tradition of his grandfather and father, Patrick still gathers his information, checks the sources, and publishes once a week. His readers wait. And it works.

Ninety-one years ago, an immigrant took a risk and started a newspaper. Built on relationships and hard work the weekly that served the Latin neighborhoods ended up benefiting the broader community. There is comfort in this consistency in a world of such rapid change.

Pam Iorio, the former mayor of Tampa, is a speaker and author. Her local history column, Our Journey, runs biweekly in The Tampa Tribune. Readers can contact her at pam@pamiorio.com

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