TAMPA — Marc Vila, born in Cuba and the son of a baker, rose to become a driving force behind a radio station that gave voice to Florida’s Spanish-speaking community.
Vila, vice president and general manager of Tampa’s Spanish-language WQBN-AM, died Monday from a disease that had damaged his lungs. He was 69.
Those who knew Vila remember him as a pillar of Tampa’s Latin community, philanthropic with his time and proud of his heritage.
He is best known for his work bringing to Tampa’s airwaves the round-the-clock Latin music he cherished from his youth in Cuba. He had moved to Florida with his family as revolution approached there in the 1950s.
Not so well known is that Vila was especially proud of his skills as a drummer.
“He loved music,” said his son, Nicholas.
Vila’s band, The Rockin’ Jesters, performed on the New York City music scene in the 1970s. Vila often observed that while his band was far from Hall of Fame status, their limited popularity did lead to one benefit – women.
Or, in his case, one particular woman: At a show in Bayonne, N.J., he met his wife, Diane.
“My dad was a drummer and my mom was a groupie,” Nicholas Vila said with a laugh. “As a child, I remember watching him perform in Elks Clubs and hearing stories of my brother, Marcelino, being put under the stage when he was 6 months old and the band performed.”
The band broke up when its members chose family over the life of rock stars.
“Family was everything to my dad.”
As was his heritage.
Vila’s father, Marcelino, enjoyed success in Cuba but in 1954, with an uncertain future ahead, he relocated his family to Ybor City with its established Cuban-American community. Marc Vila told the Ybor City newspaper La Gaceta, for a July 2000 article, that his father picked up where he left off, quickly opening his own bakery – La Crema on 17th Street and Columbus Drive.
Marc Vila grew up to serve in the Air Force for four years. He received a communications degree from Fordham University, worked in communications with the city of New York and later founded his own publication, Hispanic Market News, focused on Latino retail food trends in New Jersey and New York.
He had two children, a wife and a sound career.
However, something was missing.
Vila often lamented that the Ybor City he grew up in during the 1950s was the closest-knit community he’d ever lived in; an extended family. He would describe how everyone looked out for everyone. Sometimes, he said, this was good, as when a family falling on hard times had the support of their neighbors. And sometimes, he joked, it was bad, as when a teenage Vila got into trouble on Seventh Avenue and word traveled home before he did.
In 1994, Vila visited his family in Tampa and learned of an opening for a director of marketing and advertising with WQBN. He could return to the city he loved and help build a radio station with 24/7 Spanish programming, something he craved during his teenage years when his music played only a few hours a day.
“He wanted to bring Spanish music back to Tampa and have an outlet for the Spanish community,” Nicholas Vila said.
When Vila joined WQBN, the radio station was limited to local advertisers. Under his guidance, it showed national companies the benefit of reaching out to Tampa’s Spanish-speaking audience. In his La Gaceta interview, Vila said AT&T and Western Union were among the first corporate giants to jump on the bandwagon of WQBN. Since then, countless others have joined in on “Super Q 1300.”
In time, these successes lead to his promotion to vice president and general manager of the station.
All the while, he continued to run his food retail publication, now a bilingual national publication called Supermercados USA.
While proud of his father’s professional accomplishments, Nicholas Vila said he hopes that upon his father’s death — five months after the passing of his wife — people remember the man for his kindness.
“He never said no to people in need and he was always in a good mood,” Nicholas said. “No one should be sad. My father would not have wanted that.”