The first cigar rolled in Tampa's Ybor city in 1885 marked the beginning of one of Florida's most renowned immigrant enclaves.
In the almost century and a half since it was founded by a Spaniard who emigrated to Cuba, Vicente Martinez Ybor, Ybor City is morphing into one of Tampa's entrepreneurial hubs, with a fresh wave of aspiring immigrants channeling the area's heritage.
“All we’re doing is continuing that trend of welcoming people from around the world,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn in an interview. “It makes us a very different place than most cities and some of the vestiges of those old neighborhoods still exist today.”
The second episode of Making it in America, a Florida-wide documentary series that features immigrant entrepreneurs, takes a look at how Ybor City’s immigrant roots continue to deepen. Featured in the video are Panamanian-born Roberto Torres and Armenian immigrant Alex Mesropian.
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A few years ago, Torres decided that a quaint corner of Ybor City, with its wrought iron, New Orleans style balconies and brick facades, would be the perfect place for his new cafe, The Blind Tiger. Today, the Blind Tiger has expanded into two other locations around the city.
The stores provide a perfect location for him to showcase his apparel company, Black and Denim.
“I was 18 years old when I came from Panama. My English was terrible. It was really culture shock. I didn’t know what was going on,” said Torres, who graduated from Florida State University with an accounting degree. Torres said he became “disenfranchised” during the Great Recession and decided to leave the financial world and start his own business.
About 10 years ago, he launched Black and Denim, a men’s apparel company that borrows from historic motifs from the 1920s to the 1950s. What started as a business selling t-shirts out of the trunk of his car has grown into a more established company that sells apparel to Macys, Steinmart, Disney and other retailers.
He started The Blind Tiger,which he said was a nickname given to speakeasies in the 1920s, to sell his apparel. He attached a co-working space next door so regulars can make it their official business space.
“I come here every morning to work remotely for a company out of Missouri,” said Josh Loya, a Blind Tiger client. “I’m really amazed at what he has been able to do with the shop. It seems like there’s always a display or a new business element going in.”
Lori Rosso, executive director of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce, said entrepreneurs like Torres are inspiring developers to invest in the area. She points to the growing development in the area by investors looking to tap Ybor’s authentic roots. Ybor is a major incubator for immigrants looking to make their mark, Rosso said.
“We’re back on the rise again, and we’re bringing in new fresh faces and new entrepreneurial spirit,” Rosso said.
“I think part of the joy of living in Ybor is seeing these people so active in the community and that’s what elevates them in their entrepreneurial spirit.”
Alex Mesropian moved to Tampa from Armenia in his early 20s. He married a local woman of Armenian origin, and together they started successful real estate and property maintenance companies in Ybor City. Together, they employ more than 30 people, he said.
“We ended up owning our own office in Ybor City and we ended up managing at least 30 percent of properties in Ybor City,” Mesropian said. “My goal is to really wake up younger generations and tell them ‘you can do this.’”
A city built largely built by Spanish, Cuban and Italian immigrants, many of whom came to Ybor to roll cigars, is becoming an incubator of entrepreneurial talent.
“Everything that we have here today, and the very foundation upon which we stand, is based on the contributions of immigrants,” said Mayor Buckhorn. “The contributions to our economy are massive.”
Oscar Corral, a former newspaper reporter and Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, is managing director of Explica Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org