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Great-grandson of Ybor City founder looks back on Vicente Martinez-Ybor's 200-year legacy

Vicente Martinez-Ybor's 200th birthday is Friday, and the Ybor City Museum Society is celebrating with cigar rolling, dominos and live music.
Photo: Chelsea Tatham | 10NewsRafael Martinez-Ybor is the great-grandson of Ybor City founder Vincente Martinez-Ybor.

YBOR CITY, Fla. -- Rafael Martinez-Ybor can recall the Ybor City of the mid-1930s.

He was 7 years old, he said, and every Sunday he and his family would go to church, then take the streetcar into Ybor where he’d get an ice cream cone at Los Helados de Ybor.

“You had everything in Ybor City; it’s one of the few cities that has the flavor of this nature,” Martinez-Ybor, 89, said. “Ybor City is one of a kind, and it’s due to one man.”

That man is Vicente Martinez-Ybor, Rafael’s great-grandfather, whose 200th birthday is Friday.

The Ybor City Museum Society will celebrate the founder’s birthday with a garden party in the courtyard of the Ybor City Museum State Park on Friday.

The celebration will have remarks from Rafael as well as cigar rolling demonstrations, dominos and Bolita-style games and live music.

“That is my richness -- my wealth -- is the name that I carry,” Rafael said. “And, I’ve tried to maintain the legacy of my great-grandfather as best I can.”

Rafael said much of Ybor City’s culture rests on the legacy of the immigrants that created the historic neighborhood by hand.

His great-grandfather and other cigar manufacturers immigrated to the area in the late 1880s, building a massive cigar industry that produced hundreds of millions of cigars annually. Ybor City -- and Tampa -- eventually earned the moniker of Cigar Capital of the World.

“The stories these buildings could tell; especially if you walk by the Cuban Club, El Centro Español and Centro Asturiano,” Rafael said. “They’re monuments...to the immigrants who came here.”

When asked how he thinks his great-grandfather would celebrate his 200th birthday in modern Ybor, Rafael mapped out a day of good food, wine and time with his dog Roby (Ybor spelled backward).

“He’d rent out the Columbia (Restaurant), order a Paella Valenciana, see the floor show, have a good wine and give Roby a good plate of black beans and rice and onions,” Rafael said. “I think he would like what he would see.”

Looking to the future, Rafael said he’s hopeful about the impact the proposed Rays baseball stadium could have in Ybor City.

“It’ll be great for the people; it’ll bring people back to Ybor,” he said. “You want people living in Ybor like when I was a kid.”

There is debate over Vicente Martinez Ybor's true birth year.

His mausoleum says 1819, but the Ybor City Museum Society says that's wrong.

He was born in 1818.

Society President Chantal Ruilova Hevia said family documents support the earlier date, and the later date was simply an error.

Vicente Martinez-Ybor's 200th birthday celebration

The 200th birthday celebration will be held from 5-8 p.m. Friday at Ybor City Museum State Park at 1818 E 9th Ave. in Tampa.

The event is free and open to the public, but reservations are required at Eventbrite or on the society's Facebook page.

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