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In this episode, I interviewed Dr. Sarah McNamara, assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University, about her new book, Ybor City: Crucible of the Latina South (UNC Press, 2023). From her website:
“McNamara is dedicated to sharing her scholarship with broad audiences through public history and community engagement. She developed the project, “Nuestra Historia,” an historical memory and preservation project that unites public art with historical markers within the City of Tampa. The first site of this project commemorated the 1937 Antifascist Women’s March of Ybor City and unveiled in Tampa during Women’s History Month of 2023. McNamara regularly collaborates with community groups to coordinate history programs that range from historical photography exhibits to educational events for adults and works on K-12 curriculum development and teacher training through organizations such as the National Humanities Center.
McNamara’s work has received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Association for University Women, the Institute for Citizens and Scholars, the American Historical Association, and the Tulane Center for the Gulf South. In recognition of McNamara’s commitment to teaching and student mentorship at Texas A&M University, she has received the Montague-Center for Teaching Excellence Award, the Early Career Teaching Award from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Association of Former Students Distinguished Achievement Award for Teaching. Sarah McNamara is a native of Tampa, Florida and her family is from Ybor City.”
In our interview we talk about the process of writing and rewriting that book. We also talk about the marvels and challenges of doing oral histories—especially with family members—and the ways that Sarah has worked to make sure that the history she writes in her book is also alive in the community of Ybor City.
MENTIONED IN THIS EPISODE
- Jean M. O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England
- Vicki Ruiz
- Julio Capo, Jr., including his book Welcome to Fairyland: Queer Miami Before 1940
- Carly Goodman’s Dreamland: America’s Immigration Lottery in an Age of Restriction (check out Episode 27 with Carly Goodman)
- Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic
- The book series that Sarah mentions at the end is Evie Dunmore’s League of Extraordinary Women series
Welcome back to Drafting the Past. A podcast all about the craft of writing history. My name is Kate Carpenter and my guest this week is Dr. Sarah McNamara.
Thank you for having me, Kate. I’m excited to be here.
Sarah is an assistant professor of history at Texas A and M University. Her first book, Ybor City: Crucible of the Latina South, came out earlier this year. In it, she tells the story of three generations of migrant, immigrant and US-born Latinas and Latinos, largely from Cuba, the Caribbean, and the Americas. In Tampa, Florida from the late 19th to mid 20th centuries. She particularly focuses on the activist work of women in social and economic justice movements in the community. In our interview, we talk about the process of writing and rewriting that book. And we also talk about the marvels and challenges of doing oral histories, especially with family members and the ways that Sarah has worked to make sure that the history she writes about in her book is also alive in the community of Ybor City. I hope you enjoy my conversation with Dr. Sarah McNamara.
It took me a long time to think of myself as a writer. Instead of thinking of myself as a writer, I thought about myself as an historian who has to write in order to communicate the things that I want to communicate. And for so long, I don’t think I thought twice about good writing or what made a book compelling or what made me want to turn the page or anybody want to turn the page for that matter. I thought, especially as a grad student, that it was all about the ideas and the way you communicate them, and I’m not sure if by and large, we as historians put on the best example that writing really matters, but it really does, and that started to shift for me at two points, both of which happened later in grad school. As I got deeper into this project, one of the things that I began connecting with oftentimes was community, and I wanted people from Ybor City to understand the story I was writing and to be engaged in the story I was telling.
And I quickly realized that if it was an article that I just thought was absolutely brilliant, that it might not be something that resonated with other people, but that I thought there was a way to blend those two things together. And I had an excellent example as a grad student in my advisor. And I will say that, I hope that most programs do this, but my graduate program focused heavily on writing and the quality of writing. My advisor independently, once we became ABD, we would have these classes. It was really the one class you had to take to remain enrolled, and we would all show up at her house and her requirement each week was the same thing. It was that we came to her house with one paragraph of writing. And we would sit in a circle, all of her advisees, I think at that point there were 10 of us and we would work on one paragraph that each of us had written. And we would think about, “Was it a narrative paragraph?”
“Was it something that was argument focused?” But what drove it and what made somebody want to read it, that it was as much about the way you were explaining yourself and the way that you were writing, as much as the content behind it. As that became something that was more conscious for me, the two components really started to link. And that shifted the way that I wrote the book. That I wanted it to be a book that was as accessible as possible, something that could cross over in different spaces that’s still doing the historical work that we’re expected to do, but something that invites readers and who are perhaps less familiar with the work that scholarly historians accomplish. And I feel lucky to have had those examples in that time, and it’s something that I’ve really held onto.
That’s marvelous. What a great experience. Well, let’s start off with the basics, with the practicalities of your writing. When and where do you like to do your writing?
Oh gosh. I like to write at my house, in my office, if I have an ideal scenario. I think most of this book was written in broad swaths of time. I’m a person who I feel like it takes me a while to start thinking and to start writing. And I do it almost in complete silence. If there is anything playing in the background, there’s this one soundtrack that I have listened to on repeat since I was an undergrad while I write. So at this point it doesn’t distract me at all. It’s just a sound in the background. But I like to do it in my office by myself with the door closed, because I talk to myself as I write. I read what I write aloud to myself to see how it sounds and how somebody would receive it. I like to wake up really early.
If I’m really deep in a project, I will wake up around 5:00 in the morning and I’ll just go make coffee and go directly to my office. So me and my cat kicking it in the office together and I begin at least thinking to where I can begin writing. And I noticed that that was a productive pattern for me, I think a few years ago. If we all think about the state of the world and the reality of things going on around us, and I think especially doing Latinx studies following 2016 and the shifts that were happening from immigration and then teaching Latinx studies and the weight that I saw that had on my students, especially having a wide variety of relationships to US citizenship, it became really overwhelming for me.
So I tried to make it a point to begin writing before I read the news or before I engaged with anything that was happening around the world. Because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to write. I would feel completely paralyzed. I remember going on a vacation with my partner, with my spouse, and we came back to the US and it was in the midst of the summer of 2017, when the mass forced deportations began and there were things happening at the US-Mexico border, and I just felt like I couldn’t do anything. So I had to shift the way that I wrote so that I could parcel my time where I was able to be the historian and also the engaged historian that I aim to be.
How about your process? Are there tools that you use to get organized?
Oh, I feel like it’s such an embarrassing question. I tell…
That’s what everyone says.
I tell myself I will be better next time. Yes, I’ve listened to your podcast before and I’m glad that I have that in common with other people, but I know I also have it in common with some of my friends. Especially on our first books, we all talk about how it is embarrassing how disorganized my personal archives are. For this first project and in many ways I think of how I would like to do it differently next time. My notes from graduate school were not particularly organized. I have never really… I’ve never warmed up to the programs that help you align your sources. To me, they’ve always felt clunky and I become annoyed when the citations don’t align correctly. So it was about two years ago where I was like, “Okay. I do have to get better at this.”
I tend to write everything by hand on a piece of paper with a pencil in advance. But at some point you need to reach a deadline, and that’s incredibly inefficient. So I transferred everything to a Word document, which I can search and find the most pertinent pieces of information. I also had to go back and do some research a second time. Early in my graduate career, I don’t know if I thought I was being more efficient, but as I read Spanish language newspapers, I would translate as I read, rather than writing the original Spanish that I was looking at, which in retrospect was incredibly dumb. But it’s all a learning process and it’s fine. But now I make sure that I have all the documentation and I use that Word doc as the easiest way for me to organize myself. In a perfect world, on the next book, I will have that Word doc from the start that is keyword searchable the entire time and allows me to move between different areas and different spaces.
What’s the relationship like between your research process and your writing process? Do you start writing right away or do you wait?
I tend to wait. I know everybody writes differently. There are the… I will say with this book that I wrote and rewrote it multiple times, at least to get the voice and the storyline to where I wanted it to be. But the research process for me, I did the research first predominantly. Of course there was a dissertation version, but this book is one where you won’t see… I don’t really think that there is a sentence that is the same between the two documents. But following the dissertation, I went and did the additional research that I would need to do in order to complete it. And then I spent the remainder of the time doing the writing. There were small things that I pulled from testimonials or oral histories, or there are some published primary sources that are available. And then I always had access to the original, to where I would reference, am I getting this right? Did I take my notes correctly? Hopefully I wouldn’t have to do that the next time. So there was that connection, but I am more of a research first, write second kind of person.
Talk me through how then rewriting looks for you? Do you start totally over from scratch?
I did. There were elements that remained similar. So one of the things for me that really shifted, I think had to do a lot with the kind of historian who I became over time. When I left to graduate school… And I feel like early on, many of us have this compulsion where our work isn’t worthy unless it is answering some lofty intellectual concept or idea. And if I look at my book proposal to UNC press, in a way makes me smile. I had these complicated arguments that each chapter purported to make. And I’ve never been somebody who was particularly theory heavy. I have always been more about here’s the story and here is why it matters and how it shapes us. But I think it took me time to be comfortable with that as the kind of historian who I am. And I might not be reinventing a theory, which that was never a goal of mine to begin with, but I seem to… When I look at that document, I’d certainly had some sort of a compulsion to do that early on.
So the original redrafting of the book added certain chapters to it. And they were… The framework that surrounded them followed these complicated arguments. And as I stepped back and I thought, “Why do I want to write this book and who am I writing this for?” And considering that I did have multiple audiences, that wasn’t going to work. And I started to think about the kinds of books that I really like and the kinds of books that I can see broad audiences or community-based audiences and those who are interested and curious about the past engaging in. And there is something to be said about having extreme control and knowledge about a history and your ability to state it simply and concisely. And so, that became my goal. When I sat back and looked at the original redrafting and I was like, “This is not what I want. This is not what this is going to be.”
And I changed my focus. It was one of my good friends. So for those of you who don’t know, I do 20th century history by and large. I focus on the modern era, but it was one of my friends who told me to go read Jean M. O’Brien’s Firsting and Lasting, and I have a thank you footnote to her at the end of my introduction. Because when I was explaining what I wanted to do with the book and what I knew it wasn’t doing, she said, “This is a book that does exactly what you’re explaining.” She takes a complicated concept in a stereotype and breaks it down into these different phases.
And since my book is telling at one point, it’s telling the story of people and it’s telling a story of how women are central to the evolution of community. But at the same time, it’s telling a story of an urban space, of a state, of a region and how it connects to nation at the same time. So I backed up and I was like, “What makes this simple?” And that’s how I named my chapters, that’s how I organized the book. And the names of the chapters and the primary process that’s taking part within it, became the framework for all of it. So when you step back and you look at a table of contents, those are the steps of the community that I’m explaining and that simplicity started to sit at the heart of it.
You mentioned that you wrote both for academic but also non-academic audiences. How did you think about that audience and why was that important to you?
So I’m writing a story of a community. It’s called Ybor City. The name of the book, which I did not get to title my book. The press titled it for me. It does make it easy with keyword searches though. But I’m writing about this community called Ybor City, it’s a Cuban community located in Florida, and it’s one of the oldest, longest sustaining Latinx communities in the state. And I say that it’s the first and longest surviving, continuously populated, not the next population in the state of Florida. But I became invested in telling this story because my family is from Ybor City. I grew up hearing stories of what Ybor was like. But at the same time, Ybor was always very present to me. I assumed everybody knew what Ybor City was. So it seems so common to me that it didn’t seem special.
And it wasn’t until I was an undergrad at the University of Florida, that I started to realize that the culture that I grew up in, that there were things I had in common with people who were around me, which the Cuban community at Florida was much more populous from South Florida, from Miami, than it was of us who identified as Cuban American and from Tampa. There were things we had in common. We had cafe con leche, cortado we had things like that that were in common. We had noche buena, but there were common food ways, but politics were very different. And it had never occurred to me that I didn’t really realize that there was this history that was so starkly different from my own. I didn’t realize that or think about that migrant patterns would have an effect on how people individually identified. And I remember going into different spaces and just thinking, this is as new to me as anything, and I didn’t think twice about it.
So I wanted to tell a history where we think about Florida, where there are multiple voices of what it means to be Cuban, and there’s multiple experiences of what it means to be Cuban. And that story has very closely focused on what is on the community in South Florida. It is much larger, there’s very much a public political memory connected to it. The endurance of a particular narrative of South Florida, which other historians will tell you, is not as simple right as the stereotype says it to be, serves a current political purpose.
But there are things that make it complicated, and one of them is the story in Tampa. I wanted the stories that I grew up hearing and the people who created political networks and a completely different sense of being in the state to be visible as well. As one of the forms where we talk about that there are progressive and leftist Cubans who live in the state, there are also in Miami. And that those channels have as much of a history as anything. But as I wrote it, I also, I wanted to people the history. I did a talk not too long ago in Tampa, and one of the things that I didn’t really know that people would notice this locally. But I was in conversation with somebody and they said, “The people who you talk about and those who you highlight in the book are not the big names of the community who we think of today. They’re everybody else.” And I wanted people to see themselves and to see their families and to see people who they knew as important to historical processes.
So part of that had to be, how I communicated it as well as how I developed it. But I certainly had a personal stake in the making of the book, which some people can say is, maybe its biggest Achilles heel, but I think it’s one of its strengths.
So that’s the perfect transition to talk about a specific passage from Sarah’s book, so we can see how she tackles these questions on the page. Here’s Dr. Sarah McNamara reading from the introduction to her book, Ybor City: Crucible of the Latina South.
Amelia Alvarez was born in Cuba when the island was a Spanish colony. Yet by Amelia’s ninth birthday, her home, as she knew it, no longer existed. The Cuban War for Independence, which US imperial ambitions turned into the Cuban Spanish, Puerto Rican, Filipino, American war, brought an end to Cuba’s colonial status as well as Cuban’s hopes for a truly independent island. When Amelia turned 16, US troops occupied Cuba for the second time in her life. That year, 1906, she boarded the Steamship Olivette and sailed 110 miles from the port of Havana to Key West. Soft winds from the Florida strait wrapped around Amelia, as she passed through immigration and rested for a night. The next morning, she climbed aboard the same boat and journeyed another 250 miles northward, through the warm waves of the Gulf of Mexico. Once the ship docked, Amelia descended the gangway and walked into Tampa, Florida. At the turn of the 20th century, Tampa brimmed with chaotic possibility. Sounds of Spanish and English hovered in the heavy humid air, as Amelia navigated the throngs of people who crowded the port.
More than 100 passengers charged forward with their luggage in hand, while stevedores unloaded bales of Cuban tobacco leaves from the ship’s hold. 30 years prior, this swampy town featured little more than an obscure military outpost and a settlement of sweaty confederates. But by the time of Amelia’s arrival, the Cuban cigar industry had changed nearly everything. Black and white immigrants, primarily from Cuba, along with others from Spain, Italy, and Puerto Rico, collided in Tampa as a search for work in the city’s new cigar factories. Once hired, Cuban workers, stripped, sorted in bunch tobacco leaves, then rolled banded in box cigars. The labor of these women and men transformed Tampa into the leading industrial center of the state. While their bodies, cultures and politics created an international borderland in Jim Crow, Florida. On the dock, Amelia stayed near her family where she had not come alone. Her sister and brother-in-Law, their two children and three aunts arrived together with $56 between them. As the family of eight emerged from the bustling masses, they likely boarded a streetcar to carry them six miles down the road, to their new home in a neighborhood called Ybor City.
Talk to me about this scene. It’s so vivid, it comes so much to life. What went into writing it and what were you trying to get right as you wrote and rewrote?
These two paragraphs were really difficult to write. I would say that the entire introduction was difficult to write. The portion of the intro that was easy to write, whereas the portion about argument. The hard part was the storytelling. There were a few things that I knew the first couple paragraphs had to do. While I told you that to me, Ybor seemed common, I now know that nobody knows where Ybor City is. I’ve been in workshops where people have asked me if Tampa is on the East coast or the West coast? So, I needed to do a lot of placing in the first couple paragraphs. But I also needed to make people want to read the book. There’s many things going on here. I attached to a character, who for me needed to be a woman because the book is centering on Latinidad and the work of women and recentering who are the actors in the story.
It needed to show what it was like to immigrate to Tampa. I had to introduce the Cuban cigar industry. I needed to illustrate that there were other people there. I had to show that their immigration was in part, complicated by the relationship between Cuba and the United States, that it was part of this broader imperial process. But I also wanted people to be able to close their eyes and imagine it like a movie. What it was like to get off of a boat? And what it was like to walk into a particular space? And within that, I needed to show that Ybor was within Tampa, so there was a lot that needed to happen pretty efficiently in a short period of time. So the… Composing those two paragraphs, I actually, I had a developmental editor on the book who was supremely helpful. And her name is Jessica Newman.
She was actually the person who acquisition my book through UNC, so she’s now an independent editor. She read and reread and reread these paragraphs so many times as I made small tweaks to them. It wasn’t so much the language that she would adjust, but she would ask questions, as she would look at the rest of it and tell me what was missing. And so then I would rewrite and think about how to do that. So I felt like it really achieved that at the end. I wanted somebody to feel like they were walking into this space with her, that they could see that this happens with family, that they understand that somebody is a part of the international relationships that are beyond themselves and how those create a very independent lived experience. But there’s one other thing that it’s doing that people don’t know until you get halfway through the introduction is that, the motivation for writing this book is highly evident in my introduction. And I wanted that to be clear.
It took me a long time for me to be comfortable with that being clear. I realized that it was important at the local level for many reasons. It connected me to the community and explained why I wanted to do this, but Amelia Alvarez is the first woman in my family to immigrate to Ybor city and to leave Cuba and to come to the United States. And the process of writing her in, it wasn’t simple. I grew up knowing who she was, and there’s a photo that really inspires the trajectory of the book that I discuss in the second chapter and also in the introduction. But, knowing her story was so much harder. If we all sit back and we think about relatives who we know about or somebody had passed away before we were alive, we might be able to describe them, but we don’t know their lives.
And to tell the story of Amelia, which I do in the first half of the intro, it took going through census records and I remember finding things that were just so interesting to me and made her so human. I find that she reports having a child one year and the next year she is asked by the census official if she is a mother, and she says yes, but it says how many children are in the house and it’s zero. And I know all of my great aunts and uncles, I grew up with them and I know that there was no other child. So, there is even documentation where you can see that she traveled to Cuba to introduce her young baby to her family on the island and then returned back to Ybor City and they passed away. You can see all of her flights, the different ways that she traveled back and forth and how that changed over time.
You can see when her sister lives nearby her. But when her sister moves away, and I know that part of my family now lives in Puerto Rico and that was her sister and her family, how movement was inherently a part of it. So I felt like I was able to combine the memories that I had growing up, talking to my aunts and uncles, which they probably didn’t ever anticipate me thrusting an oral history recorder in their face and asking them to sign documents for us to have this conversation. But I did, and was able to fill in the box and it was really… Blanks and it was really an interesting process. I feel like it shows the way that you can be a historian and how even those who are closest to you have the ability to tell and show narratives that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. And how the personal is so connected to the historical, even when at times we’re taught that those things should be separate.
I think they’re really inherent, even if we’re all honest with ourselves, even when you’re looking through a box of documents, what makes you say, “I think I want to write about that.”
I’m struck people often as I also am a person who works with oral history a lot in my work, and there’s always really interesting conversations about oral history and the relationship between interviewer and interviewee. And I have to imagine that’s even more both fruitful and complicated when you’re talking to people that you are related to. Was that a challenge? How did you negotiate that?
It was. It was weird. It was really bizarre feeling for a long time. I think it took me a while to be comfortable doing it. If you think about your family and you’re about to ask some pretty personal questions, there’s always… We’re all family, but then there’s also certain things that people share with each other and there’s certain things that people don’t share with each other. And I knew I was about to sit down and talk to people about things that they hadn’t told me, or issues or motivations or questions that they hadn’t really wanted to talk about before. And the story that I tell in the book, especially that there were intense histories of violence, the idea of being different, the idea of being Latina or Latino, it had intense consequences that made many people make specific choices over time, and that very much lives with them. Especially the oldest generation of my family.
My grandfather’s still alive who is in the book. He’s 93 years old. My great uncle, he’s still alive. Pretty much. Most of the people I write about in there, they’re very old, but they’re still with us. So sitting down to talk to them, I was like, “Okay. Well, here we go.” But it was really interesting how forthcoming everyone was. But the other component that I thought was interesting was, so from the story I tell, it’s pretty obvious that my family, that they were working class, they grew up very poor. And the way that some have remade the memories of who our family was and the way that they talk about people. I’ll never forget my uncle talking to me about one of our other uncles becoming as… He thought that he became the head of the Centro Hospital or the Centro Asturiano Hospital. And as I was talking to him, I more just, I let the interview continue. But I knew from other family members, I knew from documents that we had at the house, and I also knew from the census, that wasn’t true.
He never became the head of a hospital. He was never the director of the hospital. He spent his life after this Cuban cigar industry laid him off because he was a man and it was too expensive to keep him, and they were no longer employing people doing hand rolled cigars. They were employing women like my aunt who was not a very good cigar maker, but she worked as one until she was in her 80s. He became a janitor at the hospital, and that was the last job he ever held, and he bounced around to many different ones. So I think the stories that we tell ourselves are just as interesting, that disassociation is interesting. And I think we’re very used to talking about those differences and those discrepancies when they aren’t a part of us. When they’re people who we don’t know. That seems so safe. But it’s hard to do when it’s connected to you. But I think it incredibly important work.
I think determining the role that my family played in coming to terms with it in the book, was one of the most complicated things that I ever did, and in many ways, probably a reason that I avoided writing them in for as long as I did.
What has it been like to watch them receive the books since it was published?
They have been incredibly supportive of the book, so there have been multiple iterations of the book. So to be sure, the book connected with community. I’ve done a series of public history projects in community and I’ve done a lot of community engagement work. And I know that they’ve read the book and they just talk about the things that they remembered or they experienced. And one of the things that is so outstanding to me is how much more forthcoming they are to talk about perhaps negative experiences that they had, or challenging experiences that they had when they see the book in book form. Because while they were a part of this and they had those specific experiences, so many other people did too. They were not alone at all. Instead, they were very much living and reacting to a specific period in time and figuring out how you survive and navigate in a particular environment.
Ironically enough, I think some of them have told me more now, then they did tell me when we were sitting down having those conversations. But they’re also incredibly proud, which I’m really happy about because I think one of my core sources of anxiety was, “Oh my gosh. My family’s going to kill me. I’m talking about who was a Communist party organizer. Nobody wants to talk about that. They are going to be so upset”, but nobody is. They’re just like, “Yeah, we did really cool stuff.” That was our family, even if they see themselves very differently today.
I’d like to hear a little bit more about your community engagement work, because you’ve done some really cool projects including in Tampa. Can you talk a little bit more about not only that work that you’re doing, but how you see it relating to your writing?
So I came up with the ideas. I did a historical mural and marker project. And that was the first big project that I did connected to the book. I was on a walk, it was in 2019, I was on leave that year and I was taking a walk in Tampa and I had just started to think about how I would write the chapter where I tell the story of this 1937 anti-fascist women’s march. And I was spending a lot of time that year. For some reason I thought that I was going to be unbelievably productive if I wrote in Ybor City, which was unbelievably distracting. There are tons of roosters who are very aggressive and just come up to you inside of all of the coffee shops. That was not a grade A idea on my end. But one of the things that I did do when I was there, I started walking around Ybor City and more just walking around because I felt like I couldn’t think or I was trying to figure out what I was going to write.
But as I was walking around, I started paying attention to the different places that are highlighted throughout the community. There are statues to men who were newspaper writers. There are statues to men who were historians. Then there are historical markers that indicate different restaurants that were in specific locations or different… What would it be? A bakery that is in another. There are so… I think it’s something, it’s an insane number. I know that I’ll get it wrong, but from doing the book research, I’m very close with the city of Tampa archivist at this point. But she gave me some crazy statistic. I think the majority of all historical markers in the city of Tampa are concentrated in Ybor City. But most of them, they’re fun fact histories. They’re not really explaining how the community became what it was. So I noticed that there were a few things. I noticed that there were no women on anything unless somebody was making a baked good.
That was pretty much it. I noticed that anything that had to do with the political formation, which sits so at the core of Ybor, Ybor ends up being this international nexus of leftist radicalism. It’s a place where people are coming from across the Caribbean and Latin America and even the United States and Europe and where these leftists ideas are colliding and they’re seeing how this community operates and people are actively engaged. It’s a highly politically engaged community. But if you walk around, it’s like people make coffee and they baked bread. And there was so much more that happened. The stories and the way that those markers operate, very much reflects the community just trying to stay afloat. What happens when an economy dies and what happens when you see your community fading away? And what are ways that you can get community buy-in? And if it becomes as sanitized as possible, and if it becomes a tourist destination and where it’s a place where nothing that could ever offend anybody, comes and lives.
As I was walking around, I was like, “There’s nothing that tells the story of women and what they were doing and why they mattered and the work that they did and how they were political agents.” And I emailed the city of Tampa archivist and I told her, I was like, “Hey, what do you think if I did a project that did a historical marker that is on the anti-fascist march as the anchor, but explains why it mattered broadly over multiple generations? And if there were a mural that paired with it to attract people’s attention and make them stop and read the marker and sit down and think about it and also highlight women.” And she was like, “Yes. I’m down.” And she had been down since 2019, so it took me a really long time to make that happen. Part of this…
Some other things happened.
Some other things happened. I had to write a book, I had to figure out a way to make sure I got tenure. There were all these other things that happened in between, but she was unbelievably supportive. And I, as soon as the book manuscript went in as the final product, that month I wrote the application for that marker, which is a pretty intense process. And they require secondary source as well as primary source documentation that illustrates that the marker that you want to put up, that the event actually happened in the location, where you claim it did and that it actually happened in Tampa. So they did say that I overshot, it was very thorough. They said it was the most thorough application they ever received, but it was like a 100 pages long. I gave them all the documents I had, which I had a lot to be clear that this happened and that it mattered and it was approved.
And then the process of making the mural happen and a lot of fundraising and things went into play in grant writing, on a non-grant schedule. But I wanted people to walk through Ybor and think of it as the place that it actually was. That it was a place that was where people came to think, that it was intellectual, that it was political, and that people were open about those politics. It wasn’t something that was hidden. It wasn’t something they were afraid to talk about. When you look at old maps of the community, there are hundreds of cafes, and those cafes were famous for being political sites. And the anti-fascist women’s march that the mural and marker is about, there was… It’s a moment when there are… In the book, I say 5,000. But if you’re looking at the Latino newspaper in the community, it’s 7,000.
It depends on who you want to go with. I didn’t want to be accused of being hyperbolic, so I went with five. But even if we’re going with, there’s 5,000 people who collectively march from Ybor City down to the center of the city of Tampa, I can’t imagine getting 5,000 people who collectively agreed on one political idea to leave their workplace and move from where their community is, down to City Hall and to advocate for this. That is a huge undertaking and it deserves to be remembered. And what has really struck me is, how excited people are for that project and for that story. And I wonder if… At least locally, I wonder if the book or the projects would have resonated the same way if it weren’t right now. I think that they have particular lessons, in particular salience in them, union organizers who come to different events and have been at things, they say that they see elements of what happened in the past as being a playbook for how they can survive in the future.
Especially in Florida. And that I explain that as you look at the book and what happened in the past versus what’s happening now, it’s not necessarily reinventing the wheel right now. There’s very much this foundation of certain forces that already exist and that are there and ready to be activated, and they have been. But there’s also a long history of resisting it. And the march is one example of resisting it. But the march, it’s not going to change an immediate election based outcome. It takes consistency and the building of coalitions and people being willing to be politically engaged for at times generations in order for that change to happen and representation to happen in a more equitable way. And they do achieve that, but it’s not an easy story.
So there’s been so much excitement for it, and it translated into the book. I think that that kind of a project that brought community in, where there were so many community-based stakeholders, where I was having so many different conversations. The muralist is Cuban American and she works in Ybor City on the project. I did a community-based launch, and then I did it also at El Circulo Cubano de Tampa, which is the Cuban Club down in Ybor City, and there were upwards of 300 people who were at the launch event, which I never anticipated. And it’s been a consistent outcome at the community engaged events that I’ve done. I have also… I’ve curated a gallery exhibit with historical images where they juxtapose the difference between the staged pictures taken of Latinas from Ybor, and there’s these really fantastic photos that are mostly black and white, and these women look supremely quaffed and they’re bending backwards smoking cigarettes. And there’s a certain element of hypersexualization to them, but there’s also a huge cache of photos of what it looked like to actually live and work there.
So the exhibit had these big photos of the hypersexualized images. And alongside all of them were more of the hundreds of women and what it actually looked like to live there. Even those who were dressed up and going to fiestas, the images that people took for promotional reasons for the city, they look like they’ve been staged in many ways. They had people who made the costumes for them. And then there’s one photo… There’s a series of photos that I found at USF and their special collections, and one of the images that I threw in there was one of my grandmother. And you can tell that these women were making their costumes from tablecloths. I think she’s wearing a Mandia that I’m pretty confident was a tablecloth, that I had seen later in my life.
But they look pretty scrappy, like they’re making it happen. We all would if we decided to go to a party and just have a costume on the fly. But it’s really been a way to connect with people on historical topics that have great import through common modes that seem approachable. Art, a mural is approachable to anybody and exhibit, a gallery exhibit is approachable to anybody. And then there are the messages that happen inside. And I’m so glad that so many people have been receptive to the book and its message and that they feel involved as well. They feel like they’re a part of the process.
I do want to ask you one more question about your personal experience of writing this book and your connections. And that’s that, I was so sorry to hear about the death of your dad as you were finishing this book. And your tribute to him and the acknowledgements brought me to tears. I know that it was a big part of your writing experience, and I think that a lot of people these days can relate to trying to work and write through grief. How did that affect the way you wrote this book?
Oh gosh. It was so… I think my dad’s illness, he was diagnosed in 2021, and it happened very suddenly. And I actually, my book was nearing, being done. It was due to production, and I called my editor and I pulled it out of production, and I filed for FMLA and I went to Florida to be with him and to help my family. And I think it was a moment that it reminds you of what is imported in your life, what an emergency in many ways looks like. The reason why you’re doing certain things. And there was also a sense of urgency that was lit within me, following his diagnosis and me knowing that he had highly limited period of time. For, I would say until… Then, I had a period of time. I would say it felt like it was over a year where I just couldn’t articulate things the way I wanted to.
Or I felt like I was experiencing intense writer’s block. But I really, really wanted my dad to know that I finished it. I wanted him to know that I finished the book because he was so proud and so excited that this was happening. In my acknowledgements, I talk about the ways that he motivated me, but also how proud he was. He grew up in a very poor family from Detroit. And when he was a kid, he spent most of his life in public housing. And to him the idea that he had a daughter who earned a PhD and was writing a book, he just would tell everyone. And for so long I thought it was so embarrassing, and there was nobody who he wouldn’t share it with, but I wanted him to know that I finished it. And I wanted him to know that it would come to the end and that I would become a tenured professor that was so important to him.
So in the early moments when he was diagnosed, I really, the book became secondary. And he was able to become stable for longer than we anticipated. And it was in that seven months that the book became what I wanted it to be. And I think I wrote like I had never written before. I sat my butt in that chair, and I didn’t move until things looked the way that I wanted them to look and that they were finished the way that I wanted them to be finished. And I would sit down, I had a very clear plan for a chapter. I started attacking it rather than looking at the book as this giant mountain project, as it needs to be paragraph by paragraph and line by line. And that big word document that I had, I would look at it every day and I’d say, “Okay. You have too much information. You only need enough to propel the narrative, and you only need to share enough to keep people involved and you don’t want to bury them.”
And I had this checklist of everything that needed to go in a specific paragraph to make a point, and then a checklist of what needed to come next. And I would move through that checklist, make those points, get to the end, and then go back and rewrite it narratively to where I felt good about it. And send it off and rinse and repeat. And by doing that, I finished it before he passed away. And UNC press was amazing, I told them when his symptoms had come back and in a way where it was clear that his cancer was reactivated. At the same time, you don’t think somebody’s going to pass away when things don’t happen the way doctors say.
You’re just like… And nobody ever tells you someone’s dying. They’re never very clear about that. Even in the ICU. You don’t understand what’s happening really. But I think that somehow I knew. Because I wrote UNC press an email and I said, “Hey, I know that you’re not going to have my cover done for a while according to the production schedule, but my dad was an artist. And I’m not sure he would’ve ever read my book, but I know he would’ve looked at all the pictures and that he would’ve loved to see what the cover would look like. Can I get that?” They didn’t commit. They said, “We’ll do the best we can”, but I had it within 48 hours. He saw it the week, his last week before he passed away. So, grief is something which is… I don’t really know how to explain it.
It’s incredibly arresting. But then you’re also incredibly aware of the time that you have. There is that portion where I feel like I was lucky. It is a weird thing to know pretty concretely that you’re going to lose somebody who’s so foundational and monumental to your life within a certain timeframe. It’s odd to have a deadline on your life. But within that, it allows… I felt like it allowed me to, these are the things that I really want to do and that I want him to see and to be a part of. And I was able to do that. And I do feel really good about that. I will say. So one of the things that has been hard afterwards was, him not being able to be there for the launch or him not being able to be a part of that.
But my dad was a huge hippie, and I was so heartened at my book launch event when he had this group of friends who he would get together with, and they called themselves the not dead yet club. Ironically enough, but they had all been friends in the ’60s and ’70s and reached back to Vietnam at my book launch event. As I looked into the audience, they were both the really engaged community members, but there was also this room full of his friends. And they reached from those who he knew when he was in a Catholic boarding school, when he was younger, some of them who he was in the army with, others who he lived in Orange Grove with at one point, people who intersected his lives as an artist, they were all throughout that room.
And so, he’s there in different ways, and I’m so grateful of how my press reacted. They did allow me to redo the page proofs to write the paragraph about him in my acknowledgements. So yeah, I do give out these Ybor City bookmarks that are imprinted with the machines that he used to have. So I get to him, he loved that. It’s still hard to say it in the past tense. It’s difficult to imagine family members and those who are dear to you as a memory. But yes, as a part of it. So, I think the grief lives with the book launching in a different way than the urgency of while I was writing it.
Well, before we end here, I want to turn and talk a little bit about inspiration. So first of all, I just want to ask this question I ask everyone of what’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Oh my goodness. I don’t know if she would kill me for saying this, but I’ll say it anyway. When I had that really, where I felt like I had to be write the book in this clearly intellectual way, both of my peer reviewers identify themselves, but one of them was Vicki Ruiz, who’s a mentor, but has also become a really good friend. She writes about Luisa Moreno, and as a bold slash idiotic grad student who wasn’t thinking straight, I was since like, “Hey, I found this lady in the community I’m writing about. Would you mind sharing your interviews with her with me?” And she did. And since then, we send each other documents back and forth about Florida and about her, and I’ve always remembered that. But she read the first iteration of the book, and she didn’t write it at the peer review, but she called me and she said, “You know? Have a really unique reason why you’re writing this.” And I have been waiting and hoping that somebody would write about Cubanas in Florida.”
And she didn’t say anything. The way that she said it was, “Once you approve it and say, “Okay, Sarah. That is it.” The way that it comes out is the way that it comes out. And you want it to come out the way that you talk about it and why you wrote it.” And then she railed on me and told me, “Why isn’t your family in here? And here are all the ways you could do it.” But I think it was more the once it comes out as the way it comes out, was something that really stuck with me. And that I wanted it to be something I was proud of in the end, that it didn’t have to be what somebody else… My book didn’t need to be anything that somebody else told me it had to be.
It needed to be a product that I was proud to say as mine. And that conversation really stuck with me, and I reminded her of it a little while ago. She’s like, “I didn’t say that.” I’m like, “No, you definitely 100% did.” That was really gripping to me. So, I think that note was important. I had a similar conversation with Julio Capo. I can clearly see where I was very stuck in my own mind. Julio read an early iteration of the manuscript, and he went through and circled every paragraph that he thought that I had written beautifully. He’s like, “You have these bursts of beautiful writing, but it’s not consistent.” And that was his main thing. He’s like, “I want more of this and none of this.” And I was like, “Okay. I can do that. More of this and none of this.” And that was a really lofty order and it took a long time for me to make sense of it.
And in a way, the circumstances under which we write my dad being sick, there being all of these other components, being on the breaching, making tenure deadlines, all of these things weigh on us. And I think that’s one thing to take away, and maybe I didn’t address in the last thing. There’s never going to be a perfect time to write. We imagine that somehow there’s going to be this magical moment where our life just opens up and we are struck by inspiration and serenity, and then we will write this magnum opus that we’ve always dreamed of producing. And that’s just not what writing and what life looks like. The conditions under which we write are just as messy as the process of getting to the end. And in a way, I think if we’re all honest with ourselves, there’s no writing retreat that’s going to solve a writing process.
Having people who you really trust and who you trust with your writing is so much more valuable than there’s not going to be a singular intervention that’s going to fix a problem that you have in a paragraph. It’s just about your persistence in saying, “I wake up at this time because nobody else is and there isn’t crappy news. Or I don’t have a kid yet.” But if I had a kid, maybe somebody isn’t up quite yet and I have this time to myself, or there is a lull and I can think right now, and that those are the moments when the writing happens that nothing is ever going to be perfect. So when you say inspiration, ironically enough, the things that I read in my free time, there are historians whose work I love. I know that you recently talked to her, Carly Goodman’s recent book, fell in love with that book.
I know my students better buckle up, because I don’t think it’s a guttable book, and she currently said she didn’t intend it to be, but I absolutely loved the way that she worked with immigration history. I read pretty broadly. Of course, I referenced Jean M. O’Brien’s work, I read her book. I also read a lot of historical work that I want to emulate for one reason or another. I mentioned Julio. He has an incredible way of having a turn of phrase. If you’re paying attention in his work, there’s this one portion and I remember telling him once, I was like, “This is my favorite line in your whole book.” There’s a play on words about the 1920s that’s a direct quotation out of anything goes, the musical. So people who have subtle nods like that, I really love historically, but I read a lot of fiction and I also listen to a lot of fiction.
I read… I guess as I’m writing, I want people to be able to see things. And at times I can hear a scene more effectively than when I read it, because at times when I’m reading, I’m reading for information or I’m going quickly or I don’t stop on the finer points. But when I hear it, I see those moments. Like I’m reading Mexican Gothic right now, which I’m really enjoying. Then very embarrassingly, I read and listen to a wide variety of literary rom coms. So something that is so disconnected from what I do. There was this one series that I thought was brilliant and the author’s escaping my mind right now. But it’s basically the story of…
They are socialists and communists in Britain, and some of them are connected to the suffragist movement. And it’s also about their love lives. So there’s a lot going on in that series, but I was all in. There’s a new book coming out. I can look it up in my Audible right now, but I absolutely love that. So I try to turn my mind off sometimes, because I tend to think all the time as many of us do.
Well, before I let you go, can I ask if there’s anything you’re working on now that you’d like to talk about?
I am. I am. I’m starting to pivot, which is so daunting. I guess, really working on two things. The mural and the marker project has been really transformative for me and… So many of us who write about communities… And I said this to a group of… I don’t have a writing group. I know I told you that. I’m very independent writer. I tend to send my work in progress to groups of friends in exchange, but I’ll never be on a joint Zoom call while we’re all writing together. Just be like, “That’s not effective. That would be a waste of my time. I would just want to chat with you about whatever chisme is happening in our lives.” So instead, I’m working on the digital iteration. So the mural and marker project was really great in Tampa.
So I’m working on a digital storytelling component, which is a world that I’ve never ever been a part of. And with any public history work that I do, and probably for many of us, I feel like the process of doing public history work for me is a process of constantly learning. Because aside from oral history, I wasn’t trained in these things. I didn’t know all the boards or community things or historic preservation laws that I had to come to know to do this. But I want there to be an anchor to where the story does what I wanted the book to do, where it communicates what Ybor was to people beyond Florida. And also where, say that you weren’t involved in the launching or you weren’t at the events where you can learn about this as well. So, I want there to be an anchor for that and to also think of different iterations of how that project may evolve.
I am very unsupportive of putting murals all over Ybor. That’s not something I want to do. I don’t think every corner needs a mural. But, expanding that project. So I’m beginning with the digital interface and then storytelling and then also thinking of what the next version of that will be. And I’m working on a broader oral history project with the next, the generation who’s still living, who is now in their 60s around my parents’ age, who are from there to keep that memory alive. But I’m transitioning to my next writing project right now, which I started to think about in 2020, and now I feel like it’s incredibly urgent. My next book, I did think of the title in my mind is Swing: A History of the Florida Vote. And I wanted to do a long history of how and why Florida swings.
I started to think about that as I was writing the early chapters of the book and seeing how inequity and voting based practices were so ingrained in the state. And in many ways it’s so incredibly difficult to overcome there from how inculcated it is into the legal processes. And really from the start, reaching that to 1830s. So, I plan to take it from the 19th century through the present and to organize it in my mind at the moment, which may not be the end iteration, according to five or six large moments, and what led to them that are examples of it swinging. And from what I see right now, it’s a process of construction, not a process of how people feel on a whim during any particular election year. But thinking of the role of immigration, migration, and especially Latinidad as being such powerful forces, because it is a state where those elements sit at the forefront of what the outcome of any given election is.
That sounds fascinating and I look forward to reading more about it. Dr. Sarah McNamara, thank you for joining me on Drafting the Past and talking about your writing process.
Thank you. It was a joy to sit down and talk to you.
Thank you again to Dr. Sarah McNamara for taking the time to join me on Drafting the Past. And thank you for listening to our conversation. Find links to the books we talked about, as well as a complete transcript of the show at draftingthepast.com. You’ll also find ways to support the show there. But one of the best and easiest ways to keep Drafting the Past going is to tell a friend about it. After all, friends don’t let friends write boring history.