UT learns from author's experience
By LINDA GIBSON
© St. Petersburg Times,
TAMPA -- Evelio Grillo, born a black Cuban 82 years ago in Ybor City, never passed the brown bag test.
"If you were lighter than a brown bag, you could be a white Cuban," he said by telephone recently from his home in Oakland, Calif. "Many went into the white Cuban community, and they had no contact with black Cubans. If you were the same color as a brown bag, it was iffy," he said.
During an era when Jim Crow laws segregated blacks from whites in the South, having dark-colored skin outweighed having Cuban parents and speaking Spanish.
Grillo turned his experiences in Ybor City and elsewhere in America into a book, and that memoir, Black Cuban, Black American, has been chosen this year as required reading for the University of Tampa's freshman class.
"He doesn't pull any punches in recounting marginalization growing up in Ybor," said UT English professor Stephen Brown. "He was doubly marginalized not just as a person of color but within the Cuban community itself. It's an interesting perspective."
Black Cuban, Black American describes Grillo's upbringing in Ybor City, his education at black schools in Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, and his service as a soldier in America's segregated Army.
Despite the social inequities he experienced, Grillo laughs readily and often while reminiscing.
He chuckled when asked about his first experience of discrimination.
"All of them were," he said. "I was a black boy. That's the way I was classified and that was my option."
When he was born, his family lived in an apartment above a ground-floor business called "House of a million auto parts." The building no longer exists.
Later, they lived in a third-floor apartment on 13th Avenue. His stepfather lost his job in a cigar factory during the Depression, so Grillo went to work at age 11 as a caddy at the Palma Ceia Country Club.
He laughed again when asked if he met any of Tampa's bigwigs there.
"We'd do well if they looked at us long enough to pay us," he said.
Fortunately, Grillo caught the eye of a black insurance executive in Tampa, Nicholas H. Martin. While attending Booker T. Washington High School, which now is a middle school, Grillo would hang around the tennis courts at the Marti-Maceo club for black Cubans and chase down the balls Martin hit.
"He would say to me, "Boy, when are you going up North to get an education?' I didn't know where "up North' was," Grillo said.
"One day he said to me, "Boy, tell your mama to give you $5 and pack your clothes, I'm taking you up North.' "
Martin bought Grillo a train ticket to Washington, D.C., and made sure the 15-year-old boy enrolled in Dunbar High School. It was the school of choice for the city's black elite. Grillo slept on the floor in his brother's home.
From there, he went to Xavier University in New Orleans and then joined the Army. He was briefly stationed at MacDill Air Force Base in 1941, then served for almost three years in India, until the end of World War II.
Grillo spoke at the University of Tampa Wednesday about the discrimination he experienced from both the Cuban and Anglo-American communities.
Grillo left the Army and earned a master's degree in social work in 1953 from the University of California at Berkeley. He then went to Oakland, where he lives now. His experiences as a social worker and community organizer ranged from helping juvenile delinquents publish a newspaper to running a city antidrug agency.
His own four children urged him to write a book after hearing (over and over, he says) his stories about growing up black and Cuban.
Those stories were published in Black Cuban, Black American in September 2000 by Arte Publico Press in Houston, Texas.
While in Tampa recently, Grillo addressed UT students and faculty, visited with students at St. Peter Claver Elementary School (which he attended 70 years ago) and gave a reading at UT's Scarfone Gallery.
He also returned to Ybor, taking a walking tour with faculty and students led by Melinda Chavez, director of the Ybor City Museum Society.
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