What is The Tampa Natives Show?
It started out as a Facebook page. In 2009, a gentleman by the name of Steve Canella started a Facebook page called Tampa Natives. We met at a mixer at International Plaza. He went to Hillsborough High School, I went to Jefferson. I told him I had recently discovered his Facebook page, and I noticed he had a few people who were coming to the page. I said, do you mind if I join you as a co-administrator? Maybe we can grow the page. It turned out to be a turning point for the page. As we joined forces, 60 members became 600 in a week. Then 600 became 6,000. We knew immediately we had the cat by the tail and we had something special going.
I had some experience with public access television production and on-camera experience. I just thought, since the page was so popular in a virtual world, that it might just work as a television program — thinking Larry King Live. So you’ve got a live television show where people could call in and share their memories of growing up in Tampa. I came up with the tagline, “The Tampa Natives Show: where sharing your memories has never been this much fun.” On September 1, 2010, we launched The Tampa Natives Show.
What has doing the show taught you about Tampa?
It’s taught me that Tampa’s history ranks up there with the great industrial cities of the north. When we think of the steel industry, we think of Pittsburgh. When we think of the automobile industry, we think of Detroit. Tampa has its unique history as well. During the industrial revolution, the cigar leaf and the tobacco industry put Tampa on the map. From 1895 to 1935, there’s a good chance that if you smoked a cigar — in the United States, certainly, and worldwide — it was probably hand-rolled here in Tampa.
Also, I think that its history matches up with the wonderful story that is that of the United States, which is immigration. New York had Ellis Island. We didn’t really have an Ellis Island here, but people came through Cuba, ultimately through Key West, on their way to the port of Tampa. With a wink and a nod to Mr. Vicente Martinez Ybor, who found us via the deep ports, none of this would have happened with the meeting of Henry B. Plant and the railroad coming to Tampa and Mr. Ybor’s enterprise with the cigar industry. It would have been one thing to roll the cigars here in Tampa, but then you had to ship them somewhere. Mr. Ybor had plenty of opportunity in his time here in Tampa to go to New York. He knew business, and he knew New York was going to be the disembarkation place and distribution point of his product to Europe. Those two things, I think more than anything else, makes Tampa history unique and very special.
Of the various names people use to describe someone hailing from Tampa, you are a strong proponent of Tampeño. Why is that?
It refers to the history of Tampa defined by its early days, the amalgamation of immigrants that created the Tampa story, but with a look to the future as well. People in Los Angeles refer to themselves as Angelenos. We need a brand, a moniker, that we can rally behind that doesn’t sound like a feminine hygiene product — Tampan — or descendancy from a place like Albania — Tampanian. It’s not that Tampanian is bad, but Tampeño is so much better. It’s warmer, and it’s charming. It begs the question, what’s a Tampeño? It gives us the opportunity to explain our history and our heritage.
I just think that Tampan is not a viable option. You can’t spin that. Whilst Tampanian is OK, it doesn’t elicit a warmth. Plainly put, it’s not sexy like Tampeño. There’s a reason that the ad for Dos Equis for many years was seen as a really cool and sexy ad because at the end, the man said, “Dos Equis, stay thirsty, my friends” in a Spanish accent. It was charming. To me, the word Tampeño does the same thing. It grabs you. There’s a warmth to it. Tampanian almost sounds like an illness.
What’s been the best interview on the show so far?
One of the best interviews I did, one I’m the most proud of, was with a gentleman named Marcelo Maseda. He, more than anybody else in Tampa, was regarded as the man that you needed to see. If you wanted to be the mayor of this town, you had to get his blessing. Marcelo was an icon in Tampa’s local history. Not only was he Google before we knew what Google was, he also knew everybody and everybody knew him. He was so important that when John Fitzgerald Kennedy came here to Tampa, Marcelo Maseda met with him and introduced him publicly at the International Inn on Kennedy Boulevard. He got out of his sickbed to come do the show with us, and he died shortly after his appearance on our show, which was his last public appearance. I was so grateful and humbled that he would come on and do the show with us. Even in his last days, he was sharp as a tack. His memory was fully engaged. He had a unique history in his education and his athletic background. He played baseball and went to the University of Tampa. He embodied everything that was superlative about to Tampa. He was the best in all of us. His funeral was so well attended. That was arguably a highlight for the show.
There were others. Mike Graham comes to mind. He was a professional wrestler. We had him on the show twice. Professional wrestling was really big in Tampa in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. James Robiconti owned the premier discotheque in the ‘70s in Tampa simply known as Robiconti’s. That show was 90 minutes worth of incredibleness because everyone remembered that time. Then there were a couple of close personal friends who have since passed on. I’m so grateful they came on the show. One gentleman by the name of Ray Villadonga and another gentleman by the name of Ziggy Luis. Both friends of mine, both stricken with cancer, both amazing musicians. Both of whom cut a wide swath. Both also deeply rooted in Tampa history and will be deeply missed.
What’s the wildest story you’ve heard about Tampa on the show?
One of them was with Mike Graham. He told us a story about his father. One day whilst his father was getting dressed to go on at Fort Homer Hesterly armory in the dressing room of this very old building, a 200-pound window — because the building was not air conditioned, so the windows were open — slid out of its bracket and hit his father in the head, nearly killing him. His father was such a tough hombre that he survived it and had recurring vision problems because of it, ultimately losing sight in one eye. It didn’t stop him from being a professional wrestler and from being a private pilot. He did explain to us that his father did go through surgery to try and reattach the optic nerve and the retina, which had been destroyed by the window. He told us this story about how they removed his father’s eye from the eye socket, and we were just aghast. We couldn’t believe this story. Our mouths were agape listening to it.
But that was one of a dozen stories Mike had. Mike not only had an impressive resume being the son of Eddie Graham, but he told us some of the most amazing stories of Championship Wrestling from Florida because he literally grew up in the sport. From the time he was a small boy, his father was already wrestling. He joined his father as a wrestling tag-team. We miss him terribly, too. Mike came down on the show twice. The wildest stories were always presented, hands down, by Mike Graham. That one shocked me and stayed with me ever since.
Who have you not interviewed yet that you’d like to?
I saw a 30 for 30 on ESPN the other day, and I realized it would be a highlight for me to be able to interview former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Doug Williams. He was arguably, in the early years of the Buccaneer franchise, our star player and led us to the playoffs in the late ‘70s. There’s also a couple more names — a gentleman by the name of EJ Salcines. Coach Ray Perez, he was my junior high and high school coach. Then of course, most notably, my mom. I’ve interviewed my dad twice on the show, but not my mom. I need to get her on the show.
What do you miss most about the “old” Tampa?
Unequivocally and without hesitation, Jai Alai. The two things you can get any Tampa native to talk about for hours is Championship Wrestling from Florida and Jai Alai. Jai Alai had a 40-year run. Before the lotto came into existence, jai alai, along with dog racing and horse racing, were the biggest forms of pari mutuel wagering and entertainment. People like to gamble. That’s why you buy a lotto ticket every week. And it’s not only that. The game had its origin in Spain and ultimately in Cuba it was played as well. We felt like it was a Tampeño thing.
What do people get wrong about Tampa?
Since the inception of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Tampa Bay Rowdies, because Tampa’s population was still small in the ‘70s, we got the term “Tampa Bay.” What’s happened 40 years later is that people in the media, in TV, radio and print, have gotten lazy, and they don’t use the phrase “area” after Tampa Bay anymore. They say it’s inferred. We all know that we mean area, but they don’t say area because it doesn’t rhyme with “bay.” When you launch a cool advertising campaign, it’s like, “hey, today in Tampa Bay,” but they don’t say Tampa Bay area. We’re doing Clearwater and St. Petersburg and perhaps even Sarasota a great disrespect. If you’re inferring that this means those cities also, where is their name in there? Hav-a-Tampa cigar meant Havana-Tampa cigar and the connection. The Tamiami trail goes from Tampa to Miami. So where are the other cities’ names represented? And because we played for 30-plus years in the same NFL division as the Green Bay Packers, and Green Bay is actually the name of a city, if you’re from Minnesota or Idaho, you may think that Tampa Bay is the proper name of the city. People don’t understand that you can’t use those terms interchangeably. Tampa means Tampa. Tampa Bay literally is a body of water. If you mean to incorporate the Tampa Bay area, then say Tampa Bay area. Because Oakland is not San Francisco, but they’re both in the San Francisco Bay area. It’s a drum that, until they put me in the box, I’m going to continue to bang on. We do our citizens and history a great disservice.
Click here to hear Mario Núñez discuss the Tampeño debate on NPR’s “All Things Considered”