Paulina Pedroso and her husband Ruperto owned a boarding house in Ybor City. They were Afro-Cubans (Cubans with a dark skin tone) who moved to Ybor City in 1892 to work in the cigar factories. They were friends with Jose Martí, who was known as the apostle of Cuban independence and was a key figure in the Cuban revolution. Martí made many trips to Tampa, and when he visited he would stay at the Pedroso boarding house. Martí was such a celebrity that people would gather outside the boarding house just to see if they could get a glimpse of him. At night, you could find Ruperto outside keeping watch for intruders.
Paulina Pedroso grew up in Cuba in the village of Concepcion del Sur. During the Ten Years War, she traveled with her husband to Havana and then to Key West, Florida, where they got jobs in a cigar factory. It was in Key West that they first met Jose Marti in 1891. After meeting Paulina, Martí said to her, “Paulina, you are going to help me a great deal here for Cuba.” Paulina and Ruperto became passionate supporters of Martí and the cause of Cuban Independence.
Shortly after meeting Martí, Paulina and her husband moved to Ybor City where they purchased their boarding house. Their boardinghouse and a number of other Afro-Cuban homes and businesses located in the same neighborhood became the geographic center of early Afro-Cuban community life in Ybor city.
Historians described Paulina’s character as plain and humble, self-sacrificing, loyal, and dedicated. She has been described as “a bronze woman with a heart of gold.” In Tampa and Cuba, Paulina Pedroso is a historic symbol of Afro-Cuban patriotism.
She was a symbol of racial unity and equality, which was something that Jose Marti preached endlessly. In a time period filled with racial taboos, Marti, a light skinned Cuban, made it a point to walk arm-in-arm with Pedroso down the streets of Ybor City. Paulina Pedroso was a symbol to women, especially those of Afro-Cuban heritage. According to one story, Pedroso stood up on table at a cigar factory after one of Marti’s speeches and told the men they should donate to the cause or “give me your pants so I can”.
Pedroso was inducted into the Florida Woman’s Hall of Fame in 1993. She was a woman who was a leader. She gave invaluable assistance to the movement for Cuban independence in Ybor City. As a prominent Afro-Cuban, she helped Martí in the quest for the promotion of racial egalitarianism. Though her boarding house – which stood on the sight of present-day Jose Martí Park – was knocked down in the 1950s, the legacy of Paulina Pedroso lives on.