Fernando’s Footsteps

by Tony Carreño

 

With Turiddu translating, Gaetano explained that he and his family immigrated to New Orleans in the late 1880s. Like so many of his fellow Sicilians, he was able to find work cutting sugar cane in the fields of south Louisiana. The work was extremely difficult and conditions very harsh. The workers were underpaid and mistreated. As a result of this, Gaetano and others attempted to organize labor unions. In response, the plantation owners, with the help of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), organized vigilante groups and lynched many of the activists. Several of Gaetano's friends and relatives lost their lives. In some cases, even the police assisted the KKK. Gaetano managed to avoid capture and eventually he and his family were able to come to Tampa. After working for a short time in a cigar factory, Gaetano was able to buy some land in Gary. His goal was to establish a farm and prosper by selling fruits and vegetables to the growing immigrant community in Tampa. His experiences in Louisiana as well as in Sicily had fostered a distrust of authority. He wanted he and his family to be self-reliant. 

Shortly after the Licatas had established their farm, the local KKK burned their fields, as well as those of other immigrant neighbors. Originally founded in 1866, the KKK was formed to resist the policies of the Reconstruction era, targeting the newly freed former slaves. Over the years their agenda expanded to include acts against Catholic, Jews, and immigrants in general. Rather than going to the police, Gaetano organized a group of Sicilian men and retaliated against some of the local KKK members. Several of the Klan members were killed in the process. The KKK in the rural areas outside of Tampa was not as powerful and organized as that in Louisiana. The response was effective. Soon, it was understood that Gaetano Licata was a man to be taken seriously, a man who would fight back to protect his family and neighbors. 

Mr. Licata told Fernando that, as a token of gratitude, his neighbors offered money and a share of their crops. As time went on, Gaetano was anointed as the "leader and protector" of the local community. As more immigrants moved into the area, Gaetano explained the situation and strongly suggested that they purchase "an insurance policy" from him. In essence, Gaetano Licata became the de facto law enforcement, not only in Gary, but in parts of Tampa proper as well. 

Mr. Licata elaborated that he had seen a similar system work very effectively in and around his native Bivona, Sicily. Wealthy landowners had tried diverting the water supply away from small farms in order to force peasants to abandon their lands. The wealthy would then purchase them at very low prices. This was the basis of the emergence of the "Cosa Nostra" or "Our Thing" organized crime in Sicily. Essentially, it offered an alternative to traditional law enforcement, which was often under control of the wealthy. He confessed his disillusionment when he discovered that this was also true in some parts of the United States.

Fernando listened intently, remaining silent. He knew that when dealing with Mr. Licata, listening is always better than speaking. There was a warm side to Gaetano, but Fernando also understood that the Licata business had morphed into a bit more than his father-in-law was offering. The word around Ybor City was that the purchase of a Licata "insurance policy" had become obligatory, not optional. Those who declined might suddenly experience a fire. Uncooperative business owners would hear of their customers being assaulted. Fernando had grown to love Gaetano,but wanted to maintain some distance from the family enterprise. He knew that the "fruits and vegetables" part of the company was simply a front, a means of maintaining visibility and influence. Additionally, Gaetano truly enjoyed farming. It was also common knowledge that the Licata illicit business interests had begun to expand well beyond local extortion.

Fernando, remaining silent, embraced Gaetano warmly.

Giuseppina, along with her mother and her female entourage, entered the room. The few remaining guests approached them, embracing and exchanging kisses. Within a few minutes, all of the wedding guests had departed. Giuseppina, uncharacteristically animated, approached the men.

"Pina, estas más guapa que nunca. Ahora voy a cambiarme de ropa. Necesito apurarme porque el barco sale a las once y media."

Fernando, now addressing his wife by the diminutive for her name, told her that she looked prettier than ever. He announced that he had to hurry and change clothes because their ship leaves at 11:30 pm. It was now just after 8:00 pm. The Spaniard couldn't help feeling grateful that Giuseppina spoke excellent Spanish, otherwise their relationship might not have flourished.

The Licatas, among many other gifts, had insisted on organizing and paying for a two-week honeymoon trip to Havana. The steamship "Olivette", a sister ship to the "Mascotte" that brought Gaitero to Tampa, awaited them at Port Tampa. They had a reservation for the luxury suite. Fernando felt somewhat conflicted to have accepted such an extravagance. However, Gaetano understood and respected his son-in-law's inclination to prosper on his own, a sentiment shared by Giuseppina. 

The H. B. Plant railway operated a late-night train timed specifically to connect with "Olivette". Fernando and Pina, accompanied by her family, along with Ignacio, Maruxa, and Aniceto formed a procession as they walked the two blocks to the Ybor City train station. Several of Gaetano's "helpers" had taken their luggage earlier. 

As they were boarding the train, Sebastiana embraced her daughter tightly.

"Mè figghia, speru la spiranza sunnu comu semu."

Piina's mother had told her, in Sicilian, that she hopes her daughter is as happy as they are.

Giuseppina Licata Suárez responded with a smile. She and Fernando hugged their friends and relatives and boarded the train. 

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This is a work of fiction. With the exception of references to known and publicly documented historical entities, the following apply:

Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. ©Tony Carreño 2020