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Community Outreach, Digital Humanities and Florida Literature

TAMPA, Fla. -- What happens when you ask English majors to collaborate to solve a place-attachment problem using literature? Last fall, the students in Laura Runge’s graduate seminar, Literature of Place: Florida, did just that using local history, the work of Jose Yglesias and technology to create a project that showcases the type of digital humanities work being done in the English department. The result was a collaboration between USF and the Ybor City State Park Museum that will have patrons getting out their phones and learning about the native author.

When Haili Alcorn, Neal Fischer, Megan Mandell and Michael Stowe tried to get the Yglesias novel “The Truth About Them” that Runge assigned, some students encountered difficulty finding the book. Many local libraries did not carry it. When Stowe inquired at the Tampa Museum of History, they explained that they only carried works by Tampa authors. Their omission was surprising because Yglesias wrote prolifically about the neighborhood in which he grew up—Ybor City.

Out of this lack of recognition for one of Tampa’s own writers grew a class project aiming to reconnect Yglesias to his place and his place to the literature he wrote. The project centered around the Ybor City State Park Museum, which features several exhibits on the cigar industry often portrayed in Yglesias’s novels. The museum, where Runge’s students took their first field trip, agreed to work with Alcorn, Fischer, Meg and Stowe in highlighting Yglesias’s accomplishments as a writer and his contributions to Ybor City. The project fit well within a course devoted to place-making, or the process through which humans ascribe meaning to spaces. The students hope to show how literature creates meaningful places and how Yglesias’s “The Truth About Them” captures the rich history of Ybor City’s cigar workers and their families.

Alcorn designed a website about Yglesias and the institutions in Ybor City that influenced his writing ( With the help of USF Library’s Special Collections, Fischer gathered rare images of the various social clubs, cigar factories and avenues from the late 1800s and early 1900s, which are featured on the site. Mandell and Stowe selected passages from “The Truth About Them” that play important roles in Yglesias’s act of place-making and correspond to the website: Biography, Cigar Factories, Social Clubs, and About Us, where visitors can learn more about why the students embarked on this project. Excerpts from novels and essays appear on the site in both text and audio files. The group also has included interviews with Yglesias in which he discusses the cigar factory strikes, radical workers, female workers and the important job of el lector.

Patrons will have a tri-fold brochure with QR codes, which also are placed around the museum, that will link them to the Yglesias website. Using their phones, visitors can browse the pictures and resources to introduce them to a significant author and enrich their experience of Ybor City.

Yglesias died in November 1995, shortly after he learned that his novels would be republished. The project is particularly poignant because before he died, Yglesias expressed fears that his work would be forgotten. In her essay “Remembering Jose Yglesias,” Mary Jo Melone writes, “Yglesias was convinced, as most writers are, that his work would vanish with him.” Yglesias’s son, Rafael, adds, "If he had died even a year ago... he would have been very bitter... that everything he had recorded was going to be lost." Yglesias worried not only that his writings would fade from public memory, but that Ybor City’s origins as a radical Latino island built by immigrant cigar workers would be forgotten. Alcorn, Fischer, Mandell and Stowe are working to prevent either from happening.

The students would like to thank Arte Publico, who republished Yglesias’ novels as part of their Pioneers of Modern U.S. Hispanic Literature series, for permission to use excerpts from Yglesias’s novels as well as the Ybor City State Park Museum for accommodating their project. They are particularly grateful to Museum Curator Elizabeth McCoy for helping them turn ideas into action by offering suggestions for the exhibit.

The website and onsite project went live Feb. 27, 2015.


Filed under:English Arts and Sciences    
Author:Haili Alcorn, Meg Mandell, Laura Runge