Jose Yglesias, the “Father of Cuban American Literature,” was born in Ybor City (present-day Tampa), Florida, to a Cuban mother and a Spanish father. Yglesias was raised by his mother from the age of two, after his father returned to his native town in Spain to recuperate from a debilitating illness and died a few years later.
Due in part to the absence of his father, Yglesias was primarily self-educated. Ybor City was home to a large community of labor¬ ers who worked as hand rollers in the local cigar factories. The workers formed a unique community, with a proud sense of Hispanic literature, history, culture, and politics.
Yglesias’s youthful experiences in the commu¬ nity helped shape his identity and served as the focal point of his writing as an adult.After high school, Yglesias moved to New York City. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He then attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina, but he only stayed there for a year.
In 1947, he moved back to New York, took a job with a pharma¬ ceutical company, married, and began a family.Yglesias possessed a passion for literature, and although he eventually became an execu¬ tive of the compa¬ ny where he worked, he never gave up on his dream. In the 1950s, when he was in his thirties and at an age when most men have become comfort¬ able with their careers, he began to pursue his life’s ambition.
He started out writing reviews and articles for various magazines. Then, in 1963, he published his first novel, A Wake in Ybor City, which would become a classic. This highly autobiographical novel introduced American readers to the peculiar world of the cigar workers. The book portrayed the tensions between Cuban and American cultures and also described what made this communi¬ ty of workers unique.
With the publication of this novel, Yglesias became the first Cuban American creative writer to be published by a mainstream press. More importantly, the novel was a landmark work because it introduced the Cuban American voice to American literature, thereby earning Yglesias the title of “Father of Cuban American Literature.”
A Wake in Ybor City launched Yglesias’s career as a writer. He soon became a full-time story contributor to popular magazines such as the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly. He also authored numerous nonfiction books about Spain and Cuba. Yglesias wrote several more novels, most of which reflected on the difficult existence of Hispanics in the United States and in particular on life in his home¬ town’s cigar-worker community.