La Gaceta, a new film by Tampa newscaster-turned-documentarian Lynn Marvin Dingfelder, tells the story of a century-old, trilingual, family-run newspaper that has done something increasingly impressive for a newspaper:
The hourlong film, which Dingfelder presented Thursday at the Sarasota Film Festival, takes viewers on a remarkable, entertaining tour of Tampa and its historic Ybor City district. It takes us back to a time when rolling cigars, with Cuban ingredients, was one of the most profitable jobs for Cuban and Italian immigrants.
They thought of themselves not as factory workers, but as artigianos — the Italian word for artisans. As they rolled, they needed entertainment, so the workers came together to hire someone called el lector, or reader. One of the best was the Cuban-born Victoriano Manteiga, who shared stories, news, and strong opinions about workers’ rights.
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When workers went on strike — perhaps in part because of his words — he decided to shift his talents from reading to writing, and started La Gaceta, which marked its 100th anniversary last year. The paper’s title translates to “The Gazette.”
La Gaceta and Castro
Eventually, Victoriano Manteiga passed La Gaceta on to his son, Roland (perhaps in part because of a dustup involving Fidel Castro — more on that soon), and Roland in turn passed it on to his son, Patrick Manteiga, who still leads the paper today. It is so old-fashioned that it never went digital, preferring a minimal online presence.
Dingfelder makes a persuasive case that the newspaper has remained an important voice for Tampa’s working class, and especially immigrants and their offspring, by publishing in three languages — English, Italian and Spanish — making it the only publication to do so. The film explains how many Tampa children learned one or more languages through La Gaceta.
The paper also stayed relevant through a weekly editorial/political gossip column that everyone feels obligated to read, even — maybe especially — if it’s criticizing them.
The column was started by Roland Manteiga, a white-suited man about town known for breaking bread with everyone from local Tampa politicians to Jimmy Carter at La Tropicana Restaurant, where he had his own table and phone. His son Patrick took over the column years ago. The restaurant is sadly no more.
Dingfelder is among those who have dined at Roland’s Tropicana table, and asks a wide array of Tampa politicians and luminaries all the right questions to elicit terrific anecdotes — like the one about how Roland was hoodwinked, by Fidel Castro himself, into believing he would bring democracy to Cuba. Instead he became a despised figure.
She also gets a who’s-who of Tampenos to laugh that the newspaper might have folded in the ’60s, as it reeled from the Castro mess — if not for strippers.
The film explains that strip clubs exploded in Tampa in the 1960s, and that La Gaceta earned ad revenue — and got many readers to flip right to the end of the paper — through its many strip-club ads, with photos of the barely-clothed dancers.
The film is mostly celebratory of the newspaper and the family, which gave Dingfelder lots of interviews and access, including to its sometimes disorganized archives. (What would you expect after a century?) It also helped get the film made.
Dingfelder explained in a Q&A after the film that the hardest part of making it was raising money for the project — a common experience for documentarians. She said the Manteiga family encouraged fans of the La Gaceta to donate to the film, but that their help didn’t buy them any editorial oversight.
Patrick Manteiga, she explained, saw the movie for the first time last year with everyone else when it premiered in Ybor City.
“As a journalist I can tell you they never saw the film, they never approved of anything, they never asked about it. I don’t play that game.”
The wider distribution plans for the film are uncertain, but its a natural for anyone interested in Florida politics, Cuban-American history, or a family fighting the good fight to keep a newspaper going.
La Gaceta played Thursday at the Sarasota Film Festival, which you can learn more about here.