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Silhouettes profiles Omar Garcia

By Tiffany Razzano
Published March 10, 2023

The son of Cuban immigrants, Omar Garcia is the first generation of his family born in Tampa. His older siblings were also born in Cuba and came to Florida with their parents.
By 1957, his father was working in Tampa as a chemical engineer. Eventually, his parents purchased a home in the Baycrest area.
Garcia attended Christ the King Catholic School and graduated from Tampa Catholic High School. But he wasn’t the best student, he said. “My grades weren’t the best…They weren’t stellar.”
He took difficult courses in high school, but “I just did enough to pass,” he said. “I graduated with a 2.0.”
His parents considered sending him to trade school to become a welder. “Just so I’d have a career,” Garcia said. “But my mom said, ‘Absolutely not. You’re going to college.’”
So, after high school, he first attended Hillsborough Community College, which prepared him for his higher education. There he took what’s considered a “weeder class” – thermodynamics. “If I got an A, I automatically moved to classes at (the University of South Florida,” he said.
He earned that A and went on to attend USF, graduating with a civil engineering degree and honors.
From there, he joined the U.S. Navy, becoming a civil engineering corps officer. He served from 1995 to 1997. During this time, much of his work was with the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion handling construction contracts in Puerto Rico. “The Fighting CBs. Just like the John Wayne movie,” Garcia said. “We went out and made rapid runway repairs.”
After leaving the Navy, he switched gears, attending the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School to earn his MBA. “I’ve done a lot of different things in my career circuit,” he said.
After graduating from UNC in 1999, “the internet was just blowing up,” he said. “I really saw a huge opportunity.”
For several years he worked at Nortel Networks, which offered high-speed cell networks around the world, as a sale operation manager. “Cell phone use was in its infancy, at the time. We’re talking about Bluetooth in 1999,” Garcia said.
He was in charge of web enabling some of the company’s partners. “I still remember the day one of the girls on our team said, ‘You need to check out this new search engine called Google,’” he recalled.
For a while, he worked in England, just outside London, but field changed when “dot-com imploded” after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the Twin Towers. Though he considered a move to Silicon Valley, he came back to Tampa.
Once back in Florida, he launched a real estate company, Aventa. While he didn’t want to be “branded to any particular ethnicity, he also felt that the Hispanic community was underserved in the real estate market at the time.
Garcia had always enjoyed “the tangible side of real estate” and was inspired by his mother’s work in the field. He grew up watching her flip homes in the Tampa area. “Like they do on HGTV, but my mom was doing it in the early ‘70s,” he said. “My mom was buying and fixing whole houses in the 1970s. Taking these homes with antique finishings and making them new again. So, I was always kind of into this starting from something old and making it new again. It’s called adaptive reuse.”
Aventa did well in its first couple of years, but by 2006, he began to see that the real estate market as a whole was having some issues. “I didn’t feel comfortable telling first-time homeowners and buyers, ‘Hey, you should buy this house,’” he said. “I felt the market was going to turn.”
At the same time, he was going through a divorce and wanted to switch gears. So, he took a construction management position in Iraq and, later, Afghanistan. “It was like what I did in Puerto Rico, but for a private company,” he said.
There, he met his current wife, who’s from Turkey, and they had daughters. “It works out well. They’re loud and Cubans are loud and very passionate,” Garcia said.
When his dad fell ill, he moved his family to Tampa. He took a position working in a company focused on crude oil and U.S. Army Corps of Engineer projects in Afghanistan, serving as director of emerging markets.
Then, he started looking into how mobile phones could be used during field maintenance works and found a way to use QR codes to track equipment and projects. The QR codes are put on containers and other equipment used in the field and are tracked by GPS. If anyone came upon this equipment, all they’d have to do was scan the QR code to know who it belonged to. After perfecting this technology, he launched a company, SHOOTRAC.
Around the same time, he was buying, fixing and flipping properties on the side. Eventually, he had to make a choice – move to Silicon Valley to grow SHOOTRAC or find another career path.
Garcia had the opportunity to purchase a 136-unit apartment complex in West Tampa, and decided to scrap his software company. “I didn’t want to travel,” he said. “When you do startups, it’s the hardest, most intense thing in the world. You’re up at 1 o’clock in the morning. You’re sleeping for four hours a day. You’re all in. You live, breathe and do it every day.”
When he purchased the apartment complex, he launched a new real estate company, Urban Core Holdings. “We felt that there would be a move to the urban core,” he said. “Driving a car is a hassle and expense. So, we felt that movement would be to the downtown urban core of the city.”
The apartment complex wasn’t an easy job, he added. “It was horrible – gangs, drug dealing and a massive amount of deferred maintenance when we bought it.”
But they put the work into it, changing the water lines, updating the roof, redoing apartments. Eventually, it drew attention of University of Tampa students and when he and his partners sold the complex in 2020, more than 40 percent of the tenants attended UT.
“What I realized from that was there was an unmet need for housing for UT students,” Garcia said.
His company didn’t target one particular product or demographic. Instead, they wanted to be experts in an area. “And that area is a five-mile radius of downtown,” he said.
They next purchased 220 Madison, a 90,000-square-foot office building that had been foreclosed on several times. “It failed as an office building, but it’s probably the most central location in Tampa,” Garcia said. “We said, you know what, let’s make these micro apartments.”
The 136-bed project has been 100 percent occupied since the day it opened in August 2019. It’s leased mostly to college students – the majority attending UT with some from USF living there as well.
And Garcia is seeing the downtown growth he anticipated. “There’s development of the outer ring of downtown. We’re starting to see that periphery developed,” he said. “Now, it’s working its way to the center. Across the street from our building is $2-, $3, $4 million housing. It is exactly what we thought would happen, that people would want to live in the urban core; they’d want to walk to restaurants and shops. And while we expected the trend to happen, what we did not contemplate was the speed it would happen in Tampa.”
Garcia also has several other projects in the works, including the conversion of the Bustillo Brothers and Diaz Company cigar factor in West Tampa into housing, called CigarLofts. And he’s working on another student housing facility near UT in a 1900s-era hotel building. He’s also working on the South Tampa development, Interbay Commons, which includes 30 townhomes and 50,000 square feet of commercial space.
He’s also a big supporter of expanding mass transit and alternative transportation options in the Tampa Bay area. He even rides his bike to work. “I encourage people to get out of the car business,” he said.
In his free time, he regularly plays pick-up soccer games in South Tampa. “The players are 16 to 72 years old. That is my social group,” he said. “We talk smack. We fall. We push. And we do it every week, twice a week. And the players are from everywhere – Jamaicans, Algerians, British, Venezuelans – hardly any Brazilians – Central Americans, South Americans, military guys, humans.”
He’s close with his family, who still lives here, as well as his wife and daughters. “All my family is here. I love my family. I love what I do. I wouldn’t change anything,” he said.

Silhouettes profiles Randi Zimmerman

By Tiffany Razzano
Published Aug. 22, 2022

Taking on the general manager role at WMNF earlier this year, Randi Zimmerman’s career has come full circle – and she couldn’t be happier about it. After all, Tampa Bay’s community radio station is where the educator and journalist got her start on the air. Now, she’s ready to guide the station as it continues to grow and connect with listeners throughout the region.
“This job hits all my buttons. I’m this weird combination of people person and a numbers person,” she said. “So, I get to talk to people. I get to be technical. I get to work the board. I get to hug people and hearten people and elevate their stories and I get to run the numbers. And I was handed this station that’s in really great shape, that is doing amazing things, that needs, basically, just a little bit more help to get over into that next generation.”
A native New Yorker, Zimmerman was raised in Kew Gardens, Queens and graduated from the Bronx High School of Science. As a teen, she was interested in science and theater, especially the technical aspects of producing shows. “I was one of those AV nerds. But you can’t make money in theater, even in New York, right? So, I went to learn about producing television and radio and then went into producing commercials. Then business, public relations, stuff like that,” she said.
She spent about a decade working in New York after high school “in advertising, public relations, cable television. I worked at Lifetime before it was anything, when we were still pushing buttons, instead of, you know, having an actual remote control.”
In 1990, she moved to Florida. She had family in the state – a great aunt in Brooksville and her grandmother on the East Coast – and was also drawn to its affordability. “I wanted to be able to afford to buy my own home,” she said. “I wanted that opportunity, which wasn’t going to be available to me anytime soon living in New York, working in television and radio.”
Zimmerman didn’t know what to expect when she landed in Tampa but found it to be “a city on the verge, getting ready to become something big.”
She added, “And that seemed very exciting to me to be at the beginning of things.”
At the same time, the Tampa Bay area was also “basically one big small town,” she said, “which is also kind of cool.”
When she first moved to Tampa, she worked in the corporate world, but decided to go back to college to become a science teacher. Living in Safety Harbor at the time, she first attended St. Petersburg Junior College, then the University of South Florida.
At USF, she met Nell Abram, a journalist, DJ and volunteer at WMNF. As they got to know each other, Zimmerman shared her background in commercials, public relations and radio production in New York.
Abram told her, “Well, come to my community radio station where we need some professional skills.”
“So, I started in the news department here because of Nell Abram. Just met her in a class,” Zimmerman said.
She was already familiar with WMNF. As a “news junkie,” she’d already discovered the station not long after moving to Florida after learning that it aired “Democracy Now.”
“It was like, ‘This is great. My people,’” she said. But she couldn’t quite figure out the station’s schedule. “It wasn’t always talk and sometimes it was music. And sometimes it was polka music and sometimes it was rock music and sometimes it was blues music. It took me a number of years to really figure out what was going on.”
Once she began working with the station, it clicked for her. “I knew the station, but I didn’t really understand the station until I was here,” she said. “And then I was hooked. I just did everything. I volunteered doing news. I would do fund drives and answer phones and stuffed envelopes. My mom raised me to be very politically active anything. So, it was great having a cause.”
Zimmerman immediately saw the potential in WMNF’s newsroom. “It was really clear that the newsroom could foster all of these wonderful voices,” she said.
Though her previous experience in radio and television focused on technical production, at WMNF, she shifted gears to broadcast journalism, taking on the role of headline news anchor in 1998 and embracing her role in radio activism. Being on air is “a necessary evil,” something she’s still not fully comfortable doing decades later. “But I have to get on air. Not because I like it or I’m enamored by it, but because I’ve got these great stories,” she said.
Sheila Cowley, who was an engineer at the station at the time, once told her, “You’re not really a journalist. You’re really a storyteller.”
“And that’s absolutely true. I’m really a storyteller,” Zimmerman said. “I write poetry – for myself – I do all that stuff. So, just this idea that here, I’ve got this microphone and because I have a microphone, people are willing to talk to me. And I love people. I think people are just really interesting and we often ignore just this heroic stuff that goes on all around us all that time that is not talked about. And here I had this opportunity to turn on a microphone to record people and elevate their stories to something that everybody could relate to.”
In the newsroom, she was given the chance to experiment. “I got to be creative and develop not just straight on interviews, but longform radio documentary, half-hour pieces, and that was very fulfilling,” she said.
She did live field coverage of the 2000 election and also lent local perspectives to news coverage of stories with national and international interest, with a focus on social justice, for Florida Public Radio, Pacifica and BBC. During her time with WMNF, she also collaborated with Mitch Perry and Abram as a founding co-anchor on the WMNF Evening News. In 2001, Zimmerman was honored by the station for her work with the award for “Exceptional News and Public Affairs Programming.”
Outside WMNF, she also worked as the first headlines editor for Free Speech Radio News, an international syndicated news program.
While working in journalism, educating others was also remained important to her. She recruited and trained younger community members to produce news and public affairs for WMNF. She also developed a course, Practicum in Broadcast Management, for the University of Tampa.
She also worked as a substitute teacher in Hillsborough County before landing a position as a science teacher at Brandon High School.
By 2005, she was ready for a change, though. When her spouse was accepted into an MFA program at Pratt Institute in New York City, Zimmerman got a New York City Teaching Fellowship. She taught for the New York Department of Education while earning a master’s degree in middle childhood education with a focus on science from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.
In the classroom, she was known for leaning on her creative and communications background to engage students, such as having them perform plays about rocks and minerals. She also coached young science teachers in Title I schools, helping them understand how to interact and communicate with a diverse student body.
She went on to work as an education researcher with Rutgers Graduate School of Education in 2013.
Zimmerman returned to Florida in 2018. The reasons for making her way back to Florida are simple, she said – “snow and taxes.” She also knew it would be an easy transition, as her family “already had a community here,” between her spouse’s relatives and her WMNF friends and colleagues.
Eventually, she reached out to the station about volunteering. She didn’t want to go back on air but knew she could use her skills and experience to improve training documents and policies for reporters.
Weeks later, Rick Fernandes, then the general manager, quit. Zimmerman was slated to be part of the hiring committee tasked with finding his replacement. “I printed out the job description…and I’m reading through the papers and I’m like, I can do all of this,” she said. “I asked my friends what they thought about me applying for the job and they said, ‘We think you’d be perfect.’ So, I (applied) and I got it.”
One of her biggest focuses since taking on the position at the end of February has been “bringing community back into community radio.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many volunteers weren’t allowed into the station. “To keep everybody safe…(we) had to not let a lot of people in,” she said. “Unlike other not-for-profits, this isn’t just stuffing envelopes. It’s not a typical volunteer job. We’re called community radio for a reason, right? People lost their community and it hurt their feelings and it’s been very hard for some of those folks to come back. So, we have to make extra efforts to make people comfortable about coming back to the station. COVID is still going on.”
The station has also focused on doing more outreach events and connecting with the community in person. (And yes, “Heatwave is coming back,” she said.)
Additionally, there are specific audiences the station has never been able to reach. “There are a lot of communities that never felt very connected to WMNF, so I’m working very hard to reach those people as well,” Zimmerman said.
At the top of her list are St. Pete residents. The station has been hosting more events at the Palladium and other venues in St. Petersburg to connect with those living there.
The station is also now working closely with nonprofit groups to offer them free podcasts and teaching them how to produce these shows. WMNF is also reconnecting with the Pacifica network to offer some of its local program to them. “Florida is one of the hotbeds of the country,” she said. “People are very interested in what we would think of as local politics, but people are trying to figure out what makes us tick. So, we have this opportunity to really expand our national audience with the good stuff that is happening here. We have top-notch journalists doing incredibly good shows.”

Book Review: “Tragedy to Triumph – The Story of Tom’s Heart,” by Janet W. Mauk and Pete Radigan

Beyond His Years
by Gene Siudut

In the mid-‘90s, Pete Radigan had a big heart.
Too big, in fact. His severe cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart, developed into Stage 4 heart failure. Pete had two options – a heart transplant or death.
Pete, like me, is a New Jersey guy. Also like me, he is a volunteer basketball coach at the New Tampa YMCA. I’ve been coaching against Pete for a few seasons. Mostly to his benefit, as I had a run of consecutive defeats to his teams until the past year or so, when my teams started coming into their own.
I remember the first time I coached against him. He walked with a bit of a limp and was bent over as if he had back problems. He certainly had a frail demeanor, but once the game started, his voice boomed across the court toward his players, the refs and anyone who would listen.
Immediately, I knew this was no frail man. He didn’t have a surplus of physical energy but whatever emanated from his insides was that of a man half his age. I didn’t like that Pete was making a good living off beating my teams at the onset. There weren’t many coaches who had a winning record against me, and Pete was making me look like a novice.
The problem was I couldn’t help but like him.
A coach needs to be an example of sportsmanship, dignity, respect and all those other wonderful coach-speak terms. And in this developmental league, winning is not as important as developing youth, but there are some coaches you just want to beat. Pete was one of those guys because he seemed to know the game so well. I liked him personally, but I wanted to shake his hand after a game and wish him better luck next time.
I think out of our first nine meetings, I only beat him twice, which irked me, but I knew my guys were developing nicely and I’d be ready for him in the near future. But that chance appeared lost when Pete disappeared for a while.
What I discovered was Pete became very sick. I knew he had general bad health, but I never knew exactly what his ailments were, only that they seemed to debilitate him.
There was even a point when we were told his situation was dire and did not know if he would make it through. Before that, all I wanted was for him to return so I could beat him. My thoughts quickly evolved to just wanting him to be able to leave the hospital.
By grace, doctors and good fortune, Pete made it out of the hospital and eventually was able to return to the sideline. I didn’t know a whole lot about his physical ordeals, but soon after his return, I was made aware of a book written by him and Janet Mauk called “Tragedy to Triumph, The Story of Tom’s Heart.”
Immediately, I was intrigued and again, a little jealous. There I was, a writer for a newspaper for 15 years who always wanted to write a book. And there was Pete. Not only was he a better basketball coach then me. He was also a published writer. I had to get to the bottom of this.
Well, you can forget about me writing any kind of book because whatever stupid observations I have in this world are insignificant compared to the life lived by Pete, his co-author Janet, and through both of them, Janet’s son, Tom.
“Tragedy to Triumph” is the story of a big heart, but not the one enlarged by Pete’s disease. The heart given to him through the tragedy of the death of 16-year-old Tom Mauk.
And it was given.
A motorcycle accident robbed Tom of his life, but through organ donation, he was able to help seven other people survive. The question of organ donation was asked of Tom’s parents, who gave that permission. They would find out that six months before he passed, Tom had remarked to his friends that if anything ever happened to him, he would want to be an organ donor.
Thankfully for Pete, who was very near to the end of his life without a transplant, the gift of life arose from Tom’s tragedy. However, that tragedy and transplant are just the beginning of this tale.
“Tom displayed perception beyond his years …”
On the surface, the sentence reads as complimentary. A deeper look, however, is the soul of the bitter-sweet story of Tom Mauk, who literally and figuratively lived beyond his years.
As a child of divorced parents, Tom lived the back-and-forth life many children in his situation experience who take residence in two homes. He lived with his mother most of the time but felt he needed his father in his life and made the decision, unprovoked, to pack his bags and tell his mother he was moving in with his dad.
While it was just 34 miles away, Janet was not going to take this lying down. She wanted to fight the decision, but her legal counsel let her know that a judge would likely abide by the wishes of a 13-year-old unless there was something egregious that could be proven in court.
Being a God-fearing woman, Janet trusted the Lord in the process and granted Tom his wish. Tom sensed his mother’s pain over the decision and on the way to church one Sunday, Tom told his mother, “Mom, I’m going to my father’s because I need to be with him, not because you are a bad mother.”
As readers, we know Tom’s physical life would meet with a tragic end just three years later. But this is how the book starts. It grabs you and lets you know this isn’t some sappy story about a kid who had no idea how his decisions affected people positively or negatively.
The gift of Tom’s organs brought beauty to a tragedy and his mother’s recollections of him gave that gift a face. There is a brutal honesty when discussing his struggles as a teenager and her struggles as a parent. And not to be forgotten is the simultaneous dire consequences that were assuaged when Pete received Tom’s heart.
When I first met my wife almost 15 years ago, one of the attractions we had to each other was our love of reading. She was an English/literature teacher at the time and we talked for hours about writers and books we loved and hated.
Since then, I’ve barely read a book. I read so much at La Gaceta, I want to get away from the written word during my free time, but I still make the attempt when the mood strikes. This has led me to start at least five books simultaneously that I haven’t made it past the first 20 pages.
This book, however, is not one of those. For the first time in my adult life, I read a book cover-to-cover in one sitting. I couldn’t put it down and for anyone who knows me, that should be endorsement enough.
I don’t want to give too much of the book away, but worth noting is the mandate this book carries. The obligation not just to register as an organ donor, but to make those wishes known.
As with anything people don’t fully understand, there is a lot of bad information out there about organ donation. Some common misconceptions include:
1. Doctors don’t work as hard to save the lives of organ donors
2. People believe they are too old/young to register to be a donor
3. Can’t have an open-casket funeral
4. People in bad health should not register to be a donor
5. Rich/famous people go to the top of the national transplant waiting list
Naturally, none of the above statements are true. When speaking with Pete about the misconceptions, he felt that a lot of it comes from the lack of conversations people have about death.
“Talking about organ, eye, and tissue donation is hard because it’s a discussion about what you want to happen if you die,” Pete told me. “My answer to that is simple. Seventeen people die each day waiting for an organ transplant, and one organ, eye and tissue donor can save and heal more than 75 lives. Federal law says, any eligible death, anywhere in the country, your family is going to be asked about organ, eye and tissue donation. At the worst moment of any family’s life, wouldn’t you want to know what that one last wish was? So I would say to everyone, whether you decide to be an organ, eye or tissue donor, make the decision and share the decision”
I asked Pete if he felt any obligation to Tom for the gift of his heart, as in taking care of it while also making the most of his life. He said he lives his life to the fullest every day but added he doesn’t dwell on if he’s doing too much or if he needs rest, nor does he worry about how much time he has left. “You can’t really live life that way. I truly live for the day and live, truly live each moment, each day,” he said.
But not far from his thoughts are Janet and he knows she already appreciates the good care he takes of Tom’s heart and through that care, Tom lives on.
There is a lot of good information about how to approach conversations about organ, eye and tissue donation, how to get registered and pretty much everything else you would want to know. Two good places to start, however are Donate Life America’s websites, DonateLife.net and RegisterMe.org.
Janet and Pete are especially thankful to their sponsor Biomatrix, a specialty transplant pharmacy, Donate Life America and many others who supported them through this journey.
In basketball, all I want to do is beat Pete every chance I get. In life, however, I want nothing but success for Pete, which means getting as many people to become registered donors as possible. It would also be nice to see his and Janet’s book on every coffee table in America. To make that happen, please go to Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, or right to the source at www.tragedytotriumph.net.
Gene Siudut can be emailed at gsiudut@lagacetanewspaper.com

Silhouettes profiles Dr. Mario Hernandez

By Tiffany Razzano
Published January 7, 2022

Like many Ybor City natives, Dr. Mario Hernandez has Cuban, Spanish and Sicilian roots and, of course, connections to the historic cigar industry.
His Cuban father was born in Key West after his family immigrated first from Spain and the Canary Islands. At the time, Key West was a growing community thanks to the success of the cigar industry there. But the island was hit by powerful hurricanes, which ended the cigar trade there, Hernandez said. “And so they started bringing the tobacco here to Tampa.” And his father’s side of the family followed the industry as cigar factories opened in Ybor City.
His father met his mother, a Tampa native, here. She was part Spanish – on her father’s side – and Sicilian – on her mother’s side. “So, I’m Italian, Spanish and Cuban,” he said.
It was a different time growing up in Ybor City, one he remembers fondly. “I grew up, as a kid, right there, at what is MLK and 15th Street. It was actually Buffalo. It used to be called Buffalo Avenue,” Hernandez said. “And, you know, I grew up in a time when, you know, you ate breakfast and the doors of the stable were open, and the kids would just run out and come back when your mother screamed for you to come and eat. That was the kind of neighborhood that I grew up in.”
Like many families, much of their socializing happened around good. “Everything was always centered around eating,” he said. “My mother being, you know, having a big Italian influence, would cook. On Sunday, she would cook spaghetti…My mother was not really religious; we weren’t religious. I would say we were spiritual…So, our church on Sundays was my mother’s kitchen, cooking spaghetti sauce.”
It was such a powerful memory for the family that when she died he printed her recipe and the story of her sauce on Sundays on the back of her prayer card.
“That was really fun,” he said. “And, of course, the recipe was, how much garlic do you put in? And the answer would be, ‘Well, it depends on how good the garlic is.’ If it’s really good garlic, you put in less. It’s like, well, what is good garlic? She had this recipe based on how good the ingredients were. It’s so funny.”
His parents ran a store in Ybor City. Hernandez spent a lot of time there as a child, but one of his most vivid moments decades later was hiding from the Ku Klux Klan. A biracial couple had moved about a half a block from the shop and one day his father saw KKK members in white robes marching toward the couple’s home. He and his parents locked the door, pulled down the shades and turned off the lights, and the three of them hid behind the meat counter while the KKK burned a cross in the nearby yard.
“I’ll never forget it, because I saw how concerned my parents were. I never saw my father like that. I can still remember it,” Hernandez said.
He was just a little boy and the gravity of what was happening – and the racism and hatred behind the KKK’s actions – didn’t fully hit him until he was older. “We lived in a Latin community where we were, to a certain extent, living in our own world with other people like us,” he said.
As he grew older though, he noticed things were different when his family traveled outside Ybor City. “When you went out a little bit, like we would try to rent motels at the beach, I remember, ‘Sorry, we don’t rent to Latins. Sorry, we don’t rent to Latins,’ and we’d go place to place to place to try to find a place,” he said. “There was prejudice and my father was always very concerned about where I would go to hang out and do things. He says, ‘Some of these places you go, we’ll never find your body.’ Well, that’s a scary thought. That was just a reality I grew up with. But within the Latin community, you know, it was different. It was like our own world. Tampa was a beautiful, protective kind of bubble.”
Growing up, there was only one person in his family who attended college. Higher education wasn’t the norm for his parents, and though they had a lot of confidence in his abilities, he didn’t have much guidance as far as schooling or his career path.
Access to WEDU’s programming was influential and life-changing for him at a young age. “I didn’t have like a role model for a whole lot, you know, outside (Ybor City,) and so, to me, the window to the outside world, the thing that made me go like, ‘Wow, what is that job? How did that person get that job?’ was WEDU,” he said. “I would watch WEDU all the time…And that’s where I’d see these jobs. You know, I’d see a professor. I was always into animals and plants, I still am.”
Initially, he wanted to be an animal behavioralist and WEDU drove those dreams. After high school, he went on to the University of South Florida. The early research he completed was working with crows and tools. “Crows are amazing creatures,” Hernandez said. “They’re very intelligent.”
While working with the crows, though, his research assistantship funding ran out, forcing him to switch gears. He was pointed in the direction of Dr. Robert Friedman, a clinical psychologist and USF staff member who eventually chaired the psychology department. Friedman was hiring people to work with teenagers with emotional issues at the Florida Mental Health Institute.
Hernandez wasn’t sold on changing his career path, though. He told his wife, “I’m not gonna work with teenagers. You know, that’s not what I want to do.”
She told him, “Well, why don’t you go check it out? We need the money.”
He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology from USF in 1975, followed by a master’s degree in clinical/community psychology from the university in 1978. While working toward his Ph.D. in clinical/community psychology, also at USF, he headed west to complete his required internship at Camarillo State Hospital in California in 1980. “That’s where all the movie stars go,” he said.
It was a big move and adjustment for Hernandez and his tightknit family. He recalls his sister moving away from their Ybor City neighborhood before him. She didn’t go very far, moving to Lutz. “My mother was crying, because it was like she was moving to France, you know. They might never see her again,” he said. “But that’s how the families were. Everybody stayed right by each other. So, then, you can imagine what it was like when the son moves to California.” The first plane trip his parents ever took was to visit him on the West Coast.
His connection with Friedman at USF gained him many admirers at Camarillo State Hospital and the area. “He’s nationally famous for his way of thinking about how children’s services should be,” Hernandez said. “It’s not all just therapy based. It’s more about how we support kids and families in a more realistic way as opposed to just always thinking in terms of treatment. It’s about how agencies can work together to help.”
He added, “Well, it turns out that where I moved to, the county was replicating and trying to put his ideas into a real situation. So when they found out that I knew him, it was like a golden key for me. It was like, ‘You know this guy? You know Elvis.’ ‘Yeah, he’s my friend.’”
After earning his Ph.D. from USF, he remained in California operating a private practice and working with various agencies. But the late 1980s, he took on the position of chief of children and youth services with Ventura County Mental Health. His work focused on reforming and overhauling the system.
“Part of the work that I did in California was we helped to close the state hospitals. Our work was to make sure that no children ever had to go there,” he said. “We emptied them. We emptied them out of our county and then we did five counties and then it went statewide.”
With the success in California, Hernandez has consulted in many states on children and youth services, helping to reform their systems. “It was an incredible ride. I mean what were doing in California to replicate what (Friedman) was one of the designers of here just opened up the whole world,” he said. So from a guy who never left his neighborhood, I can’t believe everything I’ve been able to see and do just through my career in advocacy and reform.”
By 1993, he returned to Tampa. His mentor, Friedman, recruited him back to USF, offering him a position as a research associate professor and director of division of training, research, evaluation and demonstrations for the university’s Department of Child and Family Services. He’s been there ever since, working his way up.
Life came full circle for him when Friedman retired. USF asked Hernandez to take over the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences as chair in 2007.
The interdisciplinary department is the largest at the university with 267 employees. It’s also responsible for bringing in around $60 million in grants for various research projects.
“We have psychologists, sociologists. We have educators. We have business majors, anthropologists,” he said. “So, we are really interdisciplinary and whenever we approach a problem, we approach it from all those different perspectives, which really lends a lot.”
The department continues to grow, Hernandez added. “We have the rehab and mental health counseling program. We just added a marriage and family therapy program. We have five certificates. We have a new minor in addictions counseling, which is totally popular. We also have an applied behaviors minor.”
He added, “And we still have more ideas.”
Most university psychology departments are driven by accreditation standards. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences, with so many professions associated with it, it’s adopted a “more unique” mission and vision statement, he said.
“And we did that on purpose because we would no matter what you are, that’s what we’re about. We’re about that first. We want to support everyone and everything they’re doing, while meeting accreditation, of course,” he said. “But we have a real mission statement. It’s not just a slogan that was thrown together. It’s real and has purpose, and that’s what drives us.”

Belmont Heights Contractors Fair

Lectors Return to Ybor City at J.C. Newman Factory

From “As We Heard It” by Patrick Manteiga in the April 2, 2021 edition

Eric Newman reads about his family’s history at the J.C. Newman Cigar Factory.

The J.C. Newman El Reloj Cigar Factory turned 111 years old on Wednesday, March 31. When it opened in 1910, the Tampa Tribune described it as the “largest and finest cigar factory in the world.”
As part of the celebration, the Newman family invited several people to be lectors and read to the workers in the hand-rolling section of the factory.
The lectors of old were hired by a committee of workers to read news and literature during the work day as a form of entertainment.
The lectors were as vital a part of the cigar factory as the tobacco. The lector system was a hard-won workers’ right and strikes would ensue if that right was challenged. In 1931, after a bitter strike, the lector system in Tampa was finally dismantled as manufacturers blamed them for inciting workers to strike.
My grandfather, Victoriano Manteiga, came to America from Cuba in 1914 to accepted a job as the lector for the Morgan Cigar Factory and remained there until 1920 or 1921.
In a moment that could only happen in Tampa, on Wednesday, when I was reading at El Reloj, Maura Barrios was sitting in the audience listening to my voice. Her family – grandfather and grandmother – worked at the Morgan Cigar Factory during the period when my grandfather was lector. It gave me goosebumps to think as I was reading to her in a cigar factory over 100 years after my grandfather Victoriano read to her ancestors in the Morgan Cigar Factory. Once again, only in Tampa and only within Tampa’s Latin community could this happen.
We appreciate the Newman family for giving us the opportunity to participate and, at least for a moment, stand in my grandfather’s shoes.
The other guest lectors were Eric and Bobby Newman, Mario Nuñez from the “Tampa Natives Show,” Manny Leto from Tampa Bay History Center, historian Maura Barrios, Ybor City Museum Society President Chantal Hevia and Columbia Restaurant Group patron Richard Gonzmart.
The Newmans have done a fantastic job of restoring the building. It’s a working museum with a beautiful gift shop. If you haven’t made it there yet, you should take one of the guided tours, which are offered Monday, Tuesday Thursday and Friday mornings at 9:30 and 11:30. The hour-and-15-minute tour is $15 for adults and $12 for seniors, students and veterans and can be booked at jcnewman.com.

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