By Jennifer Currence
Recently, the “Kerfuffle” Book Club, with members in Valrico, Riverview, and Lithia, met with a local author. The August book of the month was Café Con Leche by local author, Jack Eugene Fernandez. Fernandez and his wife, Sylvia, graciously joined the ladies for dinner at a location that appears in the book: the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City. The evening was sponsored by Manny Alvarez and Cami Gibertini of USAmeribank.
The fictional book begins in the early 1930’s in Ybor City. Fernandez gracefully weaves in real-life events in the cigar industry through the struggles and successes of two families over three decades. The book’s central theme examines the personal trials caused by racial tension and is filled with several unexpected twists. He chose the theme because as an adult, he was shocked by the severity of the racism he saw, particularly regarding mixed-race children.
Fernandez was one of the charter faculty members at the University of South Florida when it opened its doors in 1960 and taught chemistry there for thirty years. USF is one of several Tampa landmarks mentioned in the book, including the University of Tampa, Academy of the Holy Names, Brandon, Hyde Park and MacDill Air Force Base.
Born in Tampa in 1930, Fernandez is of Cuban descent. He and his wife have lived in the area their entire lives. After he retired, he decided to move away from penning chemistry text books and create fictional books. “I was working on genealogy with my wife, and I ran out of ancestors,” he said, “so I decided to make up my own ancestors.”
His grandfather, who moved to Tampa in 1895, had told him stories about the area from long ago, such as the wooden plank sidewalks that lined 7th Avenue. He used these memories, as well as several years of research, to create the scenarios in the book. As a result, the book represents a very real portrait of Tampa’s history.
“It was very interesting to hear the author talk about how he developed his characters,” said Linda Bell, one of the book club members. “I was surprised to hear him say that they developed themselves.” When asked how he came up with the idea of his characters, Mr. Fernandez admitted that some of the characteristics and events that happen in the book are based on real people and scenarios from his life.
Fernandez spoke about the characters in the book as if they were living, breathing people. At one point, when asked why he had a character behave in a certain way, he replied with equal astonishment that he was surprised by that too. He explained, “When you go through life, you stumble and bump into things, and you develop. The same thing happens when you write.”
The book Café Con Leche, along with its prequel, Conquistador and its sequel, Viva Matilde, are available on Nook, Kindle and Amazon.com, as well as at the gift shop in the Columbia Restaurant.