Key West residents David Sloan and Hayley Castellano in 2018 led the effort to install a gravestone in the city cemetery for Manuel Cabeza, who was killed by the KKK in Key West on Christmas 1921, then buried at the Key West cemetery with a makeshift sign that was in place for 97 years. Sloan placed flowers at the grave on Christmas Eve 2021, 100 years after his murder. DAVID SLOAN/Contributed

On Christmas Eve, 1921, a lynch mob of Ku Klux Klan members in Key West broke into the city’s jail,  removed Manuel Cabeza, beat him and then killed him for loving a biracial woman. Cabeza died the next morning on Christmas Day 1921. He was buried in the Key West Cemetery in a grave marked by a makeshift sign. That sign lasted 97 years, until 2018, when David Sloan and Hayley Castellano dove into the research to tell Cabeza’s story, then spearheaded efforts to have a proper gravestone installed.

The letter that follows was sent to the city of Key West and its residents via Sloan by Victoria Pardo Booth, Cabeza’s great-grandniece and Vivian Delgado Pardo, his great-niece.

Key Wester David Sloan laid flowers at Manuel Cabeza’s grave in the Key West Cemetery on Christmas Eve 2021, 100 years after Cabeza’s death at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan. DAVID SLOAN/Contributed

Dear Key West,

It has been 100 years since the tragic death of our Tio (Uncle), Manuel “El Isleño” Cabeza, who was known to many as the one at the historic Key West Cemetery with the makeshift sign that lovingly served as his headstone for 97 years. 

Thanks to this amazing city and the many people who cared, El Isleño received a fitting headstone and a proper burial three years ago, surrounded by family and so many others who had never met him, but cared about him nonetheless. In attendance was Estela Cabeza Delgado, Manuel’s niece who just celebrated her 102nd birthday. Over the years, she made sure to pass on everything she knew about him to our family, and through her, his memory lives on with the Cabezas. 

Handsome, brave, with a bit of a wild streak, and tragically taken too soon, we tried our best to fill in the pieces over the years, but it is through the pure kindness and love of others, including David Sloan and Hayley Castellano, that we now know more of him and who he was. What others have researched and learned has been passed onto us and has enabled us to add more pieces to the puzzle. We now feel more connected to this unbelievable and animated man, a man who was strong-willed, yet kind; a man who was exceptionally brave; a man with a wicked sense of humor; a man who defended others; who loved who he loved and and stood up for what was right; a man who lived with conviction. This is the way that Manuel Cabeza should be remembered and celebrated.

In these past 100 years, many things have changed, but one thing has remained constant: this remarkable city. Our family is still in awe of the kindness and love we have received and are still receiving to this day from everyone that we have encountered along this journey. It is easy to see why El Isleño proudly called Key West his home.

On behalf of the Cabeza family, we want to say thank you from the bottom of our hearts to the entire city of Key West and to every single person who has played an invaluable role in helping to keep his memory alive. You are all the reason we can honor Manuel Cabeza, and our family will forever be grateful to this beautiful city and its selfless people. 

We wish you all the happiest of holidays, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Thank you again, and we look forward to visiting in 2022.

All the best,

Victoria Pardo Booth (Manuel’s great-grandniece)

Vivian Delgado Pardo (Manuel’s great-niece)

 

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Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. She's married to a saintly — and handy — fisherman, and has been stringing words together in Key West since 1998.