Evelio Grillo, the son of black Cuban cigar makers in Tampa, Florida, was born in 1919, in Ybor City, an immigrant enclave whose population was predominantly Cuban, Spanish, and Sicilian. When the Cuban population, which was the largest of the three primary ethnic cohorts, had started arriving, in 1885, from Key West and Cuba, its members were approximately 15 percent Afro-Cuban, or darker skinned, and 75 percent white, or lighter-skinned. The number of black Cubans later dwindled significantly, in the 1930s and 1940s, because of the Depression and drastically reduced employment opportunities. Many Cuban immigrants headed North to New York City and other urban centers in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic searching for and finding better work, more educational opportunities, and more Afro-Latin people and communities to mingle and join forces with, which led to their major involvement in Northern civil rights efforts.
Grillo grew up on the “unofficial” border between Ybor City proper and a small, marginalized, African American area between Ybor City and downtown Tampa known as the Scrub. Early on, he came to feel somewhat alienated from his white Cuban counterparts, despite the fact he and they shared a great deal in common—language, history, culture, and religion. The idea of racial unity that had been promoted by José Martí and other Cuban leaders and intellectuals in the years leading up to and during the 1895 Cuban War of Independence, and which had never really totally existed, was quickly abandoned.
Eventually, thanks to an extraordinary school experience that took him out of Tampa and to Washington, DC, he became more comfortable and functional in the African American world of Tampa and elsewhere. Grillo ended up receiving a first-rate education at Dunbar High School in the Capitol; earned a bachelor of arts degree at Xavier University, in New Orleans, Louisiana; took three years of courses in Latin American history at Columbia University, in New York City, after the war; and then moved to Oakland, California, to work and earn a master’s degree in social welfare at the University of California, Berkeley.
After completing his undergraduate degree at Xavier, Grillo had been drafted into the US Army—the segregated army—and was shipped to India with the 853rd Engineering Battalion to build roads. While there, the developed many talents that he would later synthesize and that served him well later on in life, for example, community organizing, administration, research and writing, communications, and dealing with institutionalized racism and discrimination.
Upon moving to Oakland, he took a position in a community center, and after earning his master’s degree from Berkeley, he continued to be involved in community, social, and political organizing. He was active in in local politics and black, Mexican, and Latina/o affairs and initiatives at the national, governmental, and nonprofit levels, working, for example, for the City of Oakland, in the administration of President Jimmy Carter, the War on Poverty, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Community Service Organization, and had the opportunity to work with the likes of Herman Gallegos, César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, Fred Ross, and Saul Alinsky.