Founded for essentially social reasons, Centro Español deftly balanced the strong regional loyalties of its Asturian and Galician members. The early society, unified by real and perceived animosities from Anglo Tampa and the colony's Cuban element, could not retain such loyalties following the conclusion of the Cuban revolution. In particular, the Asturian element had steadfastly urged the society to broaden its collective efforts in the, medical arena. Leaders of Centro Español resisted entrance into such an unexplored area because of costs and the "ungovernable and rebellious nature of the Asturians."
Frequently called "anarchist" by the Galician leadership, a large faction of dissident Spaniards seceded in 1902 to organize Centro Asturiano. The new club became a North American auxiliary of the Centro Asturiano of Havana. By 1900, the renowned Cuban institution already boasted 10,000 members. The international bylaws required a minimum of 300 members, a commitment to donate a percentage of annual dues and a written constitution before granting a charter to the new American affiliate. Pioneering members, of whom sixty-five were still alive in 1936, recalled that enraged leaders from Centro Español especially the cigar manufacturers-fought against the creation of a rival and potentially radical society, even to the point of dispatching delegates to Havana to plead against the proposed establishment. The Spanish hierarchy in Cuba disregarded the protests and granted a charter to Centro Asturiano of Tampa on April 1, 1902. According to record books meticulously preserved at the clubhouse, 546 charter members enlisted in the new society.
Destined to evolve into tile most stable, well financed, and best-preserved clubhouse in Ybor City, Centro Asturiano began with a two-room, wood-frame building at 14101/2 Seventh Avenue. In 1907, leaders announced plans to erect a modern facility on the corner of Palm and Nebraska Avenues. Dedicated on January 22,1909, the $75,000 clubhouse stood unrivaled by Tampa's standards. A 1912 fire completely destroyed the structure, but members resolved to rebuild with an even more ambitious building. In a gesture inconceivable fifteen years earlier, tile Cuban Club offered Centro Asturiano the use of its facility-with full membership privileges during the construction period.
The Tampa Tribune heralded the new Centro Asturiano, unveiled on May 15, 1914, as "the most beautiful building in the South." Designed by the talented architectural firm of Bonfoey and Elliot (which came to design all of the other major clubhouses), the structure cost, a staggering $110,000 of the time. Dedication ceremonies filled three days, highlighted by original operatic scores, a symphony and endless balls and banquets. The building still sparkles as an architectural gem nearly a century later. Its spacious features include a dramatic 1,200 seat theatre, a cantina, ballroom and a well-stocked library.
Financially sound, socially progressive and institutionally viable, Centro Asturiano attracted flocks of Spaniards to its protective banner. While the club naturally promoted Asturian culture, at no time did it exclude other Spaniards or Latins. Italians, Cubans and Galicians joined Centro Asturiano because of its facilities, benefits and membership . Economically, the club operated efficiently, as demonstrated by its surplus of $165,000 for the period 1902-1914, Centro Asturiano's officials established a club bank , whereby members could deposit funds, earning a high interest and at the same time supporting their club. No institution in Ybor City or Tampa generated the crowds and numbers as could Centro Asturiano. A 1911 picnic at Sulphur Springs attracted 6,000 members, their families and guests, causing the trolley company to press all its cars into service. Six months later, another picnic counted a crowd of 4,500 "Every nationality was represented," reported the Tribune.
The Latin community fostered an intense appreciation for the theatre since the earliest days of settlement, and the clubs anchored this passion. Un Seción de Declamación, an amateur theatrical troupe, present plays every Sunday at Centro Español and Centro Asturiano. The advent of "talkies," and the popularity of the movie houses, while drastically curtailing live theatre in much of Florida, actually enlivened the Spanish-language theatre of Ybor City, since many Latin residents spoke little or no English. "In 1935," observed a student of the Florida theatre, "Ybor City seems to have been the only place in which still maintained a type of resident theatre company."
During the 1930s, the Centro Asturiano served as a center for one of the more experimental programs in Americana cultural history-the New Deal's Federal Theatre Project. Under the auspices of the WPA, the club became the only Spanish-language theatre unit in the United States. In addition to the Spanish. language stock theatre, the unit included an Italian opera company, staffed by local talent. Headed by Manuel Aparicio, one of the most celebrated lectores (readers) in Tampa, the federally sponsored theatre survived until July 1939. In all, fifteen plays appeared as part of the unit, including the Spanish version of It Can't Happen Here, bringing a rich feast of theatre which attracted standing room only crowds to the club."
The vibrant Spanish-language theatre dramatized the cultural influence of mutual aid societies. From the beginning, groups frequented plays at neighboring club theatres, enhancing the spread of Spanish and Italian language drama. In Ybor City, remembered Jose Yglesias, there "were wonderfully active cultural centers, for those cigarmakers knew how to organize more than trade unions .... At the Centro Asturiano we saw zarauelas (musical comedies) performed by local amateurs. When great international performers, like [Enrico] Caruso, came to Tampa, it was cigarmakers who booked them, not the Americanos on the other side of Nebraska Avenue."
Centro Asturiano, like the other clubs, promoted the idea of the supreme Latin male. Women joined auxiliaries, which in reality existed to serve the male members. "These social clubs all had libraries, auditoriums, gyms, dance halls and canteens, where the men gathered in the evenings," recalled Jose Yglesias. Typically, Latin men ate dinner with their families - although many Spaniards remained single - leaving promptly thereafter for their respective clubs. Spanish men, noted a writer in the 1930s, "see their children only during the evening meal .... Anyone who does stay home is considered 'hen pecked' and only half a man." The Spanish canteen hosted spirited card games, but dominoes remained the favorite pastime. Centro Asturiano also erected a bowling alley and gymnasium for its members, who formed athletic teams competing against rival clubs. "In contrast to the Nordic women," stated an observer, "they [Latin women] do not take part in civic activities."
For more information on the history of and current events at the Centro Asturiano please visit their website at http://centroasturianotampa.org.
Text and photos for this section provided by
The University of South Florida Library
Special Collections Department.