In April 1891, a small body of artisans and businessmen in Ybor City gathered to discuss an alarming problem, the “anti-social atmosphere prevailing against the Spanish.” Ybor City was becoming increasingly polarized: the Spanish commanded the elite positions in the cigar industry while Cubans occupied the lower economic niches; the Spanish monopolized the Sanchez-Haya factory while Cubans dominated the Martinez-Ybor factory. B. M. Bal. Balbontin, a pioneer Spaniard, told interviewers in the 1930’s that “the Spanish at that time [the 1890s] were persecuted, abhorred, and were the target of Cuban hatred because of the Spanish government in Cuba.” To counteract these conditions, Spaniards resolved to organize a mutual aid club.
The state of Florida issued Centro Español’s charter on September 7, 1891. Ignacio Haya, the cigar manufacturer who donated funds, for the first building, also became the first president of Centro Español. Other officers included factory owner Enrique Pendas, as vice president. Pendas, born in Asturias in 1865, had left Spain for Cuba in 1881, later joining his uncle’s manufacturing firm in New York City. The Lozano, Pendas and Company had become Ybor City’s third cigar factory in 1889.
Once launched, Centro Español served as an organizational model for future groups. An examination of the constitution of Centro Español allows a glimpse into an immigrant institution’s capacity to adapt. El Casino Español, a similar organization based in Havana, restricted its membership to persons born in Spain. The by-laws of Centro Español in Tampa, however, stipulated that only the president and vice-president need be Spanish-born. For others, the constitution read: “It is required of all applicants that they be Spaniards by birth and by patriotic inclination or that they be loyal to Spain and to its prestige in America.”
Centro Español dovetailed the needs and demands of its diverse clientele. Typical of immigrant aid societies, the club required members to pay twenty-five cents a week in return for social privileges and death and injury benefits. Given the fact that the Spanish community was composed largely of young, single men, the idea of a mutual aid society with congenial social outlets appealed to individuals living in boarding homes.
In 1892, directors organized the Spanish Casino Stock Company in order to promote further recreational and theatrical activity. The society’s original 186 members each pledged stock shares of ten dollars, used to finance a clubhouse at Sixteenth Street and Seventh Avenue. An ornate wooden structure costing $16,000, the finished building contained a theatre, dance hall, cantina and classrooms.
By 1901, the membership rolls of Centro Español had grown to 926, expanding to 1,886 in 1907 and 2,537 in 1912. The society tolerated a wide spectrum within its membership, including Gallegos (Galicians) and Asturianos from Spain, Criolles (sons born in Cuba), a few Italians, cigar manufacturers, elite artisans, radical cigarmakers and readers. Different classes and ideologies mixed together. “In those days,” reflected Frank Juan, who had been a member of Centro Español for sixty-two of his sixty-four years, “the club was all we had.”
Leadership, confident that a dynamic Spanish community could sustain and support an ambitious building campaign, embarked on such a program in 1909. In that pivotal year, Centro Español’s 1,773 constituents owed not one cent of indebtedness; hundreds of new applicants awaited formal membership. So many Spaniards from West Tampa (a neighboring city also based on the cigar industry) belonged to Centro Español that the society pledged to build two new magnificent clubhouses, one in Ybor City and the other in the sister cigar city.
The Mutual aid society, bolstered by new streams of immigrants and an expanding second-generation, retained a powerful hold upon the Spanish community through the depression of the 1930s. Membership ebbed and flowed but persistently remained strong, despite the cataclysmic impact wrought by a world war and major strikes. The other great challenge to the vitality of Centro Espafiol was the appearance of a rival Spanish society, Centro Asturiano.
Text and photos for this section provided by
The University of South Florida Library
Ybor City and West Tampa Collections
Special Collections Department.