If the cigar factories functioned as the economic heart of Ybor City, mutual aid societies surely served as its soul. The emergence of voluntary associations among immigrants signified an organizing impulse which left its legacy in wooden dance floors, marble edifices and modern hospitals.
During the formative decades of Ybor City, Cubans devoted their collective energies to the unremitting crusade of Cuba Libre. Organizational talents funded the revolution with unceasing support, leaving a void in their community-based infrastructure. The end of the war in 1898 signaled a mass return to the homeland, only to discover the disillusionment of an unfulfilled revolution and a society in turmoil. Thousands returned to Tampa, determined to reshape and invigorate their “Little Havana” in Ybor City.
The history of Cuban mutual aid life paralleled the time line of revolution and reconstitution. The origin of El Círculo Cubano can be traced to the postwar milieu, specifically a recreational society El Club Nacional Cubano, founded October 10, 1899. The welter of labor unrest in 1901 arrested early growth, but membership climbed after the strike to 3OO in 1902. In honor of the new republic of Cuba, the society changed its name in 1902 to El Círculo Cubano. The charter expressed the hope, “To bind all Cuban residents of Tampa into a fraternal group, to offer assistance and help the sick.” The by-laws also prohibited discussion within the society of labor, politics, or religion – surely a much violated provision.
In 1907, Círculo Cubano erected its first clubhouse on Fourteenth Street and Tenth Avenue. The two-story building cost $18,000 and included most notably a 900 seat theatre. Dedication ceremonies brought out a number of American and Cuban dignitaries. In 1916 the original building burned, spurring the membership, then numbering 2,600, to rebuild with a more lasting monument. Mario Menocal, the President of Cuba, donated $2,000, while individual members pledged extra levies during a bond drive. Completed in 1918, the $60,000 structure featured a spacious theatre, cantina, pharmacy, library and a dancing floor (70 by 100 feet), lavishly decorated by Cuban painters. Imported tile, stained glass windows and marble accentuated this “cathedral for workers,” which still stands.
Cuban youth, or at least young men, were attracted to the Cuban Club. More than any of the other Latin societies, the Círculo Cubano promoted athletics. In the rear of the club, members built a gymnasium and boxing arena. Leaders also constructed a school which hosted a variety of cultural activities. “I remember as a boy going to the free art classes summer evenings at the Círculo Cubano,” reminisced Jose Yglesias.
The vicissitudes of the cigar industry affected every club in Ybor City, but none manifested such stark contrasts between good times and bad as the Círculo Cubano. In 1909, membership stood at nearly a thousand, but pitched to 125 by the end of strike-torn 1910. With characteristic vigor and flux, membership revived to 3,225 by 1919, but fell again due to labor unrest to 1,602. Like a phoenix, the club thrived throughout the twenties, cresting at 5,000 in 1930. But in 1935, the aggravation of depression and dispersion saw club rolls decline to 2,492.
For more information on the history of and current events at the Cuban Club please visit their website at http://www.thecubanclub.org
Text and photos for this section provided by
The University of South Florida Library
Ybor City and West Tampa Collections
Special Collections Department.