Many interesting buildings line the streets of 7th Avenue in Ybor City — bars, tattoo parlours, ice cream shops, restaurants and much more. But located amongst the fun are beautiful, historic buildings that serve as markers of Tampa’s immigrant past. Buildings such as Centro Español and The Italian Club are physical reminders of Tampa’s mutual aid societies. These societies helped Tampa’s early immigrant families start their lives and transformed Tampa into the city it is today.
What are mutual aid societies?
Mutual aid is a way people support each other by sharing things like goods and labor. It’s people helping each other and striving together to make their community a better place for everyone. In the late 1800s, immigrants from Cuba, Spain, Italy, Germany and other countries entered the United States in large numbers. Needing support in a foreign land, these communities banded together to help each other find jobs, food and medical care. From these groups, mutual aid societies were formed.
Historical Tampa mutual aid societies
These are some of the original mutual aid societies in Tampa, along with the buildings that housed them:
The building is no longer the principal meeting place of Centro Español de Tampa. Instead ghost tours, stores and after-school programs use the space.
The Cuban Club
In 1902, Cuban workers founded “El Circulo Cubano” which means “Circle of Cubans.” The club provided a gathering place for members and served as a unifying force in the Cuban community. The actual club building was constructed in 1917 and contained a two-story theater, pharmacy, library, ballroom, cantina, gym, swimming pool and even bowling lanes.
While some of the more recreational elements of this building are no longer in use, many weddings, business expos, cultural and musical events are still held in the building.
The Italians and Sicilians arrived in the late 1880s and had formed an Italian Club as early as April 4, 1894, with 127 members. They built their clubhouse in 1918. The club provided many cultural, educational and medical services and financial aid to families, enhancing the quality of life of their members.
The building has a theatre with an auditorium balcony (later converted for a short time to a movie theatre), and a spacious dance floor, library, cantina, and recreation rooms. In the past, they had meeting rooms, billiard rooms, gymnasiums, steam rooms, bowling alley, handball courts and administrative offices. Many events are still held there today.
In 1902, a group of 546 immigrants from the province of Asturias founded the Centro Asturiano de Tampa. It was one of the city’s first mutual aid societies and a branch of the original club established in Havana, Cuba. The three-story yellow brick and stone building on Nebraska Avenue was a place families would play card games, dominoes, and attend galas held in the ballroom.
Today, the Centro Asturiano hosts wedding receptions, comedy shows, musicals, recitals, bingo nights, auctions and more.
La Unión Martí-Maceo
La Unión Martí-Maceo was established near the turn of the 20th century. It is named after two Cuban heroes — Jose Martí and General Antonio Maceo. This mutual aid society was a social and recreational club for members of Tampa’s Afro-Cuban community of cigar workers, as racism and segregation forced Afro-Cubans to split from the Círculo Cubano.
The club’s building sits on 7th Avenue in Ybor, and is available for rent for parties, weddings and many other celebrations.
Mutual aid societies of today
Many of the previously mentioned clubs still have a philanthropic element to them as former immigrants, now established Tampa residents, continue to give back to their community. Today, even more mutual aid societies have cropped up. Here are some of the most active mutual aid societies in the Tampa Bay area:
- Bay Area Dream Defenders. A group of young people fighting for a safer and liberated Florida. Their event Books and Breakfast encourages conversation and education with community members.
- Food Not Bombs Tampa. Assists the houseless and hungry, and stands in opposition to the violence of war and poverty. Shares free vegan and vegetarian meals with the hungry.
- Love Has No Borders. A grassroots movement in solidarity with refugees and resettled communities around the world. They act through organizing efforts to create networks, support systems, mutual aid and friendships.
- Bay Area Harm Reduction. A Black-led mobile resource provider that supports marginalized communities with compassion, while resisting oppression and seeing the humanity of those in need.
- Gulf Coast JFCS. They have services that meet the needs of families, senior citizens, vulnerable children, and persons needing help because of behavioral or mental health issues.
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