Cigar makers & the Mutual Aid Societies
























































































_The cigar industry employed thousands of workers in Ybor City and West Tampa , allowing members of several cultures to identify themselves as one “working class” fostering a greater sense of community identify and establishing a membership base for the mutual aid societies…Long before government aid or for profit insurance plans, the members of Ybor and West Tampa clubs helped each other… This mutual aid societies arose from two different objectives, one political, the other health-related. The need of health care was apparent from the very beginning of the cigar boom. A yellow fever outbreak in 1887, almost a year of the industry started production, proved disastrous, and then diseases such as typhoid and malaria were common. Close, humid working conditions in cigar factories facilitated the spread of tuberculosis and other diseases.


Cigar makers circa 1890

..The scant availability of medical services was only heightened by the “social, psychological, and linguistic barriers" separating the Ybor City cigar maker and the Anglo Tampa. Several other factors contributed to the enduring success of the five mutual aid societies. To begin with, despite some early political divisions, membership was closely tied to the community's reliance on the cigar industry. Although tensions between factory owners and workers did exist, the cigar industry was the common thread holding the immigrant population together. Indeed, membership rose and fell depending upon the evolution of the cigar industry.

..But Ybor was not alone in the establishment of mutual and fraternal societies. Beginning with the Freemasons in 1733, Americans have organized societies both secret and working-class, religious and secular. In fact, “with the exception of churches, mutual aid societies

were the leading providers of social welfare before the great depression.” Along with the Freemasons, Anglo Americans joined The Odd Fellows, The Elks, and other orders while immigrants and minorities founded groups representatives of their ethnicity. By 1920, “some 18 million Americans belonged to fraternal societies, nearly thirty percent of all adult males over the age of 20.”

_Between 1891 and 1902, five mutual aid societies were founded in Ybor City. El Centro Español, L'Unione Italiana, Centro Asturiano, El Circulo Cubano de Tampa and La Union Martin Maceo formed out of different traditions and motivations. However, each of the societies provided a sense of pride and place in the immigrant community. Offering social, cultural, educational programs, political agency, health care services, and a feeling of comradely for their members.

..Over the years, as the clubs rallied to each others aid, shared medical services, hosted dances, organized sporting and cultural events, they created a sense of a greater, “Latin” community. Allowing them to grow from separate “immigrant collectives…dispersing death and accident benefits, into complex agencies of insurance, medical care, recreation and culture.

_However, while most fraternal institutions throughout the U.S. offered insurance, unemployment compensation, and health benefits, the clubs of Ybor and West Tampa were perhaps more ambitious, the scope of their services and benefits much broader, than similar institutions in other parts of the U.S.

Ybor City under construction, 1886

While many aid societies offered flat-rate medical care, the clubs here in Tampa constructed lavish clubhouses and modern hospitals, maintained pharmacies and, if necessary, funded trips to Cuba or Spain for medical treatment to members.

_Together, these “Latin” mutual aid societies formed an intricate community rather than isolating themselves within the relative safety of their particular clubs while also instituting progressive medical insurance benefits, far surpassing anything offered in Tampa or the Southern U.S. at the time.


Centro Español in Ybor City - 1892

El Centro Español

_In 1892, funded the construction of a $16,000 wood-frame club house (7th Avenue & 16th Street) containing a theater, classrooms, and cantina. According to the club president Ignacio Haya, the clubhouse was “erected firstly to unite the Spanish colony of Tampa and secondly to create a center for recreation and instruction.” The club offered courses in English for adults and children and provided a familiar meeting place for many single men working long hours in the cigar factories. However, despite its imposing presence as an anchor of the Spanish colony in the new town, it would be some before medical benefits and large-scale cultural activities would became a part of Centro Español's mission, underscoring the political and nationalistic orientation of the society's original stated goal.

_The first building (see photo above) was a large frame structure with two towers, containing a theater, dance hall, canteen, soda fountain, and classrooms, costing $16,000. A new building was build in 1912 on 7th Avenue, Ybor City (See photo on the right).


L'Unione Italiana

_Was formed primary to help acclimate Italian settler to their new environment. Formed in 1894 – just three years after El Centro Español – L'Unione Italiana had an initial membership of 124. The club's charter stated that the organization would “aid such members…as may become sick and provide for the

Centro Español - circa 1938's

L' Unione Italiana building - circa 1919's

payment of burying expenses…and promote fraternity, charity and social intercourse among its members”. For its first sixteen years, the Italian Club met in members' homes where English and citizenship classes were taught. In 1917, a new club house was erected on the south west corner of 18th Street and 7th Avenue replacing the original building which was consumed by fire in 1914. The three-story neo-classical building included a theater, cantina library, dance ball, bowling alley, doctor's clinic with laboratory, and gymnasium. At a cost of $ 60,000 dollars the building became the center of the Italian immigrant community. The current building was dedicated in June 1918.



Cìrculo Cubano

_The first clubs organized by Cubans in Ybor City were explicitly political. The establishment of a mutual aid society with medical and insurance programs would, like El Centro Español, have to wait until after Spanish American War. Indeed, the genesis of the Cìrculo Cubano was undoubtedly the revolutionary clubs and societies formed before the war. By 1896, over 40 clubs and societies were focused almost exclusively on the liberation of Cuba from Spanish control. In 1887, Vicente Martinez Ybor donated one vacant building (cigar factory) to his cuban workers, to be used as meeting place and safe haven for numerous Cuban political associations. The original clubhouse was located in Ybor City and a new facility was build in 1907 at a cost of $18,000; it burned down in 1916. In May, 1917 the cornerstone of a new building was placed and dedicated in 1918.


Circulo Cubano on Palm Avenue in Ybor City - 1920's

Centro Asturiano Hospital

Centro Asturiano

_El Centro Asturiano was founded in 1902, was issued a charter by Centro Asturiano de Havana its parent organization in Cuba. Despite protest from Centro Español leadership in Ybor City seeking to avoid splintering the city Spanish colony. The club immediately established a medical program and facility for its new membership. Dr. G.H. Altree, was the first medical director.

_After moving around in Ybor from building a couple of times was in April 1905, when a new permanent facility was completed. This facility was located on Michigan Avenue (Columbus Drive) and was a brick building with a capacity of 54 beds in the hospital pavilion. This building has the distinction of being the first hospital built in the state of Florida for that purpose.

The $15,000 dollars facility was built just three years after clubs founding, underscoring the profound need for medical services in the Latin Community.

Centro Asturiano Surgery Room

Centro Asturiano Club House

_This facility burned down in 1912 and a new building was dedicated in 1914, in the corner of Nebraska Avenue and (10 th Street (Palm Avenue).The members paid monthly dues of $1.50 for medical services and access to the clubs many cultural benefits. The hospital clubs name was Covadonga Hospital opened on 21st Avenue in 1927 and, by the 1930´s over 80% of the clubs revenues were directed toward medical services. At the time with 70 beds, a pharmacy, six active doctors,seven nurses and 30 specialist. El Centro Asturiano Hospital was the most modern and well equipped hospital in the city of Tampa and perhaps the entire American South.

Sociedad Marti-Maceo

_In 1899, El Nacional Cubano was composed of both black and white Cubans. However, in 1900 just one year after if its foundating a separate club was formed by Afro-Cubans. La Sociedad de Libres Pensadores de Marti-Maseo, was founded by former members of El Nacional Cubano. In 1907, the club merged with another Afro-Cuban club, La Uniòn, forming La Union Martì-Macèo. The club's stated purpose was to “meet outside thehouse in a way acceptable to men of dignity”.


La Uniòn Martì Maceo - circa 1909's

Of the immigrant population in Ybor City , Afro-Cubans represented 15 percent of the Cuban population and 7 percent of the overall immigrant population. Throughout the history of Ybor City, Afro Cubans and White Cubans had worked together both in cigarfactories and in revolutionary clubs, truly an anomaly in the Jim Crowe era South. They shared common languages, occupations, and liberal political ideologies, a climate of violence and racial tensions between African Americans and Anglos in Tampa and surrounding areas. This may contributed to the separation of the Cuban population into white and black factions.

In spite of its relatively small membership, La Union Marti-Maceo was able to finance a building of two story clubhouse on the corner of 6 th Avenue and 10 th street . Constructed in 1909, it was the largest secular meeting facility for blacks in Tampa.

_The clubhouse contained a 900 seat theater, ball room, meeting rooms and, like the other ethnic aid societies, stood as an outward symbol of achievement and respectability in the community. Although the Marti-Maceo, Circulo Cubano and L' Unione Italiana lacked the modern medical facilities of the Spanish clubs. All clubs offered unemployment benefits and life insurance policies in addition to the HMO-style medical coverage. For the members of the Italian Club, medical benefits included prescription medicines, dental, hospitalization, X-ray, and surgical benefits. Dues were 60 cents per week, members of Marti-Maceo, received a $1.50 per-day unemployment benefit as well as medical coverage anunemployment remittance of $6.00 per week for 16 weeks for only 50 cents extra each week.

It is also very telling to note that while L'Unione Italiana and and El Circulo Cubano were able to contract with the Spanish Clubs for hospitalization and medical treatment, members of Marti-Maceo had to arrange for transport to Cuba for hospitalization, a cost covered by their membership dues. Which has been rightly characterized as a “tax on their color”.

_The lavish, imposing clubhouses offered members not just a safe haven, a place to have a drink or see a play; they were validations of their ethnicity. Because of the resident's connections to the cigar industry, memberships began to wane with its decline. As early as the 1930's membership rolls began to shrink. The Great Depression and mechanization of production methods, eliminated many jobs in the cigar industry. Right after World War II, many former residents settle in the suburbs and, in 1963, an interstate system cleared large sections of the old neighborhoods.


Founders of "La Uniòn Martì-Maceò" - 1904

Despite the significant decline, each of the five mutual aid societies continues to this day. Even after losing a clubhouse to “urban renewal”, La Union Marti-Maceo is still active as is El Centro Español although the club has relocated to West Tampa. L´Unione Italiana stll meets in their clubhouse on 7th Avenue and host an Italian Festival each year in Ybor City . El Circulo Cubano and Centro Asturiano have also retained their clubhouses and continue to host functions throughout the year.



Reference Source: USF Special Cllections -"Tampa Cigar Workers" by Robert. P. Ingalls & Louis A. Perez, Jr.-"Ciudad de Cigars West Tampa" by Armando Mendez - Tampa Tribune Achives - "Once Upon a Time in Tampa" - 2014 - "Cigar City Architecture and Legacy" - 2015 - Author: by W. Reyes, Ph.D.


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