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Breathing new life into Tampa's Cuban Civic Club

TOWN 'N COUNTRY

The Cubans who settled in the Tampa area in the 1960s had much in common. Many left middle-class careers when they fled Fidel Castro's Cuba and arrived in the United States with few possessions, speaking little or no English.

"We not only missed our country, we missed our food and culture,'' says Juan del Cueto, a Tampa accountant who left Cuba in 1960.

Yet their views didn't quite fit in with Cubans who had settled in Ybor City decades before, having created the original Cuban Club in Tampa, a grand edifice built by immigrant cigar workers in the 1890s.

Politics made the newcomers unwelcome there, del Cueto says.

"Most of the members of that (Ybor) club were Cubans who had been living here a long time, and they had a different impression of Fidel Castro.''

Though many eventually changed their views, he acknowledges, "at that time they thought Castro was a savior.''

So the '60s Cubans set to work raising money to build the Cuban Civic Club, which opened on Memorial Highway in 1973 and expanded in 1977. At one time, the club boasted a membership of 535 families.

Membership dwindled as older folks died or became disabled, and young people grew up and moved on to other interests, says del Cueto, one of the club's original organizers and a past president.

Some of those young people have come back, however. Remembering happy times there as kids, they've launched a recruitment drive. Since September, they've increased membership from 68 families to 113, says Dania Sellers, an office volunteer.

They've organized fundraisers to replace the roof, refurbish the tennis and basketball courts and softball field. They held a dominoes tournament a few weeks ago, and they've scheduled a mother-daughter fashion show for noon Saturday.

"It's a beautiful piece of property,'' says Alicia Argiz Lyons, 53, del Cueto's niece. "We grew up going to the pool there. Our parents would take us there frequently for parties and events. That was pretty much a lot of what they did in their spare time.''

The club held teen dances once a month and a fancy ball every two months to celebrate a different province of Cuba. They presented debutantes and crowned a teen queen every year.

Patrick Manteiga, editor of La Gaceta newspaper and board member of the Cuban Club in Ybor, notes that most of the Cubans who arrived in Tampa before the '60s opposed Fulgencio Batista, the iron-fisted dictator who was overthrown by Castro.

"There's this divide that you see with our clubs, a divide on how we talk to each other,'' says Manteiga.

Cubans who arrived before 1959 tend to be Democrats, he says, while those who came in the 1960s through the mid 1970s tend to be Republicans, particularly hard-line on the issue of Cuba. "That divide, I'm sorry to stay, still exists.''

Though it may cost as much as $500,000 to put the Cuban Civic Club in top shape — at least $100,000 going to replace the roof — members plan to make what repairs they can as they raise money, Sellers says.

She hopes the refurbished ball fields and courts will attract youngsters who will build their own memories.

"We need to show them our culture, our roots.''

Philip Morgan can be reached at pmorgan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3435.

.if you go

Cuban Civic Club fundraiser

What: Mother-daughter luncheon and fashion show

Where: Cuban Civic Club, 10905 Memorial Highway

When: Noon Saturday

Cost: $30 at the door,

nonmembers; $25 members. (813) 855-5771;

cubancivicclub.com

Breathing new life into Tampa's Cuban Civic Club 05/03/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 3, 2012 4:30am]
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