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Ybor men's tradition of cigars, cocktails, games might fold

YBOR CITY

On the second floor of the historic Centro Asturiano building, beyond crystal chandeliers and oil paintings, a last stronghold for Latin and Italian men fights off extinction. It is a small room filled with cigar smoke and the sounds of fading pastimes. Shuffling dominoes clack atop wooden tables like a train rumbling past a loose window.

The retired men in guayaberas, shorts and loafers curse between sips of cafe con leche while concentrating on their white tiles of fortune.

Across the room is silence, as stone faces fixate on hands of rummy.

Between the early 1900s and 1960s, cafes like this were commonplace in Ybor. Men drank, played parlor games, laid bets with bookies — and escaped wives.

Time shuttered most, except for Centro Asturiano, which took in the refugees from the other social clubs, commingling Italians, Cubans and others of Latin or Spanish descent. Now, those men are looking to save the cantina that kept their leisure games alive.

Owners of Centro Asturiano, which also houses a restaurant, a theater and banquet rooms, plan to close the little cafe because of costs on May 1.

"If this closed down, a piece of Tampa, a piece of Ybor City is gone," said Mark Perez, a cantina member and Tampa native. "It's not just a small piece. It's a big piece of our heritage."

Centro Asturiano was founded in 1902 as a community service association that offered health, medical, social and recreational services to Spanish cigar and factory workers in Ybor City. The headquarters have been at Nebraska and Palm avenues since 1914.

At one point, in the 1950s and 1960s, Centro Asturiano had about 6,000 members and owned a hospital, cemetery, bowling alley, handball court, theater, ballroom and cantina. Urban renewal and leveling of old buildings, widening of streets and the construction of the interstate made Ybor residents move to West Tampa. The suburbs and the social clubs took a hit. Centro Asturiano's membership dwindled even more when its hospital closed in the 1990s.

But the cantina remained, now in a small room with a horseshoe bar where an attendant sells peanuts, potato chips, cocktails and Cuban sandwiches. It survives on the dues of about 26 daily users who pay $30 a year, as well as the backing of Centro Asturiano, which keeps the cafe open as a service to older residents.

"But it's something we can't keep losing money on," said Rick Duran, Centro Asturiano's executive director.

The attendant's salary is the main cost to keep the 1,080-square-foot room open. Even if cantina dues went up to $500 a year, Duran said it's not enough.

"If someone comes up with something we're not smart enough to have thought of, we'll discuss it," Duran said. "All ideas are wide open."

Other card rooms have blossomed in West Tampa in recent decades, but Felix Calderone, 77, cannot imagine going anywhere else. Centro Asturiano is where he can point around the room at men he has known since age 10.

"If this place closes down, I'm going to do a lot of work around the yard, which I need to do," he said as if he couldn't imagine a worse way to spend his days.

With the end drawing near, old-timers have looked to Perez, a cantina member of seven years, to come up with a solution. He proposed replacing the cantina's paid attendant with volunteers and raising dues to $50 a year. He hasn't figured out a volunteer schedule, though, or even looked for men willing to commit.

Duran planned to present the idea to Centro Asturiano's board this week. It could work — "at least the finances itself," he said. "It would eliminate the need for any employee, and the raising of dues would keep up the maintenance and so forth."

So there is still hope.

Centro Asturiano doesn't want the cantina to go away, Duran said. Other areas of the historic building draw weddings and special events, but tourists often take most of their snapshots inside the cantina, where they can capture living history.

"You can argue that is the last bastion," said Elizabeth McCoy, curator of programs and education at the Ybor City Museum Society. "This is sort of the last cantina that has been continually operating since 1914. That's a pretty long run."

Here, the television is often tuned to black and white classics like I Love Lucy. A sign on the wall warns observers not playing at the tables to keep quiet — there might be money on the line. As the story goes, cantina members once surprised a long-timer with a birthday cake. The man turned his head, quickly extinguished the candles and went back to his game.

Joe DiSalvo spends his days puffing a cigar and perusing the newspaper between card games. A retired swimming pool salesman, he has been a cantina member for 30 years.

As a young boy, he spent weekends tagging along with his uncle, looking over his shoulder at card games in Centro Espanol, another cantina now gone. He decided to join a cantina of his own and walked into Centro Asturiano, where he was met with suspicious stares being an Italian in a Latin club.

Angel "BeBe" Menendez, the late owner of La Tropicana cafe, knew DiSalvo as a customer and vouched for him, bringing him into the smoky confines, where what's said inside stays.

"When this club was going good, there was a lot of influential people," said Frank Diaz, 63, a member for three decades. "Judges, politicians, mafioso."

It was where cigar workers griped about their bosses and formed unions. There wasn't a formal rule, but women were barred from the cantina until about three or four years ago.

Back in the day, DiSalvo's girlfriend didn't want him coming here, so he asked the cantina attendant for advice. The attendant had the same problem, he told DiSalvo, until he drove his wife to Centro Asturiano's parking lot. He pointed at the building and told her firmly that this was where he was going to be on Fridays and Saturdays. Period.

Justin George can be reached at jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Ybor men's tradition of cigars, cocktails, games might fold 04/22/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 22, 2010 2:23pm]
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