Centro Espanol Cemetery

County Helps Restore "Place of Pride, Reflection, History"

Historic preservation money pays for repairs at Centro Español Cemetery

Hillsborough County's $82,000 allocation for repairs to Cementerio Viejo of the Centro Español will go a long way toward preserving the 112-year-old resting place of many of the area's Spanish immigrants and their descendants.

The money will pay to fix fences, walls, gates, walkways, pathways and curbing, masonry, stonework, and a rotunda and service building. It also will help with landscaping, signage, and marketing. The money is part of $1 million the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners sets aside each year for its Historic Preservation Challenge Grant program.

The Board approved the Cementerio Viejo project at its Oct. 4 meeting.

Cementerio Viejo is at 2504 E. 21st Ave. in Tampa, north of the Ybor City National Historic Landmark District, where the Centro Español de Tampa social club traditionally was based. A Visit Florida study shows 70 percent of tourists - vital contributors to the state's economy - go to historic and culturally significant sites. The cemetery offers good measures of both.

"The cemetery filled an important need for the first wave of immigrants from Spain," says John A. Rañon, president of Centro Español de Tampa, which established and owns the site. "One of their concerns was what would become of their remains when they passed away. Our institution decided it would take care of that need."

The club's membership peaked at 7,000 to 10,000 shortly after World War II. Its current roster has less than 100 people. The annual operating budget is $45,000.

Tampa's social clubs were established by immigrants from Spain, Cuba, Italy, and Germany to accommodate the needs of immigrants. The clubs provided medical care, banking services, entertainment, and other services.

Centro Español, founded in 1891, was the first of the city's social clubs. In recent years it has sold all of its properties, except the cemetery on 21st Avenue and a newer one, Centro Español Memorial Park, at 4601 E. Lake Ave., in Tampa.

Cementerio Viejo has about 1,600 burial plots. Some 1,400 of them contain remains or are reserved for future interments. The cemetery offers a glimpse into the past, shows how people remembered family members, and is part of the club's legacy.

"If you walk among the gravesites you will see the names of Spaniards who came here for a better life and are now resting there," the club's president says. "It's a place to reflect on the sacrifices those immigrants made. For us, it's a place of pride, reflection, and history."