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The life of the party

When she's not booking burials, Carmen Cartaya Diaz keeps the West Tampa Convention Center hopping with Latin music, dances and more.

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 25, 2002

[Times photos: lance A. Rothstein]
Carmen Cartaya Diaz joins a Saturday night crowd dancing to the beat of a band from Colombia at the West Tampa Convention Center. Under Diaz's direction, the Convention Center draws a steady parade of popular Latin performers and serves as a cultural crossroads.
Before Carmen Cartaya Diaz stepped in, the West Tampa Convention Center's chief mission was to arrange for the burials of El Centro Espanol's aging members. As the business arm of the former Ybor City mutual aid society, it continues to administer Centro Espanol's remaining assets: two cemeteries.

But, under Diaz, the halls have found life.

The Convention Center, on Columbus Drive in Tampa, now draws a steady parade of popular Latin performers.

Two years ago, when the Convention Center's former office manager quit, Centro Espanol president Dennis Alfonso turned to his friend Diaz for help. What began as a part-time job -- sorting through paperwork -- became a full-time commitment to turn the center into a top entertainment venue.

"When I first got here, I was told don't even book anything," recalled Diaz, 55, a native of Cuba who grew up in West Tampa and remembers when Columbus Drive was a one-way street.

"Now we don't even close our doors for lunch."

Under her direction, Latin performers such as Cuba's two-time Latin Grammy nominee Issac Delgado and Miami salsero Willy Chirino have lit up the West Tampa Convention Center stage, to the delight of local audiences.

This past summer, Delgado's concert was announced on Spanish-language radio stations, advertised on glossy fliers posted at Latin businesses, promoted by local Cubans and sponsored by Pipo's Cafe.

Tickets were sold at La Teresita Grocery and Las Americas Supermarket.

The Havana singer and his 15-piece salsa ensemble played songs from his latest production as part of a six-week tour of the United States and Canada.

About 800 Cuban-Americans and other devotees showed up, some in guayabera shirts, singing as they danced.

Two weeks later, Chirino and his band played the Convention Center before heading off to the venerable House of Blues in New Orleans.

And a recent Saturday night brought the sounds of Los Hermanos Rosario, an acclaimed Dominican merengue group.

"It's one of the best places in town to do a show," said Carlos Martinez, a Cuban-American salsa promoter who invited Delgado to town.

The horn section of a Colombian band led by Gabriel "Rumba" Romero, not pictured, has the walls of the Convention Center vibrating.
"They're very open-minded about providing the space for any type of event. The soundproof quality is excellent. The location is excellent because it's surrounded by a large Hispanic community. The environment is great. And nothing compares to the attitude and treatment from the staff. Everything is upfront."

The building, originally constructed for the West Tampa Chamber of Commerce, once housed the MacFarlane Optimist Club, the West Tampa Optimist Club and the West Tampa Business Alliance.

El Centro Espanol bought it in 1991, abandoning former headquarters at Howard Avenue and Cherry Street.

Even downsized and relocated, El Centro Espanol languished for several years.

When Diaz took the helm, the main office was falling apart, a musty smell permeated the air,and the few remaining workers didn't know how to use the computer.

"It was so depressing," she said.

Pastora Riveiro, 79, a longtime Centro Espanol member and volunteer, recalls the club's glory days, when it was a vital part of Tampa's Latin culture.

She knows the mutual aid society has outlived its usefulness; still, she is heartened by the revival.

"Carmen was heaven sent," Riveiro said.

These days, amid arranging burials, Diaz rents out party halls and plans dances, shows, meetings, weddings and receptions.

"I always joke with people and tell them, 'We can put you to dance and then when the time comes,we can put you to rest,' " Diaz said with a laugh.

"When the cemetery fills up, basically all that will be left of Centro Espanol will be the West Tampa Convention Center," she said.

In the past year, the center's three halls have drawn about 25 wedding parties, nearly 15 quinces (a coming of age for Hispanic girls) and dozens of dinner dances and seminars.

People gather to watch boxing matches, attend bird shows or sit through church services. They chuckle at Candy Caramelo, a burlesque queen from Miami who mixes spicy comedy with her interpretations of Cuban boleros from the 1950s.

In a sense, the center's most important role is to promote West Tampa's renaissance, Diaz said.

"The West Tampa Convention Center brings people who might not have ventured here otherwise," she said.

More than just an entertainment venue, it is a cultural crossroads.

The Brazilian community threw a big New Year's Eve bash at the center. Colombians celebrated independence there. So did Dominicans, who danced the merengue, ate native foods and sold arts and crafts to the public.

Even non-Hispanic artists like the space, which has drawn singers from Jamaica to Vietnam. Local Pakistanis celebrated a Muslim holiday at West Tampa.

"It's a good location and especially Hispanics feel at home here," said promoter and radio host Victor Zapata.

On their first trip to the West Tampa Convention Center's Latin dancing night, Gabriel and Paulina Avella of Wesley Chapel get into the swing of Latin dance. Paulina took the opportunity to wear traditional Colombian dress.
He was among those at the recent Los Hermanos Rosario concert, which offered a porthole into Tampa's Latin nightlife.

It started as a quiet evening, with guests lounging near a wood dance floor, a few slow-dancing to romantic bachata CDs. Disco balls twirled above their heads. Others lingered at a discreet bar near the exit, nursing rum and downing Presidente beers.

When Los Hermanos Rosario hit the stage near midnight, the dance floor beckoned and everyone grabbed a partner.

Not Diaz. Outside, she had just arrived in her car with coffee and doughnuts for police officers hired as security.

When she was 14, she worked selling tickets at Centro Espanol's old Casino Theater in Ybor City.

Today she's responsible for keeping the historic institution alive through the success of the West Tampa Convention Center.

"How ironic," Diaz mused. "But I suppose that's life.

"I've come full circle. Now I feel young again."

About El Centro Espanol

In 1891, Hispanic immigrants who had hopped from Havana to Florida to work in the cigar industry formed El Centro Espanol in Tampa. Over the years, the social club blossomed into a mutual aid society, one built on camaraderie and a need for health care. About 150 members remain. Their club, which must one day bury them, now fights for its own survival.

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