A Legacy of Smoke: a documentary film by Luis Argeo and James D. Fernández


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Spanish immigrants aboard the SS Aquitania, courtesy of Joe Losada.

Between 1880 and 1930, tens of thousands of Spaniards emigrated to the United States.  Some came directly from Spain, often recruited as semi-skilled labor in specific industries:  cultivating sugarcane on the Hawaiian Islands; mining coal or refining zinc or steel in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and elsewhere; tending sheep in the Pacific mountain states; cutting granite in the quarries and stone sheds of New England, for example.  Many others found their way to the US following less formalized routes, often re-emigrating from points in the Spanish-speaking Americas, to wherever work could be had in the US: as cigar makers or merchants in Key West and Tampa, Florida; as dockworkers and seamen based in New York; as fishermen, farmers, cannery workers or domestic servants in California, for example.


From the 1941 book commemorating the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Tampa’s Centro Español.

The Spaniards tended to live in close proximity to one another, and, in many cases, in close proximity to Spanish-speakers from countries other than Spain: eg, Puerto Ricans in New York; Mexicans in California; Cubans in Tampa.  And like most other ethnic/national groups in the pre-New Deal United States, the Spaniards tended to band together in all manner of social groups and mutual aid societies, in an attempt to weave their own social safety net, at a time when there was no social security, no unemployment insurance, no Medicare or Medicaid.

Compared to some of the other national or ethnic groups of immigrants that came to the United States (eg, Italian, Irish, Polish) the Spaniards constituted a drop in the bucket of US immigration.  [We should remember that while hundreds of thousands, or even millions of immigrants of these nationalities were disembarking at Ellis Island, similar numbers of Spaniards were also participating in trans-Atlantic emigration, but most often to countries in the Spanish-speaking Americas.  Roughly 4 million Spaniards emigrated to the Americas between 1880 and 1930; more than had crossed the Atlantic from the time of Columbus (1492) until 1880!]  The restrictive immigration legistlation passed in the early 1920s practically put an end to the arrival of significant numbers of Spanish immigrants to the US.  But those who had arrived in the first two decades were settling down and having children and the numbers, cohesiveness and visibility of the Spanish colonies peaked during the years right before World War II, just when their native country became embroiled in a horrific Civil War (1936-39)


Spanish Civil War rallying song, composed by Tampa resident Leopoldo González in 1937.

By the time the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, there was a veritable archipelago of small but vibrant Spanish enclaves dotting and crisscrossing the entire geography of the US:  from Hallowell, Maine, through Canton, Ohio, and on to Bakersfield, California, from Tampa, Florida through St. Louis, Missouri, and on to Boise, Idaho.  The immigrants were primarily working-class industrial laborers or peasants, and the vast majority of them supported the democratically elected government of the Spanish Republic, which was under siege following a military coup staged by General Francisco Franco.  During the years of the war (1936-39), many of the smaller, scattered Spanish enclaves merged together under the umbrella of an organization known as Sociedades Hispanas Confederadas [SSHHCC], in an attempt to coordinate fundraising efforts on behalf of the Spanish Republic.  Thanks to this wartime mobilization, and thanks to the literature and propaganda produced by the SSHHCC, many of the smaller Spanish enclaves become visible at this time, as the hundreds of fundraising activities –dances, picnics, soccer matches, etc.—are often announced and later reported on with great detail in posters, handbills, bulletins and newspapers that have survived.


Tampa children dressed up as Loyalist milicianas, courtesy of Alicia Menéndez.

If any of these Spanish immigrants in the US harbored dreams of someday returning to Spain, those hopes were probably dashed once and for all by the victory of the fascist forces led by General Francisco Franco.  Politics aside, there really was no going back after 1939:  Spain’s economy and infrastructure had been devastated by the brutal and total war waged throughout the country at the height of the Great Depression.

Adversity, necessity, and perhaps the faint hope of returning to Spain had been the glue that had held together the Spanish immigrant community in the US through the twenties and thirties.  Now, with the possibility of returning to Spain more or less off the table, the opportunities and relative prosperity of post-World War II America would act as solvents.  Ethnic enclaves usually located in urban centers became less desirable when a house in the suburbs beckoned; social clubs were rendered less crucial, once the New Deal reforms kicked in.

So it is that the story of Spanish immigration to the US has been rendered almost invisible, though its traces can still be found –often privatized, domesticated and transformed, in the stories, photo albums and recipes of descendants all over the United States.  Spanish Immigrants in the United States:  Ni frailes ni conquistadores is a project aimed at documenting, archiving and interpreting this precarious history.  We conduct fieldwork in places that were once home to significant Spanish communities; searching out and interviewing descendants; gathering their stories and recipes, scanning and labeling their photographs, with the intention of creating an on-line, multimedia archive, that will put back into public circulation a rich collective history that has become the stuff of private nostalgia or, in some cases, idiosyncratic local history.  We will also produce a brief creative documentary film based on the stories and the archival materials that we are able to compile at each site.

Our first such film, set in Monterey, California, and completed in 2013, is Dan Albert’s Paella / La paella de Daniel Albert. Tampa, Florida is the site of our second film project, “A Legacy of Smoke,” which will have its premiere at the Tampa Theatre on Sunday, November 23 at 4:00 pm.


For the most part, the case of Tampa, Florida follows the general trajectory outlined above. Spanish immigrants begin to arrive steadily in the late nineteenth- and into the early twentieth-century, attracted primarily by the relocation to Tampa of cigar factories from Key West and Havana, Cuba.  Tampa received Spaniards who were re-emigrating from Cuba, and eventually, immigrants who left Spain with Tampa as their destination.  They IMGlowres (1)tended to settle in two main enclaves, Ybor City and West Tampa, where they lived and worked among Cubans, and eventually Sicilians; there were also Germans –many involved in the graphic design end of cigar production (boxes, labels, rings, etc.)—and Jews –who were often small business owners.   Like Spanish immigrants elsewhere, those in Tampa banded together in mutual aid societies, small and large, to provide for themselves the kind of safety net that was not available otherwise.  By the time of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, the Spanish colony in Tampa was large and relatively united; the war galvanized the colony even further, and the mobilization efforts on behalf of the Republic were truly extraordinary.

Like everywhere else, however, the height of cohesiveness and vibrancy of the Spanish colony of Tampa in the mid to late 1930s coincides with the beginning of what would be a rapid decline and dissolution of the colonia.  The cigar business was in trouble since the late 20s, as cigar smoking was falling out of favor, and cigar –and more importantly, cigarette—production was being intensely mechanized.  The other dissolving factors did their work as well; the realization that there was no going back to Spain, the relative prosperity and the reduced need to rely on community-generated social services in the post WW II period; these things, joined with the assimilation and mobility of the immigrants’ children and grandchildren contributed to the gradual dissolution of Spanish Tampa as a vibrant, organic community.  The construction, in the 1960s, of an interstate highway right through the heart of what had been Ybor City, is an eloquent emblem of the forces that drove the dissolution of Tampa’s Spanish community.

A Legacy of Smoke:  Spanish Immigrants in Tampa  is a 50-minute no-budget non-fiction film, that offers a “fly-on-the-wall” perspective of a handful of tampeños as they go about their lives during two days in 2013…

On Day 1 of the film:

Still5Angel Rañón and José Oural have spent years compiling a list of over 1,000 nicknames of Spanish tampeños; in the bar of the Centro Asturiano, these two Spanish-born nonagenarians go over the list, while they reminisce about the tight-knit community that is sketched out by the list of nicknames.

Stills A LegacyElba Ruilova, on the day after her 100th birthday celebration, gives Marlene Menéndez her weekly piano lesson, in which they focus on music by Ernesto Lecuona and Tampa’s own Leopoldo González, author of the Spanish Civil War anthem, “¡No pasarán!”

Cathy Varón invites her father over to her house, to eat some Spanish tortilla, and to Still2rehearse a presentation Cathy needs to make for a creative writing class, about her rediscovery of her mother’s family archive.

On Day 2 of the film:

Rañón, Oural and Eduardo Varón head over to the majestic theater of Tampa’s Centro Asturiano, to view home movie footage that was shot in Tampa in 1938, and that has been preserved in the archives of the University of South Florida.

The palatial Centro Asturiano; the hilarious encyclopedia of nicknames; the vast musical repertoire; the sprawling family archive; and the mix of scenes of intimacy and History captured in the old home movie footage; all of these things evoke Tampa’s once vast and vibrant Spanish community, as it is cherished –and, in a certain sense, mourned– by these heirs of Tampa’s “Legacy of Smoke.”


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Invisible Immigrants: Crowdfunding Homestretch

alonso_159_copyOur goal:  To publish a deluxe book of photographs that will document, celebrate and honor the unsung lives of the tens of thousands of Spaniards who settled in the United States in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth- centuries.

Our method:  For several years now, Luis Argeo and James D. Fernández have been traveling all over the U.S. and Spain, conducting research in libraries and archives, visiting cemeteries, interviewing descendants of immigrants, and, whenever possible, scanning their family archives.  In addition, for more than a year-and-a-half, we have curated a Facebook page which will soon have 5,000 followers.  We originally thought of the FB page as a site for us to display our findings, but it quickly became much more than that: social media have helped us grow the archive, build community, and help reconnect the scattered elements of this little known Spanish diaspora.

Outcomes:  So far, we have amassed a vast digital archive of more than 6,000 images.  Since they have been stashed away in private family albums for the last 60 years, most have only been seen by a handful of people.  Wonderful images of Spanish immigrants at rest, work and play, in spontaneous snapshots and composed studio portraits, in diverse places like Hawaii, New York, New Jersey, West Virginia, Connecticut, Vermont, California, Florida, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Vermont, Rhode Island, etc.  We will make a selection of several hundred of these private images in order to create a public album of the Spanish diaspora in the US.

The campaign:  Our immigrant ancestors didn’t use words like “crowdfunding” or “microdonations”, and yet, for almost every one of their initiatives, they practiced those things.  If they wanted to build a social club, organize a show, or buy an ambulance to send to their beleaguered patria, they would do a colecta or suscripción, asking each member of the community to contribute according to their means.  We decided to follow the same method for the production of this project, which we now call “crowdfunding.”  We are using the secure Kickstarter platform –which is owned, operated and guaranteed by Amazon– to accept donations as small as $1.00.  A pledge of $55.00 entitles the donor to a copy of the book.

Campaign results so far:  With 10 days left in the campaign, we are at 80% of our target Cabo 37lowerres($27,996/$35,000).  263 backers have made contributions ranging from $1.00 – $5,000.  About 425 copies of the book have been pre-ordered.  Our goal is within reach, but we need a strong final push.  Kickstarter campaigns are all-or-nothing endeavours:  we establish a target and a deadline; backers pledge their support; if the target is reached by the deadline, the pledges are processed, and the project is realized; the the target is not reached, the pledges are nullified, the campaign fails, and the book does not get published.

Campaign highlights:

*thus far, we have received celebrity endorsements from Plácido Domingo, Guillermo Fesser and Elena Anaya,and, most recently, the great Spanish chef and restaurateur José Andrés.  We are working on several other high-profile endorsements for the homestretch.

*since the campaign began, we have either completed or scheduled interviews with La Nueva España, El Comercio, El Diario-La Prensa (NY), Voices of NY, and Pura Política.  (We’ll include links as they become available).  Many sympathetic blogs and FB pages have helped spread the word:  Lori Needleman, Humans of Spain, Revista Libero, and others.  El Diario-La Prensa invited us to contribute an op-ed, which was published on October 4.

*several Spanish businesses (eg. Despaña of NY and Carmen and Lola of Miami) and organizations (eg. Tampa’s Centro Español) have come on board as sponsors, and we will be working with a number of others in the closing days of the campaign.

*many descendants of Spanish immigrants have become aware of our work thanks to this campaign; their archives will be incorporated into the project as we move forward.

Pitch:  With the cooperation of scores of descendants of Spanish immigrants from all over the United States and Spain, we are compiling what essentially will be the graphic archive of the Spanish diaspora in the U.S.  And if you help us reach our crowdfunding goal, “Invisible Immigrants:  Spaniards in the Unites States 1868 – 1945″ we will produce a gorgeous book and keepsake that will feature many of the highlights of that visual archive, and that will use images to tell the largely unknown story of these invisible immigrants.  Please help us as generously as you can.


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Plácido Domingo Sings the Praises of “Invisible Immigrants”

The legendary tenor salutes our project to produce a deluxe book of photos that will document, celebrate and honor the lives of Spanish immigrants in the United States.

A special message of support from the great Hispano-Mexican tenor, Plácido Domingo
A special message of support from the great Hispano-Mexican tenor, Plácido Domingo

“Most people have no idea that tens of thousands of Spaniards emigrated to the United States in the late nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Some may have heard of figures like the great Lucrecia Borja –La Bori–, who sang at New York’s Metropolitan Opera for decades, or the legendary Brooklyn-born actress and dancer Margarita Cansino –better known to most as Rita Hayworth. But these are only two of the most visible representatives of a vibrant and mostly invisible community of tens of thousands of Spaniards who have quietly made major contributions to the social and cultural fabric of the US.

I salute and support this “Invisible Immigrants” project, which will rescue and disseminate the legacy of these unsung men and women. “


“La mayoría de la gente no tiene ni idea de que, a finales del XIX y principios del XX, decenas de miles de españoles emigraron a Estados Unidos. Puede que algunos hayan oído hablar de figuras como la gran Lucrecia Borja –La Bori– que cantó durante décadas en la Metropolitan Opera de Nueva York– o de la bailadora y actriz Margarita Cansino –mejor conocida como Rita Hayworth. Pero estas son tan sólo dos figuras visibles de una comunidad vibrante y principalmente invisible de decenas de miles de españoles que sin ruido han hecho grandes contribuciones al tejido social y cultural de los EEUU.

Saludo y apoyo el proyecto de “Inmigrantes Invisibles”, ya que ayudará a conservar y divulgar el legado de estos hombres y mujeres anónimos.”

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Help! Crowdfunding for “Invisible Immigrants: Spaniards in the US, 1868 -1945″

alonso_159_copyWe have launched a kickstarter campaign with the goal of publishing a deluxe book of photos that will document, celebrate and honor the lives of Spanish immigrants in the United States.

You can learn all about the project and contribute to its realization here.


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A Tale of Two Covers

canton,1938-1945Thanks to Kathy Pujazón Meers, who has lovingly preserved her grandfather’s papers, we can now study and enjoy the programs printed by the Spanish American Center (Centro Hispano-Americano) of Canton, Ohio, for the annual summer picnics hosted by and for the Spanish colony in that city, beginning in 1936. Kathy is in the process of scanning all of this material (thanks, again!), and we hope to soon be able to upload the entire collection. It’s a gold mine for the historian or history buff.

The program covers, particularly in the early years, are beautifully designed. As we were going over the first batch of scanned programs that Kathy has sent to us, we noticed a striking fact: the 1943 cover –which focuses on the US war effort in World War II– recycles and repurposes the cover from five years earlier –which focuses on the then-ongoing Spanish Civil War.

A fine essay could be written about this repurposing and recycling. About how the repetition suggests that the Canton colony almost certainly saw World War II as a continuation of the struggle against Fascism that had begun in Spain in 1936. About how the handshake of the 1938 cover would seem to span the Atlantic – Republican Spaniards at the front, in Spain, reaching out to Republican Spaniards in the rearguard, like those in Canton, Ohio–, whereas the handshake in the 1943 cover seems to be between Americans, united in stance, united in victory. About how in five years the language of the program cover has switched from Spanish to English, pointing to the process of assimilation that was certainly accelerated by the outcome of the Spanish Civil War and the outbreak of World War II.

In sum, even though the two are almost identical, the 1938 cover seems to emerge from a community that is still straddling two countries and two languages, whereas the 1943 cover points to a community that knows that it has passed the point of no return.  The implications of that knowledge will powerfully condition the experience of the immigrants, and, in particular, the experience of their children.

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New Document: Program from a 1934 soccer match, Canton, Ohio

Cabo 37lowerresWe recently made an extraordinarily productive and enjoyable trip to Canton, Ohio, where we attended the annual picnic of the town’s Spanish community.  The Spanish folks there were incredibly hospitable and generous, and we were able to gather tons of information and interviews, stories and images, all of which will help us reconstruct more fully the history of Spanish immigrants in that part of the country.

Special thanks to Laura Goyanes, of Cleveland, who organized the overall trip for us, and to Chris and Mike Vega, who were our invaluable contacts in Canton.  There were well over 100 people at the picnic; the Spanish Club in Canton is doing a great job trying to preserve the legacy of their immigrant ancestors.

Among the jewels we were able to scan was this 16-page program from a 1934 soccer match and picnic held in Canton.  Documents like these are goldmines of information, and they’re also a lot of fun to look at!  Thanks to the Cabo family for preserving and sharing this beautiful document.

Enjoy it and share it  here. [It’s a 15M file, so it might take a while to load.  It’s worth the wait!]

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Echo Chamber of the Spanish Diaspora in the US/ Caja de resonancia de la diáspora española en EEUU


Photo of Elena Barquilla, in Trujillo, Extremadura, by Angel Briongos.

Today, 18 July 2014, we posted to our Facebook page the 52nd weekly installment of our series “Voices”, made up of brief video capsules (1-5 minutes) taken from the interviews we conduct as part of our field work all over the United States and Spain. 

We have created an album of the first year of this showcase of faces, voices, accents, jokes, memories and nostalgias.  In the coming months we will be working on transciptions, translations and indices of what is quickly becoming  a valuable archive of the experience of the Spanish diaspora in the US.


Hoy, 18 de julio de 2014, hemos colgado en nuestra página de Facebook la entrega semanal #52 de la serie “Voices”; pequeñas cápsulas de vídeo (de 1-5 minutos) extraídas de las entrevistas que vamos haciendo como parte de nuestro trabajo de campo realizado en Estados Unidos y España.

Hemos creado un album del primer año de este escaparate de caras, voces, acentos, chistes, recuerdos y nostalgias.  Durante los siguientes meses estaremos preparando transcripciones, traducciones e índices de los vídeos de este album, que, a la medida que crece, va constituyendo un importante archivo de la experiencia de la diáspora española en EEUU.

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