Spaniards and Soccer in St. Louis, MO

This gem of an article, from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (1934), reminds us of the importance of the Spanish colony of St. Louis and East St. Louis, and of the significant role played by Spaniards in the development of the relatively new sport of soccer in the early decades of the twentieth century.  We’ve had the pleasure of interviewing descendants of many of the players cited in this article, and of digitizing their amazing family photos, some of which we reproduce here.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Sunday Morning, November 11, 1934


by Dent McSkimming


Photo courtesy of Marlene Suárez.

Scanning the probable starting lineups of the Ben Miller and Hellrun-Grimm teams, which met this afternoon in a St. Louis Soccer League match, at Sportsman’s Park, one finds six players of Spanish extraction.  In view of the fact that St. Louis is not notable for the extensiveness of its Spanish colony, this predominance of Spanish names is perhaps worthy of a little explanation.

Here are the players who, in all likelihood, will give a Spanish flavor to the game:  Julio Gonzales [sic], Arturo Garcia and Luis Garcia of the Hellrungs: Manuel Cueto, José Díaz and Arturo Díaz of the Millers.

There are, furthermore, José Rodriguez and José Garcia, with the Marre club, and until a week ago Cecil Rodriguez was with the Centrals, so that there were Spanish boys on every club in the league and almost in sufficient number to form a good team.  With the possible exception of Art Diaz, every one is regarded as a star and a regular player with his club, and several are ranked with the best players in the league.

This array of teams, averaging 18 players a club, represents the most extensive attempt to develop soccer players that has been made by any single group in this community, possibly in the country,  There are, each week, one hundred of more Spanish-American soccer players in active competition here.

Graduates of Same Club

6All of these players graduated to the professional league through the same channel namely the Spanish Sport Club, which is the athletic branch of La Sociedad Española, center of the social life of the Spanish colony here and in East St. Louis.  The Society sponsors four amateur clubs playing in St. Louis and supplies the players who compose two more teams in East St. Louis.  On this side are La Sociedad Española, in the senior division at Carondelet Park, the American Zinc, playing at Forest Park, the Caballeros I, in the junior division of the Municipal League, and the Caballeros II, in the Community House League.  On the other side of the river are the Waverly Club and the Unions.

This array of teams, averaging 18 players a club, represents the most extensive attempt to develop soccer players that has been made by any single group in this community, possibly in the country,  There are, each week, one hundred of more Spanish-American soccer players in active competition here.

Sampson, Linda 11Since they are all striving toward the same goal —development to the point where they will be sought by professional clubs, the success of their efforts may be fairly judged by what they are accomplishing in the St. Louis Soccer League.  If all nine of the players above named could be grouped on one club and their ranks augmented by two others of established skill, possible Henry “Red” Diaz, now with the American Zincs, and Joe Menendez, now attending Illinois Wesleyan College, they would form a team which would make a favorable showing against any professional club in this country.  Menendez, not yet well know to St. Louis fans, was at center halfback for the Spanish club which lost to the Holy Rosary team in the Junior championship last spring.

All Players Developed Here

One of the striking things about these young Spanish-Americans is that all learned their soccer here.  In fact, all except Joe and Henry Díaz, who are twin brothers, were born in or near St. Louis.  The twins were born in Spain.  Joe Rodriguez, goal tender for the Marre club, is the only one of the group who has had the benefit of seeing a great deal of European soccer.  He spent a couple of years in Spain after leaving college.  Spanish football fans believe they have the world’s greatest goal tender in Zamorra.  Rodriguez patterns his game after that of Spain’s idol.

Soccer received its initial stimulus in the then very small Spanish colony here in about 1908-09.  Down on South Broadway, grouped close about the 7200 block, in the shadow of the zinc furnaces, were a number of Spanish families, many of them recent arrivals, and almost all from the northwest portion of Spain.  At the time they left their native land, where they were largely engaged in mining and smelting works, they had developed a liking for soccer, a game which was sweeping the country.  In seeking recreation here they turned to a game with which they were familiar. Hence, one José García, now dead, and Dan Menendez, a tavern proprietor on South Broadway, had no difficulty getting volunteers for a team which was given the typically Spanish name “Asturias.”  They entered a league which played its games on Sunday afternoons on grounds just east of Manion’s Park.  In that Asturias club, cornerstone of the present day widespread organization, were Tirso Diaz, Manuel García, Jack Menendez, Emilio Prado, Henrico [sic] Fernandez, C. Busto, F Valdez (whose son is nos playing with La Sociedad Española club), Henry Menéndez (first Spanish player to join a professional club here), Joe “Pepe” Garciá (deceased), Dan Menendez, the leading spirit of the soccer movement, and J. Fernandez.

Formation of the Municipal Soccer League in the season 1912-13 gave the Spanish lads a chance to further develop their new club and they have been at it ever since, and in recent years they have progressed to the point where they are having a very strong and healthy influence on the local professional game, even to the contribution of a referee, Prudencio García, a Municipal League official and one of the best in the city.  Soccer is one of the chief concerns of the growing Spanish colony and the measure of success the effort has enjoyed is certain to stimulate further interest and further growth.

Marleen Suarez 129 44.jpeg

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Sav(or)ing the Traces of Spain in the US: Café Bustelo

So what’s left? is very often the question we get once we’ve described –to college classes, conference attendees or documentary audiences– the diaspora of tens of thousands of Spaniards who put down roots all over the US in the late nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries.

The visible, tangible legacy of this relatively unknown chapter of the shared history of Spain and the US, is somewhat scarce.  We can point to the built environment of Ybor City and West Tampa in Florida  –a handful of buildings, cemeteries and monuments that, to the trained eye, might tell the story of the Spanish cigar workers who helped make Tampa what it once was.  Or we can gesture toward a couple of remaining structures in New York’s West Village –the headquarters of La Nacional, a Spanish benevolent society founded in 1868, or the building of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe church, which was founded in the early years of the XXth century to minister to the neighborhood’s burgeoning population of immigrants from Spain.  The Spanish Society of Saint Louis, MO still keeps up the building purchased by the immigrants, who worked in the nearby zinc factories, almost 100 years ago.  But in so many other parts of the country, “what’s left” of this historical experience lives mainly in the hearts, minds and family archives of the descendants of the immigrants.  That’s one of the reasons why we so often refer to our protagonists as “invisible immigrants.”

Some markers of this history, though, are actually out in plain view, right in front of us, though they often go unrecognized because of a lack of awareness and information.  How many consumers of Goya Foods or Bustelo Coffee, for example, know that the founders of those companies hailed from the Iberian Peninsula?  To tell the story of these iconic latino brands, we need to immerse ourselves in the early years of the twentieth century, when substantial numbers of Spanish immigrants were arriving and setting up businesses amidst the arrival of much larger numbers of Spanish-speakers from other countries.

Get out the coffee pot…

Did you know…


Courtesy of the Mora family.

…that in 1929, Gregorio Bustelo, a Spaniard –born in Luarca, Asturias– who had emigrated to Cuba before settling in New York, opened the Bustelo Coffee Roasting Company at 1364 5th Avenue, between 113th and 114th Streets, right in the heart of a neighborhood that at the time was already well on its way to becoming thoroughly Latin?

Bustelo developed a signature blend and roast, catering to the tastes East Harlem’s coffee lovers, that would grow into an iconic product and brand for generations of latinos all over the United States.

…that East Harlem had begun welcoming a major influx of people from Puerto Rico and other latinos during and after World War I?

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José Mora, of Tormón, Aragón, at his Fifth Avenue Hardware store, directly across the street from Bustelo’s first store.   

Puerto Ricans had been granted US citizenship during the war, in part to make them eligible for the draft. Around the same time, significant numbers of people from the island began migrating to New York, many of them settling in what until then had been primarily an Italian, African- American and Jewish neighborhood.  Smaller but substantial numbers of Cubans, Spaniards and other Spanish-speakers also moved into the neighborhood in those years; so many, in fact, that the language that they all shared gave rise to the neighborhood’s new names: Spanish Harlem and El Barrio.  

…that like Gregorio Bustelo, many of the small business owners of El Barrio had been born in Spain, or were children of Spaniards who had emigrated to Cuba or Puerto Rico?

Fifth Avenue Hardware, right across the street from Bustelo’s storefront, for example, was run by two Spaniards, best friends from Aragón who emigrated to New York and ended up marrying two sisters from Puerto Rico.  In fact, the only known photograph of the original Bustelo storefront appears in a family photo taken by the hardware store owners around 1931.

5th Avenue businesses (1)

Ads for some of the small businesses on the stretch of 5th Avenue between 110th and 116th Streets, 1930-1940.  With the exception of Taty Music Store (whose owners were Puerto Rican-born children of Spaniards, these were all owned and run by Spanish immigrants.

 …that Valencia Bakery  was a mom-and-pop bake shop run by immigrants from Valencia, Spain,  just next door to that hardware store, and just across 5th Avenue from Bustelo’s?

Good coffee always calls for good baked sweets, and vice-versa; the pairing of Bustelo’s rich and dark espresso brew with the Valencia’s pastelillo de guayaba, a kind of guava turnover, was –and is– a match made not in heaven, but in Harlem, Spanish Harlem. Oldtimers still remember –and still savor– this winning combination. Tasting them today is probably as close as we’ll ever get to time-travel.

…that La Marqueta, a food and dry goods market  serving El Barrio’s growing latino population, hosted at its peak, more than 300 vendors?

The Metro North railroad viaduct that runs down Park Avenue was completed in 1897; the open stretch beneath the viaduct between 111th and 119th Street had been home to informal pushcart markets almost since then. In 1939, Mayor Fiorello Laguardia officially inaugurated the Park Avenue Retail Market, which the locals, in perfect Spanglish, immediately dubbed La Marqueta.  It quickly became a hub of barrio life, and it is currently being revitalized, by innovative latino businesses like Sprinkle Splash Bakery.

…that Casa Latina is a surviving example the kinds of music stores that in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s, were crucial businesses in ethnic neighborhoods like El Barrio?  

Back in the day, not only would these stores sell recorded music, sheet music, radios, gramophones, record players and musical instruments, they were also often meeting places for musicians looking for work and for band leaders looking for instrumentalists for performances or recordings. Later on, before Ticketmaster and its followers, music stores like Casa Latina would even sell tickets to concerts and shows. Representatives of the major record labels stayed in close contact with El Barrio’s music store owners, not just to urge them to promote the music they were producing, but also to learn from them about evolving musical tastes and preferences in the neighborhood. Some music stores were even headquarters for record labels.  Because the confluence in El Barrio of musicians from all over the Spanish-speaking world, in close contact with musicians working in jazz and other American musical idioms, would give rise to new latin musical forms like salsa.

The unofficial national anthem of Puerto Rico, “Lamento borincano” was composed in a music store in El Barrio in 1929, by Rafael Hernández,  an afro-Puerto Rican who, with his sister Victoria, ran Almacenes Hernández, a legendary shop at 1724 Madison Avenue.  It’s probably not too much of a stretch to imagine Hernández sipping Bustelo coffee as he scribbles down the lyrics, notes and chords of this now mythical song. Before settling in New York, Hernández had performed in Europe in the military band attached to the famous Harlem Hellfighters (369th Infantry) that fought in World War I.  This band is often credited with introducing jazz music to Europe.

Gregorio Bustelo was known to sponsor stage shows and radio broadcasts of the new music that was brewing on the streets of Spanish Harlem.


Andrés Sánchez (center) and Manuel Guerra (right), the gallego owners of the Bar Central (Fifth Avenue and 11th Street) with Puerto Rican composer and crooner, Bobby Capó, c. 1945?

…that just a few blocks north of Bustelo’s store, on 5th Avenue and 116th Street, there was a massive movie palace known at different points as the Teatro Hispano or the Teatro Cervantes?  And that just a few blocks south, another Spanish-language theater attracted latinos from all over New York and the tri-state area? 

The Teatro Hispano was once known as the Mount Morris Theater, originally a venue for yiddish-language vaudeville, starting in the 1920s.  East Harlem locals and Spanish-speakers from all over the city would flock to El Barrio to catch the Spanish-language stage shows and film screenings, that featured artists and films from all over Spain and Latin America. In 1934, the “King of Tango,” Carlos Gardel, one of the world’s first true megastars, attended the opening of his film “Cuesta Abajo” at the Teatro Hispano, along with an overflow crowd of several thousand people.  Legend has it that Gregorio Bustelo would keep  newspaper clippings of the show-times by the cash register of his store, to be prepared for the brisk business that would ensue every time a show let out.teatrosanjose1930.

Many of our Spanish immigrants owe their commercial of professional success largely to the clientele made up of their Spanish-speaking “brothers” or “cousins” from Spanish America.  And this holds true not only for entrepreneurs in the food and beverage industry, like Gregorio Bustelo and Prudencio Unanue, the founder of Goya Foods. Because many other prosperous Spanish immigrants –in the hospitality industry, in music and entertainment, in language teaching or bilingual education, for example–owe their success in large measure to the patronage of the large number of latinos who arrived to the US from countries other than Spain. The commingling of Spaniards with Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Mexicans, Dominicans and other Spanish-speakers is a key part of the story we’re struggling to reconstruct and understand.

So brew yourself a cup of espresso, close your eyes, and savor a bit of what’s left of this almost lost world.

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More Paulino Ghost Sightings

Chatham Township, NJ, 27 October 2018


Historical marker on River Road, Chatham, Township, NJ reads:  Bey’s Boxing Camp, Circa 1920-1960:  “After managing Lightweight Champion of the World Freddie Welsh’s nearby Health Farm, Madame Hranoush Bey ran a world-renowned training campe on this site.  Gene Tunney, Sugar Robinson, Floyd Patterson, Max Schmeling were among the famous fighters trained here.”

Basque heavyweight boxer Paulino Uzcudun (1899-1985) prepared for several of his New York bouts at a training camp here about 30 miles west of the city, run by a remarkable immigrant woman born in Constantinople around 1881:  Hranoush Aglaganian, alias “Madame Bey.”  Today we visited the site of Madame Bey’s “Home to Boxing Legends” with Uzcudun’s granddaughter, Paola,  and just a few miles away, in New Providence, we interviewed Gene Pantalone, the author of a wonderful book that vividly and painstakingly recreates the story of this camp and its larger-than-life owner and residents.

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Gene Pantalone, author of Madame Bey’s Home to Boxing Legends, with a copy of Paulino’s 1933 memoir,  Mi vida.

For a couple of hours, as Paola Uzcudun swapped images and anecdotes with the encyclopedic Gene Pantalone, a sharp picture of the Golden Age of Boxing emerged: the antics and epics of that impossibly colorful cast of immigrants and schemers, dreamers and misfits, who a century ago, did their roadwork along the Passaic River, and sparred in Madame Bey’s outdoor ring, nestled among the oaks and elms of New Jersey’s Orange Mountains.

Throughout his book, Pantalone captures the humor and pathos of the world of pugilistic cosmopolitanism –a film waiting to be made– that reigned at Madame Bey’s place:

“The reporter, Holmes, needed an interpreter to question Paulino.  The interpretation process became complicated.  Holmes spoke English to sparring partner Gitlitz to tell him what he wanted,  In a mixture of French, English, and sign language, Gitlitz talked to Arthus, Paulino’s manager.  Arthus questioned Paulino, who then answered.  In cases of extreme difficulty, Pierre Gaudon, a French middleweight, intervened and tried to resolve misunderstandings. Paulino’s answer took the reverse path…”

It would be hard to exaggerate the importance that boxing enjoyed in the 1920s and 30s, not just as a sport or as a constant source of celebrity gossip, but also as a gallery of heroes and villains, particularly for communities –racial, ethnic or national communities– jostling to establish their identities and their prestige on the streets of New York, Boston or Chicago, as well as in the boxing ring of History, of Posterity.  Though often neglected, the community of Spanish-American immigrants is no exception.  The coverage of laprensa,paulino..jpgPaulino’s career in the US Spanish-language press of the period makes it abundantly clear that Spanish immigrants imagined boxers like Uzcudun as representing the traits and values of their community. In fact, New  York’s “La Prensa” used its extensive coverage of Paulino’s preparations and fights as selling points to potential subscribers; and on the days of important bouts, the editors would have to plead with their readers not to jam the newspaper’s phone lines with calls inquiring about the progress and outcome of the fight!

Weekend excursions from Spanish enclaves to the boxer’s training camp were not at all uncommon, like this one to Madame Bey’s, quaintly described on the pages of La Prensa:

Last Sunday, under the command of Mr. Valentín Aguirre, a caravan of four automobiles full of friends of Paulino Uzcudun left New York.  Loaded down with casseroles of bacalao a la vizcaína (and its appropriate accessories), thePU_BEYCAMPWDelaney27 delegation’s arrival to Madame Bey’s farm in Summit, New Jersey was a real and pleasant surprise for everyone, especially given the delectable treats that the committee brought with them, prepared just for the occasion by Mr. Julian, the chief engineer aboard the ship Cabo Villano.

Those in attendance were: Valentin Aguirre, Juan Zabal, Tomás Aguirre, Bonifacio Arrezabalaga, Captain of the Cabo Villano; Delfín González, representante de La Prensa; Raúl Ortega Elquezada , Laureano Sanjurjo, Carlos Martínez e hijo, Ricardo Laborde, Ramón Bovarder, Anastasio Gaviña, Felipe Bilbao, Emilio Osta, Joaquín Astoresca [sic], Pedro Astarbi y otros.

The granite quarry workers of Barre, Vermont made a similar outing to visit The Basque Woodchopper when he trained in Hoosick Falls, New York, for his 1929 bout against Max Schmeling.  The trip was captured in a remarkable International Newsreel Photo from June 16, 1927:


Spanish granite workers of Barre, Vermont, recently made a pilgrimage to the Hoosick Falls camp of Paulino Uzcudun, the Basque Woodchopper.  They are shown above cheering for the man who will fight Max Schmeling as he perches on their shoulders.  6-16-29.

Having now visited both Hoosick Falls and Chatham Township, Paulino’s granddaughter and namesake will take back with her to Spain a deeper understanding of the prominent place occupied by Uzcudun in the history of boxing, and of the prominent place that Paulino and boxing occupied in the lives of tens of thousands of Spanish immigrants in the US, just a little less than a century ago.


Historian Brian D. Bunk insightfully explores Paulino’s story, and the place of boxing and boxers among the Spanish and  latino communities of the US in “Boxer in New York:  Spaniards, Puerto Ricans, and Attempts to Construct a Hispano Race.”

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The Ghost of Paulino Uzcudun in Hoosick Falls, NY

Hoosick Falls, New York, 13 October 2018


Paulino in Hoosick Falls, June 1929.

We traveled today to this picturesque if rundown town some 200 miles north of New York City, with Paola Uzcudun, granddaughter of the Basque heavyweight boxer Paulino Uzcudun (1899-1985).  “The Basque Woodchopper” spent a good part of June, 1929,  training here for his championship fight again Max Schmeling, which was scheduled to take place at Yankee Stadium on Thursday, June 27, 1929.  Uzcudun himself charmingly describes his time upstate in his 1934 memoir, Mi vida:

I was assigned a training camp in Hoosick Falls, a town in New York State, several hundred kilometers from the big city.  I went there, accompanied by a veritable regiment of journalists and the best sparring partners I’ve ever had in my career.  Those who haven’t been in the US have no idea what these training camps are like for the big names in boxing; the main goal is to drum up good publicity for the bout, not so much to allow the athlete to get as ready as he can.  A reporter from each one of the region’s major newspapers, sometimes from each one of the country’s major papers, resides for two, three of four weeks at the training camp, sending daily reports on what the boxer has done over the last 24 hours.  And when they have no news to report, well, of course, they just make something up.

Hoosick Falls was the town where Mr. Carey was born.  Carey, a millionaire [who had recently become the President of Madison Square Garden…] wanted his little home town… to become well known throughout the United States.  And for that reason, of course, nothing seemed better than setting up in Hoosick Falls my training camp.  I must say, the place chosen for my preparation was truly delicious, even though it was out in the middle of the countryside, it was close to town, and paulino,hoosick,detroitnews8June1929offered all kinds of comforts.  I would go to town each day during my stay at the camp, and the people treated me to all kinds of things.  The city government, recognizing that it owed to me the growing popularity that Hoosick Falls was enjoying –every day people who had never dreamed of going there were showing up– named me an “adoptive son” of the town, which delighted me.  Everyday, caravans of my admirers from hundreds of miles all around would come to Hoosick Falls to watch me working out; on Saturdays, dozens of Spanish friends would come from New York to spend Sunday with me.  Artists, journalists, poets, men and women of all ages were constantly visiting me, and some of them would keep me company for several days.  Guitars sounded left and right, and the mellifluous voices of professional singers delighted me for hours.  Has even composed a song in my honor, which all of my friends would sing together in unison.  But during the last days of my stay at Hoosick Falls, the happiness of the first days disappeared from me, it completely abandoned me.  Because I knew that I was doomed to be defeated by Max Schmelling.”

paulino,ehmler mansion.jpg

The Ehmler Estate in Hoosick Falls would serve as the residence for Paulino and his retinue during his training for his fight against Schmeling in June of 1929.

The estate that housed Paulino and his retinue burned to the ground in he 1980s; little is left of what the Basque woodchopper would have seen and experienced almost 90 years ago.  But for Paola, the visit was, nonetheless, poignant:

“I never thought I would actually visit the places that I’ve seen in family photos all these years.”

“It was exciting to have the chance to visit and walk along some of the very same streets and roads of the town where my grandfather trained for his fight against Schmeling, and to imagine the afternoons he spent surrounded by inhabitants of Hoosick Falls who


Photo of Main Street, Hoosick Falls, by Paola Uzcudun, 13 October 2018.

didn’t know him, but who were thrilled to meet this famous boxer in this little town in the middle of nowhere.  I imagine them enjoying the time they spent with him while he trained for fights they would later hear about on the radio or read about in the press.  They probably couldn’t spell or pronounce the name Uzcudun, but this fun-loving Basque helped put “Hoosick Falls” into the big bold letters of newspaper headlines. The house where he trained isn’t there anymore, but it all somehow came back to life for me today, and I almost felt like I caught a glimpse of my grandfather’s golden and contagious smile in this town that once welcomed him with such joy and warmth.”


Paulino in Hoosick Falls, June, 1929.


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More Gold from the Paper Mines of the AGA in Alcalá de Henares

New light on the history of New York’s Spanish-language paper, La Prensa from the Archivo General de la Administración (AGA) in Alcalá de Henares.  In Document 1, the editor/owner/founder of La Prensa writes to the Spanish ambassador in Washington and requests a subvention from the Spanish government, with the hope of  transforming the weekly into a daily. (Freedom and independence of the press have always been a relative thing, it seems) In Document 2, the ambassador forwards the petition to Madrid with an endorsement.  Stay tuned for the surprising responses…   

laprensa.1.  Al Exmo. Señor Don Juan Riaño y Gayangos,

Embajador de S.M. Alfonso XIII Ante el Gobierno de los Estados Unidos

Excelentisimo Señor:

Con el mas profundo respeto, me tomo la libertad de dirigir a V.E., la presente carta, para manifestarle en la mejor forma, los motivos poderosos que me obligan a hacerlo.

He tenido la fortuna de nacer en el glorioso suelo de España; soy nativo de Fuerteventura, Canarias, y lejos de la patria querida, siempre fué mi aspiración respetarla y servirla, con el amor sincero y desinteresado de todo buen español.

Las arduas tareas del periodismo, que desde muy joven fueron mi afición predilecta, me hicieron comprender que la forma más práctica y positiva para servir a la patria, lejos de ella, era la fundación de un periódico. Tal hice en la Habana, donde dirigí y sostuve por espacio de un año, la revista literaria “Arte”, uno de cuyos ejemplares me permito remitir a V.E. bajo cubierta por separado.

En Nueva York, hace dos años que fundé “La Prensa”, empleando para ello, absolutamente todos mis ahorros, y he tenido la satisfacción de sostener su publicación hasta la fecha, mejorando su servicio en todo lo possible, y tratando con todos mis esfuerzos de convertirla en un diario.

Hoy cuento con un redactor que ayudándome en la labor penosa y terrible que me origina la salida del semanario, me permite llevar a cabo mi patriótico deseo, pero desgraciadamente Exmo. Señor, el sostenimiento del periódico me causa gastos de tal consideración que me veré obligado a suspender su publicación, si no encuentro el apoyo indispensable para seguir adelante en mi empresa.

La adquisión de un linotipo, el aumento de dos páginas al periódico, la información gráfica en que me he esmerado y otras mil particularidades, que demuestran mi infinito deseo y el patriótico anhelo de mi corazón; me han hecho recibir muchas felicitaciones, entre ellas, la del actual redactor del semanario, hoy sudamericano, “Las Novedades”, que V.E. verá insertada en el número 39 de “La Prensa”, pero todo esto, Exmo. Señor no constituye para mi sino una satisfacción moral, siéndome doloroso confesar a V.E. que sin una ayuda material, tendría forzosamente que verme privado de seguir sirviendo a la patria, en la forma que lo he venido haciendo hasta ahora.

Por las razones expuestas, ruego a V.E. tenga la bondad de enterarse de la invocación adjunta, que hago a todos nuestros compatriotatas , suplicándole respetuosamente, Exmo. Señor, encabezar la suscrición, para que su prestigioso nombre, sirva de estímulo a todos los españoles.

Así mismo Exmo. Señor, cuan grato me sería por su valiosa mediación, que el gobierno de España tomara algunas suscripciones de “La Prensa”, cuyas columnas han estado y estarán siempre incondicionalmente a su entera disposición.

Dando a V.E. las más respetuosas excusas por haber molestado tan largamente de su delicada atención, tengo el alto honor de subscribirme su atento servidor Q.B.S.M.

Rafael Viera y Ayala



Juan Riaño y Gayangos, embajador

2. Subsecretaria.

9 de Diciembre de 1914.

Excmo Señor:

Muy Señor mio: El Señor D. Rafael Viera Ayala, joven español, escritor y emprendedor, residente de Nueva York, empezó hace poco a publicar un periódico semanal titulado LA PRENSA, editado en español. En La Habana el Sr. Viera edito un periódico revista titulado ARTE, y vino a los Estados Unidos con el propósito de publicar en Nueva York un periódico genuinamente español, pues las NOVEDADES desde que dejó de ser propietario el Señor García, son mas bien una publicación Latino-Americana. El Sr. Viera se ha propuesto contrarrestar con sanas ideas las malas doctrinas publicadas por varios periódicos anarquistas que se publican en español en la ciudad de Nueva York. Por esta idea me permito trasmitir a V.E. el ruego que me ha hecho de que eleve al Gobierno de S.E. su súplica en demanda de que se le ayudara con una subvención, por pequeña que fuese, con objeto de ver si le es posible convertir en diario su publicacion. Creo que sería una ayuda que podría reportar bien a los elemenos [sic] obreros de la Colonia Española de Nueva York. He participado al Sr. Viera que recomendaba su peticion a V.E. y le agradecería tuviera a bien participarme la decision que al respecto adopte V.E.

[Transcribed by Andrés Fernández Carrasco.  Thanks to Laura Repullo Chacón]

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Asunto de los Españoles de Arizona (1914)

Gracias a Laura Repullo-Chacón: Más luz del Archivo General de la Administración, en Alcalá de Henares, esta vez sobre los españoles que se encontraban en los campos mineros de Arizona durante la Primera Guerra Mundial.  Entre los muchos datos de interés del documento, señalamos uno: los firmantes claramente no desean abandonar su ciudadanía española, ni quieren hacerse ciudadanos estadounidenses.  (Los descendientes de los inmigrantes en muchas ocasiones contradicen esta idea, afirmando que sus antepasados llegaron con la firme intención de quedarse.)

Thanks to Laura Repullo-Chacón: More light from the Archivo General de la Administración in Alcalá de Henares, this time about the plight of Spaniards who were working in Arizona’s mining camps when World War I broke out.  Among the many interesting points of this document, we highlight one:  the signers of this petition clearly do not want to give up their Spanish citizenship, and they do not want to become US citizens.  (Descendants of Spanish immigrants often contradict this notion, claiming that their ancestors came to the US with the firm intention of staying.)


Excelentisimo Sr. Embajador del Reino de España, acreditado en Washington. Washington D.C.

Muy atento y Sr. nuestro:

Por medio de la presente, los firmados en la acjunta [sic] lista, deseamos hacer saber a su Excelencia, las condiciones en las que nos encontramos. La repentina Guerra Europea, ha dado lugar a que los campos mineros de esta region en que residimos cientos de Españoles dedicados al trabajo material, muchos de estos an [sic] sido parados, y en donde no, como sucede en este lugar, an [sic] disminuido los días de labor, dos únicas Compañias establecidas en esta localidad, ocupan 22 dias al mes, con 5½ horas de trabajo por dia, ademas se nos ha hecho una rebaja en el sueldo de 10%, y dejando sin ocupación ni esperanzas a una gran parte de Españoles, no menos de 200.

Como en estos contornos no hay otras ocupaciones mas que la mineria, muchos de nuestros paisanos están del todo incapacitados para salir a otros países, o regresar a nuestra patria, nos encontramos debido a esto en una condición poco embidiable [sic], los pocos que aun estamos trabajando hacemos un esfuerzo por ayudarnos, y como bemos [sic] que la guerra se prolonga y los negocios cada dia ban [sic] a menos, nos bemos [sic] obligados a pedir algún amparo a nuestro Govierno.

Varios de nuestros paisanos, , que an [sic] solicitado trabajo en ocupaciones del Condado, se les a hecho saber, que para adquirir el trabajo solicitado necesitan hacerse Ciudados Americanos, algunos que estos mas que por voluntad, an [sic] acedido, cosa que lamentamos bastante, y de no mejorar nuestra triste situación, tal vez nos beamos [sic] obligados por la necesidad a sucumbir a un acto semjante, en contra de toda nuestra voluntad.

Ahora su Excelencia, debo tomar en consideración que urje [sic] el remedio a los necesitados, especialmente a las familias que por la escasez de trabajo, y fondos, excesos de passages no pueden moberse [sic] a cualquiera otra parte donde buscar la vida.

En dias pasados, fue totalmente clausarada la negociación minera con el nombre de Chanon, en dicha negociación se ocupaban, no menos que 200 españoles, como 50 de estos mismos, salieron para España, unos de sus pequeños ahorros, y otros ayudados por hermanos, parientes, y amigos, lo mismo á [sic] acontecido en esta localidad.

Nuestra junta fue celebrada el 27 de Septiembre, acordando suspender nuestra petición hasta saber la resolución de una junta de accionistas de esta Compañia, que tubo (sic) su berificativo el dia 8 del presente, abrigabamos esperanza de que algo hubiesen resuelto en nuestro favor, mas como resulto de la junta con menos horas de trabajo, y sin probabilidades de que esto cambie.

Por tanto, suplicamos a su Excelencia, se digne resolver nuestra peticion lo antes possible, y con esto nos habra usted, librado especialmente a las familias de mayores incombenientes.

Tenemos el gusto de aconpañar a su Excelencia los nombres aunque no todos por ser muy extensa de los que solicitan el apoyo para las necesidades.

Tenemos el honor de ser con el mayor respecto, suyos aftmos,

Aja, Ramiro
Aja, Rosendo
Aja, Serfin
Aja., Jose
Albo, Antonio
Alfonso, Elisardo
Aliagos, Jose
Alonso, Manuel
Arce, Antonio
Arce, Remigio
Arenas, Melquiades
Ayuso, Jorge
Azas, Baldomero
Bao, Leandro
Barquin, Nortberto
Beci, Agustin
Blanco, Emilio
Borratachegui, Martin
Cajete, Jose
Calleja, Alfredo
Calleja, Constantino
Camargo, Serbando
Canales, Jose
Carrera, Pedro
Carriedo, Tomas
Casemiro Cano
Castañeda, Salbador [sic]
Castaño, Cayetano
Cerijo, Carlos
Cerro, Ventura
Cobo, Arturo
Collado, Manuel
Collado, Remijo
Corrales, Pedro
Coto, Francisco
Cruz, Celestino
Cruz, Nicolas
Cruz, Norverto
Cruz, Simon
de Diego, Melchor
de la Hoz, Gabriel
de la Hoz, Romulo
del Rio, Jose
del Rio, Justo
del Rio, Remijio
del Rio, Rufino
del Rio, Serapio
Diaz, Jose
Diez [sic], Jose
Edilla, Jenaro
Elguido, Angel
Estevez, Agustin
Fernandez, Adolfo
Fernandez, Antonio
Fernandez, Bernardo
Fernandez, Delmiro
Fernandez, Francisco
Fernandez, Norberto
Fernandez, Ramiro
Fernandez, Rosendo
Gandara, Saturnino
Garcia y Garcia, Jose
Garcia, Gerardo
Garcia, Jose
Garcia, Leocadio
Garcia, Manuel
Garcia, Paulino
Garcia, Ramon
Gernandez, Genaro
Gomez, Atilano
Gomez, Dionisio
Gomez, Florentino
Gomez, Genaro
Gomez, Jose
Gomez, Juan
Gomez, P.D.
Gomez, Ramon
Gomez, Silverio
Gonzalez, Juan V.
Gonzalez, Tomas
Gracia, Flugencio
Gurbindo, Julian
Iglesias, Juan
Iglesias, Julian
Lastra, Adolfo
Lastra, Daniel
Lastra, Joaquin
Lastra, Sinesio
Lavin, Damaso
Lavin, Juan
Lavin, Merejildo
Lavin, Ricardo
Lopez, Damaso
Lopez, Damso
Martinez, Agapito
Martinez, Constantino
Martinez, Constantino
Martinez, Donato
Martinez, Jose
Martinez, Jose
Martinez, Juan
Martinez, Julian
Martinez, Manuel
Martinez, Modesto
Martinez, Silvino
Mendez, Ceferino
Menendez, Benigno S.
Meruelo, Florencio
Muela, Jose
Nuñez, Agustin
Ocejo Jose
Olanga, Enrique
Olanga, Luis
Ortiz Gomez, Jose
Ortiz, Alverto
Ortiz, Pedro
Orueta, Silvestre
Oti, Criispulo
Palcio, Jose
Pardo, Ttomas
Pascual, Andres
Pastor, Antonio P.
Perez, Isad
Piedra, Antonio
Pontones, Jesus
Pontones, Jose
Pumar, A.
Quintanilla, Alejandro
Reales, Pedro
Revilla, Ramon
Rivera, Marcelino
Rocas, Paulino
Rozadilla, Hilario
Rozas, Miguel
Rueda, Manuel
Rueda, Valdomero
Ruis, Manuel
Ruiz, Antolin
Ruiz, Fermin
Ruiz, Francisco
Sam Emeterio, Benito
San Bartolome, Aurelio
San Emeterio, Juan
San Juan, Generoso
San Roman, Dario
Sanchez, Daniel
Sanchez, Emilio
Santona, Ramon
Segurola, Manuel
Setien Maimino
Setien, Rufino
Sierra, Valentin
Solar, Benito
Solorzano, Victoriano
Somariba [sic], Claudio
Somoariba, Angel
Suarez, Nicolas
Tamayo, Martin
Tomas F. Reales
Tomas, Celso
Torres, Aurelio
Trueba, Jose
Trueba, Manuel
Trueba, Remijio
Urquiza, Juan
Valdivivieso, Florentino
Varasola, Genaro
Vicario, Isidro
Zorrilla, Abelino
Zorrilla, Antonio

Morenci, Arizona, c. 1910.

[Transcripción hecha por Andrés D. Fernández. La lista la hemos alfabetizado para facilitar la búsqueda de apellidos]

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A Forgotten Diaspora: Spaniards in the US



Photo courtesy of Joe Losada.

December, 1920. House of Representatives, Washington D.C. Amidst a heated debate regarding immigration, Minnesota congressman Harold Knutson asks for the floor. Once recognized, he stands up, tugs on his shirt cuffs and clears his throat, ready to launch into a tirade.

Knutson, who was born in Norway, starts by attacking certain groups of foreigners who, according to him, come to the US only to take jobs from the natives and to contaminate them with foreign ideologies and radicalisms. He claims to have been to Ellis Island several days before and to have witnessed there the arrival of more than 2,000 men from what he considers to be a particularly dangerous country. In a crescendo of hatred, he wraps up his indictment of this contemptible nation: “Spain is a seething mass of anarchy and the [Spanish] Government is gathering these anarchists up and dumping them on us.”

Spain? Really?  Was there ever a sizable emigration of Spaniards to the United States?

Yes. It turns out that at the end of the 19th– and the beginning of the 20th-century, tens of thousands of Spanish workers and peasants settled in compact enclaves scattered all over the United States. Just like the much larger communities of Spanish emigrants that emerged in, say, Cuba or Argentina, these colonies of the “North” were also woven together by informal local networks in Spain, and they were centered around specific job opportunities


Spanish and Spanish-American women and girls at a picnic in Canton, Ohio, c. 1925.  Courtesy of Bob Vega.

in the host country. That is why, in the early decades of the 20th-century, we would find Galicians, Asturians and Cantabrians in the cigar factories of Key West and Tampa, Florida; Basques, Aragonese and Castilians in the herding, ranching and hospitality industries of the Southwest and in the mountain states of the West; Andalusians, Valencians, Extremadurans and Castilians on the sugar plantations of Hawaii; more natives of these regions, plus Galicians, in the fruit and fish canneries of northern California; more Cantabrians in the granite quarries of New England; and Asturians, Castilians, Galicians, Valencians, and Andalusians in the mines and mills of the industrial belts of both the Northeast and the Midwest. And in New York, the entry point of so many of these immigrants, we would encounter folks from all of the Iberian peninsula; not only on the docks and on the ships, where numerically the Spaniards stood out, but also in many different niches of the vast urban economy; from the cigar business to domestic work, for example.


Consider, for instance, José and Carmen, both Asturians. They met in the same year that Knutson delivered his diatribe, at a picnic organized by the Centro Asturiano of New York. That day, in a park on Staten Island, with views of both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, Carmen and José had to just about yell to hear themselves over the clamor of their paisanos and the jaunty melodies of the gaita that was never absent on occasions like this one. She, 18 years of age, tells her compatriot that she has just arrived from Sardéu, Ribadesella, invited by her sister, Joaquina, who had already been in the city for some years, and who had found her a job as a nanny in Brooklyn. He, 31 years of age, wearing a light-colored linen suit and a coyly tilted Panama hat, responds that he was born near Avilés, and that he too is a newcomer to NY, though he had already done stints working in Havana, Cuba and Tampa, Florida. The man looks in his wallet for a recently printed business card, and he hands it to her: José Fernández Álvarez, Tabaquero. “So I’m going to try my luck here. But what a mess with this English. In Tampa, we got along fine with just Spanish. How are you managing?” She laughs. “Well, not so good. I only know one sentence that they tried to teach me where I’m staying, and I can barely say it.” “Let’s see, let’s see…” insists the tabaquero. The nanny blushes as she clears her throat, and, without looking up from the card, says, haltingly and with a thick accent: “My room is number seven.”


Carmen Alonso Mier and José Fernández Álvarez, paternal grandparents of the author.

José Fernández Álvarez and Carmen Alonso Mier are my grandparents. The story of how they met was told to me only once by Carmen—laughing as she acted out the dialogue— a little before she passed away in 1984. José had died some months before; I can put a relatively precise date to the testimony because the few autobiographical anecdotes that I managed to hear from my grandmother’s mouth all came in that brief period between his death and hers. “Welo” was a charismatic raconteur; when he was around, he was the one who did the storytelling. I remembered this anecdote several months later, on the day we buried Carmen next to José in a Long Island cemetery, and thought: “How would those two young asturianos have reacted had someone told them, as they chatted each other up at that picnic, that they were going to spend the rest of their days together in Brooklyn, end up buried together on this side of the pond, surrounded by five “Spanish-American” children and more than twenty fully unhyphenated “American” grandchildren.

Fifty years after the picnic and Knutson’s speech, I would have to go to school to learn how to pronounce the words “mi habitación es la número siete” in Spanish. My mother was of Irish descent, and at home we spoke English. I always sensed that my grandparents observed my growing interest in a country that they had left behind forever with a mix of pride and puzzlement. I remember, in particular, the stark response of my grandfather when I told him that I was thinking of pursuing a doctorate in Spanish Literature: “Ok, but what can you make with that?

Well, with that I made a career: twenty years of articles and classes, books and conferences. But during my first two decades as a college professor, I pretty much kept my family history hermetically isolated from the hispanism and humanism I practiced as a researcher and teacher. I frequently read and taught García Lorca’s Poeta en Nueva York, for example, but in all those years it never occurred to me that the poet Federico, the cigarmaker José, and the nanny Carmen had all breathed the same polluted air during the months that García Lorca spent in the city (1929-30). In my personal imaginary, these figures inhabited separate and parallel planes that never intersected: the plane of Culture and History, in the case of the universal poet from Granada; and the plane of intimate and historically insignificant particularities, in the case of my abuelos.

A project I collaborated on in 2006 opened up the first cracks in the wall that I hadfacing fascism. constructed between the familial and the professional. For an exhibit and catalog titled “Facing Fascism: New York and the Spanish Civil War,” the Museum of the City of New York commissioned me to carry out a study on how the colony of Spanish emigrants in the city of New York had responded to the conflict in Spain. I began to study the local Spanish-language press of the time, and in those publications I kept coming across long lists of associations of Spanish emigrants which, in an attempt to coordinate their efforts to support the Republic, had united under an umbrella organization called the “Sociedades Hispanas Confederadas” (“The Confederation of Spanish Societies”). These lists revealed to me the existence of an veritable archipelago of Spanish enclaves that dotted the entire country, each one with their own picnics; each one, perhaps, with their own vignettes of grandparents to-be…

I also carried out interviews with elderly folks—my father, amongst them—who might región internacionalhave had first-hand memories of those years of discord and solidarity. I soon discovered that the materials necessary for the reconstruction of this forgotten diaspora were in a precarious state, on the verge of the being “lost” forever, in the private homes – and heads— of the descendants of the diaspora.  And I realized that the endangered future of this story was a result of the fact that my own attitude vis-a-vis the past of my grandparents –“these are private, intimate and unique stories that don’t belong to History”–  seemed to be the norm among descendants.  Around that same time, I met the writer and filmmaker Luis Argeo, who had recently premiered his documentary “AsturianUS”, which deals with Asturian immigrants in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Argeo had reached on his own the same conclusion as I had regarding the value and precariousness of this largely unknown history. We immediately decided to collaborate. We programmed into a GPS the locations that we had compiled from those lists of the Sociedades Hispanas Confederadas, and, with portable scanners, cameras, and microphones packed in our duffel bags, we hit the road, and for the last six years, together we have been knocking on the doors of descendants of Spaniards all over the United States.

The materials necessary for the reconstruction of this forgotten diaspora were in a highly precarious state, on the verge of being lost forever, in the private homes –and heads– of the descendants of the diaspora.



The daughters of Asturian immigrants, Severino and Amor García, photographed in a New York Studio, c. 1935.

The protagonists of this story from more than a century ago are no longer with us. Their children, if they are alive, are in their 80s or 90s. More often than not, they speak Spanish more as a vestige of their childhood than as a living language. They frequently receive us in the modest homes that their parents had acquired in their day, still full of objects, photos, and even smells that evoke that first generation of emigrants. If it is their grandkids or their great-grandkids who receive us, the houses are almost always  larger and better ventilated: more light, more air, and, almost as a consequence, less history. The grandkids rarely speak Spanish, and, for this reason, a good part of their own family’s archives have become illegible to them.

A visit of ours takes a full day or more; in addition to filming multiple interviews, we digitize the family archives. And, in almost all the houses— hospitality seems to be hereditary—they share food with us based on recipes handed down from their immigrant ancestors. Over the course of ten years of conducting this fieldwork, we have enjoyed: the paella of a son of alicantinos in Monterey, California, the filloas of a daughter of coruñeses in Astoria, New York; homemade chorizos prepared by grandchildren of Andalusians in California, Asturians in Missouri and Galicians in New York; the gazpacho of the granddaughter of almerienses and malagueños in California; hojuelas fried by the grand-daughter of an immigrant from Ávila in Hawaii;  and dozens of versions of the ubiquitous tortilla de patata or arroz con pollo, prepared in places like West Virginia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. On occasion, we manage to have our trips coincide with collective activities organized by the descendants, like that unforgettable picnic held in a public park on the outskirts of Canton, Ohio.

Cabo 37lowerresKathy Meers, née Pujazón in 1952, brings to Canton’s summer picnic a huge pot of arroz con pollo, an enormous tupperware full of pestiños, and two plastic bags containing photographs and documents. As we help her unload her car, she tells us in English: “they have told me that Spanish was my first language, because until I was three years old I lived in the same house as my grandparents. Later on, in school, I would lose more and more of it each year.” Those grandparents—Juan Pujazón Valencia and Adelaida Justo Blázquez— were born in Nerva, in the province of Huelva. They passed through Ellis Island in November of 1920, more or less when Knutson had his horrifying visit to the immigration center. A strike in the Rio Tinto mines in 1920 led several hundreds of folks from Huelva to make the trip to Canton in search of work in the large steel mills. Amongst them, Juan and Adelaida. These miners for the most part blended in to the local Asturian community that had been established a few years prior in the area. Canton was already a major industrial center, its factories manned by immigrant workers from all over the world; in that same year –1920– the National Football League (NFL) would be born in the city.

Now in the picnic area, Kathy bustles about non-stop. She greets the other families that


Kathy Meers, née Pujazón, of Canton, Ohio.

arrive, and she sets up her family’s feast on two large picnic tables. She promises to show us the contents of the plastic bags after the meal is over: “I don’t want the programs to get dirty.”

This diaspora came into being just as the Spanish empire was breathing its last gasps in the American hemisphere and the United States was emerging as an industrial power with imperial ambitions.   The influx of Spaniards into the US would reach its highest point during the First World War. The neutrality of Spain during the war, combined with the job openings that resulted from Americans being drafted into military service, generated the historical peak of Spanish emigration to the United States. But this would be an ephemeral surge that would plummet soon after Knutson’s statement, thanks, in large part, to the lies and fears spread by him and others who thought like him.

Because the Spanish government never did organize the exportation of its “worst citizens”; nor were the majority of emigrants anarchists; nor was there ever a single day in which 2,000 Spanish emigrants— or anywhere near that number—entered the United States.  Fake news and fear mongering are not new.

But the seeds of discord that Knutson was sowing fell on fertile ground. An economic recession after the end of the war, combined with the notorious Red Scare—a renewed wave of fear towards leftist ideologies driven by the specters of the Russian Revolution were enough to make the alarmist images and anti-immigrant arguments of people like Knutson carry the day.


Spaniards in Canton, Ohio, c. 1945. Courtesy of Kathy Pujazón Meers.

And so it was that in the early 1920s, shortly after the arrival of Kathy’s grandparents and that of my own, a series of migration laws were passed with the goal of restricting entrance to the country for peoples from the south and east of Europe, the “bad hombres” of that moment. This xenophobia would reach its peak with the Quota Law promulgated in 1924, according to which only 131 Spaniards could  legally emigrate to the United States in that entire calendar year; not even enough to organize a decent picnic! With these quotas, Knutson & Co. —using prejudices and statistics instead of brick and mortar— managed to build a large wall between Spain and the United States.

The Quota Laws almost entirely stopped the legal immigration of Spaniards to the U.S., but in part, because of that, the 1920s would be a decade of consolidation for the colonies that were already established here. 1925, for example, was the founding year of the Centro Hispano Americano de Canton, the club one that organized this picnic. As we go from table to table trying different dishes— tuna empanadas with the Guerra family, bacalao with the Prendes, flan with the Condes, arroz con leche with the Cabo clan— we reflect on how these dishes have evolved and been transformed over the last one-hundred years. We also chat with the descendants, and with some we film formal interviews, all with the goal of documenting how they perceive and narrate the stories of their forebears.

Amongst the descendants that have gathered today for this picnic, we notice a tendency that we have seen in all the sites where we have worked: if recipes get transformed and assimilated after a couple of generations, so too do family stories. And, for the most part, they do so in a predictable, not random, way. Many times, in spite of the material evidence that their own family archives offer, many of their stories, over the generations, seem to get squeezed more and more into the mold of the great American Dream, according to which all of the immigrant ancestors were solitary heroes, cut from the cloth of the archetypical American “self-made man.” The archives often show unequivocally how the immigrants arrived in informally organized waves; how they helped each other through a dense network of support groups; how many times they had to cut legal corners or even sneak across borders to get and stay here; how, during Prohibition, for example, they found ways of scoffing certain unpalatable or unjust laws; how they were often intensely political and almost always dreamt of someday returning to Spain; how, once they realized that they would be staying, they eventually learned first to like, and perhaps eventually, to love, the US. But by the time this story gets told by third or fourth generation descendants, it usually begins to sound more like this: “My grandparents came alone; they didn’t know anyone, and no one helped them; they came legally, and they always respected the laws of this country. They were never interested in politics, and they dedicated themselves exclusively to hard work. They left Spain with the intention of staying in the United States and becoming citizens; they loved this country even before arriving here.”

The sun is starting to set when we finally get back to the Pujazón clan. We find Kathy taking photos out of the plastic bags and organizing them on the cleared table: a color image of her grandfather dressed as a bullfighter, group portraits of the picnics from yesteryear. But what most grabs our attention are two tall stacks of colorful pamphlets on the far end of the table. Kathy points to them and says: “My grandfather collected all the printed programs of this annual picnic from the year 1936 until 1973, and now I have inherited them.” The two most visible cover pages, which belong to the programs that sit atop each of the piles, are those of 1937 and 1946. They form, by pure chance, a powerful diptych that offers a key to understanding the history of this diaspora. The first one, written in Spanish, clearly emerges from of a community that lives between the two countries, and that still has its eyes trained on Spain; the second one, in English, features a story-book family, dog included, taking confident strides –no looking back here– towards the redemption of assimilation.


The diptych confirms something that the archives of the descendants point to over and over again: the bloody conflict that has come to be known as the Spanish Civil War marked a turning point in the lives of the individuals and communities of this diaspora. The monolingual and assimilated descendants might spin epic tales of solitary and intrepid individuals who left their homes in 1910 or 1920 supposedly knowing beforehand that their destinies and those of their children was to become Americans. But those same descendants are often at a loss to explain why their grandparents often waited  for twenty or thirty years, until, say, 1939 or 1940, to apply for US citizenship. In the end, there seems to be something, a blindspot, that the descendants often cannot perceive or articulate, even though, just like the juxtaposition of these two pamphlets, the photos, letters and newspaper clippings of their family archives often say it for them loud and clear: it was the war and its outcome that marked the end of their ancestors’ dreams of returning to Spain, started the race toward assimilation, and unleashed a process of rewriting, of forgetting.

Because once a return is no longer possible, everything changes in the life on an emigrant: the relationship with both the homeland and the adopted country, with the English and Spanish languages; with the need to associate almost exclusively with fellow countrymen; with the priorities in the upbringing of their children, who now, irremediably, will be Americans; with the photos that are saved or discarded; and, above all, with the stories that the descendants construe with those photos.  After assimilation, the past can never be the same.

If in that other picnic, the one in Staten Island in 1920, someone had told José and Carmen the future that lay before them, they wouldn’t have believed it. Foreseeing the future can be difficult; but so too is comprehending the past without myths and distortions. Would those two youngsters— or any of the thousands of Spaniards who immigrated to the United States in these years— recognize themselves in the almost providentialist stories that we, as their descendants, from the comfortable vantage point of assimilation, have been attributing to them for all these years?

In the last presidential elections, Donald Trump won handily in Stark County, Ohio,InvisibleImmigrants_COVER where Canton is located, leading many people to ask: How is it possible that in a country that was built by immigrants there can be anti-immigration currents as virulent as the one that swept Trump into the White House? There might be some clues in the case of these Spanish emigrants from 100 years ago, and in the ways that descendants of immigrants more broadly re-structure and re-tell their family’s immigrant pasts: leaving out certain aspects and recasting many others. We tend to suppose that there should exist a natural empathy or solidarity between those who descend from immigrants and those who immigrate today. But this empathy presupposes accepting that the two experiences were, if not the same, then at the very least, comparable. And many descendants reject these comparisons; they resist identifying in any way with those who today knock on their doors. I wonder if they might be doing so based, in part, at least, on distorted stories and memories, on narratives that allow them to erect walls that are perhaps even more insurmountable than those built by Knutson or Trump: walls that in effect immure us from the anguish and aspirations of our fellow human beings, who are surely much more like our grandparents than many of us care to imagine or admit.

[Translated by Andrés D. Fernández]


A slightly shorter Spanish-language version of this essay (with different illustrations) appeared in El País Semanal on Sunday, June 17, 2018.  The author, James D. Fernández is a grandson of Spanish immigrants and Professor of Spanish Literature and Culture at New York University.  Co-author, with Luis Argeo of Invisible Immigrants:  Spaniards in the US (1868-1945), Fernández was an informal historical adviser to María Dueñas, as she conducted research for her latest novel, Las hijas del capitán. Photo courtesy of María Dueñas. 

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