by Luis Argeo
Any one who would be surprised to find a Sporting de Gijón jersey framed between trophies and other soccer relics behind the bar of a social club in a city in the Midwest United States, should perhaps read this story.
[A slightly different version of this article appeared in Spanish in the Spring 2016 issue (#16) of Líbero (Madrid, Spain). http://shop.revistalibero.com/ Translated by Alejandro J. Fernández]
In the neighborhood of Carondelet, in South Saint Louis (Missouri), the brick family homes that were built over a century ago still characterize the landscape; most are just a short walk away from the once-booming metal works that line the banks of the Mississippi River. And ever since 1937, one of those reddish buildings, located on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Blow Street, has been home to the Spanish Society, a club founded by Spanish immigrants 10 years prior. In addition to a modest auditorium on the second floor and an impressive smokehouse for chorizos out back, the association has a cantina where the members, still today, can reminisce about the old times, while they play an occasional card game or the traditional Asturian past-time of “la rana.” Two plasma screens feature European soccer matches whenever there are games. One afternoon, in 2011, a match between Real Madrid and Sporting de Gijón was on those flat screens. After watching a few plays, one of the old-timers in the club pointed to one of the rojiblanco players, a center midfielder named Nacho Cases, and wondered aloud: “Hey, do you think that Cases boy might be the grandson of Chus?”
It turns out that the answer was “yes”; but to understand why an elderly man in St. Louis, Missouri was on a first name basis with the grandfather of a soccer star from northern Spain, we need to look at the fascinating and intertwined histories of soccer and immigration in the city of St. Louis.
At the start of the 20th century, huge steam ships crossed the Atlantic loaded with European immigrants who had hopes of prospering in a new continent. Between the XIXth and XXth centuries, some four million Spaniards packed their bags with equal measures of fear, hunger and excitement. Although the majority headed to Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas, tens of thousands of them passed through the Immigration Center of Ellis Island in New York. Many stayed in the New York area, but many others boarded trains and headed towards factories with impossible names in places like Ohio, Kansas, or Missouri. Legend has it that a Basque man who lived in the Big Apple, Don Valentín Aguirre, would meet fellow Spaniards at the Manhattan docks and lead them to his Cherry Street boarding house, which doubled as a restaurant and an unofficial employment agency.Aguirre, and his wife, Benita Orbe, would provide the immigrants with baskets of food, whose size depended on the length of their train trip. The Basque hosts would also pin a note on to the travelers’ lapels, indicating their final destination, so that the train conductors would know when to tell them to disembark. It is thought that Atanasio Fernández and Ángel García were the first to get off the train at Saint Louis station, in 1901. They knew that there was work for them. The Edgar Zinc Co. factory needed men; that company and others would soon hire many more workers from the same part of Asturias as these two skilled laborers. Thus began the story of the Spanish colony of Saint Louis.
In those first years of the twentieth century, while the people of the city hummed the song “Meet Me in St. Louis,” and the town hosted both a major Universal Exposition and the third Olympic Games of the modern era (1904), the zinc foundry in Carondelet attracted large numbers of Spaniards, many of whom had experience at the zinc plant run by the Royal Asturian Mining Company in the seaside town of Arnao (Asturias). More men from that part of Asturias continued to arrive, seeking homes and jobs; new factories opened up on the other side of the Mississippi, in places like Fairmont City, Illinois, and even in states as far away as West Virginia or Pennsylvania. The Spanish immigrants become known for their skill and endurance as furnacemen at the smelters, and a chain of vibrant and interconnected Asturian colonies eventually emerged along what we might call the zinc circuit, stretching from St. Louis and East St. Louis, all the way to Cherryvale, Kansas, Spelter, West Virginia, and Donora, Pennsylvania. This surprises many Americans: though not as well known as other, larger immigrant groups –Germans, Italians, Irish or Scottish, for example– working-class Spaniards did participate in the immigrant history that forever transformed the US in the XIXth and XXth centuries.
By the time those first Asturian workers began arriving to the city, Robinson Field in North Saint Louis was already hosting soccer matches with more than 6,000 spectators, like the one between St. Teresa’s and Cycling Club in April of 1897. And when in 1905, the “Pilgrims,” an English team on an exhibition tour, was invited to play in the city against a team composed of local all-stars, there was an overflow crowd of fans at the 15,000-seat Cardinals baseball stadium. Just two years after that English visit (the locals lost 10-0), and three years after the exhibition matches of the Olympic Games in the city, the first fully professional soccer league in the United States was created: the St. Louis Soccer League (SLSL).Spanish immigrants also wanted to participate in the fashionable sport, and in that same year, 1907, they would establish the first Spanish soccer team in the city, named Asturias Club, made up of metalworkers with last names like García, Fernández, or Menéndez. It would not be entirely professional, nor was it the only team born in the city’s fledgling Spanish community. The men basically learned how to play in their free time, kicking the ball around the open spaces between the river and Broadway that the Edgar Zinc Co. had reserved for coal piles. Despite all odds, they got quite good at the game. The grave shortage of proper playing fields in the city was not rectified until years later, when, thanks to the good offices of a priest, municipal institutions were pressured to create adequate pitches. In 1912, three fields were inaugurated, one in Carondelet (the Spanish neighborhood); in that same year, municipal leagues were organized for the amateur teams. That MUNY League had nothing to envy about the professionals. Father Dooley had arranged for referees, official structure, local sponsors, and even trophies. In addition, spectators could attend the games for free. Players in the professional leagues were often not very happy about the success of the MUNY league, and the more ambitious professional clubs would even try to poach talent away from the amateur organization. The Spanish soccer players competed with gusto on both sides of the Mississippi. Among the most glorious teams, we could highlight the Spanish Sports Club, that played in the MUNY of Saint Louis until 1935, when the team moved to the professional league, and was sponsored by an undertaker (Burke’s Funeral Home). The Burke’s Undertakers won two titles in the SLSL before the league passed on to a better life in 1939. On the other side of the river, teams like the Spanish American AC (municipal champions of East Saint Louis in 1930), or the García Football Club (sponsored by a transport company that worked for the American Zinc Co. in Fairmont City) played their way into Illinois soccer history. “Banjo Suárez and my grandfather started playing in the East Saint Louis/Fairmont City league”, explains Christopher Cueto. “My grandfather was the manager of a semi professional team. In fact, the reason why he got promoted to the position of foreman at American Zinc was because the owners of the factory had seen him running his soccer team. He was just a worker, but they told him: ‘anyone who can manage those boys on the field should be able to do it in a zinc factory as well.’ That was how they promoted him. And in the end, he would be promoted to Supervisor,” adds this proud grandson of asturianos.
The Sociedad Española or Spanish Society of Saint Louis was founded in 1927, and their soccer team would travel to all the Spanish colonies of the area. In the midst of the Great Depression, the dues of the club members allowed the Society to acquire its own clubhouse in less than ten years, where they could organize parties and recitals, and even offer health and burial insurance to compatriots with problems. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the Sociedad Española wouldserve as a center for fundraising meetings on behalf of the Spanish government. At the same time, their soccer team played against professional clubs from Saint Louis or Chicago, and players like Prudencio “Pete” García would, without knowing it, start their journey toward the US Soccer Hall of Fame. “My father and his brother in law, ‘Chic’ Fernández, were founders of the Spanish Society”, comments Prudencio’s son, Donald García. “Before marrying, the men lived in boarding houses, all together, so sports were a form of entertainment. My father was always involved in sports, and he always wanted to make sure that young people would have something healthy and productive to do. That was how the team Los Caballeros arose, at the beginning they played in the league of the Catholic diocese. Years later, my father would become a soccer referee.”
Prudencio García was born in Salinas (Asturias) in 1899. He would arrive with his mother to the United States in 1907, to be reunited with his father who was already working in the city. His love for soccer made him a player and a tireless promoter of the sport within the Spanish colony of Saint Louis. Like many of his Spanish compatriots, following the tragic outcome of the Spanish Civil War, Prudencio did not wait long to request citizenship in his host country. He obtained more papers in 1949, documents that certified him as a FIFA referee, and that he would use a year later to travel to Brazil, as part of the delegation of the American Referee Association that participated in the World Cup. In this way, Prudencio became the first American to participate as a referee in a World Cup. “Since he was already 50 years old” comments his son, “they put him as a linesman.” From the four games that Prudencio ran along the sidelines with the flag, maybe the most bitter thing for him was the match between Sweden and Spain for third place. His country of origin lost 3-1, with a goal from Zarra.
The US also fielded a team in that World Cup. Their only victory in the group stages was against colossal England. On that US team, which barely fielded a professional player, were six players originally from Saint Louis. And among those, the defender Harry Keough, a mailman who, by his own admission, had learned how to play soccer with the Spanish workers from Carondelet. The Irishman Keough’s neighbors were as amazed at his skill with the ball as they were at the ease with which he spoke Spanish. In fact, his proficiency in that language led to him being appointed team captain in the US World Cup debut against the Spanish National Team (Spain 3- Us 1).
Harry Keough wasn’t the only American soccer legend close to the Spanish immigrants of Saint Louis. Adelino “Billy” Gonsalves (1908-1977)–the “Babe Ruth” of US soccer– is considered the most outstanding player every born in the United States, and he played for some seasons in St. Louis. “My father’s older brother, Joe “Cobby” Rodríguez, was a goalie on the Shamrocks where he got to play with Gonsalves. “I remember my father would talk about Billy Gonsalves, about his strength, but he always referred to him by his nickname, ‘Pianolegs,’” recalls Linda Rodríguez.Following the Second World War, when soccer was ceding ground to other professional sports, in a country whose habits and lifestyles and lifestyles were in the midst of radical transformations, the children and grandchildren of those Spanish workers from the Saint Louis area continued finding in soccer a sign of their identity. That is the only explanation of why, year after year, descendants of Spanish immigrants continue meeting on both sides of the river to play the annual “Chorizo Bowl.” Charlie Suárez, a grandson of immigrants who settled in Fairmont, explains: “We think that everything started in the year ’47 or ’48, as a friendly match, as a challenge between the asturianos from Saint Louis against those from Fairmont and East St. Louis. They decided to face each other every 1st of January . Since American Football had its Rose Bowl or its Orange bowl, they named the match ‘The Chorizo Bowl.’ A year’s never been missed, it’s played in rain, sleet, hail or snow. In recent years, the teams’ compositions have been changing, and many participants are from different ethnic groups. On the team from the East there are many Mexicans now. And it’s the responsibility of the host to make the chorizos that will be eaten after the game”. When they play on the East side of the Mississippi, the meeting point is Koke’s, a tavern right outside what was once the main gate of the American Zinc Company in Fairmont City, Illinois. The next year, the members of the Spanish Society of Saint Louis are in charge of preparing the chorizos. Thomas Fernández reports from Saint Louis. “My brothers and I have been participating for 29 years. At first I played, but now I do coach work. If I get back in shape, maybe next year I’ll play. There are men older than me doing it. And even though I don’t have all the results at hand, I can honestly say that I only remember one loss and one tie, the rest have been victories for the team from the Saint Louis side. Including the 5-1 victory this past January.” Responsible for the chorizos this year was Brian Kestler, a grandson of Asturians who zealously guards his Grandma’s secret recipe.
“Hey, do you think that Cases boy might be the grandson of Chus?”
Chus Cases, grandfather of the midfielder for Sporting, Nacho Cases, was a late immigrant to Saint Louis, though he was still able to enjoy that sense of camaraderie that the Asturians fostered and managed to pass on to their neighbors and descendants in the Carondelet section of St. Louis. Chus arrived in 1964, and two years later would have his wife and his sons join him. Jesús Cases, son of Chus, father of Nacho, spoke to us in a café in Gijón, reminiscing about his childhood in Missouri: “My father used to take me to the Spanish Society where he would play la llave [another Asturian past-time brought to St. Louis by the immigrants] . Just two days after arriving, I was already playing soccer with the kids’ team. I learned how to play in the snow there; and I remember the good organization and resources of those children’s leagues. When we returned to Spain in the 70’s, there weren’t even balls, the children just played on their own in the street.” Jesús Cases brought soccer back from Saint Louis, Missouri, to Spain, in his suitcase. In Asturias he played for industrial teams, like the Camocha, the Caudal, or Ensidesa, and he passed the St. Louis home-grown passion for soccer to his son Nacho Cases. Nacho, midfielder on Sporting de Gijón, told us: “One day, in 2011, my father was contacted on Facebook from the United States. I think it was the daughter of his coach in Saint Louis. On a television at the Spanish Society they had seen me play against Madrid in the Bernabéu. We were thrilled, and we sent them a jersey with my signature.”
That Sporting de Gijón jersey today occupies a spot of honor in the Spanish Society of Saint Louis. For some people in the cantina, perhaps the youngest, or those who don’t have Spanish origins, the garment probably just seems like one more ornament in a space crammed with objects, trophies, and flags from distant places. Many people in the United States don’t know the long history of soccer in their own country, thinking that the sport is a more or less recent European importation. But for the older members of the association, for those whose memories reach all the way back to those early days when soccer was still a worthy rival of American Football, or for those who might recognize on TV the grandson of an old compañero at the factory or the club, the signed jersey isn’t a symbol of distant and exotic stardom. Rather, it is a reminder of the deep history and the strong ties of a beloved community. For them, Chus’s Sporting shirt is practically a home team jersey.