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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