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The Spanish Wave: America’s Forgotten Immigrants

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Mention Spaniards in the New World and many Americans tend to conjure up timeworn images of Christopher Columbus and his three ships, or Ponce de León on his quest to find the fountain of youth.

But despite what we might remember from our school days, it turns out that the story of Spanish immigration doesn’t stop at the colonial heyday of old Florida’s St. Augustine.

Between 1880 and 1930, four million Spaniards arrived in the Americas—more than the previous four centuries (1492-1880) combined, explains James Fernández, an associate professor in NYU’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literatures. But this fact would probably surprise the descendants of these immigrants, in part because their ties to the past are looser than those of other ethnic communities. Fernández has found that Spanish-Americans living in, say, Donora, Pa., tend not to know of similar communities in places like Cherryvalle, Kan., or even Tampa, Fla.. Whereas the contributions of Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans are celebrated and mythologized in museums and parades galore, U.S. cities offer few cultural landmarks commemorating the Spanish-American experience.

But Fernández is out to change that. Since 2010, he and his collaborator, the Spanish filmmaker and journalist Luis Argeo, have been traveling the country to conduct interviews and collect photographs and documents that tell the all-but-forgotten story of the scores of Spanish immigrants who settled—and quickly assimilated—in towns from Vermont to Hawaii during the first decades of the 20th century. The grandson of Spanish immigrants who met and married in New York City in the 1920s, Fernández says he grew up believing that his grandparents’ journey here was unique—a perception that his interview subjects often share.

“This has become a lesson about how public memory is inscribed in private photo albums,” Fernández says of the archiving project, which he calls “Ni Frailes ni Conquistadores (Neither Friars nor Conquistadors): Spanish Immigrants in the U.S., 1898-1936.” As the 80- or 90-year-old daughters and sons of Spanish immigrants, Fernandez’s sources are often able to put names to faces in family photos—but don’t always know the significance of pictures that were taken when they were still in diapers.

“Very often the owners of these photo albums can’t see beyond their private, intimate meaning—but to someone with a historical perspective, they often contain valuable information,” Fernández says. Among his own family’s possessions, for example, Fernández recently identified an unfamiliar man photographed with a group of his relatives as José Miaja, the Spanish Republican Army commander who led the defense of Madrid against siege by General Francisco Franco’s troops during the Spanish Civil War.

For now, Fernández’s growing archive lives online, and with the students in his 2011 undergraduate seminar on Spain in New York he built a website marking historic Spanish sites at and around NYU’s Greenwich Village campus, which overlaps the neighborhood once known as New Spain. He and Argeo have also built a Facebook page, called Spanish Immigrants in the United States, where they post four times a day, sharing documents, photographs, and newspaper clippings and soliciting the same from their growing following of more than 2,000. Photos they share of celebrities, like the glamorous Rita Hayworth, whose father emigrated from Spain, garner a predictable flurry of “likes.” And food? “It drives ’em crazy!” Fernández says. “I can start a fight on Facebook over who makes the best chorizo, or where the best Christmas cookies come from.”

But the social network has also proved a valuable scholarly tool: Fernández and Argeo have planned trips to St. Louis, Mo., San Leandro, Ca., to meet with Spanish-Americans with whom they first connected through Facebook. Their main source in Cleveland, a former flight attendant who had been carefully preserving her Spanish grandparents’ archive, also found their project through the page. No two family’s histories are identical, of course, but part of Fernández’s charge is to stitch those apparently isolated stories into a broader narrative about an overlooked diaspora.

There were myriad reasons for leaving Spain in the first two decades of the 20th century: The Spanish economy was in shambles following the loss of its colonies in Cuba, the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American War of 1898, and military conscription meant that young men could expect to die in similar bloody battles in Northern Africa as the former imperial power dwindled. Fleeing these conditions, many Spaniards moved first to Spanish-speaking Latin America, and then made their way from Mexico or Cuba to the United States. Others were recruited directly for work in specific industries, from sugarcane to canal digging to zinc mining.

“Assimilation, for most of these folks, was incredibly fast and successful,” Fernández says—which could be one reason few traces of Spanish identity remain in the communities where they settled. Another has to do with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Fernandez suspects that much Spanish settlement in the United States was somewhat accidental: Immigrants who arrived in the U.S. in the 1910s and 1920s with no intention of planting roots here decided not to return home only after Spain’s democratic government was overthrown in Francisco Franco’s fascist coup. His hypothesis is supported by a curious pattern he’s noticed in family documents—a glut of U.S. naturalization papers dated 1939, ’40, and ’41 for people who’d been in the country since 1920 or earlier.

Complicating things further is the fact that those who opposed Franco and supported Spain’s democratic loyalists ended up being targeted as communists during the McCarthy era—leading some Spanish families to keep quiet about their roots. It’s a practice analogous to German-Americans abandoning their own native celebrations and associations in the years following World War I. “We’ve even found cases of families destroying or tearing the inscriptions off of photographs," Fernandez says. In that sense, he says, the stories that descendants of immigrants tend to misremember or even obscure are often as illuminating as the family memories they cherish.

For Fernández, “Ni frailes ni conquistadores” is also a journey of personal discovery: Though he’s taught Spanish language and literature for years, it wasn’t until recently that he contemplated the intersections between his academic interests and his family history. “For years I taught Federico Garcia Lorca, who came to New York in 1929 and wrote one of his major books of poems, Poeta in Nueva York, here,” Fernández reflects. “But it never occurred to me that Lorca and abuelo [grandfather] inhabited the same sphere.”

Reading Lorca’s letters from New York back to his family in Spain, Fernández found a mention of a lunch at a dive on the Hudson River that finally helped him to make the connection. “Lorca described the owner as an astute guy from Galicia who was selling bootleg liquor,” he says. “It could’ve been my grandfather serving that anise.”

View the slideshow above to take Fernández’s historic tour through hidden Spanish-American outposts in the U.S.

Top photo: Cleveland Spanish community picnic, June 1942, courtesy of Laura Goyanes. Employment opportunities in the heavy industries (steel, rubber, etc.) in and around Cleveland attracted large numbers of Spanish immigrants to the area in the 1910s and ’20s, among them the Galician-born father of Oscar-winning actor Martin Sheen, who lived and worked in Dayton.
 

—Eileen Reynolds

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