Looking for an ‘Invisible’ Immigrant Community

Immigrants from the Spanish region of Galicia on the rooftop of their Lower East Side tenement. (Courtesy Alonso-Sánchez family via James Fernández)

Youth Chorus of the Anti-Fascist Spanish Committee of Canton, Ohio, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). (Via James Fernández)

Spanish immigrants in Hawaii. (Courtesy Simon family via James Fernández)

Banquet at New York’s Club Obrero Español (Spanish Workers’ Club) in 1945. (Courtesy of Joe Mora via James Fernández)

Brooklyn-born Professor James D. Fernández, whose paternal grandparents were both Spaniards hailing from the northern region of Asturias, used to think that he had a very rare heritage. It sounded very different from the typical New York migrant experience, and there was an unusual detail in their story: They had met at a picnic organized by New York’s Centro Asturiano.

NYIE“I grew up hearing that story, but I still had this image in my mind that my grandparents were unique,” he reflects. Then he wondered: “How unique can they be if they met at a picnic organized by a cultural organization?”

Determined to recapture the history of the close-knit Spanish community within which his grandparents met, Fernández – an associate professor at NYU’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese – and Spanish journalist Luis Argeo have spent the last four years traveling around the U.S. and Spain trying to recover testimonies and documents of what they call an “invisible” migration.

Tens of thousands of Spaniards moved to the U.S. in the early 20th century, either directly from Spain or via the former Spanish colonies in Latin America. Fernández’s grandfather himself had moved to Cuba and then to Tampa, Florida. There, he became a cigar maker before settling in New York in 1920.

During their investigation, Fernández and Argeo met some 200 descendants of those immigrants scattered across the U.S., in places like New York, California, Florida, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, and scanned numerous family photos, publications, brochures and programs from social events. The researchers also opened a Facebook page – which now has some 5,000 followers – where people have shared their old pictures.

“We now have an archive of more than 6,000 images no one has ever seen apart from the owners,” said the soft-spoken professor. “With these private pictures, we are trying to assemble a kind of public photo album that will make known the collective story of this group.”

The images will appear in “Invisible Immigrants (Spaniards in the US 1868-1945),” a photography book that the authors are funding through a Kickstarter campaign – which is in itself an homage to that forgotten community.

“When the Spaniards wanted to publish a brochure or organize some kind of festival in the 1920s or ’30s, they didn’t have the word ‘crowdfunding’ but that’s what they did: They went around and asked for micro-donations. So we thought it would be interesting to replicate even the methodology that the immigrants used for their projects by not following the conventional route of finding a publisher,” said Fernández.

“We spent almost two years developing a community of people who are interested in this,” he said, adding that they thought of producing the book also “as a community, with contributions – both of photographs and money – from the very people whose families are portrayed in this project.”

The investigator says that most of the people he approached were also unaware of their collective history. “They would say: ‘Oh, my grandfather was one of a handful of Spaniards,’ or ‘We didn’t know any other Spaniards,’ and then they show you their photo albums and you see these meetings of several hundred people,” said Fernández. “You can see all the clubs and their activities: the dances, soccer matches, baseball matches, picnics, and all of that.”

The professor, who is the co-editor of the book “Facing Fascism: New York and the Spanish Civil War,” thinks that part of this oblivion has to do with New World thinking: “[U.S. culture] tends to promote the idea that immigrant stories are all about individual effort and unique stories, but historical records are always about networks and solidarity and people helping each other out,” he said.

Apart from soliciting donations from descendants of Spanish immigrants to the U.S., the authors have reached out to Spanish celebrities like opera singer Plácido Domingo, Chef José Andrés, and actress Elena Anaya, who have helped promote the project.

Although a relatively small number of Spaniards immigrated compared to the Italians or the Irish, they nonetheless left their mark on American society. Hollywood stars Rita Hayworth and Martin Sheen descended from Spanish immigrants who immigrated in the early 20th century. Some of New York’s most enduring Latino institutions originated then, including newspaper La Prensa, founded by Rafael Viera, which just last year celebrated its centennial as El Diario/La Prensa, as well as iconic brands such as Goya Foods, created in 1936 by Prudencio Unanue, and Café Bustelo, started by Gregorio Bustelo in the 1920s.

“There are some contributions made by Spanish immigrants that have been absorbed into a larger history of Latino immigration,” said Fernández. “It’s important to recognize that the stories are connected. Bustelo and Unanue had been to Puerto Rico and Cuba before coming to New York.”

Most of these immigrants arrived in the 1910s, and their numbers started to dwindle after restrictive U.S. immigration laws were enacted in the 1920s. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), which initially galvanized the community, ended up weakening it.

“The outcome of the war – a destroyed country and a dictatorship – basically means that if they had any hope of returning to Spain, those hopes are now gone. So you have this community that is at its peak in terms of numbers and cohesiveness, yet there’s no going back. They realize that their children are going to be American, and more and more assimilation becomes the order of the day,” said Fernández.

In their quest to make those immigrants visible, the authors also found themselves having to confront long-held misconceptions.

“In the U.S., there’s a kind of conventional wisdom about Spain in the Americas, and it’s all anchored in the imperial and colonial period,” said Fernández, referring to the stereotyped images of conquistadores and friars. “What we’re trying to do is reconstruct another chapter in the history of Spain and the Americas which has nothing to do with the empire.”

In fact, he added, the migration was a product of the end of the empire. It was when Spain lost its dominion over the Americas that Spaniards began coming here in large numbers. “We’re talking about 4 million Spaniards who came to the Americas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” he said. “That’s many more than [the people who] came in the 400 years immediately after Columbus’ first voyage.”


  1. Pingback: Invisible and Imminent Immigrants: Media Coverage | Spanish Immigrants in the United States

  2. vera fidalgo maas says:

    I am the daughter and granddaughter of Spanish immigrants who settled
    in St. Louis. My maternal grandparents immigrated from Asturias. Wello
    was from Arnau. He left Spain in from Bilbao in 1906. In later years when
    I had been to Spain I asked how they could have left such a beautiful
    place and was told that the miners had gone on strike and when the
    strike was over those who had been in support were blackballed. Several
    of his brothers also left. When he had saved enough money he sent
    for my grandmother. In those early year, they moved around a lot
    following work. One of my uncles was born in Cherryville, Kansas. My
    mother Mary Louise was born in Neosho, Kansas. Eventually they
    moved to Carondelet. My grandmother was born in Las Vallinas,
    near Aviles. My Dad from Villamejin not far from Oviedo
    I know you will be in St. Louis at the History Museum but at 81 I
    no longer drive at night. My grandfather was one of the founders
    of the Spanish Society but was inactive when it became more of a
    social organization. My Dad was a member until he died. Almost
    every night except Sunday he went to the Society to play Briska.
    I hope this will be of interest to you and I appreciate your interest
    in these wonderful people and their history.

    Vera Maas

  3. Lauren Lee Madrid says:

    I am a descendent of the 1907 Spanish Immigration on the Heliopolis from Malaga to Hawaii.

    My paternal grandmother was Maria Martin Atencia (from Torrox, just above Malaga)
    My paternal grandfather was Jose Madrid Corpas (from Loja, near Granada)
    They were both on the 1907 voyage from Malaga to Hawaii – they were
    married to other people at the time and later were both widowed and married each other, which resulted in my father, Joseph Anthony Madrid, born at home in San Leandro, California 12/2/1923. The family moved to San Francisco shortly thereafter – and that’s where my dad grew up.
    Before my father’s passing in 2011, he wrote an extensive research piece for our family. I am happy to share with others interesting in researching their family history. I am eager to learn more about my history and I am very interested in joining a community composed of those descendants as well.

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