A Baptism of Fire: La Prensa’s Launch as a Daily

Cover of La Prensa in 1915, when it was a weekly. (Photo courtesy of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies)

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On the night of June 4, 1918, New York turned dark after the police commissioner, following instructions from the War Department, ordered the city’s lights shut off – with the exception of street lamps and lights in dwellings. The Army’s goal was to study how to protect the city from a possible attack by German aircraft.

On that same day, a Spanish-language daily newspaper appeared for the first time on the streets of New York. Up until then, La Prensa had been a struggling weekly founded five years before. Today, a hundred years later, it still appears daily as El Diario/La Prensa, after its merging with El Diario de Nueva York in 1963.

While the paper is recognized as the oldest Spanish-language newspaper in the U.S., little-known is the fact that the 1918 launch of La Prensa as a daily marked the difference between life and death for thousands of Hispanics residents in the city. Through their efforts, the daily newspaper’s founders spared thousands of Hispanic immigrants from having to fight and quite possibly die in the European trenches for a flag that was not theirs.

An extensive review of the La Prensa archives in the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, as well as other publications, tells a remarkable story that has been all but forgotten for decades.

La Prensa started as a four-page weekly on Oct. 12, 1913, published and mostly written by its founder, Spanish immigrant Rafael Viera y Ayala. By 1915, constant financial struggles made him hand off his Viera Publishing Co. to Colombian writer José M. Vargas Vila. A year later, the paper was purchased by three Americans, Henrick P. de Vries, Frederick W. Hersey and Francis P. Pace, who renamed it LA PRENSA Publishing Company. All the American owners would eventually sell their ownership in the following years. The only permanent figure was that of the newspaper’s editor, Chilean journalist Alfredo V.D.H. Collao.

Coincidentally, Hersey was a terminal manager at the New York Seaport and agent of the cruise line Cunard, to which the ocean liner Lusitania belonged when it was torpedoed by German submarines in May 1915. That was one of the decisive factors that eventually brought the United States to enter the “Great War.”

The European conflict that started in 1914 was having a significant – and mostly positive – impact on the whole city, including its Hispanic community. After having long competed as a big commercial and financial port with Hamburg and Liverpool, New York had more recently established itself as a cultural capital. Hundreds of artists fled Europe for New York during World War I, and in 1916 the first opera ever staged in Spanish in the city, “Goyescas,” by Spanish composer Enrique Granados, premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House to great fanfare.

As travel to Europe’s great capitals became too dangerous, wealthy Latin American families from such countries as Brazil, Mexico and Cuba traveled to New York for shopping and entertainment. New York stores took notice, and for the first time it was common to see signs in Spanish on the streets. City Hall itself started promoting the language, especially after banning German teaching from schools because of the war. The American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, which still exists today, was founded in 1917, and in May 1918 Mayor John Francis Hylan said that Spanish “should be the chief foreign language studied by our youth.”

The American taste for all things Hispanic was not exactly new. The so-called “Spanish craze” (1890-1930) inspired everything from architectural styles (“Spanish Revival”) to the pop culture superhero El Zorro. The most representative institution of that period in the city was the Hispanic Society of America, the great museum of Hispanic-American art founded in 1904 by philanthropist Archer Milton Huntington in Washington Heights, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2012.

The Selective Service Act

The city’s Hispanic community was also growing. Although still outnumbered by Italian and Polish speakers, by the time of the war there were some 50,000 Spanish speakers in the city, including some 30,000 immigrants from Spain and a large colony from different Latin American countries and the Philippines. Those numbers were further augmented by the arrival of thousands of Puerto Ricans, after they were granted U.S. citizenship in March 1917.

U.S. Army recruits arriving at Camp Upton, Long Island, for training during World War I. (Photo via Long Island Genealogy)

Most Spanish speakers had little English-language knowledge and, unlike the élites at the opera, were working class. For them, the period was marked by food rationing and conscription that became part of the biggest military mobilization to date. For the first time, the United States instituted the “Selective Service Act,” which went into effect in May 1917, seeking to recruit millions of youths to stop the Kaiser’s army in Europe.

While all U.S. citizens aged 21 to 31 were called up for military service, German nationals and citizens of neutral countries – such as Spaniards and Latin Americans – who had not applied for citizenship were exempted from the draft. However, a long debate in Washington among senators, House representatives and President Wilson about whether to conscript foreigners sowed confusion among millions of immigrants across the nation, and even draft recruiters had difficulty sorting out those who were exempt from those who were not.

All eligible New Yorkers, including thousands of Hispanics not required to serve, received the same draft letter urging them to register at one of the 189 local boards established in the city, fill a questionnaire and pass a physical exam. Only afterward could they claim an exemption, by producing documents proving their foreign citizenship.

Those letters caused a great deal of stress within immigrant communities. Many didn’t want to register at the local boards for fear of being drafted, or saw the requirement of a physical exam as a humiliation. Others, with little or no knowledge of English, just failed to show up, which immediately meant they were classified as deserters. There were also cases of immigrants who, lacking legal advice, showed up at the local boards without the proper paperwork and ended up in the military barracks of Camp Upton, Long Island – now the site of the Brookhaven National Laboratory – to be trained among the other soldiers to be sent to France.

The “Spanish Jews”

At the time, La Prensa was struggling financially under the direction of Collao and another Chilean, Eduardo Montenegro, and was sometimes referred to among the Hispanic community as the “Chilean newspaper.” The first time La Prensa reported on the impact of the draft among the Spanish-speaking community was in a piece on June 23, 1917, called “The Spanish Jews and military service,” about the troubles the draft brought to members of the large Sephardic community in the city. Those descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 came from different regions of the Ottoman Empire and still spoke Spanish, although it was written in Hebrew characters (Ladino). The recent arrival in the U.S. of more than 50,000 Sephardic Jews – fleeing the Great War  ̶  had turned them into one of the main Spanish-speaking groups in the city.

The first time La Prensa reported on the impact of the draft among the Spanish-speaking community was in a piece on June 23, 1917, called “The Spanish Jews and military service.” (Courtesy of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies)

In arguing for exemption from military service, the group cited ethical and religious reasons, including the fact that they could not take up arms against territories where their relatives still lived. “Most of those U.S. residents maintain the legal citizenship of the country where they hail, that is, Turkey,” explained the article. “From a strictly legal point of view, they are alien enemies and are subject to such police measures as transit restriction, among others, that have been put in place regarding Germans, Austro-Hungarians and others German allies.”

The article highlights a meeting at University Settlement, 184 Eldridge St., during which Sephardic leaders launched an appeal asking the King of Spain, Alfonso XIII, and the entire Hispanic community in the U.S. for help. La Prensa exhorted its readers to support them, arguing: “It is clear that the [readers’] duty of solidarity and reciprocity should make them join in the defense of the Spanish Jews.” The newspaper was only continuing a long tradition of collaboration between both communities. In his memoirs, Puerto Rican Bernardo Vega frequently mentions the participation of Sephardic Jew Jacobo Silvestre Bresman in the Antillean liberation movement that brewed in the city in the 19th century, along with such figures as Betances, Hostos and Martí.

But soon, La Prensa’s attention shifted from the particular situation of the Sephardic youth to focus on its natural readership: The Spaniards and Latin Americans who got caught up in the draft. On Sept. 22, 1917, a story entitled “Conscription DOES NOT include neutrals  ̶  Therefore, Hispano-Americans can rest assured,” the newspaper sought to calm down the agitation in Latino neighborhoods after it was announced that the Army had plans to draft all foreigners living in the nation.

The measure only applied to citizens of allied belligerent countries, but many local boards ignored the fine print and kept recruiting non-U.S. citizen Latinos. Irregularities and abuses of power were notorious, in part due to the rush to organize a massive militia, and by the general disorganization in the boards, which often did not apply the same guidelines. There was also a huge lack of sensibility toward minority and immigrant groups. In March 1918, a contrite President Wilson ordered the excision of the sentence: “The foreign born, and especially Jews, are more apt to malinger than the native born” from the Army Medical Board Manual, a public document.

Many men who did not show up for their appointments were captured in secret police raids seeking deserters (derisively called “slackers”). Raids were often conducted in gathering places for immigrants, such as Turkish baths or Chinese restaurants. “Slackers” were detained and sent to Fort Jay’s military barracks on Governors Island and faced as many as 10 years in prison.

While many youths volunteered to fight for the allied cause, in September 1917 La Prensa reported on the isolated case of three Spanish residents of Bridgeport, Connecticut  ̶  José Reyes, Antonio Barrial and Jesús de Veda  ̶  who were detained, accused of sedition after portraits of Kaiser Wilhelm and maps of the U.S. had been found in their rooms.

The “Martínez Case”

The case that brought attention to the Latin American draftees in the local media was the arrest in October 1917 of Mexican Vice Consul Jesús Martínez, after he refused to register at Board 145 (near City College).

A draft official told The New York Times that it was all a misunderstanding: Martínez had been summoned, like all other youths in the nation, to file an affidavit, and he only needed to prove his Mexican citizenship to be allowed back home. However, Martínez kept refusing to comply and was indicted under “draft delinquent” or deserter charges. The consulate used the case to bring attention to the abuses of the draft, declaring that more than 100 Mexicans had been recruited against their will in New York City. For his part, the Mexican ambassador in Washington, Ignacio Bonillas, also protested against the drafting of Mexicans into the national army, particularly in the border states.

José Camprubí (second from left), and his siblings in a family picture from 1941. (Photo courtesy of the Camprubí family)

According to a report at the time by the Madrid newspaper ABC, the Consulate General of Spain in New York relayed to its Washington embassy more than a hundred irregularities committed against their nationals.

The fate of many of those recruited immigrants was often grim, as a La Prensa editorial from June 1921 would describe vividly:

“Thousands of our countrymen were, in fact, sent to the camps and forced to join the Army. Several hundred who were conscripted this way, many of them without a rudimentary knowledge of English, fought in France in the ranks of the U.S regiments. And among the white crosses marking the tombs left in European soil by the U.S. forces, nobody will ever be able to know how many of them correspond to the Spaniards who, forced to fight for a cause that they didn’t understand, under a flag that was not theirs, lost their lives without glory or purpose in the midst of indescribable powerless desperation.”

However, it was not the diplomats who came to the rescue of the Hispanic community, but a little-known but central figure in the history of Hispanic journalism in the U.S.

The Spanish Local Law Board

José Camprubí, an engineer born in Puerto Rico of Spanish parents, was raised in Spain and educated at Harvard. In January 1917 he was named director of the Spanish Benevolent Society or Unión Benéfica Española (UBE), the main Spanish mutual aid association in the U.S., which was founded in 1914. Since the draft started, the UBE offices were overwhelmed by crowds of Spaniards and Latin Americans with draft summonses, and the organization started offering them legal help.

Camprubí, who ever since his appointment had reached out to the local Spanish-language media to publicize UBE’s activities, sought an alliance with Collao to help him with the draft cases. On Dec. 1 of that year, a story on the cover of La Prensa encouraged “all Hispanics” in the city affected by the selective service law to go to the UBE offices at 18 Broadway for guidance on how to correctly file the questionnaires and claim an exemption.

Simultaneously, Camprubí personally initiated contacts with Provost Marshal General Enoch Crowder and his representative in New York, Martin Conboy. Crowder was in charge of the draft, and ensuring that procedures were followed properly.

At a meeting that included Camprubí, Crowder, Conboy and the lawyer Henry Taft, brother of the former U.S. president, it was agreed to establish a government-backed local board of Spanish-speaking lawyers in the UBE offices. It would be presided over by distinguished lawyer Severo Mallet-Prevost.

One of the announcements La Prensa published every day for months with the draft numbers of 20 to 30 people, and the order in which they were summoned to the Spanish Local Law Board. (Courtesy of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies)

The Spanish Local Law Board, the only one in the city that catered to a particular foreign community, joined the other 189 local boards on Monday July 8, 1918. According to a La Prensa account published three years later: “Spaniards and Hispanic-Americans from all over the United States came to New York seeking protection. The Spanish Benevolent Society’s offices became too small for the crowds besieging it at all times. Thanks to a generous offer by Mr. [Luís] Llansó, representative of Compañía Trasatlántica from Barcelona, an office in his building was used for that purpose.” That office, at 8 State St., operated until the end of 1918, employing a 28-person team that included 12 lawyers and 12 assistants.

As he was managing this process, Camprubí had realized that a weekly publication would not be enough to inform every person affected by the draft, so he proposed to Collao that La Prensa be published daily. Without abandoning his post at the UBE, and without announcing it publicly, Camprubí bought the newspaper from its then-owner, Hersey, several months before the Spanish Local Law Board was established. On Nov. 15, 1917, he moved the offices from 24-26 Stone St. to 245 Canal St. He also bought a press that operated in the same building, one of many investments he had to make from his own pocket, including hiring enough personnel to turn it into a daily operation. Up until then, the newspaper employed only six people.

While offering staunch support for the allies on its editorial pages, and incessantly encouraging readers to buy liberty bonds to fund the war effort, La Prensa quietly worked to help conscripted immigrants obtain exemptions from service. Since its launching as a daily on June 4, 1918, its second page published every day for months the draft numbers of 20 to 30 people, and the order in which they were summoned to the Spanish Local Law Board.

According to an official report by the UBE, they handled a total of 1,780 cases, 1,000 of which were considered desertions, and helped hundreds of men leave prisons and military camps and obtain documents which allowed them to return to civilian life.

After the war finished, Camprubí left the Spanish Benevolent Society in 1921 and went on to devote all of his efforts to publishing La Prensa until his death in 1942. Luis Llansó was elected as his successor at the UBE, which years later bought a building at 239 West 14th St. that to this day hosts the oldest institution for Spaniards in New York, La Nacional. After its baptism of fire in 1918, La Prensa solidly established itself as a pillar of the Hispanic community in the U.S., and a century later it still appears daily in the streets of New York.

Carlos Rodríguez Martorell is a contributor to Voices of NY and freelance journalist. He did the historical research for the 100th year anniversary of El Diario/La Prensa in 2013. Most of this article is based on original research.

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  1. Pingback: – Bautismo de fuego: El lanzamiento de La Prensa como diario en 1918

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