The story of an Alcalaino emigrant who went half way around the world in search of fortune.
The sea breeze swept through the Calle Sagasta. The air coming from the buildings/blocks freshened the silence of the siestas. Half of Cádiz was sleeping, the other half was splashing about in the waters of the Caleta and on the Playa Victoria, while the kids were jumping from the Puente Canal on the road leading from Puerta del Malecón to the castle of San Sebastian.
Almost all of my brothers had already left the town. Some were studying by means of sacrifices, as they say cutting the chickpeas from the plate. My father carried out his duties as “municipal” as the “guardias urbanas” [urban police], were always called in Alcalá... and my mother was arranging hair in the “comedor peluquería”, so that we were all able to eat, at least twice a day.
This wasn't unusual in a lower middle-class family; one part of Alcalá lived well, another survived, and the last third always lived their lives with more dignity than plenty. The top ten per cent lived by exploiting the lower two thirds.
We never knew exactly how needy we were at that point. My mother had shared us out everywhere like things for hire. First in the seminary, where those that subscribe to the faith were taken to prayers and to Latin like little priests, after having heard the generous call from on high. Another of my brothers felt the calling but he felt so low about it, that after a while, the “baby” changed, and he went to Úbeda to turn milling machines and drills in a college run by Jesuits. When he finished there, he walked God's world, with a gitano companion, putting up posts to bring the telephone to half of Andalucia. The other two lads were still kicking cans about.
The girls, especially the eldest, grew up rapidly because of the responsibilities that she had to take on, far beyond what would normally be expected of someone her age. The next, also studied outside of Alcalá, and the last of the girls, though not in order of age, also made an effort to study... But she had to settle for two thirds of the “bachillerato” [school certificate], and an electrician husband who gave her two remarkable little boys.
We were living in those circumstances when Summer came. Summers have the unfortunate habit of arriving after Spring, a time of cicadas, crickets, and elusive young partridges and little cicada lice.
It was already years since my grandfather had died. The campo where he had lived, was now remote from our family. No more those deep gazes over the horizon to see if someone was coming to share a chat and the “zurraposa”, which was little more than a tin can in which the coffee grounds were reheated day after day until they lost their taste.
It was a fertile place of orange trees and blue blossoms, and the purest of “kakis” [type of fruit], of delicate bleeding pomegranates, vine and cherry trees, that adorned the half-deserted space of the afternoon with red, yellow and ochre tones, the pear trees that sweetened overflowing springs, the fig trees with their incessant generosity, the poplars that lined the boundaries and the waters of the Presillas, falling, blood and light into the reservoir of daily water, held in a withered enclosure, abandoned like a child, orphaned and undernourished.
Whenever we approached there, we felt the sadness of neglect and the quiet solitude of its hopeless suffering.
I'd spent many years in that semi-paradise. I had practically grown up amongst the couch grass. I had learned to read in the farmhouse opposite, called “Cabeza Redonda” [Round Head], with a teacher that came from Estremadura and who virtually lived on the presents that the kids gave him to pay for the classes. Cherries, olives, grapes.... In Winter, he “punished” us by throwing us out of the pokey little room that smelt of sour grape spirit and sent us to set traps for small birds and in this way, he made sure that we had some meat to eat. The teacher only lasted a little while there. I think of the time when the lizards and frogs were eaten like an exquisite delicacy, and of running out of tears that were supplied every day; it reminds one of the land.
Education was for us a lesser evil. If today I was reliving those times (I know that some people will be thinking 'For God's sake, let's have one and only one Saint Tomás'), it would have filled me with psychological traumas. I would have been declared an abused child, abused by my parents, my teachers, even by myself according to the new standards of post-modern education, which is no more than an invention of 'progressive' people that doesn't provide any clue to the fundamental values of life. Sometimes I think that animals have more capacity to educate than people.
But in the end, the teacher went and my grandmother was given the job of continuing to teach me writing. My grandmother Petra, who although she could read, said she didn't know how to write, made me draw the letters – one of life's ironies. Although she knew how to read, she never understood that the one was related to the other.
When I was tired, with eyes reddened by the dim light of the oil lamp, she let me rest and would begin telling me strange stories that I could never understand. She spoke to me of giant animals, like enormous cows that submerged themselves in the deep sea, who would expel jets of water from their backs up into the sky, just like when we took the cover off the tank to water the garden flowerbeds. She told me things about the sea... my grandmother said that the sea was like an endless open countryside but instead of trees there was only water and that boats crossed it like snails, leaving a trail behind them to mark the return path.
My grandfather never told me those stories; he said that he didn't understand a lot of what my grandmother was telling me for amusement, but it had to be true because my grandmother never lied. He said she already had those stories in her head when he first met her but he hadn't paid them much attention. He was content with the little he had.
The only thing that worried him was when his son, Manolo, a country carpenter, brought him a mandarin orange seedling that he really liked. Each time we sat at dusk during watering time under the shade of the orange, he asked me: “Will I eat the oranges from this tree?” It saddened me because I knew that my grandfather was like an animal dealing with illness; when he felt some pain, he winced and went to the first corner he could find until the unpleasant feelings passed.
The poor man died of a bad illness and like the sparrows... “emberrenchinado” [utterly enraged]. He was able to try the mandarin oranges, but despite his enthusiasm, they made him pull a strange face and he had to take a pinch of bicarbonate or chew a camomile flower to relieve his burning stomach.
His death was a genuine suffering not through the fact of the death itself, because he knew that his life was ending and he accepted it. But what he couldn't accept was this: “Your grandmother won't let me smoke. She's hidden my tobacco pouch...” I went out to the path at the end of the garden so that no-one could see me, and I demanded a cigarette from the first person that passed by, so that my grandfather could smoke it in secret and that it might calm the anxiety of the vice he'd had since nine years of age.
The death of my grandfather was a turning point. My grandmother declined and over time, started to lose her mind. “Senility” is how they refer to those mental lapses with which a person's mind is derailed and which makes them wander from one moment to the next in a life without coherence or sense. At least that's how it seems to those around them.
She held on for a while in Alcalá until all my uncles were married but inevitably sooner or later she had to take the option of going to live with her daughters, sometimes in Alcalá and sometimes in Cádiz. It was here in Alcalá we encountered her senility and where she would eventually die.
My mother sent me on an errand to the seminary where I was studying to one day become a priest, but that day never came. (Something that shows the infinite wisdom of our creator.) One of my great-aunties called Teresa suggested that I should go and see some of her family that were going to visit my grandmother as they couldn't speak Spanish. My mother always knew that I, because of having studied at the seminary, should know how to speak other languages.
I never dared to mislead her because apart from anything else I spoke broken English thanks to Mr Lauren, the Englishman that came to Alcalá. He discovered Patriste, and set himself up there. From then on, through his friendship with José Moreno (the Frenchman), we became friends and every afternoon I went by bicycle to his house, sometimes alone, sometimes with Antonio Paino. He went to paint, and I went to improve my English, or rather to destroy it, or so it seemed from Mr Lauren's face on hearing my expressions.
It was late afternoon and it was already June. I asked permission to go and visit my father confessor, a magic formula that always had the desired effect in that I was able to leave the “sacred place” in break time, above all from six to six-forty or six-fifty.
When I arrived I found half or even three-quarters of the family... my aunties were all there with their husbands, my cousins and some close relatives. My brother Pedro, who always appeared out of nowhere, was there from the first. Already he had put away a slice of bread with “zurrapa”. It seemed that when he was a boy, he had the gift of ubiquity – of being able to be in two places at once – or so it seemed to me. He was here, there and everywhere. What bothered him the most was that I would say he was yonder [“acullá”] and he would whisper to my mother that I was swearing [it sounds similar to an obscenity in Spanish – trans].
When I arrived it was as if the sky had opened and the “saviour” had arrived, as I suppose I was for them. My aunty introduced me quickly to the conversation in the “Spanglish” of those who for many years hadn't practised or even heard Spanish spoken. “Your uncles from America.” I say it now but I thought it then and kept quiet. “Already, we are rich.”
But it wasn't that. It was simply that they could hardly understand each other. I tried to remember my first, second and third courses in English, starting with “My name is Manolo” and “What is your name?” My grandmother had a lost expression, she was running back and forth not knowing what she was doing, from time to time drying her eyes that filled with silent tears.
While everyone was trying to agree on the language, amidst gestures, shouts, and nonsense, my grandmother, with a clear focussed voice as you'd use to address a child, came out with “Where is my brother Francisco?” Everyone turned to each other in silence, thinking about “senility” and whether we'd misheard, and then again, with the same clear voice she repeated the question.
The only thing my brother Pedro could think of to say was “Hey, look at that!” As if he was picking up the thread of how my grandmother usually was, when she was talking to herself. As unfortunately we pay so little attention to the elderly, especially if they suffer from confusion, we didn't realise that my grandmother was speaking English perfectly, or that at least she understood her American relatives sufficiently clearly that for a while, they were engaged in conversation with her. As my cousin Paco said, they were going over old times.
My cousin Paco was the most brilliant student I've ever seen. He started to go to the Columela School in Cádiz where, in four years, and despite my father pulling strings, he had only ever done: drawing, sandwiches, and playtime! His father was advised by one of his friends, not my cousin's, that it would be good to enrol him one Summer in an academy in Puerto Real run by a Miguel Carzo, better known as the Academia de Miguelito, which had a very effective teaching system. Miguel had such confidence in his teaching, that he guaranteed the positive results of his students even before they started work.
His academy was according to him, certain of passes and so it turned out because in just one Summer, in this Summer when the Americans came, my cousin passed: the first stage, he skipped the second stage, he completed the third and fourth stage, and passed the fourth level examination. He didn't eat, nor sleep, nor read sports papers, as he used to do ever since he was weened. He didn't even listen to sports broadcasts about the Cádiz football club nor despite being a life-long supporter, Barcelona. He didn't even read the results sheets that were sold every Sunday afternoon in Cádiz.
His sole preoccupation was books. His mother had to take him to the doctor when he was ill but even that didn't stop him. This book fever brought him problems because he met a girl in the Cortijo de los Rosales in the Parque Genovés and he left her when he found out that she was from Puerto Real because he took such a dislike to the town. Even now, to get to Seville, he'd go from Cádiz to Ceuta, passing through France! What a teaching system Miguel used!
Surprised by the fact that my grandmother should be involved in the conversation, we all asked ourselves how it was possible. My uncle Miguel, my grandmother's younger brother who was extraordinarily bald (within the family it was said he attended Communion with no hair), suddenly explained: “It's because your grandmother was in America for four years.” All of the grandchildren were amazed because no-one had ever mentioned anything of her history.
Mulling over the memories a little later, I became preoccupied with the story and I traced the line back to the grandmother's parents. It doesn't matter how they arrived in Alcalá but from the documents, we can see that they came from Albuñol in the province of Granada, and that they lived in a small hut in “El Lejío”, a place of poor and unfortunate people, where José, the head of the family, worked at various jobs whenever he could get work and, except for rare occasions, barely covering the family's basic needs.
It's certain that he worked for the Toscano family in the fields because they have told me stories about him. He worked sometimes as a custom's policeman and tax collector according to Francisco Guerra from his extraordinary memory, and that he had a number of sons, the eldest of which was called Francisco. He got together with my grandmother quite late in life as can be seen from the document cited in this article.
It was the time of the African Wars and Francisco found himself with call-up papers sending him to “mili” [Military training], and he had no way of knowing if he was going to end up fighting in Africa for causes that neither he nor his parents understood. The events of the war tormented him, a boy of eighteen that had barely started to live; he could see himself in a place far away shooting against people that, as his brother Miguel would say, had never done anything to him.
Taking the decision was not easy, but it is clear that he was strongly influenced by the delivery to the town of some papers in which they were looking for workers for the “New World”, specifically to work in the islands of Hawaii. They were offering work and conditions which had to be agreed, the necessary documents, and the person they should present themselves to, which was none other than Don Carlos Crovetto. He was in charge of the inspection department, where they were told not to trust intermediaries. They were told the salary and given a short history of the islands.
For Francisco it was a way of avoiding getting caught up in the war in future, and of fleeing the overwhelming poverty from which they had few possibilities of ever escaping. Not only that, but also escaping from the endless groups of people who collected each day in the “Plaza del Hambre” [Hunger Square] of Alcalá waiting for the “aparaó” or the “señorito” to signal with a finger that he would give them work that day.
The socioeconomic circumstances didn't offer much hope for the future. Spain was involved in a humiliating war in which soldiers had to sell their ammunition in order to buy or barter for a little food from the locals, the same ammunition that would later be used by the “rifeños” [Rif tribesmen] against the Spanish soldiers themselves. All those details about the army, the bad training of the commanders, the embarrassment at the loss of Cuba, meant they were acting more for C [Caudillo – Franco] than for strategy and this was understood perfectly by the military bureaucracy. So the eldest of the sons of José Soto and Maria Benítez decided to scarper first rather than flee without arms and resources, before an enemy, while the general on duty shouts at them “Run! Run! The Bogeyman is coming!”
The Soto family had to make some preparations before leaving the town. Because they lacked everything, a donkey loaded with their few belongings, the three chickens that ate whatever nature provided, a goat and a load of kids [goats] walked towards voluntary exile, fleeing poverty in search of an uncertain future. Crossing the route from Picacho, going all night and part of the following day, they arrived at Tarifa, at a friend's house, the brother of José's wife.
There they waited a while to be able to board one of the boats that was going direct from Málaga to Honolulu-Hawaii, making a stop in Gibraltar to pick up another group... The sugar cane plantations were waiting.
The first thing Francisco did was to go up to the Peñon [Rock of Gibraltar] and get work as an assistant in a bakery that, as far as we know, answered to the pompous name of “Panadería Miguelón”. My great aunt Juliana told me that, despite his young age, he was used to eating “bread from a tin”, very different from the famous “teleras” [Andalucian round bread loaves] that are made in Alcalá.
They lived on what Francisco was earning and on what contraband he could bring from Gibraltar, and with the help of José's wife's family. The goat soon disappeared because they were sure they would not be able to take it , and the donkey was sold it seems to a fisherman in the town so that it could be used to carry a lamp at night to guide the small fishing boats. This long-established system was used by the coast people until quite recently. It consisted in hobbling the legs of the animal and hanging the light from the neck. The animal is tied by a rope and every time it tries to move, it moves the light which serves as a reference point for fishermen.
I'm putting here (for information), the summary of a letter that my family from America sent me in answer to an earlier letter. It was impossible to reproduce it exactly owing to the poor quality of the copy.
My dear cousin Manuel:
Sorry for the long delay in replying to your very interesting letter. I have just finished my book in which I have detailed the adventures of my grandparents and will try to help you get to know more about those matters that interest you.
It took my grandparents a lot of stamina and determination to make the change to find a new way of life for themselves and their children. They would have worked outside and would have remained there if they had stayed with my parents, and if my grandfather had not feigned his illness.
Your grandmother Petra told me about it the last time we were in Spain. The illness that her brother “caught” was from Spain, and despite the poverty in which they had lived, they decided to return to that same misery back in Spain, while my father and mother got married. Something exceptional in the New World.
Nevertheless, perhaps a better way of looking at it is that had they not returned to Spain, the family you have now would not have returned either. In Spain, it would never have been like a nice family. Your grandmother Petra didn't want to return. She wanted to stay with my father but her father said to her: “A young woman ought to return to Spain with the rest of her family.” That was how our ways became separated, the life that there is in Spain nowadays, and what we have in the USA. For better or worse, I am sure that you and I have had a marvellous life, as much for us as for our families.
Your mother, who I met in Alcalá, is a charming person and we enjoyed visiting your brothers and sisters. We had immense fun and someday, God willing, we'll meet again.
You are surely amazed that I am writing this letter in English. In fact, I no longer know Spanish and it seems to me much better to write in English. We don't use Spanish at all. It has been forty years since my mother and father died in a traffic accident and the majority of my Spanish ancestors are deceased, so we no longer have any need to speak Spanish. We wouldn't want to forget it because it is a beautiful language by we prefer to speak English. Our two daughters chose Spanish in secondary school and my wife Blanca is Spanish like me because her parents came to America on the same ship as my parents.
Concerning the information you asked for, here it is.
Firstly, I never knew my grandfather as Pedro (that mental lapse slipped out in the letter I sent you, forgive me). I always knew him as, and he always was, José. In fact, it was my name, like that of my grandfather, and my grandmother was María. My elder sister was also called María like her. When they left Gibraltar for Hawaii, this was the family of José Soto.
José Soto, father
Francisco, son 18 years old
Petra, daughter 12 years old
Miguel, son 7 years old
Juliana, daughter 6 years old
María, daughter 2 years old
Juana, daughter 1 year old
The information that I have checked about my parents is the following:
Name of the ship: S. S. WILLESDEN
Date of embarcation: 12.10.1911
Arrived at Hawaii: 8.12.1911
I suppose it should say days navigable but it says in translation DAYS NON-NAVIGABLE 53, which I don't agree with.
They travelled by ship through the Magellan Straits (South America) and they never docked in New York nor on Ellis Island on the way to Hawaii. Fifty-three days is a long time aboard a ship with 1797 passengers, 639 men, 400 women and 750 children.
In the interests of attracting Spanish people to emigrate to Hawaii, they put up posters and notices in the cities and towns of Southern Spain. An agent that spoke Spanish was also invited to stress the advantages of the trip and of working in the sugar cane plantations. The emigrants had free passage, supplied by the Institute for Emigration of Hawaii [Immigration?]. They also had to go through a medical examination which they had to pass in order to get work, and a second medical examination for the later disembarcation.
When they arrived in Hawaii, none of the passengers was permitted to leave the ship until the second day. Then they locked the women and children in one zone and the men and boys in another. Their clothes were taken from them and they were showered with cold water from hosepipes. The women were crying to their children but the men and boys remained silent. Everyone was being forced to strip in front of their children. A new experience in their lives.
After three years working, (here I think there's a mistake, it was longer), their work contract wasn't renewed and they decided to go to San Francisco. During this time, your relatives returned to Spain. My father and mother had got married. They had saved enough money to pay for three trips to San Francisco.
Well, that seems to be all I know here about that trip from Spain to Hawaii. They suffered a lot of deprivation on the ship but I don't know the details. I myself remember when I was very young, my father receiving mail from Spain and sitting down to read his letter, the only communication he had from his mother, father, and his brothers and sisters.
My father was a very intelligent man and he taught me a lot of great things. In 1927 I invented a heater which allows us to shower with hot water. The invention was never used except to shower and cook with. He was a lovely person, one hundred percent Spanish. He loved all the things he had to do as part of being Spanish. I was his only son, a young man, and he was as proud of me as I was of him. My mother was a beautiful and marvellous lady, and I have three sisters. I believe it was family typical of those that came from Spain.
When they were killed in a traffic accident, I thought that I would never recover from the tragedy. My wife Blanca who was with me the last time we were in Alcalá died, and now I am alone, but I have my two daughters and four grandsons, and they are everything to me.
Well that seems to be everything that I know about the trip from Spain to America. Naturally I write what I know but I regret not having written in Spanish and not having done so sooner. You wrote a beautiful letter to me and sometimes when I come home, I read it again and again.
Thank you for your letter and my best wishes to you and your family.
Manuel Guerra Martínez
Published by Andrés Moreno Comacho
Translated by Bob Lloyd
SERIE DE NOCTURNAS, 16-01-2017.
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