Prototypical family that emigrated to Hawaii
Sorry not to be able to provide family photographs as they've been lost in a move, or may have fallen into the oven whilst making bread... everything is possible.
According to the documents, on 24th February 1911, the Soto family left from Gibraltar bound for Hawaii, though their final destination was Honolulu (its capital), in order to work cutting sugar cane in the plantations. After a crossing of almost a month, according to the papers and the embarcation notice, crossing the Atlantic to reach the Pacific through the Magellan Straits, they arrived in Hawaii on 13th April the same year.
Much later, when we were already familiar with the theme through the surfacing memories of everyone in the family, my great aunt Juliana, who was there from six to nine years old, was exercising her imagination, giving voice to her silent fantasies, and was already telling us in her adulthood about old Algeciras stories, some of which were true. Others were some singular invention that lasted only the length of the tale.
She told us about crossing the whole of America from New York. Ellis Island. The adventures they'd had and what happened to them in quarantine. She told us how they stripped her mother and all the little children and put them in a very large room in order to fumigate and delouse them, like they do to animals, how they washed and then cut their hair and made them change their clothes. The same thing was done to the men in a separate room. The American dream wasn't exactly starting with a hot bath!
That's what my aunt Juliana told me but it doesn't fit the facts because in reality, they never put into the port of New York as is shown by the papers. But our imagination sometimes trips us up and some members of my family tell me about having seen, among the thousands of tables of listings of Ellis Island, the names of the Soto family. I don't doubt it, but there are lots of Sotos and it could well be that a branch of the family entered America via New York. But my family, according to the documentation, didn't have that privilege.
After so many days at sea, their muscles, their nerves, their very fibre seemed different. I haven't been able to check this but my uncle Miguel told me in his old people's home that my grandmother took on all the laundry for the crew to earn a few cents. That could well have been how it was because my grandmother also hinted from time to time that she was the ship's laundress but there's no way of being sure. Apart from anything else, my uncle Miguel was mentally very sharp, never once losing his mind for a single moment but when he died, they found an entire food store in his wardrobe in the old people's home because, according the management, he had an obsession that they were going to poison him.
José Soto was a little lame in his left leg although the limp didn't stop him from doing the majority of work activities. When he could put his feet on the ground he had the feeling that everything was floating and it gave him a feeling of sickness and vertigo. There he would stay, turning his head towards the lost horizon, wherever it was, if not to make it out then at least to sense the smell of the town, while his pale body kept looking on the air for the playful writing of his children running, and the far off dream of his wife crossing the side-streets of a town where the hunger of the distant past seemed more real to him that the surprising and marvellous world before his eyes.
Among her most precious things, María had a photograph of her mother which at first was the only link uniting the Spanish family. They were prevented from bringing animals or other things that weren't strictly necessary.
I remember the story of Captain James Cook, the “official” discoverer of the Hawaiian islands. I say “official” because they were discovered by the Spanish many years before the English landed there. The Spanish harvested the “bread tree plantations” just like in the marvellous film “Rebelión a bordo”. The Spanish used its bays and inlets of calm water to protect their galleons from storms and pirates.
The famous captain tells how, on one of his voyages to the new dominions of His Majesty, there was a serious problem. On a ship under his command, a very young cabin boy was discovered hiding a stowaway, apparently a guardian angel made corporeal. After intensive questioning from the captain, the little sailor was still able to use supernatural arguments to justify the celestial origin of his companion. Nevertheless Cook confessed that he felt obliged to put off, at the first opportunity, the cabin boy and his “angel” since “not being well-versed in theological matters and not knowing the sex of angels, he wouldn't be able to comply in carrying out his duty in accordance with the strict but necessary customs of His Majesty”. Captain Cook omitted to report that, whether or not they were telling the truth, before putting off “the boys”, he ordered that they each be given fifty lashes.
They told me stories in small fragments, like those pieces of thread that in the old times, women wove with offcuts from the clothing workshops, which are overlaid one on top of the other to make small blankets which we used to call “cubrepié” [a foot cover]. In that way, small snippets could be tacked together, piece by small piece, slices of this story, hunting in one place then another, slowly like a swallow constructing its nest, until the tale is formed that resembles reality more than we might have thought at the beginning.
The data came to me as if they were looking for a hand to give them form, but it saddens me that despite having looked, I don't have any photographs of my great grandparents on that continent.
I know that when they disembarked, they were put up in large wooden huts in which they had all the comforts of the time. They had a wood-burning stove, a small living room and three bedrooms. In the kitchen they had every comfort. That's as far as I've been able to check from the accounts of other people that I have been able to contact in the course of this long investigation and who are still there, some on the islands and others in San Francisco (California).
That meant an extraordinary change in their lives. Life was going exactly as it was described in the papers, and José was getting used to it. Work wasn't exactly a problem, accustomed as he was to sniffing out like a dog where he would be able to use his worker hands, just as he did in the town. He obtained a fixed contract for three years with the possibility of being able to remain there if he proved to be a good worker, for as long as he wanted with even the possibility of being able to use land donated by the island's government. Life went smoothly and José, Francisco, and even María his wife, were working, some on one thing, some on another. My grandmother, as she wasn't yet old enough, went to work as an assistant to look after a child of the couple who ran the drug store, or a shop where they sold everything.
After a while, work became routine, the children attended school although it could be said that Miguel and Juliana needed a lot of schooling because they weren't used to school discipline. In Alcalá they had never even set foot inside a classroom. One day was the same as the next.
When Francisco was old enough, he started going out with a girl from Malaga who had made the journey with her parents on the same ship, like everyone in search of new hopes and a new world. Love changed Francisco's life and at the same time, it became more bearable. His life was making sense and he even asked permission from her father to get engaged. Francisco was a person that his descendants considered to be a gentleman, serious, formal and a good worker; at the time it was the essential basis if a father was to allow his daughter to maintain a relationship with a stranger.
My grandmother Petra continued serving at the counter and looking after the child. We are able to know the name of the owner because this family thought so much of my grandmother, and she of them, that when my grandmother married my grandfather years later, she gave the owner's name to her own son, and that's why we have a James in the family (Jaime in Spanish), which was always a connection my grandmother had to the times she spent in the islands.
We suppose that's where my grandmother learned English because she had never been to school. But she was an intelligent woman able to pick things up easily. Once back in the countryside married to my grandfather, there wouldn't even have been a poulterer to flatter her, nor even to sell her an egg.
Life was going well, with the benefits of work and money, paid in gold dollars. The climate was always monotonous and they watched the clouds. From time to time they refreshingly discharged their natural gift, thanks to the hand of God. No doubt it was more paradise than any other place on earth. José Soto couldn't tell if it was Winter or Summer as the temperature was always the same. It was like an eternal warm Spring that made everyone happy. The moon settled down at nightfall with the stars lending the skyscape a milky whiteness with which you could even read in the forest clearings.
Little Miguel and Juliana spent a lot of time in the countryside playing through a colourful learning apprenticeship and they were attracted more by the blue of the sky and the lushness of nature than dreams of bandits and other pointless things. Despite their mother's insistence, they spent more time in games than sitting on the benches in school, like caged birds looking through the glass at the refraction of the light. María and Juana were still being breast- and bottle-fed.
Miguel and Juliana were such square pegs in round holes that they kept truanting. At one point Miguel got himself into trouble. While they were running across the fields, hiding in the giant irrigation pipes, they were once playing “hide and seek” and Miguel pushed himself into one of the thick pipes with such force that he got stuck, having such a big head. They had to get him out by pulling him and even so, he sported a crown of friction burns caused by the force that had to be used getting him out of the pipe.
From that day on, his mother, using her own particular teaching method, “instructed” him with a pair of espadrilles on the backside and Miguel stopped trying to fit himself into pipes. Above all, he stopped skipping school, though more from fear of bruises than because he liked the lessons.
Life went on and Francisco was making more formal his relationship with his girlfriend. My great grandfather José Soto was missing his country but things were going well for him there. Francisco started to manage machinery at which he seemed to have great skill.
But for an Alcalaino, Alcalá is the centre of the world. We are not Spaniards, nor natives of Cádiz. We are Alcalainos and if we have ever needed to visit the main cities, it has been to visit the doctor or to look for work. In the end our hearts remain where they came from, among the white stones of La Coracha, in the moaning walls of our Roman and Arab castle, and next to the resting place of our ancestors, that from the roof of the town start their flight towards those starry spaces where they flutter among the black and red swallows.
Along the river Barbate, our river, playful and at times dangerous, we can get to the sea but in the afternoons of the Levante, the sea comes to us, putting a beard on Picacho, like an old man looking damp and tired. Farther up, looking towards Africa, “El Pilar de la Reina” [The Queen's Pillar] hidden behind the autumn mists, awaits the inferno of the new sun, the whisper of the hills or any movement from some sleeping souls among the streams.
Perhaps the height of the mountains of Honolulu might make the Soto family nostalgic for Picacho and bring tears to their sweaty eyes, or reawaken the memory of the atmosphere forever embedded in their souls.
“The sea, it calls me towards the green of the ash trees, and towards the white daffodils of the Alcalá meadows when the first rains of Autumn begin.”
The pages of the calendar kept turning. Their situation had become settled. Their tan caused by hunger had been changed into one from the tropical sun, through weekends resting, through their daily meals, regular hygiene. Their family discussions had changed since they were in Alcalá. There the question that was always in their minds was: what would we eat tomorrow?
José Soto was a very observant person and he controlled his time with the precision of a meteorologist; he knew the plants through always having used them and perhaps he'd learned them from his father or his father's father, and that's why this knowledge came to play such an important part in his life.
He'd noticed that in the camp, made up mostly of Europeans, things went smoothly without anything disrupting the life of work, rest and family but in almost three years since they'd arrived, he hadn't noticed anyone dying, something that never ceased to amaze him. He was used to observing every burial in the town, providing that work permitted it and that the bells gave them warning. Already the “pésame” [night vigil] and the wine was being forgotten. As a person full of doubts, he got it into his head that it could be because they were eating the old people and he simply hadn't noticed.
The idea started to gnaw at him and bothered him so much that his mind was in a kind of trance, unable to go forwards or backwards. Being a rather reserved man, he became nostalgic and felt so alone that he started to hear the fluttering of angel wings. The ever-blue sky seemed to him faded and torn like his own soul. Together with his fears and lack of enthusiasm, he was nostalgic for his land and his people.
He started to write letters to friends and people that he thought would be able to offer him work if he decided to return home. He corresponded with all those with whom he'd previously worked, but hardly anyone took the trouble to reply to a madman who'd had the audacity to abandon the town, fleeing from the despotic rule that was common there in those times. The letters took a long time to arrive; the ships didn't leave at the expected times and the First World War which was just breaking out was already an obstacle for shipping.
José Soto waited for the mail near the sea like a mad boy as if love or simply the friction of the breeze reduced him to tears, to running through the green fields to find words of comfort. His life was making him more and more taciturn.
Once, when he received a letter which raised his hopes. It said: “For the sake of old friendship and because you have always been a good man for this house, you will have work here if one day you decide to return.” The letter suddenly lit up José's hopes, so long extinguished. He even welcomed with great happiness the news that his son Francisco intended to get married to Blanca, the Spanish girl who came from Malaga, making the journey to find fortune with them in the new world.
José Soto started to plan his return but again found himself faced with the typical problems of distance, family, and passage. While he had been working, he had saved some money but he couldn't wait another couple of years to finish his contract or stay there for good. Again he thought deeply trying to find a solution to the problem. He realised that it would use up a good part of the money he'd earned with so much sacrifice, but his heart demanded his return. His wife wasn't very well, and it seemed there would always be work for him on returning to Spain. He would have a guaranteed job. It was worth a try.
By then, Francisco had got married. He had his wife and things were going very well. He was in charge of the equipment and he had a job that gave him a comfortable living, and with good promotion prospects inside the company. He was a tremendously skilful person and with the left over junk he picked up from the machines, he made a hot water heater for the house. The water passed through a coil for economical cooking and because of the height, provided enough water pressure for a shower. The water was controlled using another cold water container through a mixer so that your body wouldn't be scalded by the high temperature.
My great aunt Juliana told me more than once that people copied him and asked Francisco for help in making a hot water heater for themselves. My American relatives told me the same thing when I was in contact with them.
Francisco had forgotten about Spain. There in Hawaii he had found happiness, work, a new life. He'd left behind, a long way behind, the poverty, the humiliation, living with such uncertainty. What is more, his country had already acquired a different name: The United States of America. Spain was already just a memory. For Francisco, America meant tranquility where time, like poverty, had come to a halt.
When José Soto decided to make a move, that is to return to Spain, because he was convinced that his life would change after having been in Honolulu and with the promise of work when he got back, his outlook was changing. But he realised that what had brought him there would remain, and it would remain there without him ever having the possibility of seeing it again. In particular it was his son Francisco. He might not see him again and God knows if fate would ever give him another opportunity.
Used to the countryside, to looking for life in it, José knew plants like an expert botanist. The majority of his treatments and those of his family came from the plants he knew and for them, they were they only resources that they had for maintaining their health. Lemon grass, camomile, mint. Eucalyptus, pumpkin seeds, cucumber in spirit, the cure-all lizard bile, as well as plants that were dangerous to people and animals. From his experience he knew that if an animal, whatever type it was, ate grass which had the menstrual blood of a hedgehog on it, the animal would go crazy and in the majority of cases, would end up throwing itself off a cliff or destroying itself among the fence-wire because of its madness.
He also knew that certain types of plants were harmful to some animals causing irreparable damage to herds. When an animal picked up leeches, the best way to get rid of them was to change the type of water. When a cow is wounded by the points of a ploughshare, the best way to avoid lameness was to tie the hair of the tail to the plough handle. That the oil from a fried snake helps with pain relief... and a thousand and one other tricks to be able to survive in good health at that time in Spain.
He thought deeply about how he would be able to leave work without economic prejudice as he still had time remaining on his contract, and he would have to take a boat as soon as possible since the world situation was getting complicated and there was no time to lose. He discussed it with his wife who, like all wives at the time, blindly obeyed their husbands.
But poor María was reduced to tears, lost like a bird vanishing into the night. Fate was again about to change her life but this time in a very cruel way. She would leave behind part of her family. Francisco was not returning. He had decided to remain there getting away from all their problems in Spain and because his wife did not want to leave her family.
Their daughter Petra who had just reached fifteen didn't want to go back to Spain either, to live again through those hardships of long ago. But her father would not allow her to remain and so my grandmother, because of her age, had to obey her father.
María was very worried about her family and she had the very strong feeling that she would never again get to look at the island's splendid dawns; she was about to wake up from a dream that perhaps never really existed, and the sun, shining from the eyes of her son Francisco, was on the point of being hidden among her silent suffering tears. From that day, she stopped watering the chrysanthemums in the flowerbed near the front door that she had nurtured with so much care in the short time they'd lived in the house. Her soul was forgetting the smell of the sea and once again were awakening those sad memories of their land back in Spain.
No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't convince her husband that Spain was no longer her country, that the sheep is not from where it is born but from where it grazes. But her husband could only think about going back. Out of fear, there were no arguments, and José had already decided. Her dream had been extinguished and in her heart was drawn nothing more than the tree where the sparrows nested in Spring and left in Summer. The same tree that in Summer afternoons she would hang with a pale-coloured shirt. There was no longer a question about the future and she started to think about how they could leave in the best possible way.
Soon they had a chance to put the plan into action. Medicine wasn't very advanced then and José, well-versed in herbs and ointments, started to devise a way to fool the quacks at the dispensary where he went from time to time when there was some problem with the youngsters, perhaps a bump on Miguel's head, or a scratch on one of their legs. Kid's stuff. The problem of returning was getting itself tangled up with another one, no less worrying. It made him pensive, driving around the island searching for some solution to his obsession.
He had got it into his head that, in order to avoid the problems of old people, they were eating them, above all, the Chinese. This obsession struck him regularly, time and again, that on every death they were substituting another living person so that no-one noticed, and that they were eating them in stews and casseroles and no-one paid any attention.
Between superstition and nostalgia, the poor man was wasting away under the weight of his sickness. He was going from one side to the other looking for an answer when it came to him through the games of his daughter Juliana. One morning he was watching as Juliana was playing “house” with her brother Miguel and other children not far from home and he noticed that his daughter, imitating older people, had painted her lips with the juice of the prickly pear [higos tuneros = “Chumbos”] (which they called 'tintos') from which they distil a red stream that perfectly imitates the lipstick that her mother wore to fiestas or on some days to visit friends or greet a neighbour from afar.
José, an ingenious man, got it into his head that he could exploit the fact and he started, without anyone noticing, to eat the figs, at first a few cautiously and then more. It had the effect of turning his urine into a spectacularly red liquid, very like blood. He was taking every day a portion of the coloured figs using the juice to keep his urine a bright lipstick colour.
In a few days, he presented himself to the dispensary taking advantage of the regular medical checkups he had to attend. He explained the strange case of his red urine and used the opportunity to talk to the doctor about the constant pain in his kidneys. The doctors gave him tests and spent a long time trying to work out if his illness was just temporary, or whether his state of health was declining.
José had already been on the island for four years. He had renewed his contract and was already on the point of being given a plot of land, which had been promised to all the workers that completed their contracted time, so they could remain there enjoying the benefits of their own land. José Soto was giving up all this in favour of his son Francisco who never had any intention of returning to Spain. José knew what was waiting for him in his own country once he could set foot there again.
José's illness didn't get better because there was no cure for it, and he continued taking his figs, urinating red sometimes more, sometimes less. In order to make his illness seem more serious, he made his wife also take the figs and soon the doctors starting thinking that maybe their patient might have a contagious illness. After some weeks of deliberation, and a lot of tests that told them nothing, they decided to tell José that, regretfully, and for health reasons, he would have to leave the island as they already feared he might be contagious.
All the family were checked and no-one except José and his wife had “blood” in their urine, but to avoid any surprises the medical team reported to the company contractors that for the good of the community, it would be better that the Soto family should leave the island, that the company should pay them for his dismissal and for the years that he ought to be remaining there, and the passage for him and his dependents, with the aim of avoiding him becoming a contagious patient creating problems among the labour force. As he didn't like his illness, José started to get well as soon as he had the travel papers in his pocket.
During this time, while the boat was arriving, Francisco had time to get married and they moved into the house of his parents. He was refusing to return to Spain and continued enjoying the benefits that the island offered them. At this time Francisco was able to find work in San Francisco (California) in the same sugar business so he was able to accompany his parents during the three thousand odd kilometers that separated the islands from the mainland. They all knew that the boat represented the limit of their family and that only God knew if they would see each other again.
It is difficult to know the exact date on which they left Hawaii because there are no relevant documents remaining, but taking into account the fact that my grandmother was born in 1900, she went to America at the age of eleven, returned to Spain at fourteen years and was almost fifteen, we can say that they were there between four and five years. Many of my family say that the boat returned to Gibraltar from where they departed; some said that it was a munitions ship, others that it was a merchant ship... the fact is that it's not possible to tell because the trip was somewhat irregular and I don't think it was possible to tell one ship from another. What is certain is that José Soto came back with money saved, thinking that he would be able to start a different life in Spain, from what he was doing abroad.
The return ship, after putting in at San Francisco, started the voyage on the same route that they had followed to America from Gibraltar, but not without having to dodge certain dangers owing to the world conflict, and they were suspicious of everyone. They appeared back in Alcalá, a little richer and wiser, but without having anywhere to stay since the hut in which they had lived was no longer adequate, and besides, once one is accustomed to the good life, the hard life is painful.
They were taking time to recover from the journey which it seems took fifty-odd days at sea, before José started to seek out the Señor who had promised him that they would have work in the fields as soon as they returned. The problem was that those who made the promise never imagined that they would be able to return again to a land that was practically killing them with hunger. Like the saying “You don't know what you really need until you don't have it.”
Meanwhile they were staying in the Posada de la Cruz. Time was ticking by and there was no sign of work. José Soto got involved in some commercial enterprises such as buying a field with his savings but it didn't work out and he had to sell it at a loss. Between one thing and another, they were eating up their money together with their hopes of a more dignified living. Every time he followed up the promise of the letter, the answer was: “I'm not going to give you anything to do!” But he insisted so much that in the end he was able to get a job in the farm Los Joyas, at least in a corner of it.
The owner, in order to avoid the economic drain that he thought would be entailed in paying for the upkeep of a family, granted José a slice of land in a corner of his finca, just opposite a venta [inn] that always carried the name “La Libre” [The Hare], and alongside the gully of a stream where the family, with the help of my grandmother's boyfriend, built a hut. One of the Toscano family, today an old man but then a youngster, said that José Soto's hut was like a “palace” and that his father visited it frequently, admiring how comfortable it was considering the times.
In time, my grandfather Martínez, who was working for the Toscanos, finally married my grandmother Petra. He got her a job, initially in charge of the farmhouse, while José Soto was at times a shepherd and generally cared for the livestock.
Among the memories that my grandmother kept until her last hour, there figured a brightly coloured Manila shawl that apparently still exists but we don't know in whose hands; a fan on each vane of which there appears the names of each of her brothers, her father and her mother; some little boots that she had to sell and which she wanted to recover though the woman didn't want to give them back because they were a keepsake of the woman with whom she had worked; and a banjo that somehow I managed to get rid of because after so many years it was very broken and would have cost three hundred pesetas to repair. Neither my savings nor my family could stretch to music even if it might have been celestial.
In a conversation with Don Luis Toscano, the father of Nicolás Toscano Liria, a friend since childhood, sat one afternoon on the Alameda listening to the silent sunset. He said that his family was always amazed on picking up a map, at how a man without education might have gone half way round the world, twice. Or rather, as I told him, effectively the entire way round.
“Hunger Don Luis, Hunger.”
My grandfather Martínez, after a few years sold the market garden at Sarandeo. On the deeds appeared as a witness the “head of the Toscano family” and it is surprising that my grandfather who seemed to know so much, when it came to signing, made his mark with his fingerprint, as valid then as a handshake.
Today the family from San Francisco has lost some of its members through an accident while they were travelling through America. Those who remain hardly have any memories of Spain, although they say: still they have a place in their hearts for these lands.
Manuel Guerra Martinez
Mayo de 2006
Publicado por Andrés Moreno Comacho
Traducido por Bob Lloyd
SERIE DE NOCTURNAS, 16-01-2017.
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