Fernando’s Footsteps

by Tony Carreño

 

After transiting customs and immigration, the Suárez and Prendes families were met by an associate of Rosario Licata. Several assistants had gathered the luggage and loaded the bags into an enclosed van. The travelers were escorted onto two large touring cars, the adults in one car and the children in the other.  Soon the entourage was on its way to the Hotel Plaza, in Old Havana.

As they exited the airport area, Giuseppina and Sofia anxiously and repeatedly looked behind them. They wanted to make certain the car with the children was following them. Rosario's associate, riding with them, assured her that they were safer than the president of Cuba. As if to further reassure her, he introduced himself as Vincenzo, addressing her in perfect Sicilian. Gaetano's influence in Cuba was clearly present. 

Fernando was amazed at the changes which had occurred over the nearly 36 years since he had left Havana for Tampa. The early 20th century had been a time of unprecedented prosperity in Cuba, largely driven by the tobacco and sugar industries. Prior to World War I, the main source of the world's sugar supply was beet sugar from Eastern Europe. The war had eliminated access to that source, and Cuba suddenly became the undisputed world capital of sugar. In 1925, Cuba produced 5 million tons of cane sugar. While poverty was certainly an issue, Cuba's middle class was one of the largest in Latin America. The next two days were spent relaxing and touring the highlights of Havana, which had become a world-class city, with an obvious American influence.

After checking out of the hotel, the travelers and luggage were again arranged in a motorcade and taken to the Port of Havana. The cars approached a guard shack and stopped.

"Señor Suárez, como se llama su barco?"

Vincenzo had asked Fernando the name of their ship. 

"Se llama "Cantabria", y es de la línea Compañía Trasatlantica Española".

Fernando had responded that the ship was called "Cantabria" and operated by the "Spanish Transatlantic Company", one of the main passenger shipping lines between the Americas and Spain.

Within a few minutes, they arrived at the processing area for the departing passengers. Vincenzo embraced the men and bowed to the women and children. He wished them a good trip, and asked Giuseppina to extend his greetings and warm wishes to the entire Licata family.

As the immigration officer looked through the documents, he politely questioned Fernando and Ignacio in detail. When had they left Spain? Had they been back to Spain since they emigrated? Had they served in the Spanish military? After answering all the questions, they were cleared and boarded the ship.

They had reserved large suites across the hall from each other. Each suite consisted of two bedrooms separated by a small common sitting area. The fathers and sons would sleep in one bedroom, and the mothers and daughters in the other. 

After getting settled, the two families gathered on the main deck to enjoy their departure from Havana. It was late June, and the summer heat and humidity were palpable. After a few blasts of its horn, the "Cantabria" slowly pushed away from the dock, assisted by several tugboats. Soon they were passing the Morro Castle, an old Spanish fortress built centuries ago to guard the entrance to the harbor, the most important in the history of the Spanish Empire. Within minutes, the ship banked to the right and began to increase its speed. The sea air, rushing against their faces, was a welcome relief from the heat. 

"Zapato, me siento como el Rey de España. Nunca pensaba en realizar el sueño de ver mis padres y la tierrina otra vez. Parece mentira que en una semana estaremos con nuestras familias en Candamo. Hemos tenido una suerte que no es típica para muchos inmigrantes, verdad?"

Fernando commented to Ignacio that he felt like the King of Spain, and never thought he would realize his dream of seeing his parents or his homeland again. It was hard for him to believe that in about one week they would be back in Candamo, with their families. He acknowledged that both of them had been luckier than most of their fellow immigrants.

"De acuerdo, Gaitero. Pero también hemos trabajado mucho por lo que tenemos, no es solo por la suerte."

Ignacio agreed with Fernando, but also pointed out that they had both worked very hard for what they have, and it wasn't only because of "luck".

"Tienes razón, pero muchos otros trabajan duro sin tener éxito. Creo que la vida es una apuesta, y a veces fuera de nuestro control."

Fernando responded that many others also work hard but don't achieve success. He elaborated that he believes life is a gamble, and sometimes beyond our control.

Their first dinner was not disappointing. "Cantabria" was not a super deluxe ship but had a reputation for excellent accommodations and outstanding food typical of Northern Spain. Inside the front cover of the menu was a history of the ship. Originally called "Rey Alfonso XIII" ("King Alphonse the Thirteenth"), its name was changed in 1931 when Spain elected a Democratic Republic, rejecting the royalty and the Catholic Church. Fernando and Ignacio agreed that they were soon to experience a "new Spain".

It was very early in the morning of their seventh and final day at sea. They would be docking at the port of Santander in roughly ten hours. The night had been foggy, and the ship had appropriately slowed, sounding its foghorn periodically. Though this had made sleeping somewhat difficult, Fernando and Ignacio felt energized with excitement. As they stood on the main deck, they could occasionally see faint beams of light attempting to penetrate the gloom. This part of the Spanish coast was extremely rugged, and dotted with numerous lighthouses. Though it was now early July, the waters and wind off Northern Spain were quite cold. It was a welcome respite from the summer heat of Tampa and Cuba. 

Deep in thought, Zapato and Gaitero sipped mugs of hot coffee with milk. As the sun began to break up some of the mist and fog, a particularly impressive lighthouse began to come into view. Within minutes they could see Cabo Vidio ("Cape Vidio"), a beautiful peninsula that jutted out from the coast, the lighthouse at its very tip. This was one of their favorite places when, as children, they would occasionally venture out to the coast with their families. Each man looked slightly away from the other. Their silence spoke volumes as they both fought back tears.

As the ship entered the large estuary which led to the docks of Santander, throngs of passengers were lining the decks. For many, this was their first visit to their native Spain after having left many years prior. Transiting the immigration and customs office was easier than anticipated. Within two hours of docking, the Suárez and Prendes families were resting comfortably in their hotel. Their train to Asturias was scheduled for the next morning. Rather than eating dinner at the hotel, they decided to walk to a nearby restaurant. As they walked along the streets, the children commented how different this was, compared to Tampa. They found the density of people to be somewhat disorienting, yet fascinating. They were quickly learning that America's most readily available commodity is space. 

Train travel was a new experience for the children, and they excitedly took their seats. Soon the train was beyond the city. The countryside impressed them beyond words. The extremely mountainous terrain, verdant and dotted with stone farmhouses, couldn't be more different than the vast flatness of Florida. Fernando, Giuseppina, Ignacio and Sofia were grateful that they were able to give this wonderful gift of travel to their children.

The train station in Oviedo, Asturias was jammed with travelers. This was the beginning of a holiday weekend. As the two families gathered their baggage and navigated the crowds, Ignacio commented to the others.

"Oigo mucha gente discutiendo la política. Parece que hay problemas en el Congreso en Madrid. Creo que muchos están preocupados que la república es muy frágil."

Ignacio had noticed that many people were discussing politics. There seemed to be concern that the democratically elected Spanish Republic, now five years old, was in a fragile state. Apparently, the Congress in Madrid was having problems.

"Bueno, ahora somos americanos y estos son problemas para los españoles, no para nosotros!"

Fernando replied that they were now Americans, and these were problems for the Spaniards, not for them. Ignacio was about to remind him that he and Fernando were still Spanish citizens, when a loud voice distracted them.

"Familias Prendes y Suárez! Familias Prendes y Suárez!"

A man with a cap was paging the two families.

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This is a work of fiction. With the exception of references to known and publicly documented historical entities, the following apply:

Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. ©Tony Carreño 2020