Fernando’s Footsteps

by Tony Carreño

 

Shortly after 9:30 a.m. the "Phoenix" docked in lower Manhattan. Captain Winchester informed the Tampeños that they must stay on board until an immigrations officer inspected their documents and approved entry into the U.S.A. About an hour and a half later the immigration officer arrived. He apologized for their wait, advising them that more passengers than usual are arriving in freighters. He attributed this to the political instability in Europe, especially in Spain. The process went quickly and smoothly, though he asked numerous questions about their time in Spain. He stamped their documents and welcomed them home. The relieved passengers thanked the crew and Captain Winchester. The captain had grown quite fond of the Tampeños and asked to keep in contact. They exchanged addresses, and Captain Winchester promised he would let them know if the "Phoenix" were to ever call at the Port of Tampa.

Because they were the only passengers disembarking, it was easy for the Alonso and Cuesta families to locate the Tampeños. A man approached them with open arms.

"Fernando, bienvenido a Nueva York! Gracias a Dios que llegaron sin problema."

Amancio Alonso recognized Fernando and welcomed him to New York. He thanked God for their safe arrival. Fernando, having met Amancio in Tampa, rushed over to him.

"Amancio, muchísimas gracias por todo. Esperamos que no seamos una molestia para vosotros, hombre!"

Fernando thanked Amancio, and told him they hoped they weren't going to be a nuisance for them.

Amancio, assuring Fernando that they would not be imposing, began a round of introductions. He and his wife, Alicia, were accompanied by Guillermo and Dolores Cuesta, the other host family. After the usual hugging and kissing, Amancio led the group out of the dock area and toward the street, luggage in tow. The noise and pace of the city immediately impressed the Tampeños, now feeling like country bumpkins. Amancio and Guillermo hailed several cabs, explaining that, unlike Tampa, very few New Yorkers owned cars. The twelve people, along with baggage, required a total of four cabs. Soon they were crossing Manhattan toward the lower West Side and Little Spain.

The Alonso and Cuesta families lived in adjacent apartment buildings on 14th St. immediately across the street from La Nacional, the oldest Spanish benevolent association in New York. Many Spanish businesses and restaurants were located on this main street of the Little Spain neighborhood.

Both host families luckily had sons and daughters close in age to that of the Prendes and Suárez families. This made it easier to accommodate eight people comfortably. After settling in, everyone gathered in the Alonso apartment for a large Saturday afternoon meal. Naturally, the conversation centered on the situation in Spain. The Tampeños' harrowing story captivated their hosts. News from Spain had become erratic, and communication with family and friends in Spain was impossible. What was known is that it appeared the civil war was going to be a protracted one; an early resolution was not likely. Amancio addressed the group.

"Esta noche hay una reunión en La Nacional. Van a discutir cómo podemos organizarnos para apoyar la Republica."

Mr. Alonso announced that there was to be a meeting that night at La Nacional, the Spanish society across the street. They were going to discuss how to organize in support of the Spanish Republic. 

Fernando had assumed that their hosts, like the vast majority of Spanish immigrants, were probably supporters of the Republic, but hadn't known for sure. He was relieved to know that they were in "friendly territory". 

The meeting was open to all members of La Nacional and their interested guests. The decision was made to attend the meeting. The children decided they would rather take advantage of seeing some of the sights of New York. The Alonso and Cuesta children were anxious to show their visitors a bit of the big city! 

Giuseppina and Sofia helped Alicia and Dolores clear the table and wash dishes. The men, of course, retreated to the living room for coffee, cigars, and more political discussion. The children practically ran over their parents as they rushed out to explore Manhattan with their new friends. As Alicia appeared with the coffee, Fernando suddenly got a feeling of dread and guilt, concerned over what might be happening to his family in Asturias. Something about the way Alicia was serving the coffee and passing around the cups made him think of his mother. Their rapid escape and ocean voyage had been, in some ways, a distraction from the grim reality now facing them. The hasty departure from Cuero was probably the last time he would see his parents, and possibly any of his Spanish relatives. His racing thoughts were mercifully interrupted by Guillermo.

"Caballeros, me dicen que Fernando es un gaitero muy famoso. Su fama llega hasta aquí en Nueva York. Quiero ver y oír la prueba!"

Guillermo, known for his humor and easy-going approach to life, chided Fernando to perhaps entertain them by playing the bagpipes. He joked that the Tampeño's fame as a master "gaitero" reached all the way to New York, and he wanted to hear and see proof of his talent. Fernando agreed, welcoming the opportunity to take his mind off of the war. Within a few minutes, Guillermo returned with a bagpipe he brought from Spain many years before, admitting he simply wasn't able to do it justice. It had been sitting idly on a shelf in a linen closet. Fernando brought it to life, so much so that within a few minutes several Spanish neighbors joined them. A spontaneous fiesta was the perfect way to end the afternoon.

By 7:30 p.m. La Nacional was filled to capacity. There was no theater or auditorium as such, but the ball room was set up with folding chairs and a make-shift dais. The evening began as a special general meeting of La Nacional's membership. The purpose was to take a vote formalizing the support of the organization for the legally elected Spanish Second Republic. While the vast majority of the members supported the resolution, a small but vocal minority voiced opposition. Some claimed neutrality was best, others supported the Nationalist rebels. Shouts of "communists" and "fascist Hitler-lovers" filled the air. Two men exchanged blows and were ejected from the building. It was obvious that Spain's crisis was resonating among its ex-patriots here in New York. Fernando wondered if the same was happening in Tampa. 

After the chaos subsided, a vote was taken and as expected, the resolution passed by a landslide. Members who were opposed would be entitled to a full refund of their annual dues. Ignacio, whispering to Fernando, wondered if perhaps this was a way of identifying the fascists among the membership; both men chuckled softly. The Spanish consul of New York addressed the crowd, thanking everyone for the show of solidarity. Representatives of various trade unions spoke of efforts to raise funds and send supplies to the Republican government. It was obvious that the community here in New York was organizing in response to the crisis in Spain.

After the meeting, there was a social hour. The Tampeños were introduced to many friends of their hosts. The visitors were amazed at how strong the connections between the two Spanish communities were. Practically every person they met had friends or relatives, or both, living in Tampa. When the economic depression arrived, many Tampeños moved to New York in search of jobs. Several of these transplants were at the meeting, and were anxious to hear news from "home" and to chat about the "old days" in quaint Tampa. Ignacio turned to Fernando.

"Bueno, Gaitero. Parece que lo que dicen es verdad. "Tampa es una trampa".

Ignacio, quoting one of his favorite witticisms, told Fernando that the old saying, "Tampa is a trap", appears to hold true. Tampa, in its own quirky way, leaves its imprint on those who are born there or have adopted it as their home. Tampeños may leave Tampa, but Tampa never completely leaves a Tampeño. The men laughed out loud, agreeing that this seemed to be true. 

It was now 10:00 p.m. The visitors from Tampa had insisted on treating the Alonsos and Cuestas to dinner. The children were still out on the town. Reservations had been made at "El Chico" restaurant, a few blocks away. It was New York's oldest and best-known Spanish restaurant, owned by a fellow Asturian. Dinner was excellent, a combination of classic Spanish food with some Latin American specialties on the menu as well. A wonderful flamenco show added to the festivities.

It was 1: 00 a.m. by the time the adults got back to the apartments. The four mothers personally checked to make sure all the children were safely asleep. As a group, they knocked on each of the children's bedroom doors, verifying that all were accounted for. They laughed as they "made the rounds", blaming the wine at dinner for their silly behavior. 

The Tampeños' first day in New York had certainly been memorable, for a variety of reasons. 

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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