Part Five: ¡Ahora, Somos Americanos! / Now, We are Americans!
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.
Giuseppina had arranged with Dolores and Alicia to prepare a traditional Sunday afternoon Sicilian family dinner. Though Little Italy was relatively close to Little Spain, the Alonsos and the Cuestas were not very familiar with Sicilian home cooking and welcomed the generosity of their guests. The four mothers arose before everyone else and went on a shopping expedition to nearby Little Italy. By 11:30 a.m. a large pot of "sugo siciliano" was simmering on the stove in the Alonso's apartment. "Sugo" is the traditional Sicilian term for tomato-based pasta sauce. Giuseppina was amused when the clerk in one of the Italian stores referred to it as "gravy". Alicia and Dolores were equally amused when they saw that Giuseppina added, in addition to various meats, two dozen hard boiled eggs to the sugo. The four women laughed as they compared local idiosyncrasies. As the others awoke, they gathered in the large kitchen, which was now functioning as a Sicilian cooking school, with Dolores and Alicia taking notes.
By 3:00 p.m. the group of 16 people were feasting on seemingly endless platters of Sicilian delicacies. Silence replaced the simultaneous talking that normally prevailed. Giuseppina and her "assistant", Sofia, proudly observed as their families and guests enjoyed the new experience.
"Fernando y yo hicimos llamadas esta mañana. Conseguimos reservaciones para el tren a Tampa el miércoles. Llegarèmos el jueves. No había disponibilidad hasta ese día. Esperamos que no presenta problema para vosotros. Podemos conseguir un hotel sin ningún problema."
Ignacio announced that he and Fernando had made phone calls that morning and were able to get train reservations to Tampa for the following Wednesday. They would arrive in Tampa on Thursday. They had tried to get reservations for an earlier day, but there was no availability for eight people. Ignacio hoped this wasn't a problem and said they could go to a hotel.
Almost simultaneously, Guillermo and Amancio assured them that all was fine, and they welcomed them to stay as long as necessary. Dolores joked that the only problem would be the weight gain if Giuseppina continued to prepare the meals. Everyone laughed, as more food emerged from the kitchen.
Monday and Tuesday were spent enjoying the sites of New York. The Alonsos and Cuestas were the most generous of hosts. Amancio and Guillermo co-owned a small cigar factory of approximately 40 employees. These were known as "chinchales", the Spanish word for bedbugs, due to their small size. In Tampa, they were also known as "Buckeyes", but no one seemed to know exactly why. Amancio and Guillermo were successful, having carved out a large local market for their high-quality cigars. Their tour of New York included a visit to the factory. The visitors were struck by the similarity to those found in Tampa. Many of the employees they met had spent time in Tampa prior to moving on to New York. Most had learned the trade in either Tampa or Havana. This reinforced the fact that Tampa was the focal point of cigar manufacturing, and the ties between the New York and Tampa Spanish immigrant communities were many.
New York's Penn Station was not particularly busy. The Silver Meteor train to Tampa was scheduled to depart at 3:00 p.m. Always obsessively early, Fernando had insisted on arriving two hours before departure. Amancio and Guillermo had returned to work after their "mini vacation" as hosts. Dolores and Alicia had accompanied the travelers to the station. The families had bonded during the past four days, and the farewell was emotional. The New Yorkers promised they would visit Tampa in the near future. The Tampeños checked their baggage and enjoyed a quick tour of the majestic train station. They boarded the Silver Meteor at 2:15 p.m.
At precisely 3:00 p.m. the train slowly pulled out of Penn Station. Unable to obtain sleeper accommodations, the travelers settled in for what would be a night of trying to sleep in their seats. Fernando reminisced on his trip from Havana to Tampa on the Mascotte, remembering that hard wooden bench that served as his bed. Certainly, these train seats were more comfortable, but his being 36 years older would probably offset the difference. He was anticipating a difficult night but decided to shift his focus and enjoy this last part of this great adventure.
As expected, Rafael and Luciano were rarely to be found in their seats. After several walks from one end of the Silver Meteor to the other they finally returned to their seats. After a few hours the train slowed as it entered Union Station in Washington, D.C. The conductor announced this would be an extended stop of 50 minutes. Luciano, wanting to get a quick glimpse of the nation's capital, asked if it would be possible to disembark. The conductor said it would be, but to make certain they retained their tickets for reboarding.
As the train came to a halt in the cavernous station, the Tampeños gathered their belongings and walked briskly into the terminal and onto the street. From the main entrance they could see the U.S. Capitol, its white dome just visible above the many trees lining the streets. Luciano and Rafael asked permission to run ahead of them for a better view. Their parents agreed, reminding them to keep an eye on the time.
The departure from Washington was anticlimactic, as the route was via underground tracks. By the time the train surfaced, the beautiful rolling hills of Virginia were visible. After a short time, they were called to the dining car. The conductor had thoughtfully arranged two tables across from each other. As Ignacio began eating his delicious fried chicken, he commented to the others.
"Saben que esta es una de las pocas veces que he comido comida americana tradicional. Está deliciosa."
He said this was one of the few times he has eaten traditional American food, and he found it to be delicious. After some exclamation of surprise, the group realized that this was logical. The typical immigrant living in West Tampa or Ybor City in 1936 would have had limited exposure to American culture. Their children, on the other hand, had begun the great process of assimilation.
By the time dinner was over, the sun had set. The Tampeños began the process of trying to convert their seats into makeshift beds. Using the blankets and pillows that had been provided, they had limited success. Adding to their restlessness was the anticipation of finally getting home after an exciting, but stressful, adventure.
"Next stop, Savannah, Georgia! Next stop, Savannah, Georgia!"
It was approximately 6:30 a.m. and the Silver Meteor was entering Savannah. Mercifully, the several stops during the night had no ticketed passengers, and the sleeping passengers had been spared additional interruptions. The conductor advised them that if they wanted breakfast, they should proceed to the dining car shortly. In Jacksonville, Florida, their car would be switched to another train headed to Tampa and St. Petersburg. The remainder of the train, with the dining car, would continue down Florida's east coast to Miami.
Shortly after breakfast they completed the transfer in Jacksonville. By 2:30 p.m. they were slowly passing through Ybor City. The tracks paralleled and were immediately next to 6th Ave. Excitedly, they identified familiar landmarks that somehow looked a bit different from their perspective. After pulling onto a set of side tracks, the Silver Meteor began slowly backing into Tampa Union Station. Fernando turned to his fellow travelers.
"Bueno, quizás Tampa es una trampa, pero es una trampa que adoro. Finalmente, estamos en casa."
He told the group that perhaps Tampa was a "trap", but it was a trap that he adored. They were finally home.
Thanksgiving had become Fernando's favorite holiday. He viewed it as the quintessential American celebration, and it was on this day that he felt the most "American". He often reminisced of his first Thanksgiving 38 years ago at La Gallega boarding house, a few weeks after his arrival in Tampa. So much had transpired, most of it for which he felt grateful. This particular Thanksgiving of 1938 was one of conflicting emotions. The Spanish Civil War raged on with no end in sight, and recent reports suggested the fascist rebels under General Francisco Franco were likely to prevail in overthrowing the legally elected government. Its ferocity exceeded what anyone had expected. The German and Italian air forces, especially the Condor Legion of the Luftwaffe, were regularly bombing civilian and military targets. The United States, along with most of the world, failed to support the democratically elected Spanish Republic. The war had so far killed close to half a million Spaniards, many of them civilians. This represented one out of every fifty Spaniards. News was sketchy, and Fernando had virtually no information concerning his family.
On the brighter side, Fernando and his family were well. Carmela and her husband had given Fernando and Giuseppina their first grandchild. Pilar was engaged to a wonderful man, and Luciano was in his senior year at Hillsborough High School. Not only was he an outstanding scholar, but a star player on the school's football team, one of the best in the state. Luciano had grown into a strong and agile young man, and one of the best high school fullbacks in the state of Florida.
At times, Fernando couldn't reconcile the conflict and the guilt he felt. His idyllic life in Tampa certainly was a stark contrast to the hell his family in Spain was probably enduring. As he smelled the aromas coming from the kitchen, he wondered if his family had any food at all. His despairing thoughts were mercifully interrupted.
"Papa, me voy! El partido empieza a la una y el equipo tiene que estar en la escuela a las once y media. Voy con Frank en el tranvía."
Luciano, in his usual booming voice, told Fernando that the game started at 1:00p.m. and the team needed to be at the school at 11:30 a.m. He said that Frank and he would go on the streetcar.
Fernando raced over to his son before he could run out the door. He grabbed him by both shoulders and planted a kiss on each of his cheeks. Luciano, smiling, reciprocated. Fernando proudly watched from the front porch as his son ran two houses over to meet his good friend and teammate, Frank Busto. Frank was the quarterback on the team.
"The game" to which Luciano referred was Tampa's most important football game of the year. It pitted Hillsborough High against arch-rival Plant High School. Hillsborough was located in the working-class neighborhood of Seminole Heights, just north of Ybor City. Plant High was located across the city in the Palma Ceia neighborhood. The rivalry was intense, and the game was traditionally played on Thanksgiving afternoon. These two schools were the only two public "white" schools in Tampa. Many people viewed the rivalry as a match between the elite and wealthy professionals of South Tampa, and the blue-collar working classes of Seminole Heights, West Tampa, and Ybor City. Hillsborough High was the high school for the vast majority of the immigrants and their children. This year's game was especially important, as the winner would earn the championship for the central part of Florida, and the right to play for the Florida state championship. After the game, the Suárez family and their friends would enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner at the Suárez home.
As usual, Fernando insisted on arriving at the game early. Fortunately, this year's game was at Hillsborough High, only a ten-minute drive from El Barrio Candamo. Ignacio, Sofia, and Rafael met them at the stadium entrance. Rafael, already graduated from Hillsborough High, had been an excellent football player as well. Not as stocky as Luciano, he was better suited for baseball, and was a first baseman in the semi-pro leagues.
Sofia and Giuseppina spent most of the game discussing the Thanksgiving dinner preparations, as well as praying that Luciano would not be injured. Rafael sat between Ignacio and Fernando, explaining the rules of the game as it unfolded. Rafael explained that because of their size, fullbacks are usually used to block for their quarterbacks, as well as for short yardage gains. Luciano was versatile in that he was also a fast runner, despite his large size. Rafael hoped, but doubted, that they were understanding.
As expected, the game was a thrilling one. The roar of the crowd was so loud, Rafael gave up trying to explain what was happening because it was impossible to hear him. With two seconds left on the clock, Plant was ahead by a score of ten to six. Hillsborough had the ball on the Plant three-yard line, and it was fourth down. The ball was snapped to Frank Busto, the quarterback. The coach had allowed Frank to call the play, but Frank misread the defensive lineup. Luciano, lined up next to him, realized what had happened. Frank and Luciano had fantasized about and practiced this situation numerous times in sandlot football at Cuscaden Park, near El Barrio Candamo. He yelled out to Frank, as the game clock hit zero and the final buzzer could be heard. The play was still in motion.
"Paco, la falsificación! La falsificación! Aquí, hombre!"
Luciano had yelled out, in Spanish, "Frankie, the fake! The fake! Right here, man!" The defensive players frantically looked around them, totally confused.
Frank knew what to do. As his arm came forward he circled to his right, lobbing the ball to Luciano, now about eight yards from the goal line. Thrusting forward, he got to about the three and a half yard line. Three of Plant's largest defensive linemen, now having read the fake, were upon him. Luciano dug in his cleats. With his head down, the ball clutched firmly against his chest, he thrust forward with all his strength, dragging the three linemen with him. About a foot from the goal line, he knew his knees were about to hit the turf. Closing his eyes, he took the ball and plunged it forward with as much strength as he could muster. He hit the turf, rolling over on his back. Glancing to his left, he saw the referee raising both arms, signaling a touchdown. Hillsborough won the game, thirteen to ten.
Neither an explanation nor a translation was needed for Luciano's and Rafael's parents to understand what had just happened. Most of the fans, including them and Rafael, raced onto the field. In a scene reminiscent of the Roman legions having returned home after defeating Carthage, Luciano's teammates had lifted him onto their shoulders and were parading around the field. He may as well have been a victorious Roman general.
The celebration was marred as disappointed Plant High fans began throwing wadded up paper wrappers and anything else they could find at the celebrants. Several policemen dispersed the crowd. The coaches wisely began to hurry their teams away. Luciano called out to his parents.
"Mama, papa. Les quiero muchísimo. Les veo en una hora, en casa, y vamos a comer pavo!"
The game hero told his parents than he loved them very much and would see them in an hour, at home, and that they would eat turkey.
Little did Luciano realize that he had just given Giuseppina and Fernando a gift far more valuable than his having won a game that would go down in school history. In the midst of a celebration with his peers, he remembered who he is and from where he came.
Rafael told his parents that he was going to meet the guys in the locker room to share in the celebration. He would meet them at the Suárez home with Luciano and Frank. As the parents neared the parking lot, they became aware of a man ranting in a loud voice. Apparently, the father of one of the Plant High players had enjoyed too much bourbon during the game. His anger and disappointment over the outcome of the game had gotten the better of him.
"Get me the hell back to the white part of town! I hate these damned spics and talleys and all these low-class cracker Latin-lovers that put up with them! This country should throw them out and make us clean again!"
Only Fernando was able to understand the gist of what was being said. After being asked by the others, he reluctantly translated the man's opinions. Ignacio, always a bit more confrontational than Fernando, raced toward the man. Fernando unsuccessfully tried to stop him. Ignacio, stopping a few feet from the man, yelled out.
"Somos americanos tanto como tú! Eres una desgracia para este gran país!"
"We are as American as you! You are a disgrace to this great country!"
The drunk man clenched his fist, pulled back, and swung directly at Ignacio. The intended target, always quick on his feet, averted the punch. Ignacio immediately swung back, landing his fist squarely on the aggressor's nose. Blood gushed out. Women screamed. Within seconds, two policemen appeared. Luckily, one of the policemen had been close enough to witness the confrontation, acknowledging that Ignacio had responded in self-defense. Fernando approached the policeman, explaining that Ignacio did not speak English. The officer agreed to have him translate. After asking for identification from both men, the officer asked if Ignacio wanted to press charges. He declined, wishing to put the entire affair to rest. After Fernando and Ignacio managed to calm Sofia and Giuseppina, the two couples returned to their cars. No one spoke during the ride back to El Barrio Candamo.
As 1938 drew to a close, Fernando's conflicted feelings grew in intensity. He and his family were relishing in their good fortune. Luciano was scheduled to graduate from high school the following June, and he had been accepted to the University of Florida and a position on their football team. He was awarded a full scholarship based on both his athletic and academic achievements. In early December, Hillsborough High played for the Florida state football championship, losing to Robert E. Lee High School of Jacksonville. Naturally, Luciano was disappointed at the outcome, but his parents were proud of the mature manner in which he accepted the defeat. Carmela and her family were well and comfortably settled. Pilar was due to marry in June, two weeks after Luciano's high school graduation. Fernando and Giuseppina were grateful beyond words for their personal situation.
On the contrary, Fernando's feelings of near euphoria were tempered by the news from Spain, which grew worse by the day. Recent Nationalist rebel victories gave the Fascists control of most of the country, with the exception of Asturias, parts of Castile, and the capital city, Madrid. The siege of Madrid, ongoing since October 1936, was one bastion of "hope against hope" for the Republicans. The Republican slogan had become "They Shall Not Pass!", in Spanish, "No Pasarán!" Leopoldo Gonzalez, a cigar maker and musician from Tampa had composed a song of the same name, incorporating the slogan and words of encouragement. The song was played at numerous pro-Republican rallies and fundraisers, not only in Tampa, but in cities across the U.S.A. While proud that Asturias had mounted some of the fiercest anti-Fascist resistance in the war, Fernando dreaded the thought of the price which was paid.
It was now a week before Christmas. The "Tampa Democratic Popular Committee to Aid Spain" had issued an appeal for the community to replace Christmas gift-giving with donations to aid Spain. They sought not only cash, but donations of clothing and first aid items such as bandages. Hundreds of thousands of Republican Spaniards, sensing that defeat was near, were beginning to flee across the frigid Pyrenees Mountains into France. Along with other organizations, the Committee was holding a rally at the Centro Asturiano clubhouse that evening. Spain was desperate.
The grand theater of the Centro Asturiano was filled beyond capacity. People were sitting in the aisles. Those not able to enter were milling about the ball room, the cantina, and the hallways. Expecting an overflow crowd, the organizers had arranged for the speakers' voices to be broadcast throughout the building. Predictably, the Suárez and Prendes families were early arrivals. They sat together, close to the stage. To the delight of the older members of the families, most of their children and their families attended as well.
The list of speakers was impressive. In addition to all the leading progressive activists in Tampa, many important figures from other cities were there as well. Most impressively, the current ambassador from the Spanish Republic to the United States, Don Fernando De Los Ríos, had flown in from Washington, D.C. He was accompanied by Gustavo Jimenez, the Spanish Consul in Tampa.
For nearly two hours, the various speakers spoke of the dire situation in Spain, and the humanitarian effort before them. They thanked the people of Ybor City and West Tampa for their activism and the supplies, money and ambulances that had been donated in support of the Republic. Women, in particular, were singled out for their protest march in 1937 in response to the bombing of civilians in Gernika by the German Luftwaffe. Lastly, the Spanish ambassador, referring to Tampa as the "altar of Spain" in the U.S.A., announced that Tampa, in support of the Republic, had raised more money, per capita, than any other American city. The ambassador also paid tribute to the Sicilian and Cuban communities for their strong support as well. As the crowd rose to their feet in thunderous applause, Fernando shouted to Ignacio.
"Mira Zapato, oigo las palabras, pero me suena como están dando gracias por una causa perdida, y cuando ellos hablan de la gloria de la República, me hace recordar de como hablan de una persona fallecida en su velorio."
Fernando told Ignacio that he hears what they're saying, but it feels as though they're giving thanks for supporting a lost cause. He added that when he hears them speak of the glories of the Republic, it reminds him of how people speak of a deceased person at their wake.
Ignacio agreed, saying that the gist of what they were hearing is that money and supplies are needed more as humanitarian relief than for doing battle.
After the program, there was a reception and refreshments were served in the large ballroom. As Fernando wandered through the crowd and spoke with friends, the pessimism was palpable. It seemed that 1939 was going to be a year of much joy and much sorrow. He remembered that he once read a historian's comment concerning Spain. The historian said that throughout history, Spain displayed two faces, one is fiesta and the other is tragedy. His personal life was perhaps mimicking that of his native land.
The Christmas and New Year’s celebrations were spent in the normal fashion. There were many large gatherings with family and friends, ending with the traditional New Year's Day feast at the Licata farm. Gaetano and Sebastiana were now in their early 80s, and healthy. Fernando couldn't help but wonder how his own parents were faring during these difficult years.
During the weeks that followed, the civil war was the focus of the immigrant communities in Tampa. There were gatherings in the homes of those with a shortwave radio, where they listened to "La Voz de Madrid" ("The Voice of Madrid") for the latest war news. The primary source of printed news for Tampa's Latin community was "La Gaceta", a tri-lingual newspaper founded in 1922. It followed the civil war closely and was a staunch supporter of the Republic and progressive movements in general. Approximately 27 Tampeño men served with the Lincoln Brigade, a group of volunteers attached to the International Brigades that fought for the Spanish Republic. One of them, Gonzalo Borrell, served as an unofficial war correspondent for “La Gaceta”, somehow managing to transmit his stories via France. While grateful for the news out of Spain, the community was disheartened by the course of events.
Fernando considered the American custom of "April Fools' Day" odd, yet somewhat charming. It was his children who introduced him to this yearly ritual, having learned of it at school. Saturday, April 1st, 1939 began as a crisp spring day. April had become Fernando's favorite month. Normally, the summer heat and humidity had not yet arrived, and it was often the driest part of the year.
Fernando was enjoying his early morning café con leche on his front porch. He had just begun reading "La Gaceta" when he heard Luciano, yelling from a distance.
"Papa, papa! Has oído lo que pasó?"
Luciano was running from the Busto home toward his father. Fernando assumed it was part of Luciano's yearly April Fools' pranks. Always anxious to play along, Fernando threw the newspaper to the floor. Raising his hands to his face in a comical and exaggerated look of surprise, he responded to his son.
"Dios mío, hijo! Que coño ha pasado!"
By now Luciano had run up the steps and was on the porch, near his father. Immediately, Fernando could see that this was not a joke. The elder Suárez stood and looked at his son.
"Papa, la guerra ha terminado! Paco y yo estábamos escuchando la radio americana y interrumpieron el programa. Parece que las tropas republicanas en Alicante se han rendido a los Fascistas".
Luciano said that Frank and he were listening to an American radio program when it was interrupted. The Spanish civil war was over. The troops in Alicante, the last Republican stronghold, had surrendered.
Fernando and Luciano rushed into the living room and turned on the radio. The phone was ringing. Ignacio, hearing the news, had telephoned Fernando. After a rambling exchange of emotions between the two Spaniards, Fernando returned to the living room. Giuseppina and Pilar joined them. They sat in silence as the grim news got even worse. General Franco was showing no mercy. Many of the Republican troops scrambled to get onboard the British coal ship, the Stanbrook. It was the last ship able to leave prior to the official end of the war. Many of the those left behind were mercilessly slaughtered by the Nationalist troops.
While not totally surprised by this news, the Spaniards and other immigrants of Tampa were devastated by the collapse of the Spanish "experiment" with democracy. Within days, many countries, including the United States, had officially recognized the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco as the legitimate government of Spain. In the eyes of many immigrant Spaniards, any hopes of returning to their beloved homeland were forever dashed.
"I do swear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution and to defend it against all enemies, foreign and domestic."
With those words, Fernando and Ignacio, along with dozens of others, were now U.S. citizens. The Suárez and Prendes families descended the steps of the Federal Courthouse in downtown Tampa. It was late May, and the Spanish Civil War had ended almost two months prior. Many Spaniards across the U.S.A., previously hoping to return to Spain, had neglected to obtain U.S. citizenship. Now that Spain was firmly in the grip of a fascist dictatorship, that quickly changed. Within months of the war's end, thousands of Spaniards renounced their allegiance to Spain and began the process of becoming American citizens.
The events of the weeks that followed offered Fernando and his family the opportunity to distract themselves from the dire situation in Spain. Luciano graduated from Hillsborough High School with honors, ranking fourth in his class of 663 graduates. He would be working at the Licata farm until his departure for the University of Florida in Gainesville in early September. Pilar's wedding took place several weeks later. She married Victor Castellano, a young man from West Tampa. He was an accountant at the prestigious Cuesta-Rey cigar factory, having obtained a degree in accounting from the University of Tampa. The newlyweds' future appeared to be promising.
The International Red Cross was offering to assist people in obtaining information about relatives in Spain. Fernando and Ignacio, immediately following the end of the war, had contacted them and filled out the necessary papers. The process was lengthy and challenging, as Franco had immediately imposed a travel and communications embargo. Spain was now essentially an isolated country. The whole of Europe was now in a precarious geopolitical situation. Adolf Hitler, emboldened by his unchallenged annexations of Austria and part of Czechoslovakia, as well as the fascist victory in Spain, appeared intent on moving into Poland. Fernando, though content with his family, feared for the future as the summer of 1939 was drawing to a close.
Fernando commented on how hilly the terrain was. They were only about 35 miles north of Tampa, but it seemed as if they had been transported to Georgia or Alabama. Gainesville was another 100 miles down the road, and Fernando was enjoying the trip. Luciano had made the same trip by train in June, so he had offered to drive. This would permit his parents the chance to relax and take in the scenery. Giuseppina, already missing her son, sat silently in the back seat. Mile after mile of orange groves occasionally gave way to pastureland dotted with grazing cows. Fernando realized how different and culturally distinct Tampa was from anything else for many miles surrounding it. Almost hypnotized by the calm beauty of the scenery, his thoughts drifted to Spain and his relatives there.
It was Friday, August 31st, 1939 and the war in Spain had ended five months prior. It was starting to become a distant memory, the only reminder being the occasional letter from the Red Cross informing him that they still had no definitive word on his family. Luciano's voice startled him.
"Papa, creo que quiero estudiar para ser ingeniero. Me gustaría construir cosas como carreteras o puentes. Que piensas?"
Luciano, recognizing the now too familiar melancholy look on his dad's face, tried to distract him. He told Fernando that he was thinking of majoring in engineering. He relished the idea of building highways or bridges. He asked his father what he thought of the idea.
"Hijo, lo que quiero para todos mis hijos es que sean feliz y saludable. Eso es lo más importante en la vida. Estudias lo que te trae felicidad."
Fernando replied that what he wants for all his children are health and happiness. He told Luciano that he should study whatever would bring him satisfaction.
Luciano rubbed his father's knee affectionately. They didn't notice it, but Giuseppina was silently shedding tears. She was overcome with emotion. The pride of having a son that was going away to college, the sadness of not having him close by, and the knowledge of how deeply he loved his family had overcome her.
After stopping for a light lunch, the Tampeños arrived in Gainesville just before noon. They dropped Luciano off at his dormitory and then checked into a motel they had reserved. They would meet their son for dinner and spend the next two days attending orientation activities organized by the university. Fernando, always the explorer, suggested to Giuseppina that they drive around Gainesville for a while. This was their first experience with "mid-America". Other than New York City, or Sundays at Clearwater Beach, Tampa was the only place in the U.S.A. with which they were familiar.
The university campus was impressive. The red brick buildings and tree-lined streets had the look of a classic "university town" as portrayed in the movies. Pines and other hardwood trees far outnumbered palms and other tropical foliage. Some areas of the city had somewhat hilly streets. Though only 140 miles away from Tampa, the contrast was staggering. As Giuseppina and Fernando were soon to learn, this stark contrast was not limited to just the foliage and the terrain.
After driving around the small city, Fernando and Giuseppina decided to stop for ice cream in the charming downtown area of Gainesville. The ice cream shop was rather full, but they were able to sit at a small table near the entrance. Soon after they were seated, Giuseppina happened to notice that several people at a nearby table kept glancing at her. Not able to speak or read English, Giuseppina asked Fernando to translate the small menu. She spoke in a somewhat loud voice, due to the amount of noise in the room. This seemed to attract even more attention from several nearby tables. Soon after placing their order, a woman at another table stood up and approached Fernando and Giuseppina. She addressed Giuseppina, smiling and speaking with a heavy Southern accent.
"Excuse me. I do apologize for disturbing you. I'm afraid my friends and I were being rude, and that was certainly not the intention. We couldn't help but notice your beautiful earrings and the fact that your ears are pierced. They look lovely, and it's something we simply don't see around here. You're a beautiful woman, and those earrings enhance your beauty. I'm tempted to have my own ears pierced."
Fernando, in his limited but sufficient English, explained that his wife did not speak or understand English, and asked the woman if he could translate what she said. The woman, smiling, agreed. Giuseppina nodded her head, thanking the woman and smiling. The woman, in perfect Spanish, responded.
"Yo pensaba que ustedes estaban hablando castellano, pero con tanto ruido, no podía entenderles bien. Y ahora que oigo mejor, yo sé, por el acento, que ustedes son españoles, verdad?"
Fernando and Giuseppina were taken by surprise. She told them that she thought they were speaking Spanish, but because of all the noise, she couldn't understand them well. Now that she could clearly hear them, because of their accent, she recognized them as Spaniards. She continued, explaining that she is a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Florida, and spent two years studying Spanish at the University of Salamanca in Spain.
Continuing the conversation in Spanish, Fernando and Giuseppina complimented her on her perfect Spanish. They then spent several minutes getting acquainted. She was fascinated that Giuseppina, though Sicilian, could speak Spanish so well. Having an interest in Latin-based languages, she asked Giuseppina to say a few words in Sicilian. Knowing some Italian, the woman was fascinated at how different the two languages are. She had heard of Tampa's diverse immigrant community but had not met anyone from there. She further commented that this was the first time she had encountered native Spanish speakers in Gainesville. Having researched Hispanic immigration to the U.S.A., she also told the Tampeños that as far as she knew, the only two cities in Florida where Spanish was widely spoken were Key West and Tampa. She congratulated them on Luciano's achievements, and introduced herself as she handed them a business card. Her name was Dr. Rachel Young. She then handed them a second card and said that if Luciano needed help with anything at all, he could contact her. She returned to her friends.
Fernando and Giuseppina finished their ice cream treats. As they were leaving, they smiled and waved to Dr. Young and her friends. As they were driving back to the motel, Giuseppina commented on how a seemingly trivial act of kindness can make such a difference. She confessed that she had been harboring many concerns about Luciano being in an unfamiliar place, particularly one so culturally distinct from Tampa. She felt much better after encountering Dr. Young. She was particularly grateful for the professor's offer to assist Luciano if necessary. Fernando commented that he really hadn't realized just how different their lives in Tampa were, compared to many other American cities and towns, especially those in Florida. In New York, it was almost impossible to feel "different", in that almost every nationality and culture on earth existed within the city, but that was the exception. Gainesville was a new experience for them, and they realized that assimilation into mainstream American life would not be in their future.
Early risers, Fernando and Giuseppina were the first customers in the motel coffee shop. As they glanced over the menu, Fernando smiled and looked over at his wife.
"Pina, quizás si comemos un desayuno típico americano, seríamos un poco menos extraños! Tenemos que pedir huevos fritos, harina de maíz, y tocino. Vamos a probar el café americano, lo que llamamos 'agua sucia'!"
Gaitero was in a jocular mood. He suggested to Giuseppina that if they were to eat a typical American breakfast, perhaps they would appear a bit less strange. He suggested ordering fried eggs, grits, and bacon, using the term "cornmeal" for grits. He even suggested that they try American coffee, which is referred to as "dirty water" by many Tampeños!
Pina laughed, reminding him that she actually enjoyed "typical American" food, even the coffee. She confessed that she and her sisters frequented Morrison's Cafeteria whenever they went shopping in downtown Tampa. They chuckled and ordered their food.
Giuseppina excused herself to go to the ladies' room and Fernando got in line at the cash register to pay their bill. A radio was on the windowsill next to the register, barely audible to anyone except the cashier. As Fernando stepped to the front of the line, the cashier, apologizing, turned away and raised the volume on the radio. The musical program had been interrupted by a news bulletin. Early in the morning, European time, Germany had invaded Poland with a massive air and ground assault. Several other employees and customers gathered near the radio. Giuseppina, now standing next to Fernando, asked what was happening. Fernando explained the seriousness of the situation. Fernando could hear comments like "this is Europe's business, not ours", and "I fought in the Great War and I want no part of this".
England and France issued an ultimatum to Germany. If they did not withdraw their forces from Poland by Monday, September 3rd, they would declare war on Germany. This was two days away.
As Fernando and Giuseppina drove to Luciano's dormitory, he silently contemplated what the future might hold. He couldn't help but think that this was not unrelated to Germany's and Italy's military successes in supporting the Spanish fascists during the Spanish civil war.
Saturday and Sunday were spent touring the campus and attending several orientation functions. Luciano anxiously spoke of the current international crisis, even suggesting he would leave the university and enter the military should the U.S.A. enter a future conflict. Giuseppina, normally soft spoken, vehemently chastised him for such thoughts. On Sunday evening, Fernando and Giuseppina treated Luciano to a farewell dinner at Gainesville's best steakhouse. Luciano had his first class early the next morning, and they probably wouldn't see him again until Thanksgiving. As Fernando drove away from the dormitory, Giuseppina quietly wept.
"EUROPE AT WAR!!"
The headline in the Monday morning edition of "The Gainesville Sun" newspaper was clear, even to someone whose ability to read English was limited. As Fernando dropped a nickel into the slot to complete his purchase of the newspaper, his mind was racing. Several hours ago, England and France had declared war on Germany. The U.S.A. had formally declared its neutrality, but Fernando knew that this would inevitably change, unless the conflict was quickly resolved. He was not optimistic that this would occur. For the first time ever, he found himself wishing that he and Giuseppina had had only daughters.
He walked back to the motel room and retrieved Giuseppina and their luggage. The Tampeños began their quiet drive to Tampa and the familiarity of Ybor City, West Tampa, and their "Barrio Candamo".