Historical Introduction: Spaniards in the US

José María Vázquez, Galician immigrant, owner of "La Iberia" haberdashery on West 14th Street, the main artery of what would become known as "Little Spain." Courtesy of his son, Maximio.

“Spaniards in the United States”; for most people, this phrase will probably conjure up images of the conquistadores and frailes who, in the XVI, XVII and XVIII centuries, and on behalf of the Spanish Crown, carried out the exploration, conquest and colonization of large swaths of what is today territory of the United States.

But in fact, the story of Spaniards in the US is largely a story of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.  Few people realize that more Spaniards crossed the Atlantic to the Americas –North, Central and South– in the fifty-year period between 1880 and 1930, than in the almost four-hundred year interval between 1492 and 1880.  The presence of vast numbers of Spaniards in the Americas is more a product of the dissolution of the Spanish empire, than it is a result of the establishment and maintenance of that empire. The story of Spanish immigration to the Americas is part of the story of the vast diaspora of Europeans –workers and peasants, for the most part– who, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, crossed the Atlantic in search of a better future, and, in so doing, forever transformed both their host countries on this side of the Atlantic, and their home countries in Europe.

Unlike those Italian or German or Polish emigrants who set their sights on the United States as their destination, Spanish emigrants in this period would most often choose initially to resettle in parts of Spanish-speaking America:  Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Cuba or Puerto Rico, for example.  But we should keep in mind that the period in question –1880 – 1930– is a time when the connections –commercial, cultural and political connections– between Spanish-speaking America and the United States were multiplying at a vertiginous rate. Once in Havana, or Buenos Aires or Mexico City, an enterprising Spanish immigrant might decide to re-emigrate, to New Orleans, or Tampa, or New York, for example.

Though there are significant cases of Spaniards emigrating directly to the United States, many of the ancestors of today’s Spanish-Americans arrived to this country after stints in Spanish-speaking America.  And because New York, by the mid-nineteenth century, had become a commercial, financial and maritime hub for  burgeoning “pan-American” exchanges of all sorts, the city received a significant number of  re-emigrating Spaniards in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The trades and interests of many of these Spanish New Yorkers reveal the contours of the history of the process:  tobacco dealers, cigar makers, the sugar trade, seamen, longshoreman and dockworkers.

This webpage is an attempt to reconstruct the history, the contributions and the vestiges of these “invisible immigrants” in New York.

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