Fernando’s Footsteps

by Tony Carreño

 

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 last year 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 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.

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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