The bulk of immigration from Spain to the United States occurred during the second wave of mass European transatlantic migration during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Between 1880 and 1930, about 150,000 Spaniards crossed the Atlantic to the United States. Although few in number compared to Irish and Italian immigrants, the Spanish immigrants gained symbolic importance during the antifascist political movements during the 1930’s.
Spaniards were the first Europeans to explore much of what are now the southern and western regions of the United States. Accordingly, the Spanish established some of the earliest European settlements in North America, including the oldest city in the continental United States,
At various moments in history, Spain held authority over what are now Florida, parts of Louisiana, and a great swath of territory across the southwest from Texas to California. Because of the sparse populations in these areas, Spain set up military towns (presidios) and missionary towns (misiones) in a two-pronged effort to subdue Native American peoples and to establish Spanish authority. The legacy of the early Spanish presence in those regions is still visible in the names of numerous towns and geographical features, in remnants of Spanish colonial architecture and decorative arts, in historic sites scattered across the Southwest, and in the collections of dozens of museums. Classic American “cowboy” culture owes much to the Spanish legacy of cattle ranching. Among the many Spanish terms used in this culture are “corral,” “lasso,” “buckaroo,” and “rodeo.”
During the American Revolutionary War, Spain supported the American colonies against Great Britain, only to lose most of its own colonies in the Americas during the early nineteenth century. In 1821, the United States took control over Florida. During that same year, Mexico won its independence from Spain, and Spanish Texas, California, and the American Southwest became Mexican provinces. Mexico, however, did not hold those territories for long. In 1836, American settlers in Texas won their own independence from Mexico, and Texas was incorporated into the United States in 1845. All the remaining territories of the Southwest were annexed by the United States after it won the Mexican War of 1846-1848. The Spanish and Mexican populations of these annexed territories were not large at the time the United States assumed control over them, but many of the people stayed and became American citizens. In 1898, the United States and Spain met head-on in the Spanish-American War. The American victory left Spanish Cuba and Puerto Rico under American control, along with Guam and the Philippines in the Pacific, and Spanish colonialism in the Western Hemisphere finally came to an end. The United States soon allowed Cuba to go its own way, but it has kept Puerto Rico in a semicolonial status into the twenty-first century.
Around the time the United States was winning control of Spain’s last possessions in the Western Hemisphere in 1898, immigrants from Spain were beginning to arrive in the United States. In fact, most Spanish immigrants came to the United States during the short period between 1900 and 1921. This population movement was a small fraction of a much larger movement of Spaniards to Latin America and to
Seasonal migrations of some Spanish immigrants between Spain and the Western Hemisphere–commonly called golondrina migration–meant that many migrants were counted more than once as they traveled back and forth across the Atlantic. The luckiest migrants returned to Spain to stay after making their fortunes in the New World. During the
The majority of Spanish immigrants to the United States were young, unmarried men of the lower class, and most of them were agricultural laborers by profession. The youthful character of Spanish immigrants and the predominance of young men reflected one of the motives immigrants had for leaving Spain: to avoid Spain’s compulsory military service. Consequently, young men of military age were also the most likely to emigrate illegally. Many emigrants left Spain without proper legal documents or with false papers, and some left from ports outside Spain. Smaller numbers of
The most common Spanish motive for immigration during the early twentieth century, however, was to take advantage of better economic opportunities overseas. The agricultural modernization of Spain coupled with industrial underdevelopment to leave many young displaced agricultural workers with the choice of competing for limited jobs in Spanish cities or emigrating. Spain’s urban centers failed to absorb workers displaced from traditional agricultural jobs. The pressures of the rapidly increasing population forced displaced workers to search for alternatives. The development of steamships and railroads that facilitated long-distance travel encouraged the flow of workers across the Atlantic. Wage work in the Americas held the promise of the possibility of both social and economic upward mobility that was often not present for workers within Spain.
As historian Jose Moya has pointed out, another important factor in deciding for transatlantic emigration was the implementation of liberal emigration laws such as the Spanish Emigration Law of 1907. This law upheld the basic freedom of Spanish citizens to emigrate. However, the law posed certain conditions, for example, it restricted the emigration of young men who had not performed military service and
Spaniards considering emigration received information about opportunities in the United States through various channels. As transportation of immigrants became big business, steamship agents often acted as recruiting agents and intermediaries between aspiring immigrants and their chosen destinations. Another fountain of information about life abroad, perhaps the most important,
The importance of informal networks is apparent in a breakdown of the regions from which Spanish emigrants came. The majority of Spanish immigrants came from the northern coast of Spain, comprising Galicia, Asturias, the
Although the Spanish immigrant community in the United States was small during the 1930’s, it became a hotbed of activity through the years of the
Although Spanish social clubs and mutual aid societies existed in the United States before the war, the 1930’s saw the creation of many new societies and the consolidation of some of those that already existed. For example, the umbrella organization called the Spanish Antifascist Committee started in Brooklyn in 1936 and then became a national organization under the name
The Spanish community of the United States was not alone in its agitation over events in Spain. The Confederated Hispanic Societies would connect at times with a North American organization called the
Within the United States, General Franco found support for his Nationalist cause among the same kinds of groups that supported him in Spain–Roman Catholic organizations and members of the middle class. In 1937, several former members of the Spanish Chamber of Commerce in New York organized the
Franco was installed as Spain’s dictator in 1939 and remained in power until his death in 1975. Meanwhile, many of the small community of Spanish immigrants remained in the United States and other Western Hemispheric countries as political exiles.
As the number of immigrants coming from Spain diminished and descendants of earlier immigrants lost their ties to Spain, the Spanish community of the United States became increasingly identified with the vastly larger Hispanic communities made up of Latin American immigrants. As early as the 1930’s, marriages
Gonzalez, Bernard. Ironbound. New York: Vantage Press, 2003. Memoir of a half-Spanish, half-Lithuanian man of Newark, New Jersey, and the transformations of this immigrant neighborhood in the second half of the twentieth century. González, G. W., Mark Brazaitis, and Daniel F. Ferreras. Pinnick Kinnick Hill: An American Story. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2003. Partly fictionalized memoir of a Spanish immigrant community in West Virginia. Memorializes the development of an Asturian community of industrial laborers in the first half of the twentieth century. Lick, Sue Fagalde. The Iberian Americans. New York: Chelsea House, 1990. Part of a larger series on immigrant groups, this volume provides useful general information about the culture and history of Portuguese and Spanish American communities. Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. Cultural history of Spanish society in North America prior to 1821.
Latin American immigrants
New York City