Spanish immigrants Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

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, Florida;Spanish immigrantsFlorida;St. Augustine[Saint Augustine]St. Augustine, Florida, which they established in 1565.Spanish immigrantsSpanish immigrants[cat]AGRICULTURAL WORKERS;Spanish immigrants[cat]EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS;Spanish immigrants[cat]IMMIGRANT GROUPS;Spanish immigrants

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.

Era of Mass European Immigration

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 Argentina;Spanish immigrantsArgentina and Cuba in particular. Of the estimated total of 3.5 million Spaniards who immigrated to the Western Hemisphere between 1880 and 1930, only about 150,000 ended up in the United States. However, these figures do not represent the total populations of Spaniards who stayed in the Americas because of the high percentage of Return migration;Spanishreturn migration.

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 Great Depression;and Spanish immigrants[Spanish immigrants]1920’s and 1930’s, however, many migrants returned to Spain because of diminished opportunities in the global economic downturn that led to the Great Depression. Of the 150,000 Spanish immigrants who came to the United States before the Depression, little more than one-half stayed.

Motives for Immigration

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 Anarchists;Spanishanarchist and syndicalist “undesirables” also took part in the legal and illegal flow of people out of Spain.

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 Women;Spanishyoung women who did not have the permission of their guardians to emigrate. Women over the age of twenty-three who were legally autonomous could be denied the right to emigrate if it were Prostitution;and Spanish emigrants[Spanish emigrants]suspected that they were prostitutes. The law also stipulated that married women had their husbands’ permission to leave. Nevertheless, this law was permissive enough to allow most potential immigrants to take advantage of immigration laws in American countries that favored Europeans until the implementation of U.S. restrictions on immigration during the 1920’s.

Transatlantic Information Networks

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, Chain migration;Spanishcame from Spanish emigrants already living in foreign countries and those who had returned after living abroad. The figure of the indiano or americano, the successful immigrant, often spurred relatives or townspeople to try their luck at their own successful American experience. The attraction of joining family, friends, and neighbors also continued to draw people, often to the same concentrated areas in the same cities, well after other reasons for immigration disappeared.

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 Basque immigrantsBasque country, and Cantabria, although Galicians and Asturians predominated. Other groups also joined the Galicians, however, including the Valencians, Andalusians, Catalans, Castilians, and Canarians. Family, friends, and neighbors also affected choices of final destinations in the United States, often in connection with particular industries. Most Andalusians, for example, migrated first to Hawaii;Spanish immigrantsHawaii to work on sugar plantations and then continued on to California;Spanish immigrantsCalifornia. Many Asturians were attracted to the cigar-making industry in Florida;Spanish immigrantsTampa, Florida, an extension of the cigar industry in Cuba. Industrial work in Pennsylvania;Spanish immigrantsPennsylvania, Ohio;Spanish immigrantsOhio, WestVirginia;Spanish immigrantsWest Virginia, and Michigan;Spanish immigrantsMichigan attracted Asturian miners and Galicians. However, nearly one-half of all Spanish immigrants ended up in the greater New York City;Spanish immigrantsNew York City region, which included southern Connecticut, northern New Jersey, and New York City itself.

Immigrants Basque immigrantsfrom Spain’s Basque region are a special case. Basque sheepherders had begun migrating to the Pacific Northwest around 1910, but national origins quotas imposed in U.S. immigration law during the 1920’s greatly slowed Spanish immigration. During the 1950’s, however, the U.S. government identified a special need for workers willing to take on the solitary lifestyle of sheepherding. In order to obtain sheepherders, the U.S. Congress passed legislation permitting about 1,000 Basques to enter the United States outside the quota limits.

Spanish Civil War and the Rise of Franco

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 Civil War, SpanishSpanish Civil War (1936-1939). In April of 1931, peaceful elections ushered in Spain’s second attempt at a republican form of government. It was led by a coalition of socialists, republicans, and various cultural nationalist groups. The failure of these disparate groups to unite their causes into a single coherent vision spelled the ultimate failure of Spain’s Second Republic and the eventual successful implementation of a right-wing nationalist dictatorship led by General Franco, FranciscoFrancisco Franco. During the Spanish Civil War, many Spaniards living in the United States mobilized behind the Republican and Nationalist causes.

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 Confederated Hispanic SocietiesConfederated Hispanic Societies. This organization encompassed dozens of associated organizations, most of them from the greater New York City area and the East Coast, and became the major Hispanic organization responsible for organizing fund-raising efforts and an active pro-republican propaganda. Other vehicles for organization of Spanish immigrants were unions and political parties.

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 Medical Bureau and North American Committee to Aid Spanish DemocracyMedical Bureau and North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy for political rallies and fund-raising efforts. Some Spanish Americans fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side, along with the International Brigades made up of volunteers from all over Europe and the Americas. However, the American contingent was made up of dozens of volunteers of all ethnicities.

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 Casa de EspañaCasa de España, which became the center of pro-Franco activity. It was led by Francisco de Cardenas, JuanJuan Francisco de Cardenas, the Spanish Nationalist government’s representative to the United States. This organization pro-Franco propaganda was not intended solely, or even mainly, for the Spanish community in the United States. Many of the Casa de España’s propaganda efforts were aimed at winning over North American conservatives, an endeavor in which it had some success. Franco’s Spanish American supporters also established the National Spanish Relief Association to raise funds for Nationalist Spain.

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.

Spanish Community of the United States

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 Intermarriage;and Spanish immigrants[Spanish immigrants]of immigrants from Spain and Latin America were beginning to occur. Perhaps there is no greater sign of this melding of communities than the evolution of the Press;Spanish-language[Spanish language]Spanish newspaper La Prensa into the Hispanic newspaper El Diario la Prensa, the Spanish-language newspaper with the largest circulation in the United States.Spanish immigrants

Further Reading
  • 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.

California

European immigrants

Florida

Hawaii

Latin American immigrants

Louisiana

Montana

Nevada

New Jersey

New York City

Spanish-language press

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