In the early 20th century, Santander, Spain only offered a dismal future. Enrique Franco Perez would be trapped in an economic rut if he stayed. As a 17-year-old boy, he decided to leave his parents and board the Niagara through a French port. As a stowaway, he risked his life just for the possibility of a brighter future for himself. Enrique was motivated by economic and political push factors in Spain and the promise of financial gain in America.
Life in Spain was volatile, characterized by economic turbulence, violent uprisings, and social inequality. During World War I, Spain declared neutrality but still played a crucial role in exports for other European nations. While warring countries abandoned agricultural and industrial exports and focused on fueling war production, Spanish businessmen took advantage of the open market. A large amount of wealth originated from the boom in textiles, coal, banking, agriculture, chemical products, and shipping (Linares). However, the new thriving economy did not reward everyone equally; manual workers in the middle class, like Enrique’s parents, suffered greatly. For example, due to the increase in steel exports, steel decreased in the domestic market and stopped construction, resulting in the unemployment of unskilled laborers (Linares). Guarnizo, Enrique’s hometown near the coast, was known for shipbuilding, so the steel crisis deeply affected his local economy and his family’s financial well-being. Due to the family’s crippling socioeconomic status, they could not all afford to leave Spain; instead, they were forced to pick the family member with the best chance at success, which was Enrique- a fit, working-age male. Furthermore, skyrocketing domestic prices resulted in social imbalances and unfair taxation that favored the rich. The differences in wages and prices hurt many farmers, workers, and middle-class families. While “the index of prices rose…from…100 to 218,” the wage index “rose only from 100 to 125” (Linares). Therefore, Enrique’s family would be paying more for goods than they would be receiving in wages, an inevitable crash course into debt.
Consequently, the class gap, combined with corruption and a weak administration, resulted in diminishing economic opportunities and strikes. Usually, strikes were hosted by anarchists, Spaniards that wanted to overthrow the monarchy; eventually, these protests doubled from 1913 to 1919 and escalated into armed showdowns between anarchists and police (Linares). One strike hosted by the Socialists left 80 people dead, 500 seriously injured, and over 2,000 arrested (Linares). The political turmoil made Enrique and his family feel unsafe and fearful of moving to the cities, where other desperate, rural Spaniards migrated to find work.
Unfortunately, Spain’s condition worsened after other European nations returned to the market and resumed their original exports because Spain could not compete, evidenced by the 39% decrease in Spanish exports from 1919 to 1922 (Linares). Most likely, Enrique’s family waited until after the war to send Enrique because they were hoping the postwar years would offer more financial stability; after realizing Spain would only continue spiraling downward, his family decided they could not let their son live in a cycle of poverty. Overall, Enrique’s chances for socioeconomic improvement as an adult were slim if he stayed in Spain; it was time to move from an overcrowded, floundering country to a land of growth and freedom.
After Enrique found his motivation, he was faced with the next obstacle: the method of emigration. Spanish immigration procedures were long, complicated, and tedious. To leave from a Spanish port, citizens were required to contact government officials- a two-week endeavor- and pay “2,000 pesetas…to buy one’s way out of military service” (Gomez), which was a major obstacle to poor Spaniards, like Enrique. To avoid bureaucratic red tape, Spaniards tried to leave from foreign ports; however, this shortcut proved just as frustrating as citizens had to contact their province’s governor and the Spanish consul in the foreign country (Gomez). Therefore, Enrique only had one viable option: Clandestine emigration. According to a study from Cambridge University, 40% of illegal immigrants would leave as a temporary visitor and board steamships at foreign ports using an agent. Enrique’s passenger record from The Niagara shows he left from Port Bordeaux, an infamous French port known for illegally transporting Spaniards (“Passenger Record”). Enrique’s willingness to risk being caught, stranded, or taken advantage of by a smuggling agent demonstrates the strength of his motivations.
On the other hand, the United States grew into an industrial power as the Spanish empire struggled to survive. As American men were drafted into the army, job positions opened for immigrants, and “wages rose in the industrial sector…by six or seven percent” (Rockoff). The United States had transformed itself from a debtor country of $2.2 billion into a net creditor of $6.4 billion after rapid war production boosted the economy, and the Bank of England in London lost its title as the most important global banking institution to the Federal Reserve in New York (Rockoff). Accordingly, America had declared to the world it was a banking powerhouse and a land of opportunity. The 1920s became a decade of booming economies and abundant work, two appealing ideas for Enrique, who was looking for jobs and a chance to climb the social ladder.
As a teenager, Enrique arrived at Ellis Island, his first glimpse of the New World. In New York, he was adopted by the Wilkes family through a church’s adoption program, and he moved to New Jersey. Even though Enrique became an adult and could move somewhere else, he chose to remain in New Jersey to find work and start a family. Interestingly, workers from different regions of Spain migrated to specific areas in America; for instance, citizens from Gallacia and Asturias moved to Florida to work in cigar factories while citizens from Basque and Castile moved to the Southeast for ranches, hotels, and restaurants. Enrique was from the Cantabria province, where many migrants moved to New England to work at stone quarries, ports, and ships which is the same type of work found in Guarnizo (Fernández). However, Enrique is an anomaly in his immigration wave; instead, he worked odd jobs-probably due to his young age- until he could afford a chicken farm. Enrique chose to stay in New Jersey after his adoption because he found security in a community with people from his home province, reminding him of his family back in Spain.
Unquestionably, Enrique’s homesickness would dissipate as he enjoyed the luxuries of the Roaring 1920s, a time of reaping the benefits from rapid industrialization. With an increased standard of living, lower tax increases, and a thriving economy, many citizens could indulge themselves. In other words, young people could focus on parties and the freedoms to explore sexual liberation, jazz, speakeasy, and new technology, like cars and radios (“The Decade that Roared”). Since Enrique did not have to worry about money or obtaining necessities, he could marry my great-grandmother and raise his four children in a stable, peaceful household.
However, Enrique’s new life came with a price: hateful, nativist attitudes. Strong, outspoken nativism against Spaniards originated from a speech by Congressman Harold Knutson in 1920. Knutson declared that “the Spanish government is rounding up all these anarchists and dumping them into the U.S.” (Fernández). Fueled by the Red Scare and economic recession in the 1930s, Americans grew resentful toward Spanish Americans for trying to taint their democracy with anarchism. The lies and the fears stirred by Knutson created the basis for future immigration quotas. For instance, in 1924, “only 131 Spaniards could legally enter the U.S.” (Fernández), a drastic difference from the previous 5 million immigrants. Despite dealing with discrimination and stereotyping, Enrique was lucky to enter the United States; with the quota in place, he probably would not have been granted citizenship, even if he was a young, working male.
After Enrique’s divorce, he sold his chicken farm to use his profits and social security checks to live comfortably in Spain. He moved back to his family in Santander in 1953 (Wilkes). Surprisingly, Enrique is not an outlier; out of the 5 million Spaniards that moved to the Americas from 1882 to 1947, over 3.8 million returned to Spain (Gomez). Since Enrique moved to America primarily for financial gain, he most likely moved back to Spain to retain his financial security. When he emigrated, the Spanish economy was in shambles, and he lived among the poor ranks, but, upon his return, Spain had undergone an economic revolution, promising him a well-off life. In 1953, the United States and Spain formed the Pact of Madrid which allowed the U.S. to build military bases in Spain in exchange for monetary aid; from the exchange, Spain was provided over $1 billion over ten years, and the GNP increased by 5% per year (“The Franco Era, 1939-75”). Moreover, as more younger people were inducted into office, government spending decreased, involvement with the global economy increased, and inflation decreased, all positive factors leading to “substantial economic progress” (“The Franco Era, 1939-75”). With advanced industrialization and a free-market economy, new Spain resembled the prosperous America that Enrique discovered in the 1920s. Now, Enrique could enjoy the best of both worlds: pecuniary success and his family.
Ultimately, Enrique had to fight and make sacrifices to find a better life. He risked his life traveling across the stormy seas of the Atlantic; moreover, by leaving Spain illegally, he risked jail time and losing his chance to immigrate, again. Undoubtedly, the hardest part was leaving his beloved family behind, unable to ensure their safety or wellbeing. However, Enrique grew stronger from these obstacles. Traveling alone as a teenager and figuring out a new life from scratch are daunting tasks, but Enrique embraced the challenge with a new sense of independence and an adventurous spirit. Furthermore, his entrepreneurial courage not only benefited Enrique’s immediate family but also inspired my father to start his own law practice. He successfully planted his roots in America by creating a new family, one that can pass down his story and thrive as a result of his hard work and achievement. Even though Enrique returned to Spain, his legacy will forever live in America.
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