The Story of New York’s Little Spain
Almost everyone has heard about Little Italy, Yorktown’s German and East European communities, Polish Greenpoint and, of course, Chinatown. Nonetheless, there is a neighborhood in Manhattan that some of its old timers call “España Chica” – Little Spain. From the late 19th century to the present time it served as the social and cultural nerve center of Spanish immigrants who settled in New York City. Little Spain sits just above the West Village, mostly along West 14th Street but the casual non-Spanish pedestrian walking along it would hardly know that he is in a Spanish ethnic enclave. If this stroller were a vexillologist (or a fan of the Real Madrid Soccer team) she would no doubt know that the flag hanging in front of the nondescript brownstone building at 239 West 14th Street that houses the Spanish Benevolent Society is that of the Kingdom of Spain.
Spanish language signage on restaurants and other businesses along this New York City street are not that exceptional, given that the City is home to hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans and other Spanish–speakers from the Americas.
However, as far New Yorkers are concerned, European Spaniards are an unheard ethnic group in this town. In comparison to other white ethnics that immigrated here, they are less than a drop in the proverbial bucket; perhaps 30 thousand at most during the peak of late 19th and early 20th century immigration.
In the U.S there is scant knowledge about Spain and much less about its people who immigrated here. There are only a few sparse histories treat the Spanish exploration and settlement of the United States with the seriousness they deserve. In fact, the majority of U.S. history books are dismissive, uninformed, and even hostile about the Iberian presence in the U. S. Apparently, the fabled Spanish thirst for gold far exceeded that of the Anglo-Americans who poured into California, other Western states, and Alaska in search of this precious metal. The Spaniards are also seen as the worst when it comes to the treatment of the American Indians but, with the exception of historian Jill Lapore who documented the horrific near annihilation of those living in New England by the English, scant attention is given to that virtual holocaust. In most historical accounts, the Spanish are cast as being mostly unattached men who raped the Indian women while the English are depicted as devoutly religious men with wives and children at their sides. However, Spanish ship passenger records, as well marriage and baptismal records in Spanish territories in America, say otherwise. Additionally, the histories of the American Revolution by and large, barely mention Spain’s contribution to the independence of the US but in many ways it was far greater than that of France and the other European nations combined, even though Spain never formally allied herself with the U.S. In those days the gold Spanish peso was the currency of America and considerable amounts of it and war materiel were funneled directly and indirectly to the American cause for independence. Spanish ports in Europe and in the Americas were made available to U.S. Naval ships and Spanish forces under General Bernardo Gálvez defeated the British in several battles along the Gulf Coast and Mississippi Valley and thereby closed off potential British attacks on the Americans from the Western and Southern frontiers. Finally, the 3-year-long Spanish siege of Gibraltar (24 June 1779 – 7 February 1783) though not successful, forced the British to divert troops and other resources there that would otherwise have gone to the war in the U.S. Spain was America’s faithful ally in all but name. It seems that few American historians in the past have availed themselves of the vast Spanish archives and rather have steeped themselves in those of England and France. Recently for instance, a review of names of prisoners held by the British on their infamous prison ships in New York Harbor has uncovered several dozen badly spelt Spanish ones. The Spanish call the English defamation of their country la leyenda negra (the black legend.) This calumny of the ancient hostility between the Spanish and the British was later adopted by the Anglo-Americans when relations between the US and Spain soured after the American Revolution.
It is hard to imagine now but in the 18th century New York City and much of the rest of the thirteen British colonies of America, it was practically illegal to be a Roman Catholic. Widespread anti-Catholicism was a side effect of the Catholic-Protestant wars of 17th century Europe and the geo-political rivalries between the English Crown and the allied Franco Spanish Kingdoms for control of the Americas.
In any event, in 1789 Spain’s ambassador to the United States, Diego de Guardoqi, a wealthy Portuguese merchant named Jose Ruiz Silva and French diplomat, Hector St Jean Crevecoeur teamed up to petition New York City’s Mayor and Common Council for permission to have “a suitable site upon which we can construct a church.” Despite their prominence City officials were not moved and the City’s Catholics sought help from Trinity Church (formerly Anglican and now Episcopalian) which leased property for a Catholic Church at a nominal fee on the corner of what is now Church and Barclay streets, then on the periphery of the city. They then turned to their European co-religionists for funds to build the church. They then appealed directly to King Carlos III of Spain and King Louis XVI of France for financial support. Eventually, Spain’s monarch emerged as the primary sponsor of the Church of St. Peter the first Roman Catholic Church in New York City when he donated 1000 “Pesos Fuertes” for its construction. Eventually, His Most Catholic Majesty Carlos III, King of Spain, emerged as the primary sponsor of St. Peter’s when he donated 1000 “Pesos Fuertes” to build the church.
The original St.Peter’s Church and the current one.
An uptick in migration from the Iberian nation, Cuba, and Puerto Rico also occurred following the Spanish-American War of 1898. Bernardo Vega, a Puerto Rican cigar maker who came to New York in 1917 relates in his diary that from the late 19th century through the end of WWI, there were thousands of cigar making shops in New York City and over 500 of these were owned by Spaniards and other Hispanics. Other sources like labor leader Samuel Gompers say that New York City, not Tampa, Florida was ‘the cigar capital of the United States. Most of these went under when machine-made cigarettes supplanted hand-rolled cigars. Another wavelet of immigration followed in the wake of Spain’s 1936-1939 Civil War and the Franco dictatorship. Finally, there was a sharp decline in the 1970s and 1980s when Spain prospered under democracy. Younger Spaniards stayed home and older Spanish immigrants living in the US fulfilled their dream to return to their homeland.
Well into the 1960s, Castilian accented Spanish was spoken on W. 14th Street and the annual Dia de La Raza parade on Fifth Avenue that celebrated the melding of Hispanic and Amerindian cultures held sway. Little Spain one Hispanic establishment after another and not only very famous restaurants like El Coruña, La Bilbaina, and Cafe Madrid, but also Spanish bookstores and shops selling Spanish-style textiles, like the famous stores Iberia and Casa Moneo. From 1929 to 1988, Casa Moneo was a leader in Spanish and Latin American gastronomy in New York City. Located at 210 West 14th Street Casa Moneo was opened by Spaniard from the Basque region, Carmen Barañano, widow of Jesús Moneo, as a “tienda de ultramarinos” (the overseas store) where home-sick Spaniards bought packaged foods imported from Spain. Along with food they also sold cookware, dresses, shoes and perfumes. Some movie houses in Chelsea featured “all Spanish programs”, displaying films with Spanish, Mexican, and other Latin American actors. One of the film’s highlights is footage of what for years was the most popular celebration in the community, the Santiago Apostol (St. James Day) festival but it died out in the early 1990s due to the steady exodus of the Hispanic community from that part of the city.
Another center of Spanish immigrant life in New York City has not fared well. This place was known as “Spanish Camp”
It was a summer bungalow colony in Staten Island founded by the Spanish Naturopath Society in 1929 as a seaside summer retreat for Spanish speaking families from various New York City barrios. Camp life included tan canvas tents on raised wooden platforms with open-air kitchens under canopies in the back; common showers, latrines, and water pumps; plentiful clamming and fishing, seasonal performances by celebrated Flamenco dancers and musicians in the Salon—a lantern-strung hall with barn-like doors in the center of the Camp. In the late 1930s and early 1940s the tents were transformed to became small summer bungalows; later, many were winterized. It had its own streets and services, quite independent of the rest of Staten Island and New York City. Additionally it had small pond and associated wetlands as well as a small beach that aced New York Harbor, with an adjacent picnic area and athletic field.Faced with a dwindling membership and debts the Board of Directors sold the camp’s 18 acres to a developer in 2000.for $1.7 million He demolished its buildings but to date (2015) ) has not been able build a planned luxury condo there.
Today Little Spain is littler than before but it is still the beating heart of Spanish New York. A recent influx of Spaniards fleeing the disastrous economy in their homeland has reinvigorated the Spanish Benevolent Society with over 300 members in the in the last few years.