We all pretty much accept that the United States is primarily a land of immigrants. And anyone educated in the United States will have read about the Spanish conquistadores in their history books. But one thing that most people aren’t aware of is that there were Spanish immigrants who came to the United States long after there were no more Spanish conquistadores. They came, like most other immigrant groups, in search of a better life.
Let’s start off by setting the stage. In the second half of the 1800s, Europe including Spain went through more than a decade of depression. The recovery began shortly after 1890. But just as the other European countries were getting back on their feet, Spain suffered a new loss. In a war with the United States in 1898, she lost the last of her colonies including Cuba, which had been one of her richest.
Coupled with this significant loss of income was an influx of Spanish colonialists returning to their mother country from the colonies she had lost. In other words, more mouths to feed and less income with which to feed them.
These economic problems were felt most acutely in the countryside. Indeed, Spain’s economy at this time was primarily rural. And in that countryside, her southern provinces and in particular the large region known as Andalucia were especially hard hit.
Thousands of country folk in Andalucia were without work and suffering from a lack of food.
Fortuitously, around the same time, in other parts of the world as diverse as Brazil, South Africa and Hawaii, there was a real need for labor, mostly manual labor. Thousands of people were needed to work on the plantations and in the mines of developing regions. These included the sugar cane and pineapple plantations of Hawaii.
Thus it came about that just a few short years after Spain lost her colonies to the United States, plantation owners on Hawaii (which had just joined the United States) came to Spain looking for farm workers.
They found them. Going to villages and towns, the labor contractors spread the word, with the result that thousands of Andalucians flocked to Gibraltar to sign three-year contracts and board ships bound for Hawaii.
Once they arrived, they were scattered among the islands and all able-bodied souls, female as well as male, from kids as young as 11 years old through adults in their 50s, were put to work. The workers were guaranteed housing and free medical care, and were paid enough to allow them the essentials of life plus, if they were very frugal, the possibility of putting aside some savings.
Their contracts also specified that they could homestead land in Hawaii after their three years were up, but since almost all of these workers were illiterate, they were unaware of this. There is no evidence that the plantation owners went any pains to explain it to them, either. The result was that once their contracts were up, they faced the decision as to whether or not to return to Spain.
Their intention had always been to leave their homeland for a few years, work hard, save up some money, and return to their native towns and villages where they could be reunited with their families and live a good life.
But during the years working on the plantations, they heard about California. They heard there was empty land available, that there was water, that the climate in California was very much like that of Andalucia so that if they had some land, they could expect to grow the same crops as they were familiar with from Spain.
As a result, many thousands of these Spaniards ended up moving to California and settling permanently in the Sacramento delta, and in the San Francisco Bay Area. There, for the most part, they did what they had done in Hawaii (and, indeed, in Spain): they took work as farm laborers. The work of these immigrants from Spain enriched California, just as it had enriched Hawaii.
They worked hard, they saved their money, and eventually, most of them bought their own houses. They sent their children to school and became citizens.
So why were there not more of these Spanish immigrants? Because with the onset of World War I in 1914, the situation changed in Spain. Spain did not enter that war, but instead provided food and manufactured goods to the combatants. The bottom line was that with the beginning of Word War I, the economic crisis in Spain came to an end. There was work. Industries began to grow. And the Spanish government didn’t want to be losing workers, so it discouraged further immigration.
As a result of this little-known chapter of Spanish and American history, California today boasts a sizeable number of second and third generation Spanish-Americans. They continue to be concentrated in the Sacramento Delta and the San Francisco Bay Area. And these descendants of Spanish immigrants continue to be proud of their Spanish heritage.