The Call of the Distant Fatherland: Spanish Migrants in Argentina and the Cuban War

By García, Ignacio | Ibero-americana, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Call of the Distant Fatherland: Spanish Migrants in Argentina and the Cuban War


García, Ignacio, Ibero-americana


I. INTRODUCTION

It seems accepted knowledge that all America was in favored of an independent Cuba during the second Cuban War (1895-1898), and that it was only after Washington's armed intervention in mid-1898 that this changed, with some sectors of Latin American opinion siding with Spain. This paper challenges such perception. The Cuban crisis divided America from the very beginning, with at least Spanish migrants and the more traditionalist sectors of the Catholic Church siding purposefully with Spain. The role of Spanish migrants in particular has been grossly overlooked by the historiography of the period: it deserves more attention than just a passing footnote, both for its contributions to the Spanish war and for its impact on public opinion in America1. In fact, had it not been for migrant intervention it is doubtful that the continental wave of post-1898 Hispanism would have taken the form and shape it did.

We are to argue this point in relation to the Spanish community in the Rio de la Plata. There is a special reason to focus on this geographic area. By the mid nineties, some 52 percent of all Spanish migrants in America lived in the Plata, 71.6 percent if we do not take into account those who lived in Cuba and Puerto Rico (still Spanish territory then). In Argentina, the Spanish was the second migrant community in volume, after the Italian. Just in Buenos Aires the number of Spaniards had doubled between 1887 and 1895, from 39 600 to 80 400; in this last year, 58.4 percent of them lived in the center of the city2. If migrants were to gather any political strength, Buenos Aires would be the place in which it would show.

II. CONTRIBUTION OF SPANISH MIGRANTS TO THE WAR EFFORT

Let us first study the extraordinary contributions of these migrants, and their allies within the ranks of the Argentinean traditionalist church, to the war effort of Spain. To put the data we have researched into perspective, we will compare it first with the contributions to the war made by the Spaniards in the Peninsula.

In Spain, all political groups (Anarchists excepted) were in favor of a Spanish Cuba, the federalists of Pi i Margall included: they did want autonomía for Cuba, but it was exactly the same autonomía they wanted for Catalonia or Asturias as well. There were signs of patriotic fervor, as manifested in this anonymous poem from one Spanish publication in Buenos Aires:

El que diga que Cuba se pierde

mientras Covadonga

se venere aquí

es un pillo, ladrón, laborante,

canalla, insurrecto,

rebelde, mambí3

or this other one that Francos Rodríguez puts in the voice of dancer and singer gypsy who was well-known in the cafés of Madrid:

Al pelear con los yanquis,

señores, tendrá que ver

cómo de dos ladrillazos

les haremos de correr.

Tienen muchos barcos,

nosotros, razón;

ellos, armamento;

nosotros, honor (Rodríguez 1931:149).

Despite this, there are many accounts that the war was not fully supported at popular level. Rubén Darío, in 1899, in one of his first articles sent from Spain to La Nación in Buenos Aires registered;

El pueblo no quería la guerra, pues no consideraba las colonias sino como tierras de engorde para los protegidos del presupuesto. La pérdida de ellas no tuvo honda repercusión en el sentimiento nacional Y en el campo, en el pueblo, entre las familias de labradores y obreros, aún podía considerarse tal pérdida como una dicha: ¡así se acabarían las quintas para Cuba, así se suprimiría el tributo de carne peninsular que había que pagar forzosamente al vómito negro! (La Nación, 12 de mayo de 1899)

Varela Ortega, who has studied in depth this period, writes as an example of what the attitude towards the conflict was, how on the Sunday in which the news of the defeat of the Spanish Navy in Manila reached Madrid, the people filled the bullrings as usual (Ortega 1977:316-17; 1980:2). …

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