The Cuba-Spain Immigrant Connection

Ivet González

Bust of Cuba’s National Hero Jose Martí.  Photo: Caridad
Bust of Cuba’s National Hero Jose Martí. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, Jan. 31 (IPS) — Their tanned skin is weathered by years of sun, and their voices preserve traces of accents from different regions of Spain.

They are elderly Spanish immigrants who have benefited from social policies both in their home country and in Cuba, which took them in, and their life stories are the subject of a documentary that premiered this month.

“Anyone who emigrates does so because things aren’t going well,” Constantino Díaz Lucas, who came as a teenager from the northern Spanish province of Asturias to this Caribbean island nation, told IPS. Photos from his 100th birthday party appear in “Memoria de viajes” (roughly, “travel memories”), the 2010 documentary by two young filmmakers Carlos Rafael Betancourt and Oscar Ernesto Ortega.

The documentary brings to life the results of the study “Políticas sociales y tercera edad: perfíl, recursos y diagnóstico de los españoles en Cuba” on social policies for the elderly and the situation of Spanish immigrants in Cuba.

The study was led by professors at the University of Havana and the La Laguna University in Spain’s Canary Islands, with the support of the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID).

“It seems like academic researchers live in a world of their own, and produce things that never actually reach people,” said Carmen Ascanio, the La Laguna coordinator of the study, who has previously carried out research on migration from the Canary Islands to Venezuela.

To break with that practice, the professors leading the study decided to produce a film on the study, to “communicate the results of the social scientific research.”

Through the experiences of Isabel Cruz, María Santa Fernández, Fernando Barral, Alfonso Pazos, José Iglesias and Áurea Matilde Fernández, “Memoria de viajes” reflects the similarities of the life stories of elderly Spanish immigrants in Cuba, 75 of whom were interviewed for the study by Cuban students of psychology.

Cases from Asturias, Galicia and Canary Islands

The subjects of the study were born in Asturias and Galicia, in northern Spain, and in the Canary Islands, off the coast of North Africa — the main sources of 20th century Spanish immigration to Cuba, said Consuelo Martín, the coordinator of the study in Havana.

The stories also reflect the reasons for the outflow of migrants from Spain in the early and mid-20th century: economic troubles, family problems, evasion of obligatory military service, the 1936-1939 civil war, and the 1939-1975 dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

The Spaniards forced to leave their country as a result of the civil war included children sent abroad for their own protection. Many war refugees and political exiles settled in Cuba, Mexico, Argentina and other Latin American countries.

The people making up the last wave of migration from Spain to Cuba are now in their 60s or older, and are living in a country that has “specific social policies on health and education aimed at providing the elderly with a decent life,” Martín said.

The Spanish government has also extended a hand to Spanish emigrants, especially the elderly.

A universal basic pension for all Spaniards over the age of 65 and travel programs like Añoranza (Longing) and Raíces (Roots) are the biggest sources of support provided by Spain’s foreign policy.

The government programs offer round-trip visits to Spain for elderly persons who have not visited their country of origin for years, making the dream of a return come true.

“For immigrants, returning to their place of origin is a goal from the very moment they leave their home country,” said Fernández, a historian who was one of the so-called “children of the civil war.”

In 2004, Isabel “Cachita” Cruz was able to walk down the street where she was born in 1932, near the port of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands.

She was just five years old when she came to Havana with her Cuban mother and her siblings, leaving behind her Spanish father, who was unable to leave because of the war. She never saw him again, she told IPS.

Constantino Díaz, who said he has lived “more as a Cuban than a Spaniard,” remembers with surprising precision at the age of 100 each of his trips back to Spain between 1951 and 2007. “I can’t complain about Cuba,” he said with a smile.

Thankful to Cuba

A sensation of gratitude towards this Caribbean island nation was expressed in each of the 75 interviews, Martín said.

All of the people in the group had relatives who had migrated to Cuba before them, said the professor, who has studied issues of families and migration between both countries.

“The family is at the centre of the contradictions of migration flows, with their inevitable ruptures and dynamic reunions,” she said.

One of the directors of the documentary, Carlos Rafael Betancourt, said that getting to know the immigrants was a learning experience for him. The issue of migration tends to be seen in Cuba as “a conflict among the young,” he said. But now he understands that it is “a natural process that has always existed.”

Migration patterns in Cuba have changed since the 1930s, when it became a source of emigrants more than a destination for immigrants, Martín said.

That tendency continued, with upsurges in emigration at specific times, like the Mariel boatlift — a mass exodus of Cubans who set out for the U.S. from the Mariel Harbor between April and October 1980 — and the August 1994 rafters’ crisis — when at least 30,000 Cubans left the country for the U.S. on precarious rafts.

Spanish immigration to Cuba “is also linked to the current wave of emigration from Cuba. Children and grandchildren of those elderly Spaniards, who were born here, one way or another form part of a cycle of migration,” Martín said.

She said it is “logical and natural” for these children and grandchildren of Spanish immigrants “to seek solutions and new ways of life in the place where their forebears were born.”

In 2009, some 17,000 Cubans obtained Spanish citizenship under the “law of historical memory”, which introduced temporary changes to Spain’s nationality laws.

Under the law’s nationality statute, which expires at the end of this year, the children and grandchildren of Spaniards have the right to Spanish citizenship, while retaining their current nationality. The law seeks to redress the injustice suffered by those forced into exile by the civil war and the Franco dictatorship.

The number of Cubans who apply for Spanish nationality may rise to 200,000 this year, before the statute expires.

3 thoughts on “The Cuba-Spain Immigrant Connection

  • Where could I find information about my family immigrating to Cuba in the late 19th and early 20th centuries?

  • I have the Dutch surname Brouwer and the Brouwer branch of our family migrated to Cuba from France and married people from different parts of Spain. I recently learned that the Dutch surname Brouwer that our family has used for well over one hundred years was acquired by adoption in the Basque Country of South Western France circa early 1800when a Dutch immigrant married a Basque woman that had children from a previous marriage and some took the Dutch surname.
    My rightful surname should be Marot, other surnames in our family include Etchecopar, Centeno, De la Torre.
    Most of the Brouwer b and Leganoa branches of the family left Cuba in the early 1960s while the Centenos and De La Torre stayed in Cuba. Our family went to Cuba as relatively poor immigrants and we do not consider ourselves Iberian elitist and we are all Cubans, African, European, Native, Asian. All ofus contributed to Cuba and even in exile still love our native country, I hope that Cuba will evolve into a freer and more just society and I advocate constructive engagement with Cuba by Americans and Cuban- Americans.

  • Thank you for writing into this particular “insight” into cuban society.

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