A recent trip to northern Spain led me to learn more about Spanish immigration to Cuba. Like many Cuban-Americans, my ancestors came from Spain fleeing regional conflicts and seeking economic opportunities.
It was in the coastal and inland towns of Asturias that I encountered heart-wrenching manifestations of the Spanish diaspora. I witnessed how it affected the local populations that emigrated and those that remained to mourn their departures.
There is a statue of an emaciated, disheveled woman in rags on the beach in the town of Gijon in Asturias, on the northern coast of Spain. The woman’s statue is officially called “La Madre Asturiana” or Asturian mother, but the locals call her “La Loca,” the mad one, because her expression seems to be mad with grief. The woman is facing the sea and appears to be waving.
In the nearby, inland town of Cangas de Onis, there is a statue of a young man in workers’ clothes with a suitcase in his hand, a jaunty walk and eyes focused on the horizon.
Between 1845 and 1932, almost 5 million Spaniards sailed to the Americas, many to Cuba.
In the coastal town of Colombres you’ll find the Archivo de Los Indianos, a museum dedicated to sharing the history of the emigrants that left for the new world mostly to Cuba, Argentina and other Latin-American countries.
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The exhibits display photos of painful family separations, worn and battered suitcases and posters advertising regular sailings to Havana, Puerto Rico, Buenos Aires and other distant shores.
These emotionally wrenching representations tell the story of the emigrant experience from Spain, particularly the northern regions of Galicia, Asturias, the Basque country and the Catalan regions, but also the Canary Islands and Andalucía.
Spaniards have been migrating to Cuba since Columbus first laid eyes on the island and called it “the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen.” Since then, successive waves of Spanish immigration have landed in Cuba.
Between 1845 and 1932, almost 5 million Spaniards sailed to the Americas, many to Cuba. Between 1916 and 1920, 60% of all Spanish immigrants went to Cuba and the years between 1900 and 1930 saw over 1 million Spaniards arrive on the island. That was significant because around 1920, the population of Cuba was about 4 million.
Today most white Cubans and Cuban-Americans have Spanish ancestry, and many black Cubans do as well. The regions of northern Spain that lost so many of its children to the New World celebrate the successes of those that returned, as well as those that stayed in their new land, with festivals like the Dia de Las Americas celebration in Oviedo and the Fiesta de Los Indianos (those that went to the New World are called Indianos) in La Palma in the Canary Islands.
My trip to northern Spain led me to conduct further research into my family heritage which is also the heritage of so many other Cuban-Americans and Latin Americans of Spanish descent.
I wanted to share the experience with others, and I began taking interested people with me to northern Spain to see these sights firsthand and walk in the steps of their ancestors on a northern Spain cultural tour.
The experience can be emotional especially for those descendants of Spaniards that have researched their backgrounds like cemetery plots, names of towns and relatives’ birth, marriage, or death certificates.
Many Cuban-Americans will identify with their ancestors’ emigration after experiencing their own relatively recent diaspora. They can easily imagine what their ancestors experienced.
It is a unique experience full of personal revelations, at once joyous and bittersweet. To walk in the footsteps of an ancestor is an experience I wouldn’t miss for the world.