A NEW FILM BY LUIS ARGEO AND JAMES D. FERNANDEZ. [trailer here.]
During the almost ten years that we have conducted fieldwork among the descendants of Spanish immigrants in the US, three entangled phenomena have often caught our attention.
First: even though many descendants affirm that their Spanish ancestors came to the US with the clear intention of staying, when we carefully examine family archives, the story that emerges is almost always more complicated. In case after case, we find evidence of how these immigrants –like most immigrants throughout history– almost certainly harbored dreams of someday returning to their homeland. Those dreams may have faded and even disappeared as the years and decades went by, and as history and life followed their inscrutable twists and turns. The immigrants themselves may have come to disavow and maybe even deny that they ever had such a dream. But all kinds of evidence –letters, customs, attitudes toward the two countries, philosophies about child-rearing, decisions about passports, etc.– point to the fact that these Spanish immigrants, like any reasonable human being, were constantly hedging their bets, trying to figure out where they would have a better chance of making it.
Coming to terms with this fact can be difficult: as descendants contemplating the past, we all have a vested interest in the story turning out the way it did: we want to think that our parents or grandparents emigrated to the US and were destined to become Americans and to become the parents and grandparents of Americans: us! Had they chosen to return to Spain –like so many of their siblings, relatives and compatriots actually did– most of us would not be here; a most uncomfortable proposition to say the least…
Second: in family after family, we can identify a precise moment in time when the dream of a return is abandoned or at least postponed indefinitely. In general, Spaniards who had been here in the roaring 1920s did OK for themselves; but when the Great Depression hit in 1929, they, like everyone else, were knocked for a loop. Just two years later, Spain inaugurated a new democratic regime –the Second Republic– that made great promises. And in the family archives, we can often see how, in the early 1930s, many immigrants, at that point in time, entertained the idea of returning to Spain. It’s not at all difficult to imagine our pragmatic grandmothers musing aloud in 1931 or 32: “If I’m going to be hungry anyway, I’d rather be hungry in Spain and in Spanish.” But the Republic’s experiment was turbulent to say the least –the times were not at all propitious for fledgling democracies– and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 put on hold any dreams of a homecoming. And for many families, the outcome of that war three years later –a destroyed country, and a fascist dictatorship– dashed any such dreams once and for all.
Third: it is truly remarkable –and deeply moving– to see, among descendants of
Spanish immigrants, how many family archives, family albums and family narratives are so neatly and dramatically cleft into a before and after, with the war of 1936-39 occupying the point of inflection. The owners of those archives, albums and narratives are often not even aware of this cleavage; they certainly have no reason to be experts on the history of immigration or on the history the Spanish Civil War. To us, however, the cataclysmic Spanish Civil War seems to be inscribed everywhere in these family histories; though we also usually learn that in most cases, the immigrants themselves chose, for a complex set of reasons, not to talk much to their descendants about those difficult years. And in some particularly striking cases, we can actually see how some immigrants even chose to misrepresent that story, removing or replacing photo captions and labels, for example, or fashioning apocryphal stories about Spanish Civil War memorabilia that they didn’t want to part with, but needed to recontextualize, for their own comfort, and for the comfort of their descendants.
Our latest documentary film —The Weight of Remembering— is, among other things, an exploration of these three phenomena: 1) the myth of immigrants who are imagined to have been born in Spain already as proto-Americans, destined to come and stay here; 2) the Spanish Civil War as a cataclysmic event that rewrites the immigrants’ futures as well as their pasts; 3) the family archives which, because of 1 and 2, have, in some senses, become largely illegible to many of the descendants.
In the film, the fictionalized narrator is a grandson who has inherited a mysterious heirloom from his Spanish immigrant grandfather –a relic from the years the grandfather had spent in Tampa, Florida. Nobody had ever asked the grandfather about the significance for him of this mute and weighty object. And now it is too late. Or is it?