Some detective work at the Archivo Histórico Nacional in Madrid has allowed us to shed some light on the process whereby New York’s Spanish Benevolent Society/La Nacional, was founded in 1868. The club is still in existence, and will soon be celebrating its 150th birthday! Among the highlights of the planned celebration will be the re-opening of the club’s restaurant at 239 West 14th Street, and the premier of “Once Upon a Place” –Celia Novis’s film (Somiant Productions) that explores the history of La Nacional.
Over the last century and a half, there have been a dizzying number of mergers and splits of New York’s multiple Spanish immigrant organizations. In the process, many records have been lost or misplaced, and multiple layers of legends and rumors have accumulated –like the countless coats of paint on the walls of an old building– regarding the origins and the evolution of La Nacional. For this reason, it is particularly gratifying to find in the archive some unequivocal evidence of the organization’s origins. It is also of particular interest –in these dark times– to see how undocumented Spaniards play a crucial role in this seminal moment in the history of New York’s “invisible immigrants.”
It was in the Spring of 1867, almost exactly 150 years ago, that Spain’s Consul in New York, Joaquín Marcos de Satrústegui, noticed an alarming trend: increasing numbers of destitute Spaniards were showing up at the doors of his Consulate pleading for assistance. Satrústegui’s ability to aid his needy compatriots was limited because, as he reports, most of them were undocumented or otherwise “beyond the limits of the law.” And so, Satrústegui appealed to the handful of wealthy Spanish business leaders who at the time were living in New York, asking them to organize a charitable organization, and to contribute a monthly quota, to be used to aid their unfortunate countrymen.
My Dear Sirs,
With alarming frequency, sick or destitute Spanish citizens have been coming to this Consulate. Because of a broken bone, loss of eyesight or some other misfortune, they solicit help from the Consul, even though I am unable to officially aid them with funds from the government of His Majesty, because these folks are undocumented, often having jumped ship from the merchant marine, or for some other reason finding themselves outside the limits of the law.
And yet, since the voice of humanity in pain is so strong, it can not always be ignored; and so it is that the burden, though excessive if it weighs solely on the consulate, can be manageable and even pleasant if shared with others.
I enclose copies of the Articles 61, 62 and 63 of the Royal Order from 19 July 1856, and I take the liberty of appealing to your humanitarian and patriotic sentiments, asking you to consider becoming contributors, each according to your means and will, of a reasonable monthly sum to that end. I also ask that from among your ranks you appoint an accountant/ treasurer who, together with me, can manage the investment of this charitable fund.
Your most affectionate, attentive and loyal servant,
JM de Satrústegui
Now: it is important to point out that a similar initiative had already been undertaken some thirty years earlier, under the patronage of the great Cuban-born priest, Father Félix Varela, and with the involvement of Spanish and Spanish American ex-pats in the city, like Andrés Patrullo, Manuel de Puga, Francisco del Hoyo, Antonio Aicinena y Mariano Velázquez de la Cadena. But that “Sociedad Española de Beneficencia,” founded in 1837-38, didn’t seem to prosper, or at least it has not left many historical traces. So much so, that just thirty years later, when Satrústegui addressed the Spanish ex-pat community in New York in 1867, he seemed to have no awareness of this previous attempt to organize a similar intiative. So it is that the club that still exists today, with headquarters at 239 West 14th Street, can point to an uninterrupted chain of evidence proving that the origin of their organization —which would later merge with several other important Spanish clubs in the city— can be traced as far back as 1868.
What became of Satrústegui’s appeal to the Spanish élites living in New York in 1867-68? Thanks to the wonders of archives —once again, Spain’s Archivo Histórico Nacional, in Madrid, Spain— we can answer that question with the words of Satrústegui himself, who on February 14, 1868, addressed this letter to his boss, the Ministro de Estado in Madrid:
It gives me great satisfaction to have the honor of notifying Your Excellence that after patient efforts, I have achieved the establishment in this city of a Spanish Society of Benevolence. This measure was urgently needed because of the considerable number of unfortunate Spaniards who come to our Consulate asking for aid, even though the Consul is unable to officially help them with funds from the government of His Majesty.
The nascent Society already has, I understand, 29 subscribers, each of who contribute $5.00 per month since the first of January of this year: that is to say, $145 monthly dollars that will wipe away a few tears. I hope that soon the subscription will exceed $200 per month.
I attach the copy of the appeal that I made to wealthy Spaniards living in New York, and of the names of the first 26 subscribers.
For the execution of this idea, I have been helped primarily —with a zeal that deserves my most heartfelt gratitude— by Don Carlos Martí and Don José Francisco Navarro. They personally have collected the contributions from their numerous friends, a very difficult job in such a large city, when paying a visit sometimes involves traveling more than two leagues in each direction.
Don Carlos Martí left for Havana yesterday, and he took copies of the documents I have mentioned. He intends to take advantage of this trip to collect contributions from his rich friends in Cuba, given that the greater part of the needy Spaniards we must help arrive here from our Antilles.
I will take care of the statutes and consolidation of the Society, which I consider capable of, and destined for, a great and most useful evolution. Together with the fundraising by subscription for aid, I think that we can create a Spanish Club, that would be a center of periodical meetings of our nationals who now live in isolation from each other. This would stir up their patriotic feelings. And one day, when Spain is at peace with Peru and Chile, the club could form part of the core of a great Spanish-American Society, that would strengthen the bonds of friendship, affection and common interests among the mother and her daughters, because the wealthy would find in the club a place of enjoyment, and the poor would find shelter and protection.
May God keep Your Excellency for many years,
J.M de Satrústegui