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NEW YORK — When Jose Manuel “Manolo” Gomara arrived in New York City for the first time in 2010, he had been away from his home country of Spain for a year, working at a restaurant in Cancun, Mexico. But he wasn’t done with his travels, and the image of this metropolis, one he gleaned from watching television as a kid, had always loomed in his mind.
But his first few days were spent in a sparsely appointed hostel on the Upper East Side. So he went online and made a search of Spanish restaurants. One of his stops included a stretch of 14th Street. There, between 7th and 8th avenues, he found himself walking toward two flags: one for the United States and one for Spain.
“Wow, I’m home,” he thought to himself.
He opened a door and entered a room dark with panels of wood, bottles glinting against the wall. The place was almost an exact replica of a Spanish dive bar, circa 1950.
Again, “it felt like home.” What Gomara had unknowingly stumbled across was the remains of a neighborhood once known as Little Spain, a block that from the early 1900s until its demise in the 1970s served as an island where you could speak Spanish, eat chorizo and maybe even bump into famed poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who spent a year in New York in the late 1920s.
The “dive bar” Gomara found beneath his home country’s flag as actually La Nacional, a traditional Spanish restaurant, and the brownstone above it houses the Spanish Benevolent Society, a club that once boasted 3,000 members and hosted annual galas at the Waldorf Astoria.
While its membership has shrunk since those days, the society is seeing an uptick of interest from contemporary Spaniards like Gomara, who ended up staying at the Spanish Benevolent Society for a month and who worked at the restaurant for more than three years. Their grandparents might have arrived in Little Spain after fleeing Francisco Franco; present-day Spaniards are fleeing the miserable Spanish economy.
Little Spain in its heyday
The Spanish Benevolent Society was formed in 1868 by Spaniards who wanted to offer social services to compatriots trying their luck in the United States. It moved to a brownstone on 14th Street around the turn of the century and continued helping new Spanish immigrants find housing, jobs and health care, even offering a “comida del dia,” a cheap Spanish meal in the basement restaurant.
If you needed a place to crash for a few weeks, the society would put you up in one of the building’s nine bedrooms. If somebody died and the person’s family wasn’t able to send the body home to Spain, the society had burial plots in Brooklyn and Queens.
Max Vazquez, 62, has spent his entire life on the block once called Little Spain. His father owned a clothing store, La Iberia, that did a lot of business with local Spaniards, outfitting them for different jobs, and Spanish sailors, who arrived at nearby piers on ships from Spain. Vazquez remembers heading to the Spanish Benevolent Society to learn how to write in Spanish, dance the paso doble and learn how to play the gaita, a kind of Spanish bagpipe.
He said the society was more than a just hub. For a lot of working-class Spaniards trying to escape Franco’s fascist dictatorship, it was a lifeline.
“When I was a kid, Facebook was like the (Spanish Benevolent Society) center. LinkedIn was the stairs,” he said. “If you didn’t have a job, you were at the stairs. ‘Plomero,’ ‘carpintero,’ ‘I need a plumber,’ ‘I need a carpenter.’ People were just hanging on the stairs. Day laborers. The connections of contractors, businesses — all that stuff was happening here.”
The society helped fund two floors at nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital that had Spanish-speaking doctors. A few doors down was Nuestra Señora de Guadelupe, which offered Spanish Mass. Casa Moneo was a renowned grocery specializing in Spanish delicacies like bacalao, jamon serrano, manchego cheese and turron. There was a funeral parlor next to the society. Vazquez said nobody really had to leave the neighborhood, ever, if they didn’t want to.
“You could get baptized, get married, and you can have your wake all on the same block,” he said. “Full service.”
End of an era
Rob Sanfiz’s Galician father and his Northern Californian mother met while she was traveling in Spain, and they fell in love despite not speaking a word of the other’s language. In the 1960s she lived in Berkeley; he grew up under Franco. They met in 1967.
“You can imagine the clash of cultures that was,” he said.
In their attempt to meet halfway between their worlds, the pair chose Flushing, a neighborhood in the New York borough of Queens, to raise their family. While his father was too busy working as a jeweler to connect with the larger Spanish community, his mother tried to fill the void, Sanfiz said, embracing Spanish culture and learning how to make his father’s favorite regional dishes.
When Sanfiz was in college, his uncle from Spain arrived to live with the family and, after working for a year, suddenly died. Arranging the funeral in New York, the family worried they would be the only mourners. After all, who else would go?
What they didn’t know was that the uncle had been the treasurer of the Spanish Benevolent Society. More than 200 people showed up to pay their respects.
“I remember thinking, ‘How nice it was that all these Spanish people had come in to say how nice of a person my uncle was,’” he said. “And I remember that affecting me.”
Sanfiz, now 44, wound up raising his own family and keeping a law practice in Chelsea, just around the corner from the Spanish Benevolent Society, but he said he was never tempted to visit or even to eat at La Nacional.
“It had a very bad reputation for anyone who was under the age of 50,” he said. “Nobody came here. It was just like a place where you walk into the restaurant at any given time and you see ... a bunch of old men, behind some smoke, raise their eyes like, ‘What are you doing here?’”
But Sanfiz’s relationship to the society changed in 2008 when a group of concerned members came calling, looking for a Spanish-American lawyer to help them out. Membership had dwindled to about 15 paying “socios,” and the club was in danger of dissolving, meaning Little Spain would become a historic footnote.
On a subfreezing night last month, Sanfiz peered down from the top floor of the Spanish Benevolent Society and yelled to Max Vazquez in a mixture of Spanish and English. Sanfiz was trying to clear icicles that had collected on the building’s drainpipes; Vazquez was making sure the post-work crowd passing by kept its distance.
Five years after he was asked to help save the building and the society, Sanfiz is now its director, and he’s working closely with Vazquez, now its vice president.
The two men have spent the last four years reshaping the Spanish Benevolent Society inside and out, and it’s working. Membership is back up, to about 300, and a younger crowd of Spaniards is coming not just for a taste of home cooking and to watch Real Madrid soccer matches but also to volunteer.
The society’s renaissance is almost certainly benefiting from the continued recession in Spain, which has one of Europe’s highest unemployment rates. More and more young Spaniards are walking through the door, hoping to launch a new life.
“And a lot of them contact us in semidesperate ways,” he said, describing their reactions as a litany: “‘Oh my gosh, I’m kind of starting anew.’ ‘There was nothing available for me in Spain.’ ‘I don’t know the first thing about life in New York.’”
What he enjoys is that for many of them, the Spanish Benevolent Society is their first stop.
“This is literally the first place they come,” he said. “Just like it was 100 years ago.”
A Spanish harbor in New York
In 2010, at the age of 26, Marta Zapardiel found herself unemployed and moving back to live with her parents in Madrid. She had a degree in art restoration but, like many of her highly educated friends, was having trouble finding work that matched her skill level.
“Being unemployed for so long in Spain — it’s hard,” she said. “It’s tough on people. It brings them down.”
Instead of waiting things out, Zapardiel decided to take an internship in New York at a gallery. After a year in the city, the honeymoon was over, but things in Spain were worse, and she wasn’t about to head home. That’s when a photographer friend, also from Spain, invited her to stop by the Spanish Benevolent Society.
“Once you realize you are here because you want to work and you want to build a future, then it’s kind of tough, because your family’s not here,” she said. “So having friends that are Spanish and that understand your culture and you can express yourself in your language, that helps.”
Zapardiel started volunteering a few nights a week at the society, helping out with membership, doing some grant writing and bartending at the club. Now she works part time as the cultural curator, putting on events and setting up a program that will showcase the work of young artists from Spain.
Little by little, she said, she’s seen Sanfiz and Vazquez’ efforts to create a new atmosphere pay off. “The old generations are starting to see that this place is going in a good direction, so they are giving us more room to do our thing.”
And that breathing room has meant more and more young Spaniards have begun to volunteer the skills they were having trouble finding opportunities to use back home. A young interior designer is helping refashion the building’s lobby and doubles as the salsa dance instructor one night a week. La Nacional’s tables are staffed by a group of young photographers, writers and students from Spain. And Sanfiz has brought in a Web person from Galicia to help him create a virtual Spanish Benevolent Society, a kind of Craigslist for Spaniards in New York where they can find housing, jobs — and one another.