Newark residents of Spanish heritage have enriched our community in many ways. Today, we will take a close-up look at several prominent Newarkers, whose family roots are in Spain.
Ramona Santiago was Newark’s deputy mayor in 1994. Since December 1997, she has been a Newark Municipal Court judge. Her great-grandfather was a doctor in Spain and her grandfather was a construction worker—a career his future father-in-law did not approve. Santiago’s grandfather came to America on April 9, 1914. After working first in Pennsylvania and later in Newark, he returned to Spain to bring his wife, Juana, to her new home. Pedro continued in the construction trade and Juana went to work. Santiago’s parents were well-known chiropractors as are two of their sons and another daughter. If you drive down Lafayette Street, you see the familiar Santiago name on the Santiago Funeral Home. It’s the same family. Although they completely blended in the American way of life, they also maintained a tight social identity with the old world through their activities at St. Joseph’s Church, community social clubs and interaction at many Spanish picnics, here in Newark and outings to Union Beach, Staten Island and Wolfe Pond. They were following the age-old tradition of the community as everything, a place where people watched out for each other and everyone was concerned for their neighbors.
The parents of Albert 'Al' Cernades, president of International Longshoreman’s Association Local 1235, were from Spain’s La Coruna province in the north and Cordoba in the south. Cernades’ father, raised in the maritime tradition of northwest coastal Spain, left home at 19 looking for a better life. He worked various jobs before arriving in the Newark area in the 1920s. Handicapped because of the language barrier, he labored first in the Pennsylvania coal fields and then was employed briefly by Ford Motor Co. In 1927, he came to Newark, where he joined many other single workers in one of the numerous boarding houses along Prospect, Congress, Union and Elm streets. He remained in Newark because of the considerable employment opportunities for skilled and unskilled factory workers. The Port of Newark, the mattress factories, the rubber set company and especially the Celluloid company, offered a world of employment. Spare time was often filled by attending a Spanish picnic. Since it was the Depression and few people had their own cars, the Fernandez Moving Co. often would often take 15 to 20 families to these affairs, accompanied with trays of Spanish sausage, empanadas, pulpo (octopus), wine and beer for an afternoon of rest and relaxation that often included a game of soccer. Often the soccer field was filled with teams from Newark and New York. Players in black shorts with blue and white striped shirts frequently clashed with the teams wearing red and white polos. Mostly the men were Galicians. Many had originally been sailors or fishermen, but now in Newark worked at the port or in some of the city’s many factories. Said Cernades, 'The early days of hard, dirty, and backbreaking work of our parents have allowed our generation to completely share in the American dream.'
Avelino 'Al' Fernandez, chief operating engineer at the Newark Public Library, where he been employed for 27 years, left Spain in 1956 at the age of 31 to follow a Galician family maritime tradition. His father sailed in the merchant marine for years but never settled in this country. Instead, the older Fernandez’s lifestyle included sailing for America repeatedly and staying in pensiones or Manhattan boarding houses including 'The Lady from Galicia' in Greenwich Village, a home to maritime workers and merchant marines. It was a comfortable place to stay with good food. The tab was paid upon the sailor’s return to sea. When asked about the small number of Galicians in Newark, Fernandez noted that the United States and Spain became enemies as the result of the Spanish-American War. Problems created by the Great Depression, Spain’s Gen. Francisco Franco’s disapproval of Spanish workers moving overseas, all affected immigration. For the Fernandez family, the family’s maritime tradition ended, Al took up a new career as engineer at the library.
Antonio Martinez, founder of the first of Newark’s famous Spanish and Portuguese restaurants, could also be referred to as 'The Dean of Fine Dining in Newark.' Initially, he founded and owned the original Spanish Tavern. Now, he is proprietor of the Spanish Pavilion across the bridge in Harrison. Martinez’s move to America began in 1937 with a three-day walk across northern Spain to find asylum in Portugal. He was fleeing the conflict of the Spanish Civil War. After spending some time in Lisbon, he amassed enough money from his own efforts and from his father to book passage to Uruguay where he spent three months working without a passport. In a middle-of-the-night episode, he rowed across to Argentina where he spent 1938 working in a cheese factory. In 1940, he obtained a non-resident passport from Spain and on August 8 arrived in New York City as a legal alien aboard one of those big McCormick Liners 'just in time to visit the World’s Fair.' But it was another three years before Martinez finally could call Newark home. In the interim, he found employment in the Thomas Co. coal mines in Beckley, W.Va. When he did get to Newark, he found it to be a wonderful place for some, but a city that offered only hard times for many other newly arrived Spaniards. At that time, many of the newest immigrants lived on Elm, Union and Ferry streets. As times got better financially, Martinez, known affectionately as 'Jalisco,' a nickname for a person who has boundless energy, prospered. He soon opened a pool hall which became one of Spanish Newark’s most popular social spots. Gradually, it became an important restaurant. Since many Newarkers were unfamiliar with Spanish food or only went to New York to eat out, it took time to build up business. But with the help of his wife and the rest of the family who cooked and waited on tables, he made the venture a going enterprise. In 1974, 12 years after his restaurant opened, Martinez retired. He built a vacation home in Spain where he takes his grandchildren annually to learn about the family’s origins. Antonio 'Jalisco' Martinez was honored March 24, 1996 by the Club Oresano. A plaque presented to him, commending him for his dedication to his people and his community. Has he really retired? When I met him at the Spanish Pavilion recently he was still in the thick of things, standing on a ladder taking down a ceiling to expand the restaurant.
Judge John Dios
Judge John Dios, Newark’s first Spanish judge, came here in 1930. He later returned to Spain to bring his family to the United States. Dios did not come directly from the mother country on the first trip, but went by way of Cuba like so many other Newark Galicians who stopped in South, Central, or Latin America or the Caribbean before settling in the Ironbound. Newark was not their only destination, Dios noted, for New York City was host to many Spaniards who settled around Columbus Circle, on Staten Island or in Brooklyn. Often the newcomer started as a longshoreman because of earlier Spanish work experience. Others went to work in the factories along Frelinghuysen Avenue. At first the future judge worked in the port because of the good pay and attended law school at night. The way was hard for most of his countrymen, making their dependence upon the church and social clubs doubly important. To some immigrants, the Spanish Political Association was helpful when pursuing political ambitions. Frequently, the clubs sponsored Saturday night dances and ran picnics to locations such as Union, New Jersey and Elmer Park, N. Y. Sometimes the people dressed in Spanish regional costumes. The virtues of hard work and strong parental guidance have been the Galicians’ formula for success, the judge said. Consequently, he believes it is important for these very people to record their achievements at the immigration memorial at Ellis Island before time and tide erase them.
Herbert Aira, born in the United States and a U.S. citizen, told of his escape from fascist Spain in the late 1940s. Born in New York state of Americanized parents, the family had returned to Lugo Province just prior to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. When 19-year-old Herbert and a friend tried to leave Spain on April 27, 1949, they were nearly apprehended by a border guard who spotted Aira, but failed to report him to a superior officer. Aira believes the soldier deliberately gave him his freedom and for this has always been grateful for the favor. Aira’s narrow escape was followed by a terrible icy night. The fear that he would die of exhaustion quickly passed the next morning as the sun rose and the boys ran for the Lisbon train. Disappointment followed. The American consulate in Lisbon rejected his plea for a passport. Only after he left his papers and a 'deposit' was he able to return and find his credentials in order. Later that week he boarded a TWA flight for New York. As the plane climbed over the skies of Portugal’s capitol city, the right engine exploded and caught fire. Fortunately for the frightened travelers, the plane was able to land safely. After the 17-hour journey, the boys were met at La Guardia Airport by joyous friends and relatives. After returning to the United States, Aira worked on the Brooklyn docks and received his seaman’s papers, although he never went to sea. Next he was employed on heavy construction jobs such as the building of the Taconic Parkway in New York. He also worked on projects here in Newark and in Trenton. Work, work and more work has been the lifeblood that has fueled the energies of this fascinating member of the Greater Newark Galician community.
Jose 'Pepe' Vazquez came to this country at age 12 with his mother and two brothers from La Coruna Spain. He was the first president of the Club Espana, an important part of the Galician community. According to Vazquez, the club not only was a valuable social outlet, it was an important source of employment and recreational activities such as picnics and dances. The Vazquez family followed an almost traditional work pattern, first in construction, then by opening a boarding house, then becoming tavern owners, cooks and chefs. When Vazquez’s father arrived here in the 1920s, an estimated 2,000 Spaniards lived in Newark, mostly scattered throughout the Down Neck section. More recent immigrants have moved beyond the city limits to towns including Union, Kearny and North Arlington. When asked about his background, Vazquez said simply, 'When I’m in America, I consider myself an American; when in Spain, I’m Spanish; when in Galicia, I’m Galician and when back in my old Spanish hometown of La Corsena, I’m La Corsenian.' Whatever his identity, he’s always been a solid member of his immediate community.
Angelo Cortinas came to this country from Lugo, Spain with his parents in 1953. The family lived in New York before coming to Newark in 1954. Cortinas’ father worked on various construction jobs and his mother was a seamstress in a factory. The young Cortinas worked as a newsboy and in a Portuguese bakery and drugstore while attending school. In his spare time, he became a part-time musician, a hobby he still enjoys. After graduating from Lafayette Street School and East Side High School, he joined the Army, unable to attend college because of financial restraints. Nevertheless, he took advantage of courses at the University of Maryland Extension Division where he became fluent in several languages. Cortinas married his high school sweetheart when he was living in Switzerland. He returned to the United States and became an interpreter in Spanish, Portuguese and German. Eventually, he went to work for the Essex County Sheriff’s Office and rose to the rank of detective in 1995. Since 1991, he has been a trustee of Essex County College. Earlier this year, he became a trustee of The Newark Public Library. In January, he was appointed Deputy Mayor of the City of Newark by Mayor Sharpe James.
Thus the story of Newark’s Galicians continues year after year—success story after success story. Theirs is an often repeated tale of hard-working people who quietly go about their way building a better community and city—all emanating from that lovely province in northwestern Spain.