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Spanish immigrants to St. Louis: Their impact from Carondelet to soccer legend Harry Keough

James Fernandez and Luis Agreo.
Spanish soccer players in East St. Louis from 1920-21.

A Spanish author and filmmaker and NYU professor have come to St. Louis this week to do field work and discuss their book about Spanish immigration in the U.S. — particularly to St. Louis. Luis Agreo and Dr. James D. Fernandez travelled the world for nine years to understand the plight of Spanish immigrants across the globe.  It is called "Invisible Immigrants: Spaniards in the U.S. (1868-1945)."

Their book includes photographs which document the experience of tens of thousands of Spaniards’ experiences when they arrived to the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s — a different group of people and a far cry from the conquistadores, friars and missionaries that Fernandez says many people envision arriving to the country.

Credit Invisible Immigrants

“This is an episode of immigration history in the U.S. which is pretty much unknown,” Fernandez said on “St. Louis on the Air.” “Compared to Italians and Irish and Germans, the numbers of Spaniards who came here during this time period is pretty small—it is tens of thousands as opposed to hundreds of thousands or even millions.”

“These are working-class people and peasants who like the Irish and Italians, leave terrible conditions to look for a better future in this country,” he continued.

Agreo said that he got into the project because of personal connections. Part of his family came here looking for work, where they settled in West Virginia and St. Louis to work in zinc mills.

“We’ve learned that on both sides of the river there were important zinc works in the earliest decades of the twentieth century,” Fernandez said. “It turns out that in the part of Spain where Luis is from there was a major zinc works that was experiencing all kinds of labor strife and strikes and shut downs. That sparked this exodus of semi-skilled zinc workers from Asturias to this country.”

Fernandez says that wherever there was zinc to be found in the United States, you’ll also find Spaniards there with a connection to Asturias. There is a rich history documented within these groups and their descendants, for a very particular reason.

The St. Louis connection

Before the era of the New Deal and things like social security and Medicare, immigrants had to band closely together to make it in this country. That’s where clubs and mutual aid societies came in for all immigrant communities, not just the Spanish.

“There’s a Spanish Society brick building in the Carondelet neighborhood of St. Louis that was built in 1929 that is still standing,” said Fernandez. “We’re going to go there on Friday for a Spanish reunion. This was one of those mutual aid societies that were built to help the community get through the depression and maintain their traditions and language.”

Carondelet is the earliest Spanish neighborhood in St. Louis, Fernandez said. In East St. Louis, Fairmount and Granite City also drew Spanish immigrants for zinc and metal works.

There were hundreds of families, around 2000 people, who would have been in St. Louis at that time.

Influence on local soccer legend

During the show, Colleen Erker called in to share a story about her father, who turned out to be local soccer legend Harry Keough.

"[My father] ended up being the Saint Louis University soccer coach and playing on the national team for the United States in the Olympics. This is all from the Spanish kids in the neighborhood and the lifelong friendships he made."

“My father was an Irish-American and he was born in 1927 and lived in the Carondelet neighborhood,” Erker said. “My father picked up the sport of soccer from his Spanish buddies on the playground at Blow School and made lifelong friendships, learned the language of Spanish and he ended up being the Saint Louis University soccer coach and playing on the national team for the United States in the World cup and the Olympics. This is all from the Spanish kids in the neighborhood and the lifelong friendships he made.”

Erker said her father spoke of his Spanish childhood friends often and with great warmth. Fernandez said that, in fact, they have a picture in their archives of Keough and a man name Tom Garcia, who gave them a picture for their archives.

“He always talked about how they all had these great nicknames,” Erker said. “At one period of time in his neighborhood, there were like 24 guys with the name Jose Menendez, I think. Others I remember who had nicknames were Chic Fernandez, Sophie, Moco, Boob. There were all these great nicknames. We appreciate the connection and what the Spanish friends brought to our family.”

The late 1920s and the 1930s were a crucial period of time for Spanish immigrants in St. Louis and across the nation, said Fernandez because the Spanish Civil War ended and families realized they were never going home.

When an immigrant family is here dreaming about going back to Spain, making sure your children speak Spanish is crucial. In 1936, when that war ends and the country is in ruins, and there’s a fascist dictator in place, people realize they aren’t going back. You see more assimilation.”

This meant more adoption of the English language and soccer tournaments.

Where you can find their work

Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Fernandez and Agreo

Agreo and Fernandez have been working together for the past five years to identify Spanish immigrants, be invited to their homes, look at family archives and do oral history interviews. They’ve traveled from California to Pennsylvania to New York to, now, Missouri, and have amassed a nearly 10,000-photograph archive. Some of that has been included in the book, but not all.

Three films about these immigrants have been made in West Virginia, California and Florida, which you can find more about here.

Fernandez recommends following the project’s Facebook page for updates about what the project is up to, who they are meeting, where they are going and to share your personal stories. You can find that here.

You can also hear from the duo tomorrow at the Missouri History Museum at 7 p.m. 

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh, and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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