Leaving Spain for American Dreams: An excerpt from Walter Aaron Clark’s ‘Los Romeros: Royal Family of the Spanish Guitar’
Seville, mid-1950s: Mamá Angelita and the three boys (L to R) Celin, Angel, Pepe
In the early 1950s, the Romeros made the acquaintance of an American husband and wife who would transform their lives. Evelyn (Evie) and Farrington (Fe) Stoddard were from Santa Barbara, California, and were vacationing in the Romeros’ native Málaga, Spain, to improve their Spanish. Fe sought out young Celin for guitar lessons, and they all soon became good friends. The Stoddards encouraged the Romeros in their dream of moving to the U.S., as Celedonio’s career had hit a sort of glass ceiling in Spain. The first step would be for them to move to Seville, where they would be closer to the U.S. consulate and also to an important and influential friend Celedonio had made, one who was also a fan of the guitar: Air Force General José Rodríguez Díaz de Lecea. Lecea and the Stoddards would clear bureaucratic obstacles and provide necessary financial support so that the Romeros could realize their American dreams. —Walter Aaron Clark
SEVILLE OR BUST!
In 1954, the Romeros moved to Seville, a city with which Celedonio had long since been on familiar terms as a performing artist. The Stoddards encouraged the move because it would put them in close proximity not only to major concert venues but also to the American consulate, which would prove helpful in getting them to the United States, and to their benefactor Lecea. His assistance would prove invaluable in moving forward with what Celedonio considered to be the “engaño,” the escape plot, or deception. It appears that Celedonio’s manager also lived there, as one still finds in the family papers letterhead stationery of M. Fernández Mata, whose offices were at Calle Pureza 81.
However, in one last flirtation with a career in business, the family moved to Seville via Valencia. This circuitous approach speaks to the still somewhat nomadic nature of their existence. They moved from one opportunity to the next without having crystallized a long-term plan. So, when an opportunity presented itself in Valencia, off they went. The idea was to live with Celedonio’s brother Maximino there. Entrepreneurially minded, Maximino’s wife had started making headgear for donkeys, but the business went nowhere, so Maximino had the idea to make purses out of straw. These proved to be wildly popular, and the business really took off.
Recall that Celedonio had a head for business and was quite a good salesman, so the idea of his forming a partnership with his brother isn’t quite so bizarre as it might seem. But Mamá was having none of it. She didn’t like living there, especially because they had to cohabit with their in-laws. Most of all, she was afraid that Celedonio would be seduced by the business and leave music behind. When she gazed into her crystal ball (or consulted her tarot cards), she saw concerts, not purses. For these reasons, she quickly soured on Valencia and contacted her former maid, Juana, who had moved to Seville. Juana sent her a telegram claiming to have found just the right living quarters for the family and urging Mamá to bring her brood to Seville. Mamá didn’t require much cajoling at this point, and they all left by train for their new home.
When they pulled into the train station in Seville, however, Juana was there to meet them—with bad news. Talking through copious tears, she confessed to having lied about locating living quarters for them. In reality, she had found nothing at all, so it was now late at night, and there was nowhere for them to stay. Celedonio called his friend Lecea, who sent his car and driver to help Celedonio look for lodging. Mamá and her three sons anxiously awaited his return to the station. He eventually succeeded in finding quarters for them—in a whorehouse! It was located in the Barrio de Santa Cruz, the historic Jewish quarter, in a little courtyard called the Plaza Santa Marta (the barrio and plaza are still there, but the brothel is not). They rented two rooms, one for Angel, Pepe, and Mamá and one for Celin and Papá. Pepe recalls that the women were attractively painted, friendly, and nice, though there was a lot of foot traffic in and out of the building. The next day, Lecea’s driver returned to take Celedonio to look for more suitable accommodations. (He also advised Mamá not to stand in front of the brothel, since she was not for “rent.”) It was difficult to find anything right away, so they spent one more evening with the “ladies.” A dirty little secret of the ultra-puritanical Franco era was that poverty drove thousands of women into prostitution, which flourished during the otherwise theocratic regime.
Not far away was a place in another plaza in the Santa Cruz, this one named after Don Juan Tenorio, a historical figure who inspired the Don Juan epic of Gabriel Téllez (1579–1648), known to posterity as Tirso de Molina and a student of Lope de Vega. Molina used it as the basis for his play El Burlador de Sevilla, which later served as the inspiration for the Don Giovanni legend and Mozart’s opera. In the play, Don Juan Tenorio falls in love with Doña Inés, and when the Don is confronted by her father, the Comendador de Calatrava, he kills him. Tradition holds that Doña Inés’s house was right where the Romeros would now stay, though that building has since been replaced by the Hotel Boutique Doña Elvira.
This new residence was also next to a flamenco academy, where the Romeros met the great cantaor Manolo Caracol and many leading flamenco artists in Seville, among them Luisa Albéniz, Arturo and Tomás Pavón, La Niña de los Peines, and Niño Ricardo. Indeed, Seville is where Pepe truly fell in love with flamenco.
General Lecea finally found them a small house on a cortijo, or farm, on the outskirts of the city, near Tablada, a base used by the Spanish air force. (A big American air base was located in nearby Morón.) Pepe recalls that this Spanish base boasted a total of three planes at the time, all of them German (two Junkers and one Messerschmitt). There were three houses on the property: a big house that was deserted and two smaller structures, one occupied by the caretaker, his wife, and two daughters. The other, which the Romeros would live in, had a living room, a kitchen, and a bedroom. (All these buildings are still standing.) It was spartan but a distinct improvement over the bordello. And they would only have to live there for a few months, until something else could be located.
Actually, Pepe remembers this as one of the most wonderful places he lived in Spain, and he was sad to leave it. He enjoyed living in the country and became quite attached to the two pet goats that Lecea gave him and Angel. Of course, they also had the customary chickens and dogs. True, they had to use a boat to cross the Guadalquivir River in order to go into town, but that was just the sort of Huck Finn adventure a boy his age craved. Within a few weeks, Lecea found them an apartment near the center of Seville, at Claudio Boutelou 2. This apartment offered the usual five hundred square feet with running water, but it was also on the second floor and featured a lovely balcony, perfect for practicing; in fact, Pepe practiced a lot on that balcony and says that it’s where he acquired his technique. Another serendipitous coincidence was that a man named Antonio Pulpón lived there, and he was to become a very famous flamenco manager. Partly because of him, this particular address was a magnet for flamenco artists. Paco Avila became a close friend and would visit them with his girlfriend, a dancer. Paco would accompany her and at the same time teach Pepe how to accompany the baile (dance).
When Paco died in 2013, Pepe was deeply affected and grieved for his old friend, whom he respected and loved so much. In a moving testimonial posted on Facebook (November 29, 2013), Pepe wrote, “Paco taught me all the different flamenco forms with their intricate nuances and his own magnificent rasgueados [strumming patterns], which I have used in my own flamenco playing and to bring an extra dimension to all the Spanish repertoire for the guitar. . . . Our lessons were exuberant to say the least and one night our neighbor downstairs, Antonio Pulpón . . . came to our door to complain that the lamp on his ceiling had crashed to the floor from all the footwork upstairs!” Less obtrusive was the local mailman. He was a flamenco singer, and when he heard Pepe playing the guitar on the balcony, he would sing along. In this way, Pepe also learned how to accompany singers.
Other local attractions included the Teatro Lope de Vega, where Pepe had already appeared with his father in a concert at the tender age of seven; many years later, he gave the Andalusian premiere of Rodrigo’s Conciertopara una fiesta there. Right across the street from the Teatro Lope de Vega is the tobacco factory where Carmen supposedly worked. Another attraction in Seville was an ice cream parlor that Pepe loved to visit. It still operates today, and Pepe fondly points out the stool on which he would sit next to Papá as he ordered his favorite sundae. Most important, perhaps, was their new apartment’s close proximity to the American consulate.
Of course, life in the big city was not inexpensive, and the family economized as best it could. Celin finished high school in Seville and continued his education there, in engineering. In an early extracurricular exercise, he conspired with a neighbor to rig their apartment building’s electrical system so that the meter would register only a very minimal amount of use. This measure would save money without arousing suspicions, and it worked to perfection.
The Romeros would spend a total of three years in Seville, most of that time dreaming of their escape to the United States. This would not be easy, but at least it seemed increasingly possible with the protection of Lecea, who smoothed the way, and the support of Fe, who provided the credentials, connections, and money they needed to go to the United States.
In his correspondence with the Romeros, Fe kept fanning the flames of this desire. He was dreaming now not only of managing Celedonio but also of establishing a “Casa de España” to serve as a sort of museum of Spanish things, as well as an “Academia Romero” where Celedonio and sons could teach. He would sometimes comment on Segovia’s activities, noting that Segovia was featured on the BBC and stating that this was the sort of thing Celedonio should also be doing. Sabicas and Carlos Montoya were enjoying success in New York, so why not Celedonio?
By 1957, the plans for moving to America were reaching a critical mass: Fe would refer to this as “our great dream.” His initial idea was for Celedonio to go alone and then bring the family over later. But the family was having none of that, especially since the Franco regime might have refused permission for them to leave, thus forcing Celedonio to return. No, it was better for them to leave together and for good.
The logistics and preparations for this move were complex and went through many changes. Suffice it to say here that Celin would be the point man. In the spring of 1957, he traveled to Lisbon to take care of a sick relative there. Lecea saw to it that his movement to Lisbon was not hindered.
A notice from the Ministerio del Ejército (Army Ministry) dated February 9, 1957, regarding his application for a passport to go to Portugal gave him permission to remain there for five months. However, he was still required to present himself to the embassy in Lisbon. It becomes apparent from attached documentation that Lecea had prepared the way for this permission. It is also obvious that Celin needed permission because he would be required to serve in the army on his twenty-first birthday, per the old draft law. The board didn’t want him skipping out and was determined to keep tabs on him. Five months from February would take him to July, just shortly before the family planned to flee from Portugal to the United States. Understandably, they wanted to avoid his being drafted if they were to go to America.
The family would later entrain for Lisbon, join Celin there, and then fly to the United States together. Before they could get a visa, however, they would have to prove that they or a sponsor had the financial resources to support them. This is where Fe played a crucial role. He took a job as radio officer on the steamship Santa Mercedes in order to earn the thousands of dollars this sponsorship would cost, in addition to travel expenses: airplane tickets from Lisbon to New York City to Los Angeles and finally to Santa Barbara cost $217.57 per person, a considerable sum at the time. This sum would be a loan to Celedonio, who could repay it later, after getting settled. Evie would rent a house in Santa Barbara big enough for both families.
Celin would have to appear at the Spanish Embassy in Lisbon to request an immigration visa to accompany his family to the United States, while the American consulate in Seville requested a visto bueno (clearance) from Madrid for all of them, which was then forwarded to the embassy in Portugal. This allowed the Romeros to leave directly from Lisbon. And they would have to have smallpox vaccinations in Lisbon before they could travel abroad.
Of course, the Romeros had few resources and were leaving most all their belongings behind, except for their guitars. The Stoddards stepped forward and supplied the necessary documentation attesting to their ability and intention to provide for the Romero family until they got on their feet in the United States. And their support of the Romeros was not just material but also moral. There are several missives in the family archive from the Stoddards giving their Spanish protégés plenty of advice about how to prepare for this transition.
In a letter of March 7, 1957, Evie told Angelita that a high-ranking naval officer (commander) with the Sixth Fleet would soon be visiting them with a package of “American things” for their use, as military personnel could purchase such items without paying duty. On July 18, 1957, Evie urged Celedonio to bring his “beautifully tailored” European clothes, explaining, “Here the public respects a well-groomed gentleman and you will make a very good impression with your European-cut clothes. For me you always looked so handsome in your grey and dark suits.” It didn’t hurt that Celedonio and his boys were handsome, period, regardless of the color of their suits. In another letter, dated June 9, 1957, Evie whetted Angelita’s appetite for American life by telling her about refrigerators, “electric ice boxes” that keep food from spoiling. She could also look forward to gas and electric stoves, not wood!
Evie further prepared the family for its New World adventure by giving them a primer on the difference between East and West Coast lifestyles. On May 2, 1957, she wrote, “New York will be breathtaking, exciting and glamorous for a few days and then you will tire of the atmosphere as it is too fast for us all and you will want more out of living than what New York has to offer. Here in Santa Barbara you will find sunny warm skies and smiles on the people’s faces. The weather in New York is either too hot or too cold and the humidity is unbearable.”
The family entrained from Seville to Lisbon in order to meet Celin there. One of their neighbors in Seville was of a very liberal persuasion and worked on the train as a policeman. They made sure to be on his train so that he and not someone else would check their papers. Although in later years, as a publicity gesture, their departure was presented as a sort of Trapp family–style flight from dictatorship, sneaking over the Portuguese border to freedom, in fact, it required that every step of their way be carefully prepared in advance. Portugal was not Switzerland at this time, for it was in the grips of a right-wing dictatorship with close ties to the Franco regime. Even as the Romeros prepared to leave Lisbon, the Portuguese checked with the Spanish government to obtain final clearance. Fortunately, the Romeros had friends in places both high and low, and no impediments were placed in their way. The Andalusian family left Lisbon on August 11 at 9:30 p.m. aboard a TWA flight, final destination, Santa Barbara.
In reminiscing many years later about this relocation, Pepe shared the following observations with the press: “We left Spain with nothing. . . . But I knew that wherever we went, we would have music and the guitar. Celedonio was in search of political freedom and artistic freedom, in search of a dream he had—to take Spanish music to all the corners of the Earth.” The first corner would be Southern California.