700 Years of Family History in Andalucia

January 2009

Last month my friend Miguel Valdespino described how he and his family celebrate a traditional Christmas together. Let me tell you more about him and his family, which has been around the same neighborhood for a long time. I thought living in one house for 18 years was remarkable (and I guess it is in the US) but when I asked Miguel how long his family had been in the area, he said it was for the last 700 years. 

It seems that when King Alfonso X re-conquered Jeréz de la Frontera from the Moors in 1264, Don Alonso Valdespino, Miguel's ancestor, was one of 24 Knights of Jeréz granted land as a reward - mostly vineyards that were being cultivated by the Arabs at the time. 

It was not until 300 years later that the fruit of the vineyards would become commercially viable. When the British fleet launched the Raid of Cádiz in 1596, the officers and men were delighted to taste a new type of wine from Jeréz, which they tried for the first time in their forages across the countryside. The British corrupted the Spanish word "Jeréz" or "Xerex" which became the English word "sherry." 

In a touch of irony, sherry became the rage in Britain, developing into a profitable trade for the Spaniards. It is an ill wind that blows no good. Miguel observed, with a twinkle in his eye, "The raid proved a good promotional campaign!" So for the past four hundred years the Valdespino sherry bodegas have been a fixture in Jeréz de la Frontera. 

Miguel's interest spread to the neighboring manzanilla sherry town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda – not only professionally but also personally. For it was there in the beautiful seaside town that he courted María, his wife of 45 years. Her kin, the Arizón family, emigrated to Barcelona from Ireland, to escape the persecution of Catholics by the British, Miguel thinks in the 1600´s – perhaps during the time of Oliver Cromwell. 

Arizón is the Spanish rendition of the English name "Harrison," which was their surname before fleeing the British Isles. What an interesting coincidence it is that my grandfather, William Harris, emigrated from Northern Ireland to the United States in 1898! Could it be that María's family and ours are distantly related? 

The Arizón family became important fleet owners trading with America, and moved to the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. It was the port designated by the Crown for New World trade. Columbus embarked from there in one of his earlier voyages, and all the ships coming back from America laden with treasures would tie up in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. There, in the suburb of Bonanza, their gold would be weighed and the forwarded to the Royal Court in Sevilla, via the Guadalquivir River. This, not the TV show, is the source of our word "bonanza" - used in the New World to refer to a discovery of dramatic wealth. 

As the Arizón family prospered, they built an architecturally impressive housing complex, which the family owned for over 300 years until the government sought to expropriate it as an historical monument. Miguel tells me that in the 18th Century one of María's ancestors became the Marquis de Arizón - a title that is still used by Maria's first cousin. 

Later, many of the young Arizón men chose careers in the army, especially in the Cavalry with its magnificent Andalucian horses. One of them, who later became Captain General in the early 20th century, fought in Cuba at the dawn of the 20th Century. Even today, María's father and two other brothers, including Juan, an Artillery Colonel, had experience in the army. 

We first got to know the Valdespinos when our family rented one of their summer places for the month of June. Villa Carmen was built in 1910 by an old family from Sevilla when Sanlúcar was the fashionable place to spend the summer. María's parents acquired it in 1950. Miguel reports that the handsome building "soon became the meeting place for so many of our friends and the holiday place for all the family, including ourselves when we married." 

Later, as the family expanded, Miguel bought a neighboring villa, "San Francisco." Should you visit Sanlúcar de Barrameda sometime and drive along the shore side avenue Bajo de Guí, you can see the majestic houses, behind bowers of bougainvilleas and night blooming jasmine. 

"We married in 1963," my friend Miguel relates. "On January the 10th, my lifelong friend Jaime married Mercedes (they also own part of the front of Villa Carmen) and I married María in a double wedding, which is very rare here. We had two girls and one boy, and now have two grandsons, one of whom is studying dentistry, and the other is in his first year at the University of Navarra." 

Miguel is pleased that his grandson is going to a private university with Catholic roots. He hopes this will strengthen the young man's commitment to his Spanish heritage: commitment to the family, strong ethical values and a clear understanding of right and wrong. "We all do wrong," he mused, "maybe some of us far too often, but to me the great problem is when we deprive children of the right to judge situations because all is considered normal and... ('magic' word) democratic." These are the words spoken by a true aristocrat. 

Next month, Ruth and I, along with our son Tim's family hope to join Miguel and María at one of the many tapas bars that ring the picturesque Plaza de Cabildo in Sanlúcar. It is right up the street from the La Gitana sherry bodega, and around the corner from the bustling municipal where beautiful fresh vegetables and fresh seafood are brought in from the farm and ocean each day. 

There, over a glass of manzanilla and a plate of tortillas de camarones – tiny shrimp crisply fried in the slightest amount of batter - we will enjoy the companionship which is most appreciated in a relaxed and ancient culture, where time (thankfully) seems to pass us by. You might want to consider a visit sometime. There is a wonderful hotel from another era, awaiting you, right across the street from the bodega! May you and those you love have a Happy New Year! 

Tu amigo,