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Stories About Spain

Resilience and Hope

Written by: Don Harris

historical photo of Pedro and Isabella DíazI have great faith in the resilience of the Spanish people. As I think of the major economic crisis my Spanish friends are facing today as a nation, I am reminded of one of my favorite essays: a story of perseverance and triumph despite challenging times.

I would like to share the remarkable story of my friends Pedro and Isabella Díaz, a devoted couple whom I met in Spain in 1975. Pedro is no longer with us, he died in 2006, but the life he lived with his beloved Isabella lives beyond him. Pedro and Isabella are the embodiment of the best of traditional Spain, and an example of the New Spain that has risen out of the ashes of the Civil War. Their story reflects ensuing decades of sacrifice that eventually gave birth to the stronger and healthier Spain we know today.

Our families formed a close bond that grew over the past thirty years or so. We, as parents, have grown old together – and enjoy each other's children and grandchildren. My wife Ruth and I feel especially close to one of their daughters, Olga, since for a few months she lived with us in Virginia, some twenty years ago. Later, I had the privilege of solemnizing her marriage in a medieval church in the sherry town of Jerez de la Frontera.

Pedro was the son of a shoemaker in the ancient Atlantic seaport of Cádiz – one of my favorite communities in Spain. Born in 1934, two years before the beginning of bitter Civil War, which tore the fabric of the nation, and then plunged the mourning survivors into years of famine. The 1940's and 1950's were a time of profound deprivation for the people of Spain as the shattered nation tried to piece together a cohesive life, altogether isolated by her European neighbors. Hunger stalked the land for many years. Theirs was a struggle for survival.

In 1952, when Pedro was 18 years old, he left home to join the Spanish navy, La Armada Española, and lived the life of a sailor. Like many young men his age throughout the world, he went to sea in order to find his place in life. Providentially, as a young, able-bodied seaman, he was chosen to be a member of the crew that was returning a ship to the Americans. After crossing the Atlantic to New York, the ship sailed to its new home port in San Diego.

There Pedro contracted a serious lung condition, which landed him in the Balboa Naval Hospital for several months. He was all alone in a strange country. His Spanish shipmates had to leave him behind because he was too ill to travel. But a warm and generous woman named Robin who was a volunteer nurse befriended Pedro and helped him to learn English while he was convalescing.

Pedro was an eager learner, so the student and the teacher became fast friends; he became in many ways her adopted son. Recognizing what a bright and earnest young man he was, Robin gave him some money with the provision that he return to Spain and go to school once he had recovered.

Pedro loved learning. Completing schooling in Spain, he then went on his own to Oxford for a year to perfect his English. He had no money, except for a small gift from Robin, and lived by his wits in order to complete his studies. He maintained a correspondence with his benefactor back in California for the rest of Robin's life.

Pedro and Isabella DíazAfter his studies in England, he returned to Andalucía briefly, only to leave for France to learn the French language. This time he was totally on his own. Finally, he returned to his family in Cádiz, several years older and wiser. There he intended to settle down to work with his father as a shoemaker. But he was always open to opportunities.

He heard a rumor that the Americans were going to establish a large naval base near the fishing village of Rota, in conjunction with the Spanish navy. So he rode a local bus for an hour or two to Rota – he was there to meet the US Navy.

The naval officers welcomed him warmly because he was one of the very few Spaniards who could speak any English. That very day the Americans put him to work to teach English to his countrymen. From that time on until he retired 40 years later Pedro was at the Naval Base teaching Spanish sailors how to speak English and American sailors how to speak Spanish!

Rota was a little far to commute from his family in Cádiz, so he looked for a room in the neighboring town of Jerez de la Frontera. A carpenter and his family living over their shop rented a room to this ingenious young man. Soon he was included at the family table, where he came to know their daughter named Isabella Buzón. At first, she was somewhat skeptical of Pedro, he was a bit too exotic for her – he dressed modishly and was not like "the boy next door." Nevertheless, Pedro had dancing brown eyes and a warm heart. They fell in love and within nine months, they were married!

The Díaz family still resides in Jerez de la Frontera, as they always have. There Pedro and Isabella raised three bright daughters: Inmaculada, Olga, and Eva. Inma is married to a Spaniard from her hometown and has a traditional Spanish family. Olga and Eva married Americans. Both sisters are teachers, following in the footsteps of their father. In fact, Olga has replaced Pedro in the classroom on the Naval Base. Just as her father translated letters for me in years past, now Olga translates my updates!

When I first came to Rota with my young family, Pedro was an invaluable partner, both personally when he helped us get settled in the Spanish culture; and professionally helping me to locate a site for a retreat ministry I had designed called CREDO / Esperanza. Because of his deep faith and close ties to his church, he opened many doors for me. You can read about this in my Christmas 2006 Flavors.

Pedro opened many doors for others as well. As he rose to become the intercultural affairs coordinator for the Commanding Officer, he worked assiduously to bring Americans and local Spaniards together so that they could work in harmony.

After years of wandering as a young man, Pedro found a spiritual anchor in his beloved Isabella who was always by his side. She is a pious woman, practicing her traditional age-old faith. With members of her ladies group at the parish she has attended many pilgrimages, including the famous El Rocío, across the Guadalquivir River in the province of Huelva. Isabella remains a spiritual anchor today. As a mother and grandmother, she continues to lend her loving and faithful support to her extended family.

Old Spain and new: steeped in tradition, yet always eager to integrate the changing times. That is the story of the shoemaker's son and the carpenter's daughter. To my mind, people such as this devoted couple are the bedrock of Spain and an inspiration to all of us.

My best to you and to those whom you love,


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"As usual Don, you have shared an inspiring story of yet another beloved Spaniard...what an amazing tribute to Pedro and Isabella! Thank you for sharing your memories and helping to educate the general public about the warmth, intelligence and hospitality of the Spanish people! Con abrazos muy fuerte, Gabriella"
January 2012

"Dear Gabriella, It is the warmth and generosity of the Spanish people which is an intangible property. I have been trying to capture its essence for years - even to the point of writing a book, The Heart of Spain, but I guess you need to experience this kind of relationship to understand what it is! Not that they are perfect, by any mean, but there is nobility that's "in the air." Tu amigo, Don"

"Don, muchas gracias for Pedro's story and for bringing people together who share memories of my country. It means a lot to me. Is The Heart of Spain about your experiences in Spain? "
January 2012

"Dear Isabel, My book, The Heart of Spain, is filled with about 50 stories and events I have experienced over the years as I have been criss-crossing Spain -- and about 70 personal pictures along the way. I think you would love it -- make a note and I will personally sign it for you. Su amigo, Don"

"My parents were born in Galicia, Lugo to be specific, and my father was a Diaz. Lovely article. Mercedes"
January 2012

"Lugo is a wonderful place -- with its ancient walls. We get all our Galician bread from there. I will be visiting the bakers in Lugo and Ourense in just a few weeks. Thanks for writing. Saludos, Don"

"Thank you for sharing this moving story. The previous generation of Spaniards really faced a hard time. Definitively, learning about their experiences will inspire our future. "
January 2012

"The Spanish Civil War was a time of profound suffering. I read that up to one third of the Spanish men died and 35,000 religious -- and then a period of near starvation. Whenever brother fight brother (from Cain and Abel on) it is a horrible thing -- but ironically it is an opportunity for heroism. I am thankful that the modern Spain is doing well as a country -- even in the current economic crisis. Don"

"I was born in Gibraltar, so everything related to Spain brings back wonderful memories. I enjoyed reading the beautiful story. God bless. Trinidad."
January 2012

"How nice to hear from you. Has it been a long time since you returned to Spain? It is worth the visit. I am glad I brought you some good memories. Tu amigo, Don"

"Don, What a great story you have shared. As someone who so many years ago, spent two years living as a young boy on Rota's Naval Air Station (66-68), I really love to read these stories. I can remember how we relied on our early Spanish lessons from people like Pedro. If I recall correctly my lessons were from a older gentlemen named Señor Moniz who used to wheel around a reel to reel tape recorder in an old shopping cart. It was people like him (and Pedro Diaz) who cultivated my affinity for Spain, her language and her people. I have been fortunate over the years to have developed some lifelong friendships with a number of Spaniards who I met through my association with the Iale/Elians school out of Valencia. Again thanks for sharing such a great story...All the best...Mike Gray"
January 2012

"Hi Mike, Thanks for your reminiscences. Pedro and others were the embodiment of a unique culture of warmth and acceptance. I keep returning to be refreshed by their culture. They are a wonderful people who accept people as they are -- sacred beings of worth. Abrazos, Don"

"There are many wonderful stories about Spanish people. I come from parents who also inspired us. We lived in a Spanish community in Winters, California. These Spaniards came from Andalucia to a new world in 1927. In the many books that have been written, anyone who was interviewed, we found a common denominator. These people were honest, hard working, love of family, love of faith and they were a happy people. I am proud to be American-Spaniard. My parents Guillermo and Isabella Carrion could have been related to Pedro and Isabella Diaz."
January 2012

"Dear Betty Ann, What a privilege it was for you to have been brought up in a Spanish community thousands of miles away! It is this plain straight-forward integrity which is reflected in their cuisine and their interpersonal exchanges. Thanks for writing -- I feel we have something spiritual in common. Don"

"It was a pleasure to read this wonderful story about your Spanish friends! It is really beautiful when other cultures can be understood and admired. Friendship crosses boundaries,love endures and endears; all this is possible when people find a common path to walk on! If only more people would do this, peace would flourish instead of war! Then what a more wonderful world this would be! "
January 2012

"Dear Doris, What a profound comment you have written -- what you have said is the underlying reason why my wife Ruth and our sons and their families formed La Tienda, and why we go back each year to see our Spanish friends. It is hard to replicate the welcome and warmth of these our Spanish brothers and sisters. Don "Life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of others...""

"What a nice letter to read this morning! Pedro sounds like my kind of guy! I so can appreciate the old and the new Spain. I feel like I too got to experience both a little bit during my many times in Spain. Thanks for sharing, Jean"
January 2012

"Dear Jean, Thanks you so much for your note. Yes, Pedro was a wonderful loving man whom we knew for years. We still keep in touch with his widow and family. One of the daughters still helps us by translating my essays. I performed her marriage to her American husband in Jerez de la Frontera. We hope to see them this Easter. They have a frisky little boy named Guillermo! Don"

"What a wonderful story! Thank you for sharing it with us. You are a great storyteller. I particularly like your "depedida." My best to you and to those you love--how wonderful!
January 2012

"Thanks, JoAnn It is not too hard to tell stories about loving people who take care of one another. It is a joy, don't you think? Tu amigo Don"

"What a lovely story! I, too, have memories of this sort. My mother, Pilar Espejo Lavilla, was born amidst the Spanish Civil War in 1939. Her father, my grandfather, was a Guardia Civil during those years of war, famine and tragedy. In his later years he worked for the American Embassy in Madrid, and with luck that was where my mother first found work at the age of 18. A year later she went to work as a secretary at Torrejon AFB in Madrid, and shortly after met an a young man in the US Air Force. Two years later they were married in Madrid, and the rest is history. Years later, she too, was the glue that held the Spanish Military and American Forces together at Torrejon AFB. My time growing up in Spain (1964 through 1980) were the best years of my life. The strong family ties and traditions will forever be with me, as will the stories told by my grandparents (and mother of course!) of the perseverance of the Spanish people. The rich heritage is in my blood, and I am so proud to be a part of it! Viva Espana!"
January 2012

"Dear Laura, What a moving and insightful note. Thank you so much! You are blessed to have this experience of Spanish solidarity in your life. Next month I intend to write some more about the modern day economic crisis and how they are responding. Especially how they can count on their families who are their lifeblood. My best to you and your family. Don "

"Spent two years in Rota and loved every minute of it. Wanted to extend for a year but the Navy wanted me to extend for two, but I had other things I wanted to do with my life..."
January 2012

"Hi Mort, Have you ever thought back on your life as to what would have happened had you spent two more years in Spain? I find as I have grown older that it is fun to think of road not taken. Tu amigo, Don Don "

"What a beautiful tribute! Having lived in Rota from 1997-2001, and having noticed how all of the Spaniards spoke English, it is remarkable that Pedro was primarily to thank for that! I miss the base, I miss the people... I miss Spain! Thank you for sharing!"
January 2012

"Yes, Pedro did a lot. He was always thinking of new ways to get the Americans and Spaniards to do things together. He even accompanied me on retreats in Chipiona with the young sailors. He was quite the man -- with a big heart. Don"

"Thank you for sharing this wonderful story!"
January 2012

"Dear Joni, Thank you for you note. I enjoy weaving tales about Spain -- such wonderful people. Have you been back to Spain recently? Where is you family from? Su amigo Don"

"It is an absolutely beautiful story. I cried a lot, out of joy. Thank you so very much for posting it. I am sending it to my daughter, and all my friends, a story like this MUST be shared. Estelle Howell"
January 2012

"Dear Estelle, Thank you so much for your note. I am glad you caught the essence of Pedro and the Spanish people. You might be interested in my book, The Heart of Spain, which has lots of stories and pictures similar to the one you just read -- even a picture of Pedro as a teenage sailor. Tu amigo, Don"

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Resistencia y Esperanza

historical photo of Pedro and Isabella DíazAl hablar del día de San Valentín este año mis pensamientos se dirigen a Pedro e Isabela Díaz, una dedicada pareja a la que conocí en España en 1975. Pedro ya no está entre nosotros, falleció el año pasado, pero la vida que vivió con su amada Isabela se proyecta más allá de sí mismo. Pedro e Isabela son la encarnación de lo mejor de la España tradicional y un ejemplo para la Nueva España que ha resurgido de entre las cenizas de la Guerra Civil. Su historia es el reflejo de las subsecuentes décadas de sacrificio que finalmente originaron la España fuerte y sana que hoy conocemos.

Nuestras familias establecieron un fuerte vínculo que ha ido creciendo durante los últimos treinta años. Nosotros, los progenitores, hemos ido envejeciendo juntos y disfrutado de los hijos y los nietos de las dos familias. Mi esposa Ruth y yo nos sentimos especialmente unidos a una de sus hijas, Olga, puesto que vivió unos meses con nosotros en Virginia, hace ya casi veinte años. Más tarde, tuve el privilegio de celebrar su ceremonia matrimonial en una iglesia medieval de la bodeguera ciudad de Jerez de la Frontera.

Pedro era hijo de un zapatero del vetusto puerto de Cádiz, en la costa atlántica, una de mis zonas preferidas de España. Nació en 1934, dos años antes del comienzo de la amarga Guerra Civil, que desgarró el tejido de la nación, y luego sometió a los pesarosos supervivientes a años de necesidades. Los 40 y 50 fueron años de severas privaciones para los españoles mientras que el fracturado país intentaba reunir los trozos y hacer una vida lo más conexa posible completamente aislados de sus vecinos europeos. El hambre sacudió al país durante muchos años. La suya fue una lucha por la supervivencia.

En 1952, cuando Pedro tenía 18 años, dejó su casa llamado al servicio de la Armada Española y vivió como cualquier otro marinero. Como muchos otros jóvenes de su edad de todo el mundo, zarpó a la mar con la esperanza de encontrar su lugar en la vida. Providencialmente, siendo joven y capaz marinero, fue elegido como miembro de la tripulación de un navío que debía ser devuelto a la Armada Americana. Tras cruzar el Atlántico y hacer un alto en Nueva York, navegaron en la nave hasta su puerto en San Diego.

Allí Pedro contrajo una delicada enfermedad de pulmón que le envió al Hospital Naval Balboa durante varios meses. Estaba totalmente solo en un país extraño. La tripulación de su barco había vuelto a España sin él porque no se encontraba en condiciones para viajar. Pero una afable y generosa mujer llamada Robin, enfermera voluntaria, acogió a Pedro y lo ayudó a aprender inglés durante su convalecencia.

Pedro estaba deseoso de aprender, y así el alumno y la maestra se convirtieron rápidamente en buenos amigos. En muchos aspectos, Pedro se convirtió en un hijo adoptivo para ella. Dándose cuenta de su capacidad y su honestidad, Robin le ofreció una suma de dinero con la condición de que volviera a España y continuara su educación una vez recuperado.

A Pedro le encantaba aprender. Tras completar sus estudios en España, se marchó por su cuenta a Oxford durante un año para perfeccionar su inglés. No disponía de mucho dinero a parte de la asignación de Robin, y se sirvió de su ingenio para subsistir y completar sus estudios. Mantuvo correspondencia con su benefactora allá en California hasta el final de sus días.

Tras sus estudios en Inglaterra, regresó brevemente a Andalucía para pronto partir de nuevo. En esta ocasión viajó a Francia para aprender francés a sus propias expensas. Finalmente regresó con su familia a Cádiz unos años más tarde y con considerables conocimientos adquiridos. Allí pretendía establecerse y trabajar con su padre, pero siempre abierto a otras oportunidades.

Pedro and Isabella DíazOyó el rumor de que los americanos iban a establecer junto a la Armada Española una gran base naval en Rota, un cercano pueblo de pescadores. Se subió al autobús y allí se presentó para entrar en contacto con la Armada de Estados Unidos.

Los oficiales americanos lo recibieron con los brazos abiertos puesto que era uno de los pocos españoles que hablaban inglés. Ese mismo día los americanos lo pusieron a trabajar enseñando inglés a sus compatriotas. ¡Desde entonces y durante 40 años Pedro estuvo en la Base Naval enseñando a hablar inglés a los marineros españoles y a hablar español a los marineros americanos!

Rota estaba un poco alejada de Cádiz para el desplazamiento diario, así que buscó una habitación en la vecina ciudad de Jerez de la Frontera. Un carpintero y su familia que vivían en la planta de arriba de su taller de carpintería le alquilaron un cuarto a este ingenioso joven. Pronto se vio incorporado a la mesa familiar y así conoció a su hija Isabel Buzón. En principio ella se mostró recelosa con Pedro, era demasiado inusual para ella. Pedro vestía a la moda europea y no se parecía en nada a los chicos que ella conocía. Sin embargo Pedro tenía unos ojos muy vivaces y mucha cordialidad. ¡Se enamoraron y en nueve meses ya se habían casado!

La familia Díaz aún reside en Jerez de la Frontera, como siempre lo ha hecho. Allí Pedro e Isabela criaron a sus tres hijas: Inmaculada, Olga y Eva. Inma se casó con un español de su misma ciudad y tiene una familia a la manera tradicional española. Olga y Eva se casaron con americanos. Las dos hermanas son profesoras siguiendo el ejemplo de su padre. De hecho, Olga, sustituyó a Pedro en sus clases en la Base Naval. Al igual que su padre me traducía cartas en años pasados, ¡es ahora Olga la que traduce mis reflexiones!

Al llegar a Rota con mi joven familia, Pedro me sirvió de inestimable ayuda tanto personalmente, ayudándonos a establecernos en la cultura española, como profesionalmente, ayudándome a encontrar un centro para los retiros espirituales que yo organizaba y di en llamar CREDO / Esperanza. Debido a su profunda fe y fuertes vínculos con la iglesia, me abrió muchas puertas. Podéis leer acerca de este tema en mis reflexiones para la Navidad de 2006.

Pedro abrió muchas puertas a otros también. Al convertirse en el coordinador de asuntos interculturales de la Autoridad Militar de la base, trabajó asiduamente para acercar los americanos a los españoles de la zona y que pudieran trabajar en armonía.

Tras años de búsqueda en su juventud, Pedro encontró su soporte espiritual en su querida Isabela que siempre estuvo a su lado. Ella es una mujer piadosa, católica practicante a la manera más tradicional. Con los miembros de su grupo parroquial ha asistido a muchas peregrinaciones, incluyendo la afamada del Rocío al otro lado del río Guadalquivir en la provincia de Huelva. Isabela continúa siendo cimiento espiritual hoy en día. Como madre y abuela, sigue ofreciendo su apoyo en la fe a toda su familia.

La Vieja y la Nueva España: arraigada en la tradición y a la vez deseosa de integrarse en los nuevos tiempos. Esa es la historia del hijo del zapatero y la hija del carpintero. En mi opinión, personas tan dedicadas como esta pareja son los pilares de España y una inspiración para todos nosotros.

Os deseo lo mejor a vosotros y a vuestros seres queridos,


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