Resilience and Hope

Don Harris | January 2012

I 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.

After 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,