Tony Basques


Family history

My grandmother on my dad's side was Maria. Her husband was Adolph. He died in Spain. On my mom's side it was my grandfather Guillermo and my grandmother Rosario, Rose.

Painted portraits of my grandparents
Guillermo and Rosario

My dad was Anthony Senior. I'm Anthony Junior. He was born in 1903. My dad had a brother, Manuel, and two sisters, Ida and Carmen. My dad's family lived in Zafarraya, Spain. It's a farming community. All the buildings are whitewashed. There are no signs. I know this because I visited in the late 1990s. I saw the exact church that my dad's family worshipped in, more than a 100 years ago.

My mom's name was Laura. She was born in 1908. She had sisters Isabelle, Mercedes, Sarah, and Alice. Brothers Johnny and Ralph. Her family lived in Cabra, Spain. There's an Easter tradition where they march a statue of the Virgin Mary from the top of a mountain down into the town.

My dad immigrated from Spain to America in 1907. My mom immigrated from Spain to America in 1911. They didn't know each other in Spain. Regretfully I don't know much about my dad's family's immigration experience. I do know who was on the boat: my grandmother Maria, my aunt Carmen, my aunt Ida, my uncle Manuel, and my dad. My grandfather had died.

On my mom's side it all started when someone found a flyer that said "Come to America." It said they'd get food, a place to live, medical services for the family, a place to plant vegetables, education, and salaries. You had to sign a contract to work for at least 2 years. This would have been my grandmother Rosario, my grandfather Guillermo, my aunt Sarah, my aunt Alice, my mom, and my aunt Mercy, Mercedes. In Hawaii my uncle Johnny, my uncle Ralph, and my aunt Isabella were born.

A photocopy of the flyer
The flyer

My mom's parents, Rosario and Guillermo, trekked to Malaga from Cabra and God only knows how they managed. When I visited the homeland I saw the terrain that they had to cross. I can't imagine how they did it back when there were no roads. They must have had a cart. They had to have something to haul. Anyway, they somehow made it to Gibraltar. My grandfather Guillermo had never seen the Mediterranean before. When he saw the ship he saw the handwriting on the wall. "We're going on that ship?! We're not gonna go." And my grandmother said, "we're going!"

It was the law that you had to pass a health examination before being allowed to board. If you had any kind of contagious disease you wouldn't be allowed on the ship because you were going to be in close quarters with a lot of other people for a long time. As it was at the time, my mother had pink eye, which is very contagious. My grandmother, in her infinite wisdom, put 2 and 2 together and saw what was gonna happen. So she put my mother to her breast as if she was nursing her. They passed the inspector. He looked, didn't say much, and told them to go aboard. I've always loved that story.

So they left from Malaga, Gibraltar. 47 days on the boat. It was very crowded. In fact, when it left Gibraltar, it went up to Portugal to pick up similar migrants. The story has it that the minute they got aboard, the Portugese and the Spaniards didn't get along. There was enmity. There was arguing. They may have had bunks but they were all jammed down there in the hull. If I'm not mistaken, some of the Spaniards said, "whoa, I don't think we can do this. Take us back." So some of them actually went back to Gibraltar, to Malaga, and got off. Then those that remained departed for their destination. 47 days at sea. There was no Panama Canal yet. Some people died. Terribly crowded.

They had no idea where they were going. It ended up being Hawaii, where they needed migrant workers. There was a shortage of sugar in the United States. Your big money, your Spreckels, your Doles, the big owners of all the plantations, they sent the messages out universally. "Get us workers. We need workers." So my family went to Oahu. Recently I visited the Hawaiian Village Plantation museum. I believe that this is the very same plantation that my family worked at.

Our last name, Basques, came about when my dad went through customs in Hawaii. When they copied the names, his name was Vazquez. But in Spanish you pronounce V like B, and Z like S. So when he told the customs guy "Vazques" the customs guy wrote down "Basques." The way it sounds. And they never changed it. They left it like that. But on my dad's birth certificate it says Vazquez. It's a very common name in Spain. Like Smith.

My mother and father never met in Hawaii. There must have been thousands of migrant workers in different villages. I do remember when we were in Hawaii we were told mothers often had their babies out in the fields. The priest would go out and baptize them and make a cursory note with some information. We think he would then put those births in the records some place. That's what I was looking for when I went to the Hawaiian Village Plantation museum. But I didn't get that far in my search.

When the 2-year contract ended, my Uncle Frank left for California with his wife, Agnes, to see what was on the horizon for the family. The rumor was that it was a wonderful place to grow vegetables. The climate was good. It was not the kind of work that they were subject to, although they didn't know. But they went. They eventually got to California. The word was out and my uncle Frank sent a message back to the family in Hawaii, saying, "you're gonna love it here. Come on. Come to California." So he paved the way. I think he had a flat or someplace where they could live. They had to be frugal. I'm sure the money that they were able to save in 2 years was enough to pay ship passage. I recently learned that my grandparents had entrusted the money they saved to family "friends" who took off with the money! Thus extending the Luque stay in Hawaii by several more years.

They had some school in Hawaii. When they got to California the kids had to go to work. They couldn't afford the luxury of school. I think my mom may have gone to the 5th or 6th grade. The same with my dad. I know he had to work.

I'm unhappy about it, but all I know about the early years in California is that my dad was living in North Beach, probably with my uncle Manuel and his mom, Maria. My dad got a job at Ramada Candy Company. He started as a laborer and they taught him how to make candy. My mother coincidentally got a job there, probably as a laborer. She may have been 13 or 14. And that's where they met. I'm gonna say they were 20, 21 when they got married. My dad may have been a year or 2 older than my mom.

Horse-drawn carts in front of a restaurant
The corner of Taylor and Chestnut in North Beach (Image credit: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

It was pretty much the rule that you're making money for the family. All the family. I know that on my mother's side my grandfather took those that could work on a streetcar, maybe a bus, maybe a train, and they would go down to Cupertino, or Mountain View, where they had all the canneries and orchards. They would work there for the day. Working the canneries, working the fields. Maybe they picked fruit. Then they would ride back to San Francisco. My grandfather would have been the custodian of the money. He made sure that the kids were paid.

There's an interesting gap in my father's life. He lived in North Beach. The Salesian Boys Club was at the cathedral, there in North Beach. St. Peters and Paul. He joined the Salesians Boys Club. They had a band and he learned how to play trumpet. So while he was working at Ramada, the candy factory, he was taking trumpet lessons seriously. I don't know what age but he left Ramada and went on a ship to play with the band, on the ship. They went to Japan.

Dad in a tuxedo, holding a trumpet
Dad's band photo
A photo of Dad and the other 6 band members with their instruments in front of them
Dad and the band

In Tokyo my dad had his box camera and he was taking pictures of the harbor. In the harbor were ships. Probably war ships. My dad didn't know, but that was a big no-no. You don't take pictures of war ships. So 2 Japanese guards came up to him and chastised him for taking pictures. They were ready to put him in jail. He was breaking the law. As luck would have it, while they were getting ready to haul him off, the ship's purser came walking up the gangway and said, "what are you doing with this man? He's a member of the ship's personnel." They took my dad's camera but released him to get on the ship. He never did get his camera back. But he learned a lesson.

Next chapter: Childhood