This is the fourth installment in a series examining remaining pockets of ethnicity in the Mountain State.
SPELTER — Talking with a friend beside her front porch along noisy U.S. 19, Josephine Alvarez mentioned that she was going to stop making authentic chorizo-style sausage, the kind that her grandparents made back in Spain.
“As soon as I run out of spices, I’m quitting,” she said flatly, attributing her decision to age and weariness.
In between air-brake blasts from the coal and timber trucks passing by, Ron Gonzalez, who has enjoyed her homemade chorizo for many years, tried to talk her out of it.
Alvarez brushed off his protests. When she turned toward her front steps, she paused to call back over her shoulder: “Hasta la vista.”
Later, as he showed a visitor around Spelter, the town of his youth, Gonzalez confided that he’s been dreading the day when Alvarez makes her last link of smoky, garlicky chorizo.
To him, it’s a taste of his heritage, of Spain and its Asturian emigrants, of Spelter and its once-hulking zinc works ... of a time that is rapidly slipping away.
Heart of town
Tucked away in the Spanish north, Asturias is a rugged land of high mountains and cliff-lined beaches fronting the Bay of Biscay. Its industrial foundation — mining and metallurgy — was not enough to stop thousands of workers from seeking the American dream in the early 1900s.
In the United States, the Asturianos sought out familiar work, leading many to settle next to the blistering zinc-smelting furnaces in Anmoore and Spelter, Harrison County.
Like other immigrants, they bunched together, forming neighborhood clusters such as North View and Pinnick Kinnick Hill in Clarksburg.
But it was Spelter, the company town built for the employees of the Grasselli Chemical Co. zinc works, that is perhaps the most cohesive example of a Spanish-West Virginia village.
Spelter is the name for the crude zinc rendered by the smelting process, and it was simultaneously the lifeblood and bane of many a Spanish worker.
It was widely known at the time that the Asturian men were some of the only workers who could (or would) stand the heat and the hard labor at the mouth of the furnaces.
For this reason, and various prejudices, the men were kept at the furnaces with little chance for advancement.
The massive plant loomed over the town, a smoldering, smoking core for the rows of neatly kept houses that crowded around its boundaries.
It was here in this tight-knit community, where Spanish could be heard as regularly as English, that Ron Gonzalez and a hundred other children and grandchildren of Asturian immigrants came of age.
“It was wonderful growing up there,” said Gonzalez, 68, who moved to Shinnston in the 1960s with his new bride. “The families cared for each other, the neighbors cared for each other.
“I look at it today and, ... ” he paused, shaking his head. “Sad, sad. Whatever legacy the original immigrants left is slowly evaporating.”
Following his father
Alvarez. Fernandez. Garcia. Gutierrez. Menendez. Vasquez.
On a hot day earlier this month, Gonzalez rode along the quiet streets of Spelter, pointing out houses and reciting the names of the Spanish families that originally lived there.
A few families with Spanish names remain, but nothing visible — save for a defunct sausage smokehouse in one back yard — tells of the ones who came before.
And on the knoll where the zinc plant once sprawled for acres, a grassy expanse of reclaimed land is broken only by a two-story brick house, the plant’s former office building.
Gonzalez followed his father into the plant when he finished high school and took up his post at the mouth of the furnace.
Forty-six years later, in 2002, the Spelter plant closed and was demolished — one year shy of Gonzalez’s retirement date.
By then, he was one of only a few Asturian immigrants’ sons still working in the plant. Most of the old prejudices had been forgotten years before, allowing Gonzalez to advance past the furnaces.
But there was a time ... He recalls the occasion when his father, who did not have a car, rented his garage to a man (an “American” man, as they were known at the time) for $1 a month. After four months and no money, his father padlocked the garage and told the man that he would unlock it when he got his money.
“I was just a kid, but I remember I was standing right next to my father at the time,” Gonzalez said. “The man got mad and said: ‘You damn dagos should pay us for letting you live in this country!’”
While the “dago” slur is often associated with Italians, it is actually a corruption of the Spanish name “Diego,” and was originally applied to both nationalities.
“That word started a lot of fights in those days,” Gonzalez said.
A desire to learn more
The Asturian immigrants themselves, of course, spoke Spanish. Their children were often bilingual, but the next generation — Ron Gonzalez’s generation — were English speakers ... unless they were talking to their grandparents.
Gonzalez used to like to sit and listen to his mother and grandmother talk to each other in Spanish. At one time, he had a good command of the language, but years of disuse have washed away much of that ability.
When Gonzalez was a student, the local schools taught French and Latin, but not Spanish.
Deborah (Garcia) Harki, whose great-grandfather was an Asturian emigrant, took the French and Latin classes at her Catholic high school in Clarksburg, but as soon as she enrolled in West Virginia University in 1967, she realized Spanish would be her major.
“I had a real desire to learn more about my Spanish background and about the language,” said Harki, who is now the foreign languages coordinator for the state Department of Education.
She said she was not encouraged by her family to learn Spanish. When asked, her father always pronounced his nationality as “American.”
“But when I took it up in college and came home speaking Spanish, my grandfather was delighted,” Harki said.
Prior to her state job, Harki was a high school Spanish teacher in Shinnston for 26 years.
There, she taught Ron Gonzalez’s daughter, Suronda, who was fast becoming enamored with Spain and her roots.
In 1991, Suronda Gonzalez completed a master’s thesis titled “Talking Like My Grandmothers: Spanish Immigrant Women in Spelter, W.Va.” based on interviews she conducted with several Spanish women remaining in the community.
Most recently, she wrote the preface for G.W. Gonzalez’s lightly fictionalized memoir “Pinnick Kinnick Hill, An American Story” published posthumously by the West Virginia University Press in 2003.
“From 1910 to 1920, the Spanish population of West Virginia more than tripled to 1,543,” she noted in the preface. “The growth of West Virginia’s Spanish population, expanding at nearly twice the national rate, led to the establishment of a Spanish Vice Consulate in Clarksburg by the 1920s.”
Unbeknownst to his family, G.W. Gonzalez (no relation to Ron and Suronda) had been writing down remembrances from his Clarksburg childhood up on Pinnick Kinnick.
The memoir, which changes the names of characters and places, was found after Gonzalez’s death in 1988.
It is a rambling tale of Asturianos trying to fit into their new home while still holding onto a semblance of their past lives. Its pages reveal adventures and fun, as well as death and the yearning for more from life.
Today, Pinnickinnick Street is a quiet, paved lane trailing up the steep hill.
On a recent day, an older woman sat outside her home on Pinnickinnick, peering through the summery haze that enveloped downtown Clarksburg in the valley below.
Spanish-American families? She puzzled at the question. “A Spanish family used to have the house next door, and mine, too.” But there aren’t any families with Spanish-sounding names still living on the street, she said. “No, not anymore.”
To read past installments in this series, log on to www.wv
For more information on the Asturian migration, log on to www.asturianus.org/index.html.
To order the book “Pinnick Kinnick Hill, An American Story” by G.W. Gonzalez, log on to www.wvupress.com/catalog/product_info.php?cPath=39&products_id=31&osCsid=b111.
To contact staff writer Robert J. Byers, use e-mail or call 348-1236.