Jan 23, 2016

Origins — The Prats

The birth certificate names of the first generation of Prats in Maryland said Benito H. E. Prats Respall and for his wife, Mariana G. Martínez Rodríguez. The double last names, in the Spanish naming tradition, gives us the four family names that we need to explore: Prats, Respall, Martínez and Rodríguez.  In this article, let’s find out a bit about the Prats.

  • This article contains a story about a randy Prats and another about an insulting hotel desk clerk, so don’t quit reading too early.
José Prats Amat

Benito’s father was named José Prats Amat. Everyone called him Pepe. He emigrated from Spain to Cuba, most likely in the early 1910s. More specifically, he was born and grew up in the Catalonia region of Spain. Catalonia is on the Mediterranean Sea, divided by the Pyrenees Mountains into Spanish Catalonia and French Catalonia. Catalonians speak Catalan, a language different from Spanish, but because they have been under Spanish or French rule for so many centuries, Spanish Catalonians also speak Spanish and French Catalonians also speak French.  The Catalans spell their region Catalunya in Catalan, and Cataluña in Spanish.

The capital of Catalonia is Barcelona, a port city, and the heart of industrial Spain. In Barcelona the name Prats is as common as Smith or Jones is in the U.S. In Catalan, a prat is a grassy field or meadow. So we could have had the last name of Meadows if our ancestor had come from England rather than Catalonia. Perhaps our ancestors were peasants in the middle ages and when one of them was successful in town and needed a last name, one of his acquaintances said, in Catalan of course, “Oh, him?  That’s Mateu from one of the prats north of town.” And with that a Matthew Prats was christened.

Olga Prats Respall, Benito’s sister, says that her father Pepe Prats — who was born in 1893 in the little Catalan town of Capellades, some 35 miles inland from Barcelona — with his brother Amadeo and some cousins, either stowed away and/or worked onboard for their passage on a Spanish ship that landed in the Cuban port of Nuevitas at around 1910. Nuevitas is Camaguey’s port on the Atlantic Ocean. (Camaguey was founded around 1515 on the coast where Nuevitas is now. It was moved 45 miles inland in 1528 to better protect it from pirates.) The cousins parted ways on landing, she said, with Pepe and Amadeo staying in Camaguey, and the cousins splitting up, some going east to Oriente Province, others west to the capital, Havana.

Spanish Steamship of the Era
Just like in the U.S., in the early 20th century steamship companies and the three major Cuban railroads were recruiting immigrants in Europe to settle in Cuba. The transportation companies would get the fare for their passage, but, more importantly, the U.S., Cuba and other Western Hemisphere countries would get badly needed skilled and unskilled workers. So I’m guessing it was relatively easy for the Prats brothers to quickly get jobs in fast-growing Camaguey. There was certainly construction, hauling, delivery, and other similar jobs. And all those new residents needed shops to buy groceries and supplies. Perhaps Amadeo and Pepe, who were still teenagers, went to work in a bodega, or what Americans then called a general store, where groceries and dry goods were sold.

They must have saved some of their pay, and probably lucked into a bargain when a shopkeeper they were working for, or knew of, retired or died and the widow needed to sell quickly. I say this because Olga says that Amadeo and Pepe had their own shop called Rancho Chico on Martí Street facing Camaguey's Ignacio Agramonte Park before Pepe met his future wife, Eduvigis Respall Pereira. They married in 1917. And we hear no more of Amadeo after 1917. Maybe he left for another town to set up his own shop. Or maybe he returned to Spain.

So we don’t know when Pepe Prats arrived in Camaguey. We do know he had the shop and convinced Eduvigis’ parents, who were also shopkeepers, that he was worthy of their daughter because they were married in 1917.

A Cuban on his Horse
(Drawn by W. M. Berger)
Benito told the story of one of one of the Prats cousins who became an itinerant teacher in Cuba. He would travel on horseback to remote farms, ranches, logging camps and mining camps and offer to teach basic reading, writing and arithmetic for room and board and a few coins. Landowners had money to send their children to boarding schools. It was the ranch hands and other workers that were hungry for teachers for their children.

He would stay a month or three and then move on.  This Prats teacher would occasionally show up in Camaguey and spend a few weeks in Pepe’s house before moving on. Benito said this relation of his had a wandering eye for young farm girls and most likely left a few new Prats babies behind here and there, but they would never have been given his name. From some of the stories he overheard, there were some necessary unplanned quick exits from some of the ranches and camps.

Pepe Prats and his wife Eduvigis
The various Prats were successful, married, but did not communicate with each other much. They sent money back to pay for passage for other family members, and that is how Primitiva Prats, Pepe’s sister got to Cuba. Olga says that in their old age they all returned to Spain except for Pepe, but their children did not. They already had families and considered themselves Cuban. She says that his wife Eduvigis asked Pepe a number of times if he wanted to return to Barcelona to visit family, that she would run the shop until he returned. But he never showed any interest in returning. He considered himself Cuban too.

Olga remembers when Pepe’s parents, Enrique Prats and Paula Amat, came to visit Pepe in Camaguey when she was a young girl.  Pepe’s sister Josefa (her nickname was Pepilla — pronounced “Pepiya”) came with them. They came by steamship from Spain and stayed with them for a few weeks, and most likely took the opportunity to visit their other children and relations. They were very proud of their son Pepe, she said, and appreciative of the money he had sent home over the years.

S.S. Marques de Comillas
Built in Ferrol, in the Galician region of Spain
and launched in 1927, this steamship was 476 feet
in length and was outfitted for 149 first class
passengers, 53 second class and 39 third class.
Their return trip was from Havana on the S.S. Marques de Comillas on June 1st, 1931 as documented on the Passenger Manifest left with U.S. Customs because the ship stopped in New York on its way to Barcelona. The three of them are on the manifest: Enrique Prats Ventura, Paula Amat de Prats, and Josefa Prats Amat, with their ages listed as 67, 65, and 30 respectively.

With the lack of regular communications between the Prats in Cuba, with Pepe slowed down by the stroke he suffered in the mid-1950s, and with the confusion due to of the mass exodus of the middle class from Cuba when the communist government shuttered all private enterprise in the early 1960s and blocked international movement of ordinary Cubans—Benito in Maryland, and Olga in Camaguey, lost track of their Prats relations in Cuba and in Spain.

There was one exception. Pepilla wrote to Benito in Maryland in 1971. Then a widow, she was living in French Catalonia with her son, in the town of Quillan, inland from coastal town of Perpignan, near the French border with Spain.  She sent him a portrait of herself, which is reproduced below.

Josefa “Pepilla” Prats Amat
In 1971 she was living in Quillan, France
In the 1990s, Benito and his wife Mariana visited Barcelona, their first trip ever to Spain. Using information they learned from earlier correspondence with Pepilla, they looked up relations and said they were warmly received. Unfortunately I was unable to find any names and addresses in his papers. We have photographs from that trip showing family, but no names.

When they arrived in Barcelona, Benito walked up to the front desk at the hotel.  In Spanish:  “Good afternoon, I have a reservation.” “May I know your name?” “Benito Prats Respall.” On hearing the two very common Catalan last names the desk clerk switched from Spanish to Catalan and Benito could not understand a word he said. The desk clerk noticed the confusion on his face, and snapped at him in Spanish, with typical Catalan passion: ¡Vergüenza debéis tener, no hablar Catalan!” — “You should be ashamed of yourself, not knowing Catalan!”  The Catalans have been fighting for centuries to preserve their identity against Spanish and French suppression — until a few years before this encounter, the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco had forbidden for decades the speaking of Catalan in public. They are very passionate about their identity and language. But still, imagine that: a hotel clerk loudly scolding a guest like that. 

So what should we take away from what we know of our Prats relations?  The Prats were people of the earth, some of which left Catalonia in the early 20th century for a better life in Cuba and found it. They were intelligent, resourceful, and hard-working, and were not afraid to strive for a better life. Pepe Prats became a merchant and with his wife’s significant assistance provided well for his family of four while providing for his parents back in Spain. His son Benito educated himself into the middle class by obtaining a medical degree, and excelled with hard work, dedication and intelligence.

Benito and his family were the first of both the Prats and the Martínez clans to send their children to safety and abandon Camaguey for a better life in Maryland when things turned bad for Cuba and especially for Cuba’s middle class. So we should add fearless to the list of adjectives that describe our Prats heritage. 

Alpargatas – Catalan Jute Shoes
Immigrants from Catalonia, male and female, wore them in Cuba
but they were considered peasant shoes and looked down on.
Super comfortable, today they are a fashion sensation
They are Espadrilles