Feb 13, 2016

Origins — The Respalls

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 Respalls.

  • This article includes the story of a stomach ache that turned into a surprise birth, and the story of a murder, so don’t quit reading it too early. 

Eduvigis Respall Pereira de Prats
Benito’s mother was named Eduvigis Respall Pereira. She was something special! Take a look in this article about her:  Eduvigis Respall, A Well-Connected Businesswoman. But beyond Eduvigis, here is what I know about the Respall root of the family. 

Respall is a Catalan last name, like Prats. It comes from Catalonia, a land with its own distinct language and culture and for many centuries a region of Spain and France on the Mediterranean Sea split by the Pyrenees Mountains. There are a lot of Respalls in Catalonia. Catalonians speak Catalan, but Catalonians in Spanish Catalonia also speak Spanish and those in French Catalonia also speak French.  “Respall” in Catalan means “brush,” as in what you would use to brush your hair or scrub something clean.  It’s nothing like its Spanish equivalent, sepillo.

Casimirio Respall Rodriguez and
Rufina Peraira Ortega
While we are on the subject of names, let’s talk about Eduvigis. It’s a very rare name these days, and even in the zenith of its use in christenings around the turn of the 20th century, it was still rare. It is the Spanish version of Hedwig, a German feminine given name. In German and English the usual nickname for Hedwig is Heddy. It got to the Spanish Eduvigis by way of its French variation: Edwige. I wonder what caused it to spread world-wide around the time Eduvigis Respall was born.

Casimirio Respall Rodriguez
Eduvigis’ father was Casimirio Respall Rodriguez (no relation to the Camaguey Rodriguezes), an immigrant from Spain who ran a bodega (a small grocery store) in Camaguey when Eduvigis was born in 1895.  We don’t know when or where he was born or when or how he immigrated to Cuba. Casimirio’s wife Rufina Pereira Ortega (everyone called her “Paita”) was born in Camaguey. We don’t know anything about her family, but Rufina plays a part in this article: Garlic! Rufina outlived her husband by 48 years.

Rufina Pereira in 1950.
We know that Casimirio saved for his and Rufina’s retirement in the way it’s always done worldwide when you can’t trust banks or banknotes or the safety of gold coins under the mattress: by buying real estate you can rent out. He did not live to retirement, dying March 15, 1921, but his savings, most likely augmented with more real estate purchases when his shop was sold, bought Rufina a very nice house to live in at number 53 Avellaneda Street, and a number of casitas, little houses the size of apartments, to rent out. 

Rufina Pereira in 1955
Both Benito and his sister Olga remember accompanying their grandmother when she went house to house collecting the monthly rent. Most of the time their cousin Bertha Respall Pereira went with her. She could be charitable, being lenient on late payments or even forgiving a month or two when a renter was in financial trouble. But she had no trouble going to court for an eviction notice when she was being taken advantage of, and even accompanying court officers to her property to supervise the removal of renter’s effects to the curb.

Typical casitas typically for rent
Benito the gastroenterologist told the story of the only newborn delivery of his medical career. It began as a house call to one of Rufina’s casitas to treat a bad stomachache and went south from there. The story goes like this:

Late one evening a tenant of Rufina’s knocked on her door. He was distraught and did not know who to turn to. His teen-age daughter was in great distress with abdominal pain and no matter what medicine they gave her she was not getting better. Rufina did not have to think twice, the symptoms that were described were like those her grandson took care of every day. She told the man to go home and she would send her grandson the doctor to his house. She phoned Benito at home and he was on his way.

It was very clear to Dr. Prats what the matter was when he arrived and there was no time to get his patient to the hospital. He asked for hot water and towels and within minutes delivered a healthy baby boy. How the girl hid the pregnancy in such a tiny house was beyond comprehension, he said, adding that denial on the part of the parents who would never dare to think that her daughter could be pregnant was probably a factor.

Dr. Porfirio Respall Pereira
From his 1926 University of Mexico Diploma
Casimirio and Rufina had two children, Eduvigis and her brother Porfirio Respall Pereira. She also took in and raised with her two children Francisca Quintana (“Paca”), the young daughter of an acquaintance who died, leaving her homeless.  Paca grew up and married a man with the last name Albaijes, an artist who painted with oils.

Later in life and now widowed, when Rufina found out that her son Porfirio had had a child out of wedlock, she sent for the infant and raised her herself. That child was Bertha Respall Adan, known to all as Rufina’s adopted daughter, Bertha Respall Pereira. Bertha, growing up and throughout her life was a warm and pleasant person, quick with a smile and very intelligent. She kept a little book with Respall and Prats family history including names, relationships and dates. I wish I could get my hands on that book. 

Bertha, Benito and Olga grew up together and were very close. Their home at number 4 Avellaneda Street was just a few houses down from Rufina’s and they were in each other’s houses constantly. Benito and Olga call Bertha their prima hermana, their cousin-sister, and always considered themselves a unit. Bertha devoted herself to Rufina and never married. She took care of Rufina in her old age and death. Rufina was 95 years old when she died in 1969. Olga and her husband José Luis Martínez and her two daughters moved in with Bertha to Avellaneda 53 shortly thereafter. Bertha died in 2010 at 91 years of age. She had been born in 1919.

Three Generations of Prats and Respall dining at Avellaneda No. 4
From left: Rufina Pereira, Mariana Martinez and her husband Benito Prats, José Luis Martínez (no relation to Mariana) and his wife Olga Prats, José Prats and his wife Eduvigis Respall, and Bertha Respall.
This photo was taken November 12, 1954

Porfirio Respall, Eduvigis’ brother, was an interesting relative. He was a surgeon, and pioneered a number of surgery techniques in the 1920s. He studied and lived in Mexico for a number of years, Surgeon General to the Mexican Army and then returned to Cuba. He married an American from Philadelphia named Luisa Welloth (they had no children) and continued his profession. Porfirio moved to the town of Victoria de las Tunas in Oriente province (today the city of Las Tunas in the new Las Tunas province) about 80 miles east of Camaguey and here is where the story gets interesting.

Guarina Ice Cream Vendor
Dr. Respall purchased a small dairy farm near Las Tunas and after staffing and rehabilitating it he started selling his milk there and also shipped some by rail to the Guarina dairy. Guarina had a number of factories across Cuba pasteurizing milk, making butter, American-style cream cheese and ice creams.

But Dr. Respall quickly ran afoul of the local Department of Health, whose politically appointed director also owned a dairy farm and did not appreciate the competition. Porfirio’s milk was often declared unfit for consumption and ordered destroyed, even though Porfirio was scrupulous in making sure his milk was pure and properly handled.  He was an educated man, after all, and not only understood the regulations, but as a doctor also knew all about pathogens and how to prevent them from contaminating his milk. He was being punished for unwittingly muscling in on the director’s milk monopoly without paying proper monetary respect.

Contemporary Las Tunas street scene
Dr. Respall may have been shot right here
One day in August, 1933, Porfirio ran into the director of the Department of Health on the street in Las Tunas and confronted him. The two men had a heated exchange of words until the director ended the conversation when, in broad daylight and in view of witnesses, he pulled a pistol from his pocket and shot Porfirio Respall dead.

To the dismay of his family in Camaguey, but to the surprise of no one in Las Tunas, the firearm discharge was ruled accidental and the murderer was never prosecuted. Rufina went to Las Tunas to retrieve her son’s body for burial in Camaguey, Porfirio’s wife packed up and returned to Philadelphia, and that was the end of that story. (Except that the probate of Porfirio's estate does not mention his wife Luisa. Could they have divorced and just prior to his death and she was already out of the country?)

Dr. Raul Respall Hidalgo
Another Respall relative of note is Raul Respall ( a young generation zero member when using the Maryland Prats generation counting system), a cousin and contemporary of Benito, who can be found in some family pictures. Raul went to Havana University before Benito and returned a gastroenterologist. He was one of the witnesses at Benito and Mariana’s wedding.  Benito followed in his footsteps. We have a photo of Raul’s parents Pablo Respall and Aurora Hildago (generation minus 1), and we have a photo of Casimirio’s and Pablo’s father José Respall (generation minus 2).

Did José Respall come to Cuba from Spain with Casimirio or did Casimirio send for him when he got established? Or was it the other way around? One of José’s photos (below) shows him in what could be a military uniform. Maybe he served the Spanish army in Cuba and stayed. 

Cristina Ortega
Taken in 1924 at 83 years old
Finally, we have photgraphs of Rufina’s nieces Gertrudis and Elfidia Pereira and we can step back a generation from Rufina with a photo of her mother Cristina Ortega (generation minus 2), but no further. And as to Casimirio’s mother and other brothers or sisters, if any, we have nothing.  Still, sad as it is, we can count a cold-blooded murder victim in our family tree.

José Respall
José Respall
Bottom row: Rufina Pereira, Pablo Respall and his wife Aurora Hidalgo
Top row: Eduvigis  Respall, Benito Prats, Olga Prats and José Prats

Gertrudis Pereira Muñoz
Gertrudis Pereira Muñoz
Elfidia Pereira
Porfirio Respall’s 1926 Diploma from the National University of Mexico
He was already practicing as a surgeon when he obtained this additional specialization.
It reads “United States of Mexico. The Secretary of State and of the Office of Public Education, by special arrangement with the President of the United States of Mexico dated July 1925, and given that the gentleman Porfirio Respall Pereira has proved to the National University of Mexico that he has duly completed the respective courses of specialization in the year of 1925, and  passed the corresponding examinations, issues this Diploma of  Doctor of Academic Hygiene and is accredited to  perform this practice. ” It is signed by he Secretary of Public Education and the Rector of the university.  The note at the bottom left reads, “Diploma of Doctor of Academic Hygiene has been issued to the Doctor-Surgeon Porfirio Respall Pereira.”