I will not pretend my background is at all affluent. Far from it in fact. If you go back long enough, you will see that my family tree is mostly populated by farmers, agricultural labourers and other individuals for whom manual labour became the only way of earning a decent living. Fortunately, some branches in my ancestry made well for themselves eventually; others didn’t leave the countryside till well into the 20th century.
One of the few branches that did make it into, let’s say, the middle class, was that of my maternal grandfather’s mother.Her name was Hermelinda Cerviño and thanks partly to her parents’ encouragement (and stubbornness probably), she was able to marry and live a comfortable, albeit very short life. Hermelinda’s father José Benito Cerviño came from a very small parish in the Spanish region of Galicia. He was a stonemason, like so many men in his family, but unlike most of them, he was actually confident enough to move to Vigo, the nearest and largest city in the area. Vigo was, like now, an expanding industrialised centre which attracted young men and women from many surrounding villages. José Benito must have done well for himself, for before long he managed to buy some property right in the centre of Vigo, where he built a house, which was surrounded by a large garden surrounded by a thick stone wall, probably made by José Benito himself. The terrain on which he built his house must have been big enough to accommodate the row of houses which currently occupy the space. I’m not sure if there is actually any trace of the house, the garden or the wall any more. But that’s how things go.
José Benito married Dominga Iglesias in 1877 when he was 26 and she was 24. Their marriage lasted until Dominga’s death in 1924. My great-grandmother Hermelinda was their sixth child; out of their ten children, nine were girls, and out of those nine, three died as toddlers. By the early 1900’s José Benito and Dominga’s eldest daughter was already married and churning out children. Hermelinda’s only brother, eager to make a name for himself, left for Chile and returned several years later, a dandy-looking, pleasant young man who also found a wife soon after his arrival. So José Benito and Dominga were left home with five spinster daughters aged roughly between 25 and 13; it is no wonder that their parents decided the girls ought to marry if they didn’t want to remain gloomy, lonely virgins all their lives.
At the time, middle-class families relied on friends and acquaintances to introduce their eligible daughters to suitable young men. Concerts, dances and other people’s weddings usually did the trick. Women seldom travelled anywhere alone and respectable ladies never left home without at least the company of a chaperone. The destiny of five girls, however respectable, could not be trusted solely to fortune. That is probably why José Benito and Dominga decided to spend a season every year at the nearby spa town of Mondariz, not too far from Vigo. Mondariz is actually more a village than a town, but its beautiful surroundings and mineral springs earned it national, if not international fame. It attracted the rich and the middle classes alike, and my family, being somewhere in between, were no exception.
I imagine Mondariz would have been an adequate place to find a good catch for Dominga’s spinster daughters (José Benito usually stayed behind in Vigo, probably attending to his own business interests). But year after year, in the hope of meeting agreeable candidates to her daughters’ hand, Dominga persevered in travelling to the spa with two or three of the girls and attended daily concerts, washed in the springs and drank the refreshing water of Mondariz, which is still bottled and exported abroad today. Most of the photos we have, which show the ladies sitting rather dignified awaiting the arrival of an eligible young man, date back to the mid 1910’s; it’s rather funny to think that while half of Europe was being killed in the trenches, my great-grandmother went hunting for a husband.
In fact, Hermelinda was the first lucky one (being my great-grandmother, dare I presume she was also the prettiest?); another sister found her own beau about a year or two later (poor Dominga, how many times must she have returned home empty-handed, without a man for her daughters’ hand!). Hermelinda’s husband-to-be, Guillermo, a Spanish-born merchant who had amassed a small fortune in pre-Castro Cuba, boasted an elegant moustache and pretty items of jewellery which I’m sure dazzled even the sad-eyed woman who shortly thereafter was to become his mother-in-law. Despite the difference in age (he was 38, she had turned 30), Guillermo and Hermelinda’s wedding took place in December 1917; the wedding was even announced in the newspaper; Dominga had succeeded! The young couple toured Spain before leaving for Cuba, where they lived for a few years. Theirs was a happy match.
Their first two children (the eldest died young) were born in Cuba. The other three were born in Spain in the 1920’s. Sadly, Hermelinda passed away aged 49 during (but not because of) the Spanish Civil War; one of her spinster sisters became a second mother to her orphaned niece and nephews.