Discovering an inherited home

Susan Tavares Kenney (fourth from left), in Cuevas de San Marcos.
Susan Tavares Kenney (fourth from left), in Cuevas de San Marcos. / SUR
  • Thousands emigrated from Malaga to Hawaii in 1907 to find work. Susan Tavares, one of their descendants, has travelled to Cuevas de San Marcos to search for her family

Martha Fernández always wanted to visit Malaga, but she never got the chance. However, when she died in Maui (Hawaii) in August 2016, her dreams were passed down to the next generation: her daughter, Susan Tavares-Kenney. Almost 13,000 kilometres away from Hawaii, Malaga is the distant European home of her ancestors.

Susan had been told that, in 1907, her great grandparents María and Esteban had been part of the passage of the ship SS Heliópolis, which left the port of Malaga carrying thousands of Andalusians who were to work on sugar cane plantations on the Pacific island. When Martha realised that she was too old to make the trip to discover her roots, she asked her daughter. "She asked me to bring her a shell or a pebble from the coast of Malaga," explains Susan, who, as part of the fourth generation of the Benítez Molero family, has come to the Cuevas de San Marcos to search for traces of her heritage and the land that her mother was desperate to see.

Susan Tavares-Kenney's story began more than a century ago, when poverty and economic difficulties forced her great grandparents to abandon their hometown in the province of Malaga. María and Esteban got married in 1889, but life in the countryside kept them on the brink of poverty. The couple moved to Cadiz for a more prosperous future. Next, they went to Chiclana de la Frontera and Fuengirola, where, in 1901, they had their fifth child, Rosario Benítez Molero, Susan's grandmother. In 1907, they returned to bid farewell to their family. Esteban and María had decided to embark on a trip to Hawaii, which promised a better future for themselves and their five children. "That was the last time they saw their family. They put all their belongings in a trunk and set off on a journey that would change their lives and that of their descendants forever," describes the American, who never knew her great grandparents.

Susan did, however, meet her grandmother, Rosario. "She told me that her parents, Esteban y María, and their siblings were from Malaga and so I began thinking about my place of origin," said Susan, who has memories of her grandmother telling stories in English, with "sprinklings of Spanish" in between.

During the journey to Hawaii, Rosario was barely six years old, but she remembered the "large ship" on which they travelled and a few scenes of a Spain gone by, where "women washed their clothes in streams and fountains with large brown cakes of soap that would blister their hands". Memories of misery and a lack of resources also marked the mind of the young emigrant, who recalled having seen "a mother dipping a rag in some coffee mixed with a little milk and then wetting her baby's lips to soothe it."

"We are family"

A graduate in Library Studies from the University of Hawaii, the great granddaughter began to trace her heritage using the internet and digital archives. It was there that she found the full name of her great grandfather, Esteban María Benítez Gómez, on a family tree. She sent an email to the author of the document, Concepción Terrón, in which she spoke of her search for family members in Malaga after her ancestors left for Hawaii in 1907. "She replied the following day with excitement, saying: 'We are family'," recalls Susan, who had just found her third cousin. From then, she knew a trip to Spain was inevitable.

A few weeks ago, Susan Tavares finally saw the Malaga that she had spent many years thinking about. "I was amazed at the buildings lining the coast. This was not the same sight my family had when they left in 1907," says the woman, who, together with her husband, Marty Kenney, has gone through an emotional experience which is difficult to put into works. In Malaga, she met with José Mateo, author of a blog about Cuevas de San Marcos, who provided Susan with facts and details before she began her trip, along with Miguel Alba, author of the book, 'SS Heliópolis. La primera inmigración de andaluces a Hawái 1907', who has also helped this descendant of María and Esteban to find the missing pieces to her family history puzzle.

Walking the same streets

After getting to know the city and the port from which her great grandparents departed, Susan and Marty moved on to Chiclana, the home of her cousin Conchita Terrón. "We hugged and cried. This wasn't just for us, it was for our deceased relatives," she explained, clearly emotional. Together, they confronted the last and most important step of the journey: the return to Cuevas de San Marcos. Susan could never have imagined what would be waiting there.

"They received us with hugs and kisses on the cheek - as is custom in Spain - and councillor Ana Doblado came to greet us." Susan was told that many of the welcome-party were cousins of hers. Afterwards, they took her to see the house where her great grandfather was born and the modest residence in which he lived with María after their wedding. "It had not been refurbished, so I could get a real idea of what their home was like," she remembers. The American says she feels "privileged to walk the same stone streets as her grandparents and their children".

The visit was celebrated with a very crowded lunch, in which Susan Tavares Kenney met many of her 'new' cousins, like Antonio Benítez and Antonio Terrón, who served as a translator between English and Spanish. It was a welcome that the prodigal daughter could never have imagined. Her Spanish family members have asked that she learn their language for her next visit, which is planned for summer 2019. "I felt like I was coming home," said Susan. This sense of home will accompany her back to Hawaii, along with photos and the shells that she promised her mother.