La Nacional: The Spanish Benevolent Society Lives On

The remaining piece of Manhattan’s Little Spain shares the memories of Spanish immigration in the 20th century

| 17 Aug 2022 | 03:02

The nonprofit society La Nacional opened on 14th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues in 1868, but when the Church of Our Lady Guadalupe opened next door at the turn of the century, the block truly became “Little Spain.” By 1920, immigrant Spaniards ran this pocket of the West Side and lined it with their businesses: Spanish food market Casa Moneo, and favored restaurants Cafe Madrid and La Bilbaina. Now, what remains of Little Spain is La Nacional, its Vice President Max Vazquez — who has spent his entire life on the 200 West 14th block — and his memories of a now-dissolved cultural hotspot.

Vazquez’s father owned La Iberia, a clothing store specializing in American goods, at 213 West 14th St. Growing up in the mid-century, Max Vazquez attended classes on the third floor of La Nacional, learning otografía, the Spanish grammar that complemented his weekday education at The Little Red School House. He learned to play the bagpipes in the Spanish tradition. Then he watched the Spaniards migrate to Queens and Long Island in the latter half of the century.

La Nacional, or the Spanish Benevolent Society, has continuously operated as a social center for Spaniards in New York. It’s historically acted as a community center and networking space. In the early 20th century, immigrants would show up on the steps of La Nacional looking for help launching their lives in the city. Those in need of a room could stay on the fourth floor. When society members got married, the service was held in Our Lady Guadalupe (which has since moved down to the 300 block). La Nacional even held beds in St. Vincent Hospital and reserved cemetery plots for its members.

“If you needed a job as a waiter, my father would give you a pair of black pants and a white shirt,” says Vazquez. “It’s a very, very strong society.”

“Virtual Networking of Immigrants”

Today, the Spanish Benevolent Society’s aid has modernized. Vazquez spearheads the “virtual networking of immigrants” in a professional, online group. A businessman himself, educated at Columbia University with years of experience in the fashion industry, Vazquez mentors and guides young Spaniards who are getting their Ph.D.’s or building startup companies.

Though the networking happens primarily online now, La Nacional’s building is still a multifunctional space for Spanish culture. The second floor, the salón, holds events like olive oil tastings and weekly tango classes. In the offices on the third floor, there are society meetings and occasional networking meet ups.

A society staple, however, has always been the cantina — the restaurant downstairs. Also called La Nacional, the basement dining spot is an acclaimed tapas bar serving authentic cuisine from a number of Spanish regions. Current Head Chef Francisco Javier Parreño hails from Valencia, and boasts experience working in fine dining around the world.

Hard Times

Vazquez regularly dined at the cantina with his father as a child, surrounded by men drinking carajillo— coffee with cognac. He watched as the regular customer base dwindled in the 70s, along with the rest of the neighborhood’s Spanish population. The restaurant and the society fell on hard times, and they decided to rent out the eatery towards the end of the century.

“Little Spain was dying,” says Robert Sanfiz, La Nacional’s director of 15 years. “We were literally the only remnant left of Little Spain.”

In 2010, restaurateur Lolo Manso rented out the space to revive the tapas bar, but Sanfiz says the administration “always wanted to go back to members owning the restaurant.”

Eventually, the Spanish Benevolent Society bounced back and reclaimed the dining establishment in 2016. Being part of and owned by a non-profit, the restaurant was refurbished with fixtures donated by some of Spain’s leading interior designers, says Vazquez, from the tiles decorating the bar to the light fixtures overhead. Since officially reopening in 2018, La Nacional’s restaurant has been favored by Spaniards, Americans, locals and tourists alike.

Down the street, at the same exact address where his father ran La Iberia, Vazquez currently operates Mama Gaiam, selling plants, sage, and crystals. Using his years of spiritual practice, Vazquez’ shop focuses on using the tools of mother nature to reflect on consciousness. He plans to open a tea house and elixir bar in the back of the store, where he can continue building a “community of like minded people” in homage to his upbringing in the neighborhood.

“If you needed a job as a waiter, my father would give you a pair of black pants and a white shirt. It’s a very, very strong society.” Max Vazquez, of La Nacional