- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 6, 2003


By G. W. Gonzalez (edited by Mark Brazaitis, with a preface by Suronda Gonzalez)

Includes a Spanish translation (“Las Colinas Suean en Espaol”) by Daniel F. Ferreras

West Virginia University Press, $37.50, 246 pages


When Gavin W. Gonzalez died in St. Louis in 1988, his family was surprised to learn that he had secretly composed a lightly-fictionalized account of his childhood. Gonzalez — known as “Bill” to family and friends — had been born in the tiny town of Anmoore, W.Va. in 1909, the son of parents who had immigrated to America from Spain only a few years earlier.

In his account of his early years, Gonzalez calls his family the Villanuevas. But it is clear that he wrote about his own parents and how it was that they had left their home to come to the United States and how they had fared early on in their adopted country. Gonzalez’s narrative — homey, concise, down-to-earth — does not rise to the level of great literature. But it is pure Americana, rich indeed in its evocation of a time long gone by, the early decades of the 20th century.

It’s also a stirring story of how a transplanted family and their fellow immigrants overcame local prejudice — the Ku Klux Klan thrived where they had moved — through spunk and determination never to allow themselves to play second fiddle to anyone. Why else had they come to America, anyway?

The Gonzalezes — the Villanuevas of the narrative — prospered here and came deeply to appreciate the liberty the United States provided, despite the problems they faced. Bill Gonzalez himself served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II and afterward became a successful car salesman in St. Louis.

The Villanuevas of the book settled in north-central West Virginia near the city of Clarkston (Clarksburg in reality), in “Hillsboro County” (Harrison County). Pinnick Kinnick Hill was the region of the county where many of the Spanish immigrants chose to make their homes. It was a coal-mining area and a railroading center. Gas wells were popping up everywhere, underlining West Virginia’s spectacular mineral wealth. Zinc-mining and smelting were significant undertakings as well, and most of the Spanish men took up jobs in the zinc-smelting industry.

Juan Villanueva, the paterfamilias, and his brothers pursued other occupations, however. Juan started in beer-delivery. David was a grocer. Emilio ran a grocery that was primarily a fishmarket. “The three brothers were known by the names of the businesses they were in,” Gonzalez writes. “It was David, el Carnicero; Emilio, el Sardinero; and Juan el Cerverero — the meat man, the fishman and the beer man.” It wasn’t long before Juan basked in the outward expressions of economic success. In the spring of 1905, he “bought apple trees, peach trees and a variety of grape vines from Wright’s Livery and Seed Company” and planted them in his “spacious backyard.”

The author recalls many pleasant memories. Juan Villanueva, for example, had pet crows who seemed to understand what was said to them in both Spanish and English. Gonzalez describes the much-anticipated visits to town of such groups as the 101 Ranch Wild West Show and Ringling Brothers circus. There were soccer games, too, and weddings, celebrated in high Spanish style, and West Virginia hot dogs, which Gonzalez claims are the best in the world.

But life has its downsides and Gonzalez shares the bad news along with the good. The influenza epidemc of 1918 carried many away. Murders and kidnappings, often carried out by an Italian immigrant organization known as the Black Hand, marred the peace of the town. A heart-wrenching suicide is one of the saddest tales he tells.

Life goes on, however, and Gonzalez describes a major triumph, one of those events that helps set life aright. Hillsboro County was home not only to Spanish and Italian immigrants: There were Ukrainians, Hungarians and many others. Such diversity was certain to raise the ire of the Ku Klux Klan — and did. It was in 1921, Gonzalez writes, when the rumors in Hillsboro County of the Klan’s wrath and its boasts of an eagerness to do violence reached fever pitch. The Klan, it was said, promised “to come in and drive every Spick, Wop, Hunkie and Sheenie out of town.”

But Juan Villanueva and his friends did not cower before the Klan’s reputation. They met and put together a plan of action. The Spanish men knew the KKK would rally at “a bend of the Brushy Fork River, where some of the men used to fish with their boys.”

So the plan was to have some of the Spanish boys, most of whom had been born in America, go fishing as though everything were normal and then sneak up on the Klansmen and overhear what they were plotting. The boys listened as KKK members boasted of a Saturday night raid on the immigrant community to frighten them with the usual Klan gimmicks of white sheets, coned hats and burning crosses.

Gonzalez relates what happened when that Saturday evening arrived. First, “The Klan’s cars formed a mile-long process of of Model T Fords, Coupes, Sedans and Stars, Maxels, Overlands, Dodges, Buicks, Packards and Cole Eight Sports Roadsters,” he writes. The KKK parked, leaving their cars to climb Pinnick Kinnick Hill, a difficult task for many of them, overweight, out of shape and lugging a heavy cross. As night fell, it was time to put the rest of the scheme hatched by Juan and his friends into action.

The young Bill Gonzales, then a child of 12, along with his brothers and “25 other boys ranging in age from 10 to 16” proceeded to the parked KKK cars. They “let the air out of the tires on the driver’s side of each car,” he recalls. “We didn’t miss any of them,” the author declares, and we can be sure they didn’t. The boys, their task completed, ran to the pool hall for safety, “just as the Klansmen reached the top of the hill with their heavy wooden cross.”

At that moment, the men of the village executed the plan’s final phase. Volleys of shots broke the silence of the night: “shotguns, rifles, pistols, revolvers and even BB guns.” The KKK Knights “turned tail and started running, sliding and falling down the hill as fast as they could,” Gonzalez writes, with understandable glee.

The Klansmen jumped in their cars, started their engines. “There was mass confusion. The road instantly became clogged with cars trying to go in one direction or another. The airless tires made the cars hard to handle, and they spun north, south, east and west.” Painstakingly, they started to get air back in the tires, then snuck away as best they could. The Klan, Mr. Gonzalez observes, “didn’t have the guts to drive back through town.” In local lore, the confrontation went down as “The Battle of Pinnick Kinnick Hill.”

Gonzalez recalls how magnificent it was to grow up in West Virginia’s mountains. “One could take pride in living in the most abundant habitat, for there were so many things a person could enjoy if he just looked for it. When the snows came, everyone in town, young and old, turned out for the fun of sled and sleigh riding.” It was pure fun: “[T]wo or three bonfires [were lit] on the sides of the hill … There would be singing at each bonfire by groups of boys and girls.”

But life was hard, too. Gonzalez began full-time work when he was 14. His father’s success was uneven after West Virginia went on prohibition in 1914, five years before the rest of the nation, and it never returned to its earlier heights. In 1926, the family moved permanently to the St. Louis area where work could be found.

But the author kept in touch with his West Virginia friends and visited from time to time what he calls “the land of the hills and the home of the hill lovers.” He laments today’s fragmentation by race, and ethnic groups’ demands to be known as Chicanos, Latinos, African-Americans and so forth. “It is an insult to be so classified,” Gonzalez insists. “This definition is used only by people who want to continue separating us … The only ‘mother country’ we who were born in America know is this, your country and ours!”

Indeed. “Pinnick Kinnick Hill” is powerful in large part because it is direct and unadorned. We hear so much these days about how the melting pot metaphor doesn’t apply to America anymore and maybe never did. The Villanueva story shows that at least one time it did, and even though the melting process might have its overheated and unhappy moments, in the long run it has helped make this country an extraordinary, exceptional place.

Stephen Goode is senior writer at Insight magazine.

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