Thousands of Spanish Speaking patients came to Saranac Lake for the cure. The majority of the patients came from Cuba and Puerto Rico, but many other Spanish speaking countries were represented as well, such as Peru, Mexico, Venezuela and Chile. In 2003 I researched the Spanish speaking patients for a graduate class I took on local history. I interviewed local residents, read through old newspapers and yearbooks, and did a statistical sample of the TB cards of patients with Hispanic surnames, compiling a picture of where Spanish speaking patients came from and where they stayed in the village. My research project culminated in this article in the New York Archives Magazine, A Cure in the North. The article first appeared in the Winter 2003 issue of New York Archives magazine, a benefit of membership in the Archives Partnership Trust.  The article is posted with permission from the Trust, with edited text shown below.

The Cure in the North: Latin Americans in Saranac Lake


Like the thousands of patients from all over Latin America who came to Saranac Lake for the cure and then returned home, Mercedes Andino left behind few traces of her activities. But by researching health records and old newspaper and magazine articles, and by recording local residents’ memories in oral histories and interviews, a picture gradually emerges of cultural and daily life for these “relocated” Latinos in the little village in New York’s last wilderness

Home Away from the Homeland

Latin American visitors at the Union Depot in Saranac Lake. The tall man in the back is Alfredo Gonzalez. The short woman in the front is Alicia Gonzalez. The man on the left in glasses is Joe Sierra, cousin of the Joe and Manny Benero. Photo courtesy of Joe Benero.By 1900, tuberculosis was a tremendous health problem in Latin America, even among the wealthy. TB spread rapidly in regions with underdeveloped sanitation and few public health infrastructures. Many Latin American doctors visited Saranac Lake to study the latest medical procedures at the Trudeau Sanatorium, and some came for their own health. Although nearly two-thirds of Saranac Lake’s Latino patients came from Puerto Rico or Cuba, health records show that the remainder came from virtually every country in the Americas. TB was famous for striking people in the prime of their lives, and the Latino patients were mostly young adults in their twenties and thirties. Some came alone; others traveled with family members, friends, or entire households with servants. While the peak years for Latinos were the mid-1930s, Saranac Lake hosted a steady population of Spanish-speaking patients through the entire first half of the twentieth century.

In 1936,Mercedes Andino’s personal physician in Cuba probably referred her to the village based on personal knowledge of the town and its facilities, and most likely arranged for her to cure at the only Spanish-speaking cure cottage in town, 80 Park Avenue, run by Alfredo and Alicia Gonzalez. With the help of Mr. and Mrs. Gonzalez, over the next five years Mercedes would not only recuperate from TB; she would also learn English, make friends with local residents and other patients, and participate in community life.

The dashing and gregarious Alfredo Gonzalez no doubt met Mercedes in person at the train station. Once she was registered by local health officials, Mercedes settled in at her room—not a cottage by ordinary standards, but an elegant three-story building with eighteen cure porches. She must have passed a winter unlike any other in her memory, wrapped in blankets outside on her porch as temperatures dipped past thirty below zero. But she probably found comfort in the familiar food, language, and company of the other Latino patients, some of whom may have been friends or relations from back home. Only about a quarter of the Latino patients stayed in the Gonzalez’ hostel; the rest lived scattered throughout the village. A sample of 184 patients with Spanish surnames turned up eighty separate homes that hosted them. Along with other international patients, Latinos mixed into the daily life of the village, adding to an atmosphere that was both small-town and cosmopolitan.

A Man for All Seasons

Alfredo Gonzalez was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1903. Stricken by TB as a young college student, he came to Saranac Lake in 1920 seeking a cure. He found it in thoracoplasty, a radical operation in which ribs were removed in order to collapse and thus provide rest for the diseased lung. In 1926, Alfredo met and married a visitor from Havana, Alicia Milanes del Prado, a short, stout, soft-spoken woman twenty years his senior. The couple soon opened their first cure cottage catering to Latin American patients; over the next forty years they would operate several such cottages in Saranac Lake, the largest and longest-running one at 80 Park Avenue.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, Alfredo also inaugurated a number of community projects, including the annual Harvest Hop dance at the Hotel Saranac from 1942 to 1952. The first hop was a gala affair with a Latin American theme. The Pan-American Union in Washington, D.C. loaned a set of large flags representing the twenty-one Latin republics to decorate the hotel ballroom. The event included a Latin dance contest; a beauty pageant with each female contestant representing a different Latin American country; a New York City band, Señor Uvanni and His Caballeros; and the singer Louisa Paván Hennessey.

Several local Latin American families helped Alfredo with the organization and planning of 1948’s hop, retitled the Fiesta Hop. Events included a costume ball; a samba exhibition by Mr. and Mrs. P. J. Serralles (of the wealthy Don Q Rum family); and entertainment by Benito Collada, owner of the El Chico Nightclub in New York, famous singer and dancer Rosita Ríos, and Raúl Barragan’s five-piece orchestra. Local photographer Bernard Acosta of Costa Rica recorded the festivities. The Fiesta Hop also showcased one of Alfredo’s most prestigious guests, Lieutenant Colonel Mario Vargas, the Venezuelan war hero and chief of the armed forces. Some old-timers in Saranac Lake still remember the general’s heavily medaled uniform, as well as the two Venezuelan presidents, Rómulo Gallegos and Rómulo Betancourt, who came to visit him in town.

The Communities Mingle

The Harvest Hop was the main fundraiser for the Study and Craft Guild, an organization that provided TB patients with occupational therapy and diversion from the long hours on the cure porch. Alfredo Gonzalez served on the guild’s board of directors for many years, helped start an Americanization English Class for patients and local residents, and was one of its most popular teachers of Spanish. He taught as many as one hundred students a week, meeting with students at five local sanatoria. To make the classes more accessible to bedridden patients, Alfredo helped arrange for a popular Time Magazine radio series, “Let Us Learn Spanish,” to be broadcast on a local radio station. Alfredo also tapped into his students’ interest-by-proximity in the language and culture of Latin America by starting a Spanish Club, which met on a regular basis through the 1940s and 50s. These monthly meetings were an opportunity for non-Hispanic community members and patients to experience Latino culture and to converse in Spanish. Records show that Mercedes Andino helped serve refreshments at a Spanish Club party in November, 1941.

At this and other community events, Mercedes socialized with local Latin American patients and their families. Some were new acquaintances, but others, like Pilar Benero, were old friends from Cuba. Pilar (neé Gordon), from a family of physicians, had accompanied her sister who was ill with TB to Saranac Lake in 1925. There she met Manolo Benero,who had left Puerto Rico in 1917 seeking the cure. Manolo and Pilar soon married and settled down in the village to raise two sons.

The Benero Family

For many Latino patients, their humdrum, often difficult existence in Saranac Lake must have contrasted starkly with the wealthy lives of leisure they had led back home. This was particularly true for Pilar Benero, who came from one of Cuba’s wealthiest and most prominent families but who settled in Saranac Lake to live out a middle-class life in a small brick house. While the Beneros mingled with the townspeople, they also socialized with the wealthy elite of Cuba and Latin America. Pilar Benero taught Spanish classes to local children and held piano recitals with her close friend Ditta Bartok, wife of the composer Bela Bartók, one of Saranac Lake’s famous patients. Manolo Benero worked in the office of a local laundry and was a member of the Lions, Rotary, and Fish and Game Clubs. Their sons Joseph and Manny played hockey and grew up speaking English with a North Country accent, although at home they spoke Spanish with family and visitors. The Beneros lived the rest of their lives in Saranac Lake; today their headstones can be found in the Catholic cemetery, a rare Spanish surname among other local last names.

The End of an Era

With the development of antibiotics following World War II, the TB cure industry began a steep decline. By the mid-1950s, wealthy Latino patients were no longer making the journey to Saranac Lake; their absence, both culturally and financially, was keenly felt. Alfredo and Alicia Gonzalez moved to New York City in 1962, where they died in 1965. And like so many children born and raised at the end of the boom times of the TB era, Joseph and Manny Benero left Saranac Lake after their high school graduation in the Forties. With their departure, the village lost its only two native-born Spanish speakers. ■

The Research

Amy Catania reconstructed the world of the Latin American patients in Saranac Lake by consulting the Adirondack Room archives of the Saranac Lake Free Library. In 1907, the Saranac Lake Society for the Control of Tuberculosis registered each patient upon his or her arrival, recording the patient’s name, age, former address, and other personal information on “TB cards” and instructing them in the prevention of the disease’s spread. A sample taken from some 30,000 of these cards, and a survey of the two hundred most common Spanish surnames, created a larger sample of 184 Spanish-speaking patients who stayed in Saranac Lake between the years 1907 and 1958. Information gleaned from archived copies of local papers, such as the Adirondack Enterprise and the Guild News, contributed greatly to the research. These papers carried accounts of famous guests and special events where Latin American patients mixed with the local community. A high point of the research came when the author tracked down Joe and Manny Benero, the two native Spanish-speaking sons of Saranac Lake, both now living in Texas. Conversations and interviews with these brothers brought alive the largely forgotten story of the Latin American experience in Saranac Lake.

The Guild News, March 28, 1941

Good Neighbors

No spade work for Mr. Cordell Hull's good neighbor policy toward Latin America is necessary in Saranac Lake. Here scores of nationals from countries "south of the border" each year add color and charm to the life of this community. They are happy in their new friendships, and welcomed with the pleasure their delightful companionship merits. The majority of them come here to recover from tuberculosis, from countries where, despite numerous clinics and hospitals, the disease is difficult to treat because of their hot climates. Political refugees, artists, musicians, sometimes simply the Latin equivalent of plain Mr. and Mrs. John Jones, they bring with them a culture which blends readily with that of their temporary homeland. 

One young woman here, who sings beautifully in any of several languages, is carrying the good neighbor policy a little further than Mr. Hull. She is Miss Luisa Pavan, who has become engaged to William Hennessey of this village, now with the U.S. Army. With her sister, Mrs. Mary Siso, an accomplished pianist, she has made many friends here. They are from Venezuela.

Also from that country is Dr. Victor Montoya and his fiancee, Miss Lucia Arriens, of Caracas. Dr. Montoya's experiences under Gomez, the dictator, are a story which his friends say he will be glad to tell when his health improves.

Other health seekers here from Venezuela include Miss Beatrice Cordoba who is accompanied by her aunt, Miss Anna Emilia Cordoba; and Dr. Antonio Anzola, a surgeon, who is a patient at Trudeau. Hernando Cortez, an officer in the Columbian navy, who is also at Trudeau, is another member of the Latin American colony here.

[Text missing] . . . in part through the good offices of Dr. Eugenio Fernandez Garcia, who is in charge of the largest veteran clinic there. Dr. Garcia was in Saranac Lake in December.

Among the Puerto Ricans now residing here are Miguel Rullan, Jose Samalea, Miss Angelita Santisteban and her mother, Mrs. Isabel Santisteban, and Mrs. Pepita Lopez.

From Cuba come Estaban Varas, who lived most of his life in Spain, returning just before the revolution; Mrs. Nita Urquiola; Miss Berta Cortez and her mother Mrs. Serafino Cortez.

One of the first Puerto Ricans to cure in Saranac Lake was Manuel Benero who with his wife and family, still resides here. Shortly afterward Alfredo Gonzalez, the Guild Spanish instructor, came here, then a boy of 17, to begin residence of 20 years which he says has been rich in friendships. The sanatorium which he and his wife operate has long been the meeting place of Latin Americans.

During the Machado regime in Cuba many political refugees made this village their temporary home. The Espinosas especially will be remembered. They lived here in 1934 after Manuel Espinosa's abortive attempt to bomb Machado's palace. 

In the same year Dr. Gustavo Aladenguia came here to serve his interneship at N.V.A. Hospital, now the Will Rogers Memorial Hospital. That talented young interne now heads a large tuberculosis clinic in Cuba. 

When the prevalence of tuberculosis in that country indicated that a general survey of conditions be made as the first step in combatting the disease, Dr. Edgar Mayer, a specialist here for many years, was called upon to do the job.

The Latin Americans living here now are agreed that in Saranac Lake, at least, they find "good neighbors," and they say they are happy in their temporary homeland. 

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