FAIRFIELD — The offer was too good for Maria and Manuel Escano to pass up.
Conditions in their homeland of Chilches, Spain, were tough in 1910. A herd of goats provided milk that could be traded for flour. There were days the family of nine only had bread and milk to eat.
Posters began appearing in Spain a few years earlier, offering the opportunity for families to sign a contract to work in Hawaii on the sugar cane plantations, followed by a chance to immigrate to the United States.
The Escanos decided it was worth a try. The family headed for Malaga in 1911 and then on to Gibraltar to sail on the SS Orteric.
Maria Escano was eight months pregnant and gave birth to her eighth child three days before the ship sailed. The oldest child was 15.
The 49-day voyage was agonizing. There were fights. Fifty-seven children died from measles, including little Maria Escano, 3.
Things improved when the voyage ended in Hawaii. The family went to work on the sugar plantation with the goal of getting passage to California. When their 2-year contract was up, in 1913, the family booked a voyage to San Francisco.
Fate intervened when they tried to purchase train tickets to Sacramento. The clerk didn’t understand, so the family asked for tickets to Vacaville since they already knew a family from their village in Spain who was in Vacaville.
They have farmed Solano County land, opened grocery stores and left a mark on Solano County, being one of the first Spanish families to call Vacaville home.
Today, there are more than 180 descendants from Maria and Manuel Escano. More than 100 of them gathered in July for a family reunion, the first since 1981.
One of the descendants is Manuel Campos, who served 20 years on the Fairfield City Council and two terms as the city’s mayor. A street named after him connects Fairfield to Interstate 80. He died in 1995.
Fairfield resident Sue Noonan is the granddaughter of Joe “Pepe” Escano, who left Spain when he was 11.
She finds the voyage the family made to Hawaii very interesting and remembered hearing stories of how her grandfather was dressed up in a raincoat so he could appear older and work in the sugar cane field.
When she visited her grandfather’s ranch in Suisun Valley, Noonan said her grandfather shared many happy memories of his time in Hawaii, including a waterfall where he and his siblings swam.
She found it on a trip to Hawaii and came to feel a connection with her ancestors that made the journey from Spain. Her grandfather died when she was 13. He was 69.
“We lost him too young,” she said.
Noonan’s father, Manuel Escano, is 88. He and her mother, Ina Clair, have been married 61 years.
Steve Alonzo, a Sacramento resident, is another descendant of Maria and Manuel Escano. His grandmother was Grace (Escano) Campos, who was 8 when the family left Spain. He admires the fortitude of his ancestors for having the courage to start a new life in a new country.
“I don’t see how they survived in Spain,” he said.
About 10 years ago, he was able to visit the village where his grandmother spent her early years.
“It was incredible to connect with a place where she had walked almost 100 years before,” he said.
Like Noonan, he met many cousins for the first time at the reunion last month. Of the 100 people there, he estimated he had only met about half.
A 1981 Daily Republic article showed his cousin holding a young baby.
“I met him as a young man (at the July reunion),” Alonzo said. “I hadn’t seen him since (the 1981 reunion).”
The idea for a reunion came up about four or five years ago, he said. He enlisted the help of his sisters and began planning in February 2013 to give all family members enough notice. He was able to contact all seven branches of the Escano family.
And he learned more family history.
The family opened several grocery stores in the area, including what was the Food Fair in downtown Fairfield. The first was opened in 1917 in Vacaville. The second sat where Merchant and Main Grill is located in Vacaville.
He also heard stories that the movie theater in Vacaville would cordon off an area for the Spaniards to sit in.
“They were vocal (about it),” he said. “They weren’t going to stand by and be put upon.”
Family members agreed 33 years was too long to wait between gatherings. Chatter has already begun about the next reunion.
Alzono estimated it would be the fourth or fifth family reunion. He attended his first when he was about 8 or 9. It took place at the Vacaville Veterans Hall.
“That was some 60-odd years ago,” he said.
Reach Amy Maginnis-Honey at 427-6957 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/amaginnisdr.