In 1937, John Hovan volunteered to travel to Spain and fight on the side of democracy against Gen. Franciso Franco’s fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War.
Now, at age 93, he’s being honored with Spanish citizenship for his service as a transport driver. On Thursday, the Spanish consul general in Boston is scheduled to visit Hovan’s home so that he can sign citizenship papers. His Spanish passport should arrive in a few weeks.
‘It was a difficult moment in the world and they risked their lives,’ said consul general Carlos Robles. ‘We respect that and would like to honor in a small way.’
The honor is made possible by a 2008 law that allows foreign volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War — a group made famous by Ernest Hemingway’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ — to receive Spanish citizenship and retain dual status.
Fewer than 25 members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade — a group of about 2,800 Americans who volunteered in the war — are still alive today.
An estimated 500,000 people died during the war, including about one-third of the American volunteers, according to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives. Franco’s side won, and the general ruled Spain as a dictator until his death in 1975.
Hovan worked with unemployment rights groups and the American League Against War and Fascism before departing for Spain. He had left school at age 15 to work in his father’s shoe repair shop during the Great Depression, but lost that job when his father couldn’t get work.
‘I saw the war clouds hovering over Europe,’ Hovan said. ‘I felt it was very important that fascism be stopped.’
Years later, he paid a price for his convictions.
Hovan, a self-described Communist, was called to testify during Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Communist-hunting hearings. After he invoked his Fifth Amendment right to silence, his house was firebombed and painted with swastikas.
Many of the American volunteers shared Hovan’s political leanings and experienced the ensuing fallout.
‘Being in Spain really marked their lives. It made them suspicious in the eyes of the FBI for many years,’ said Francisco Fernandez de Alba, a Hispanic studies professor at Wheaton College who helped Hovan during the citizenship process. ‘They were considered threatening by the United States. Many had hard lives and lost jobs.’
Hovan lost his first job as a Navy shoe repairman in Davisville after World War II. The ship’s service officer told him he couldn’t explain why, but authorities had told him Hovan had to be fired, Hovan recalled.
‘Of course I didn’t give him any details, but it was because, in my record, I had been in Spain and I had also been active in such organizations that were called communist organizations,’ Hovan said.
The Great Depression pushed him toward progressive politics, Hovan said, and he was active in unions at his other jobs: a textile mill, a chemical company and a linoleum installation business.
And he hasn’t stopped rallying those around him. When he came to live at an assisted-living facility in Providence six years ago, he helped residents get access to better food, including green vegetables. Now the residents are no longer eating pasta twice a day, Hovan said.
‘He’s one of those amazing people that has a real strong view of what’s just and what’s not just,’ said Duane Clinker, a Cranston United Methodist pastor who has worked with Hovan on civil rights issues since 1973.
Clinker recalls working at a phone bank for President Barack Obama before he clinched the Democratic nomination. Clinker saw Hovan come in with his walker, ready to make calls. But the print on the call sheets was too fine for his nonagenarian eyes, and Hovan wasn’t able to call anyone.
‘He’s all excited that he’s going to participate in what he hopes will be a siginficant and wonderful change, and then he’s apologizing to everybody because he couldn’t carry out his leg of the journey,’ Clinker said.
De Alba said that ethic was true of many veterans.
‘They say it was the last good fight,’ de Alba said. ‘These guys really had a sense of duty, I guess. We would not have those feelings these days to go across the ocean and fight in a war that’s not yours.’
At his residence in Providence, R.I. on Wednesday, July 8, 2009, John Hovan, holds a photo of himself from when he served in the U.S. Navy in World War II, after he already had volunteered in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. Hovan, 93, is one of fewer than 25 Americans still alive who fought in the Spanish Civil War. He will sign papers Thursday granting him an honorary Spanish citizenship for his service.
John Hovan’s commemorative tile of the Voluntarios Internacionales De La Libertad, from when Hovan served in Spanish Civil War in the volunteer army known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, is displayed at his residence in Providence, R.I., Wednesday July 8, 2009. Hovan, 93, is one of fewer than 25 Americans still alive who fought in the Spanish Civil War. He will sign papers Thursday granting him an honorary Spanish citizenship for his service.