Their names were Orestes, Rañeta, el Tísico, Trasdelrío, José el Comido and Tomás el de Coruña, and they were a group of young people who in 1853 decided to leave Galicia in search of a better future in Cuba.
It could have been one more of the thousands of stories that marked that community in Spain, which between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, saw entire generations set out for America, fleeing from poverty, hunger or war.
However, Orestes, Rañeta, el Tísico, Trasdelrío, el Comido and Tomás el de Coruña star in a story of emigration that has not been told, or at least has not been told as much.
And they are the protagonists of “Azucre”, the first novel by the Galician author Bibiana Candia, a fiction based on a story as real as it is horrible: that of 1,700 Galicians who emigrated to Cuba in those years and were enslaved by Urbano Feijóo de Sotomayor, another Galician based on the Caribbean island.
The book begins with a dedication that is a declaration of intent: “To the emigrants who could not tell their story and to those who stayed who never received a letter.”
Candia understood that if this story had not reached popular memory, it was because its protagonists had not been able to tell it. So she gave them a voice through endearing characters who lose their innocence on a brutal journey into horror.
We talk to the author in the framework of There is Festival Querétaro, which takes place between September 1 and 4 in that Mexican city.
As a Galician and speaking with a Galician author, the first question is almost mandatory, given how little this story is popularly known: how did it reach you?
I had never heard of her either. A friend simply asked me one day if she knew the history of the Galicians who were taken to work sugar in the 19th century and were enslaved.
I was very skeptical at first, I thought it was not true.
Then I thought that it was an anecdote about a few people who were in charge and had bad luck and that this anecdote grew much fatter over time.
But she sent me an email with a couple of links, including a documentary by Radio Televisión Española. I mean, this was not hidden anywhere.
I think he sent it to me with the idea that I would write an article.
But pulling the thread, the thing was much more than an article… why a fiction novel?
When I saw what he sent me, I said: “but this is a lot of people, it was a company; it’s not an anecdote, it’s something much more serious.”
I start looking for information and find academic articles, court records and a lot of documentation.
I start asking around and no one had a clue. It didn’t sound familiar to anyone, except for people very involved in the historical subject, specialists in the 19th century, or people in a very specific niche.
At that moment, it appears to me as a narrative enigma: if we Galicians have this tradition of oral literature, and this tradition of immigration, how can it be that this story has not come down to us by popular memory. There is something here that doesn’t work.
Then I came to the conclusion, after thinking about it a lot, that it hadn’t really reached us because in reality its protagonists hadn’t told us about it.
The reports we have are valid for the official part of life, but what is the human legacy that brings a story to popular memory is the first person voice.
So there was no point in writing an article, because that wasn’t going to get me where I wanted it to be: what needs to be done to get this story out there?
What you have to do is recreate those voices, recreate the popular story, the collective memory. And for that a novel is necessary, a fiction and that the fiction, in a certain way, amends reality.
And the product is “Azucre”, which is a historical novel, technically, but not so historical from a formal point of view, since the historical data is absent, and the voice falls entirely on the protagonists.
The priority was to see the situation from their eyes.
Of course, the novel has a very serious formal documentation. Although the data is not in the text, I had to study everything that happened in order to build the world around them and place them in the right situations.
The key was to understand how people had been seen leaving their village, who knew nothing, and suddenly put on a ship, taken to the other side of the world without having a clue.
Many of them had never seen the sea in their lives, they did not know how to read, they did not know how to write, and they appear in Cuba, which was like another planet, and they are completely defenseless against what is going to happen to them.
That was the powerful story really. The important thing, the crucial thing, the fundamental thing was their voices.
They are also very familiar characters for those connected with stories of emigration, those young people who emigrate from their small village and face an absolutely unknown world.. yesWith the protagonists of the collective history of Galicia.
At the beginning, when I already knew that it had to be a novel, my first impulse was to think “I can’t write it, because I write contemporary literature, poetry. I don’t have the voice to tell this.”
But instantly I thought of my grandfather, who was a farmer from a village near Santiago de Compostela and who never had a qualified job and who read and wrote poorly. And I thought “of course, my grandfather would have been one of them perfectly”.
That was when I realized that I knew them, I knew who they were, because they are the memory of my grandfather, my great-grandfather, what they told about the pilgrimages, about leaving, about going hungry.
And that means that, although you have not lived it, you still have a very strong contact with all that memory.
“Azucre” is almost a horror story and, nevertheless, you stay glued to the endearing and innocence of its characters…
What worried me the most when I wrote it was that, just as they were very real people to me, I wanted readers to care for them.
Because when you see the novel from the back cover you already have the spoilers whole, you know they’re going to be slaves. When you break that tension of the narrative from the beginning, there has to be an incentive to continue reading.
So my only trick was to get them to love each other and want to see what will happen to them.
They told me in a presentation that “Azucre” was a work about the loss of innocence. And I thought it was very successful.
Normally, when a person suddenly becomes an adult, it is usually always due to a trauma, or due to a death, a loss, an attack, a war…
And that is what happens to them, that within their poverty and their living conditions they were innocent people, innocent children, that suddenly the only thing they have ahead of them is survival.
And I did want there to be traces of light within the horror, because otherwise it would be unbearable to read. And part of that was that they were nice, tender, that they were able to make us laugh despite everything that was happening to them.
Which is also part of the reality of the stories, even in the most terrible moments.
Did you feel that there was a kind of debt towards them?
Totally. I think that on the one hand this novel is a tribute to them.
It is true that our literature has paid many tributes to immigration, but it seems to me that especially today, when we are more distant from its generations, it is even more necessary to have a very clear and very solid idea of how the life does nothing
I think it is important to be clear about where we come from in order to know who we are.
And all that history that precedes us, whether we face it or not, is going to affect us exactly the same.
Therefore, it makes us more adults as a society to be aware of what lies behind us, that there were people very close to us, in very close generations, who had a very bad time.
I believe that in the construction of our collective memory, we have been told, above all, the history of heroes and great deeds, and that the memory of anti-heroes, of the poor of the earth, of the nobodies, does not deny but does it clarifies a lot that story of the epic.
It seems to me that it is very important to be clear that all the deeds are often built on the lives of many unfortunates.
Fortunately, we are now on the most favored side of the world, but those things change, they are cyclical, and now there are other Orestes and other Rañetas who are trying to find a better future in other parts of the world.
We see it now in the stories and hardships of so many migrants, including Central Americans traveling through Mexico to reach the United States.
The 19th century was the beginning of global trade. In fact, the first product that globally crossed the world to be sold was precisely the people who left Africa and were taken to America.
And it’s been exactly the same ever since.
The world has become technologically sophisticated, but the mechanisms that move the world are the same. Therefore, the same infamies continue to happen around us.
There are still desperate people who are looking for a better future and they are going to try by all means. And there will always be, unfortunately, unscrupulous people who will try to take advantage of them.
And those people are in the desert of Mexico, in the job offers for Latin American or Eastern European ladies who tell them to come to Spain to work in domestic service and then find themselves in prostitution, which is a terrifying slavery.
In the Mediterranean we have it every day, when a year ago we saw people trying to flee hanging from planes in Afghanistan…
And those stories, those little stories, are not going to be in the books.
That is fantastic material for literature, which has enormous potential to counter History with capital letters, which is always going to be much colder when telling the events.
Speaking of unscrupulous people… these boys were enslaved, by one of their own, by another Galician: Feijóo de Sotomayor. Is it a character that was tried to hide in some way?
What’s up, if you even have a page on Wikipedia.
It is a classic of a man who is a deputy, who has complete impunity and in reality he knew perfectly well that nothing was going to happen to him.
The company is dissolved, he keeps all the money he had raised up to that point and does not have to compensate the workers, of course. And it is decreed that if any of the workers wants to request compensation, they have to file an individual complaint in an arbitration jury.
The cases, obviously, were minimal.
He did not lose any kind of status because of this situation, that this is also a very modern story.
There are people who take advantage of their exploitation of privilege to get a business, get rich, do it fraudulently or criminally. And then he sees no consequences for his actions. And he also continues with his social consideration.
In the novel he basically appears as a ghost, literally, for two reasons: because for me the main thing was their voices and because he is also a well-known character, we have met many like him. He is a very classic villain.
This article is part of the Hay FestivalQueretaroa meeting of writers and thinkers that takes place from September 1 to 4 from 2022.
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