Migration. We turn the TV on and there it is. We sit on our comfy sofas and watch the lifeless body of a toddler on the seashore. We watch the refrigerated truck, parked alongside a highway, full of corpses, the Hungarian reporter kicking men and women and kids. We watch the desperate families soaking wet under the rain, with their kids weeping beside them, all wrapped in plastic bin bags in order to avoid freezing in the streets, as they are denied a roof by the authorities. We watch fifty people in a rubber boat crossing the strait that separates Africa and Europe. We watch the beaches in Lampedusa, filled with stranded corpses of those who invested all they had in a ticket to nowhere. Then, we hear comments in the street; “why don’t they stay in their country”, “what does it have to do with me”, “not my business”. What a short term memory we have…
Photo 1: Spaniards in a French concentration camp.
Photo 2: “illegal” Spanish immigrants captured in Venezuela.
It’s healthy to exercise one’s memory and empathy, and assisted by the writer González de la Cuesta, that is what I’m doing.
“Nunca seremos los mismos” -We’ll never be the same- tells the story of several unforgettable although anonymous characters such as Manuel, Lola, Marga and Rodrigo, and that of well-known Spanish politicians and intellectuals who belonged to the losing side of the Spanish Civil War: the famous poet Antonio Machado and the president of the Republic, Manuel Azaña. During the war, in the 30s, we witness how Spain becomes an unsafe place for those who lost the war, an they are finally forced into exile. They escape only to find an equally shattered Europe, just about to burst into the Second World War. And they were equally rejected and despised by the French government, who wasn’t at all welcoming. It makes us step down from our oblivious ivory tower by reminding us how it feels:
“they were running away from their defeat, from death, who lurked ominously over them like a shadow (…) and made them feel like the scum of History. As they were just normal people, professionals who loved their country, their family and their friends (…)”
“nothing made them feel so desolate as the contemplation (…) of thousands of people struggling to cross the border (…) the French authorities weren’t making much of an effort to aliviate the suffering of those people, who only wanted a safe place to live. What is more, they seem to be willing to thwart the mass influx of Spaniards to their country (…) by beating them up with the butts of their guns”.
Once you enter the world of the diaspora, nothing will ever be the same. You will never be the same. You leave your country behind and try to adapt to a new country, where your culture and your identity are questioned every minute, and the more you adapt -as you must survive- the more you will grow apart from your homeland. It is more so in the case of war-motivated exile. You change, but your country can change dramatically to a point of no return.
This is experienced by Manuel, Rodrigo and Marga. They leave their country to never come back, because their homeland as they once knew it -and loved it- has disappeared forever. With them, we feel the deep pain of such a great loss, together with their fierce struggle for survival and their determination.
In their journey, not only do they face rejection as in France, but also there’s a place for solidarity and transnational support, provided by anonymous individuals who will gain relevance in their lives and the story: Viveka, Mrs.Cameron, Pilar… Cruelty and indiference toward their fate shown by the authorities will be in stark contrast with the kindness they find in other fellow citizens, as usual in real life.
The cities they live in during their escape from Spain are minutely described, and one can imagine life in them during the 30s and 40s, in a wounded Europe and in the U.S. during the attack to Pearl Harbour.
They don’t ever give up, but something has been broken inside as they have been violently uprooted from their home and exposed to uncertainty.
We’ve been there as well, in the same rubber boat, sharing the same spirit, with all those who run away from the atrocity. And was not so long ago. Fleeing from a mortally wounded country, from the systematic violation of basic human rights, from hunger and death, from a fratricide conflict. We were just like them. And our ditches are there to show for it, still full of the corpses of those who couldn’t cross the borders and were killed just there and buried on the spot in mass graves. They are all over Spain. They are just there, under the tarmac. As the saying goes, «Aquellos que no recuerdan el pasado están condenados a repetirlo» -those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it- (Jorge Santayana). It’s good to remember. Let’s remember.