The interbellum years I: from prosperity to poverty.

Right after the WWI, the USA lived a period of prosperity without precedents and became the richest country on Earth. National per capita annual income increased by 30%. The manufacturing process in factories was greatly modernised, increasing production per worker/hour by 75%. A new culture of consumer goods emerge superseding the old rural values. Migration from rural areas to cities in search of new opportunities grow, and people are eager to buy the new goods advertised by the media. Advertising, electrodomestics, cars and purchase on credit by installments buying plans offer exciting possibilities. The is what Fitzgerald called “the Jazz Age”. Birth of mass entertainment and blooming of many magazines and publications. Writers like Dorothy Parker wrote short stories in these publications.

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Many American authors went to exile, as living in Europe was cheaper, but also in search for values and beliefs (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Pound). This generation of writers was baptised by Gertrude Stein as the lost generation and their main trait is their disillusionment and disenchantment after the war. In “This side of paradise” (1920) Fitzgerald describes a young generation at a dead end: “fully dedicated to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shake.” This generation of writers had faced the horror of war, had witnessed massive death and destruction and they lost all faith in institutions, history and the human being. Abstract ideals such as progress and liberty were no longer to be trusted. They felt a vacuum after the war, and the new optimistic idealism was totally meaningless and decadent to them. The superficial materialism of postwar society with its modern commodities, consumerism, conformity and contentment was no substitute for values like altruism, solidarity and heroism. They felt nostalgia.

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“Johnny got his gun”

When the WWI finished, Woodrow Wilson was in office. During his two terms, several important changes were introduced in society through legislation, and none of them were ‘spur of the moment’ laws, but the consequence of a long time of previous brewing:

  • The Eighteenth Amendment was approved in 1919, a controversial law, the Prohibition introduced restraints in civil liberties, it had been in the background since the times of the Puritans and encouraged by the Methodist Church and the Temperance Movement, who made it gain momentum. The Prohibition was officially working until 1934, when it was officially repealed. The crime rates increased, as the upper class was willing to break the law to have access to alcohol (Sinclair Lewis’s “Babbitt”, 1922) and organised crime bloomed, enriching those who dominated the illicit business, such as Al Capone. Speakeasies, bootleggers and bathtub gin were born and will always remain as symbols of those times (as seen in The Great Gatsby”, 1925).

  • The Nineteenth Amendment (women suffrage) was approved, after a long period of struggle by the Suffragist Movement. Victorian values regarding sex and relationships was rapidly fading and women enjoyed more freedom in this respect (as described by Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker).

  • The Emergency Tariff Act and the Emergency Quota Act, signed in 1921 by Warren G. Harding, established protectionist measures aimed at hindering the introduction of European imports and also set migration quotas related to race and origins, restricting the entrance to certain ethnic groups (it’s consequences are mentioned throughout “Manhattan Transfer”, by John Dos Passos). This severely restricted the immigration of Africans and outright banned the immigration of Arabs and Asians. The purpose of the act was “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity”.

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When Harding dies from a heart attack in 1923, Calvin Coolidge took up the torch and ratifies the measures taken by the latter. Due to a decreasing number of Nordic immigrants, writer Madison Grant warned that the Anglo-Saxon stock was about to be overwhelmed by lesser breeds (mainly South and East Europeans, Asians and Africans) with inferior genes, and Harding revises Harding’s Immigration Act, polishes it and ratifies it as the National Origins Quota Act in 1924, establishing a quota of 2% of each national group. The quota subsisted until the 60s. Hostility towards immigrants increased and paved the way for a KKK renaissance in rural USA which would eventually spread to cities, across all social classes.

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Nunca seremos los mismos

Inmigración. Encendemos la tele y ahí está. Nos repantingamos en nuestros sofás y vemos el cuerpecito sin vida de un bebé en la playa. Vemos el camión frigorífico aparcado a la orilla de una autopista, lleno de cadáveres, a la reportera húngara dando patadas a hombres, mujeres e incluso a niños. Vemos a las angustiadas familias caladas hasta los huesos bajo la lluvia, con sus hijos llorando a su lado, envueltos en bolsas de basura para evitar congelarse en la calle, ya que las autoridades les niegan un techo bajo el que cobijarse. Vemos a cincuenta personas en una lancha de goma cruzando el estrecho que separa África y Europa. Vemos las playas de Lampedusa, repletas de cuerpos abandonados allí por la marea, los cadáveres de aquellos que un día invirtieron todo cuanto tenían para comprar un billete a ninguna parte. Después, salimos a la calle y oímos: “ por qué no se quedan en su país”, “y eso qué tiene que ver conmigo”, “no me interesa”. Qué poca memoria tenemos…

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Foto 1: Españoles en un campo de concentración francés.

Foto 2: Inmigrantes “ilegalesespañoles capturados en Venezuela.

Es muy saludable ejercitar la memoria y la empatía, y eso es lo que hago, de mano del escritor González de la Cuesta.

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“Nunca seremos los mismos” cuenta la historia de varios personajes anónimos inolvidables como Manuel, Lola, Marga y Rodrigo, y la de otros no tan anónimos, como el afamado y querido poeta Antonio Machado y el presidente de la República, Manuel Azaña. Con “Nunca seremos los mismos” asistimos a los últimos días de Machado en Collioure, desmoralizado, roto. Vemos como la guerra convierte a España en un sitio peligroso para aquellos que formaron parte del bando perdedor y que fueron forzados al exilio para poder sobrevivir. Huyeron sólo para encontrarse con una Europa igualmente fragmentada, a punto de entrar en la Segunda Guerra Mundial. Y fueron rechazados y despreciados de igual manera por el gobierno francés, que no les dio una dulce bienvenida. Esta novela nos hace bajar de nuestra torre de marfil construida con el olvido y nos recuerda lo que se siente:

huían de su derrota, de la muerte que se cernía como una sombra sobre ellos como una sombra (…) y eso (…) les hacía sentirse como una piltrafa de la Historia. Porque ellos eran personas normales, profesionales que amaban su país, su familia y sus amigos (…)”

nada les produce tanta desolación como la contemplación (…) de miles de personas pugnando por atravesar la frontera (…) las autoridades francesas no están poniendo mucho de su parte por aliviar el sufrimiento de esas personas que sólo quieren un lugar donde vivir y estar seguros. Es más, parecen dispuestos a impedir la entrada masiva de españoles a su país (…) a golpe de culata, empujones, insultos (…)”.

Una vez penetras en el mundo de la diáspora, nada volverá a ser lo mismo. Tú nunca volverás a ser el mismo. Dejas atrás tu país e intentas adaptarte a uno nuevo, donde tu cultura y tu identidad son cuestionadas a cada paso, y cuanto más te adaptas -para poder sobrevivir-, más te separas de tu hogar. Esto es aún más agudo en el caso del exilio motivado por un conflicto bélico. Tú cambias, pero tu país lo hace de una forma drástica, dramática, sin vuelta atrás.

Estas experiencias son vividas por Manuel, Rodrigo y Marga. Dejan su país para no volver, porque aquel país que conocían y amaban ha desaparecido para siempre. Junto a ellos sentimos la aguda punzada de dolor por tan inmensa pérdida, su lucha denodada por sobrevivir y su gran determinación. En su periplo se enfrentan no sólo al rechazo experimentado en Francia, sino que en su camino lleno de dignidad e iniciativa, también hay lugar para la solidaridad y el apoyo transnacional proveniente de ciudadanos anónimos que cobrarán un gran significado en sus vidas: Viveka, Mss.Cameron, Pilar… La crueldad y la indiferencia que muestran las autoridades de los países por los que pasan contrasta con la actitud de las personas de a pie, como suele suceder siempre.

Las ciudades por las que van pasando están descritas a la perfección, y uno puede imaginarse en ellas, a finales de la década de los años 30 y principio de los 40, en una Europa convulsa y en Estados Unidos durante el ataque a Pearl Harbour. Prosiguen, inasequibles al desaliento, con sus vidas, pero algo se ha roto en su interior y sufren la angustia de quien ha sido arrancado de raíz de su hogar y expuesto a la incertidumbre de una vida nueva.
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Sí, hemos estado en la misma lancha de goma, compartiendo el mismo espíritu que conduce a todos aquellos que huyen de la atrocidad. Y no hace tanto tiempo de aquello. De la huída de un país herido de muerte, de la violación sistemática de los derechos humanos básicos, del hambre y de la muerte, de un conflicto fratricida. Éramos ellos. Y nuestras cunetas dan buena cuenta de ello, aún repletas de cadáveres de aquellos que -como Lola- no pudieron cruzar la frontera y fueron ejecutados y enterrados ahí mismo, en fosas comunes. Están por toda España. Justo ahí, bajo el asfalto, junto al muro, en los bosques, en los prados. Y, como dice esa famosa frase de Jorge Santayana, «Aquellos que no recuerdan el pasado están condenados a repetirlo». Es bueno no olvidar. Recordemos.

Día de difuntos de 2015, en recuerdo de todos aquellos que continúan bajo el asfalto, junto al muro, en los bosques y en los prados.

We will never be the same

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…

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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.

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“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.

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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.