Tag Archives: Mexico

#BasquesAbroad

 “Someone said that forgetting is full of memory, but it is also true that the memory does not give up”

(Mario Benedetti, Echar las Cartas, 2002)

In 2013, the number of Basques abroad, registered with a Spanish consulate from a municipality in the Basque Autonomous Community (Euskadi), was nearly 72,000. As shown in the map, they are living in over 50 countries, being France (13,000), Argentina (11,000), Venezuela (6,500), Mexico (6,300) and Chile (5,000) the countries that host the majority of them. All evidence indicates that Basques will progressively go abroad. A recent survey points out that nearly half of the Basque young population are willing to look for a job in a foreign country. Sixteen percent of Basques between 15 and 29 years old believes that in the future they will be forced to “emigrate abroad to work, unwillingly.” For instance, from 2009 to 2013, the number of Basques registered with a Spanish consulate has increased by 35%. They preferred destination was the European Union, followed by Asia and America.

MAPA-PERE-VASCO-2013“Number of Basques residing abroad.” Source: Spanish National Statistics Institute, 2013.

On December 18, 2013, the University of Deusto presented the results report of its first social survey on Euskadi (DeustoBarómetro Social / Deusto Gizarte Barometroa, DBSoc). According to the report, in relation to the attitudes toward the welfare policies, the five areas where the majority of Basques believed that there should not be budget cuts under any circumstances were “health” (86%), “education” (79%), “pensions” (68%), “unemployment benefits” (49%), and “Science and R+D” (36%). That is to say, while nearly three quarters of the Basque society’s priorities focused on health, education and pensions, the five areas that obtained the least support were “embassies and consulates” (7%), “defense” (6%), “equality policies” (6%), “development cooperation” (5%), and “support for Basques abroad” (5%).

After taking into account the internal degree of relevance established by comparing the response options, the result of the question related to the welfare policies in the Basque society seems logical, particularly, within the context of a prolonged and deep socio-economic and financial crisis and extreme public budget cuts. When reflecting on the possible reasons behind such low support, it comes to my mind the existing distance between the Basque society and its diaspora, the knowledge that homeland Basques might have on the diaspora, and above all their interest on the Basques abroad.

The respondents established a degree of significance regarding the option “support for Basques abroad” in relation to their own quotidian and vital world. It can be considered the “emotional distance” that exists between the respondents and the “Basques abroad”, which goes together with the existing geographical, temporal and/or generational distances. Secondly, evidences suggest that the degree of knowledge that homeland Basques (especially the youngest generations) might have on diaspora Basques and the degree of proximity to the diaspora issue is marginal. This knowledge has been relegated to the confines of the intimate memory of migrants’ family members and close friends and to the micro-history of villages and valleys. To a great extent, the history of Basque emigration, exile and return is not adequately socialized, for instance, through formal education (e.g., textbooks and didactical materials). Consequently, the collection, preservation and public dissemination of the testimonies of Basque migrants is not only necessary but urgent. This indicates that there is a wide “information and knowledge gap” between the Basque society and the Basques outside the homeland. But, beyond the inquiry regarding such a lack of awareness about the Basque diaspora, a fundamental question remains open. Is there a motivation or interest to know?

Finally, in addition to the aforementioned gaps, the absence of the issue of the Basque diaspora in the public debate in Euskadi impedes it for being even discussed or included in the Basque political parties’ list of priorities. This goes hand in hand with the fact that the diaspora lacks of a voice and of an organized lobby, preventing the penetration of any of its potential official discourses into the Basque society. In other words, nowadays, the Basque diaspora is defined by a high degree of invisibility and silencing in the daily life as well as in the imaginary of the Basque homeland rather than the opposite.

What all this tell us about the Basque identity and the homeland’s collective imaginary? Do you believe that the integration of the history of the Basques abroad and the returnees into the official homeland history and collective memory will have an effect on its visibility and recognition? Do you believe that emergent technologies of information and communication have a role to play in narrowing the gap between the Basque Country and its diaspora?

Please leave us your opinion or alternatively follow the conversation in Twitter, #BasquesAbroad, @deustoBarometro and @oiarzabal

I would like to thank Iratxe Aristegi and the rest of the team of DeustoBarómetro Social / Deusto Gizarte Barometroa at the University of Deusto for their help.

Here, for the Spanish version of this post “¿La comunidad invisible? #VascosExterior

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The fourth man of California

Comrades, the doors opened, and slavery ended, breaking the heavy chains that oppressed youth. Be rebellious and never daunt before the enemy oppressor”

(The 1938 Fort San Cristóbal escape anthem written by Rogelio Diz Fuentes, Prisoner #1104, and Daniel Robado, Prisoner #1133)

Next May 22 marks the 75th anniversary of the massive escape from Fort Alfonso XII, also known as Fort San Cristóbal, which became one of the largest and most tragic prison breaks, during wartime, in contemporary Europe. However, History has not been too keen on recording this episode compared with similar events. Paul Brickhill’s autobiographical book “The Great Escape” (1950) narrates the heroic prison break of 76 allied prisoners of war from the German Stalag Luft III camp (Żagán, Poland) in March 1944. Fifty escapees were caught and murdered by the Gestapo, and only 3 succeeded by reaching Sweden and Spain, which were neutral territories during World War II. The story was immortalized by the memorable film “The Great Escape” (1963). On the other hand, in the case of the escape from Fort San Cristóbal, 795 people broke free, 206 were murdered, and, coincidentally, only 3 succeeded by crossing the French border. Contrarily, only silence, fear, and brutal repression resulted from this prison break.

Fuerte San Cristóbal / EzkabaAerial view of Fort San Cristóbal-Ezkaba. Image source: Iñaki Sagredo ©.

Located at the top of San Cristóbal or Ezkaba Mountain, a few miles away from Iruña (Nafarroa), the fort was built as a military compound between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Obsolete for its original purpose, the fort was turned into an improvised political prison from the very beginning of the Spanish Civil War until 1945.

Although it is difficult to know the exact number of inmates at the time of the escape, it is estimated that there were approximately 2,487 prisoners from different areas of Spain. Many of them were affiliated to or sympathizers of leftist and nationalist political parties and trade unions as well as soldiers and militiamen, loyal to the Republic and the Basque government. The harsh living conditions within the fort walls, hunger, sickness and the sadistic behavior of some wardens fuelled the prison break with the clear political goal of continuing the fight against the rebel troops. A planned mutiny led by Leopoldo Picó Pérez (Prisoner #319) and Baltasar Rabanillo Rodríguez (Prisoner #1012)—communist militants from Bilbao and Valladolid, respectively—resulted in freeing one-third of the total prison population. Many were ill-prepared for the escape, without provisions and proper clothing.

During the following days, nearly 28% of the escapees were brutally murdered by Francisco Franco’s army in the nearby fields and mountains, while the rest of the men were soon captured enduring forty days of isolation and inhuman treatment. Thirteen so-called leaders, including Baltasar, were sentenced to death. Leopoldo was also intercepted and brought to prison. He was shot without trial. Another 46 captured fugitives died in the fort between 1938 and 1943 due to sickness and sordid cruelty.

Only 3 men—Valentín Lorenzo Bajo, José Marinero Sanz, and Jovino Fernández González—as it was documented later on, succeeded in getting to the French border, 30 miles away from the fort.

However, the story did not end here. In 1998, a man visiting from California had a series of casual encounters with six different people in an area from where he recalled escaping to France after fleeing away from Fort San Cristóbal sixty years earlier. The man told them that he was born in Azagra (Nafarroa) in 1918, being imprisoned in the Ezkaba fort from where he broke free in 1938. He finally managed to cross the border, finding refuge in Martin Urrels’ farmhouse in Banka. There, he learnt about Martin’s two brothers, Michel and Jean, who lived in the Cedarville area, California, working as sheepherders. Michel and Jean had immigrated into the United States in 1910 and in 1914, respectively. From France he left to Mexico, crossing the border to California, where he worked for the Urrels brothers for a few years. The man went to explained how he enlisted in the United States Army during World War II, being deployed to Europe as part of a tank battalion. After the war, he got involved in the trucking business that his sons inherited.

This was the story as remembered by some of the people who met the strange visitor. In his 80s the man from California decided to reencounter the past through revisiting his memories. Though his identity is still a mystery, the story should corroborate the existence of a fourth escapee. This could mean that the Ezkaba escape was the most successful prison break in contemporary Europe.

Back in 1938, Diario de Navarra, a local newspaper, published a distorting note on the tragic event, while describing the escapees as “murderers, robbers, and thieves who had abused the human regime of Franco’s Spain.” The escape was another clear example of the official amnesia imposed by Franco during his four-decade dictatorial regime. However, it became part of the collective memory of many who never forgot May 22, 1938. In 2000, the Association Txinparta was set up to recover the historical memory of the Fort of San Cristóbal prisoners between 1934 and 1945. Similarly, in November 2002, the Association of the Family Members of the Executed, Murdered and Missing People in Navarre in 1936 was also established to honor the memory of more than 3,300 people who were murdered in Nafarroa during the Spanish Civil War. In 2006, Iñaki Alforja directed the documentary “Ezkaba, the great escape from Franco’s jails”.

If you have any information on the Fort San Cristóbal escape and, particularly, on the identity of the fourth man please contact us by sending a message. We would love to hear from you!

Many thanks to Fermín Ezkieta for sharing his excellent and extensive work on the history of the escapees from Ezkaba.

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Tiempo de promesas

“Las promesas son olvidadas por los príncipes, nunca por el pueblo”

Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872)

Aquellos vascos de la diáspora que han optado por participar con su voto en las sucesivas elecciones al Parlamento de la Comunidad Autónoma de Euskadi lo han hecho de forma muy coincidente en su preferencia política a la de sus conciudadanos residentes en el país. Sin embargo, mientras, por ejemplo, en las elecciones al Parlamento Vasco de 2009 casi un 65% de las personas residentes en Euskadi con derecho al voto lo ejercieron, en la diáspora el porcentaje no llegaba al 16. Lo que es evidente es que todo voto tiene su relevancia, aunque ésta sea muy relativa. En una clara disputa entre el Partido Socialista (PSE-EE PSOE) y Eusko Alkartasuna (EA) por el designio de un asiento parlamentario por la provincia de Araba, el voto de la diáspora otorgó el escaño al PSE-EE PSOE, facilitando la elección de Patxi López como primer Lehendakari no nacionalista vasco sin necesidad de más apoyo que el de sus compañeros de grupo parlamentario y el de los del Partido Popular (PP).

Según el Censo Electoral de Residentes Ausentes en las elecciones al Parlamento de Euskadi del próximo 21 de octubre de 2012 podrán votar 56.640 electores residentes en el extranjero con municipio de inscripción en Euskadi de un total de 1.718.696 electores. Es decir, el voto de la diáspora representa un 3,29% del total del electorado vasco.

Número de electores vascos residentes-ausentes en el extranjero por países con más de 999 electores vascos (Fuente: Instituto Nacional de Estadística, septiembre de 2012).

País de Residencia Nº Electores
FRANCIA

9.979

ARGENTINA

9.740

VENEZUELA

5.378

MÉXICO

5.263

CHILE

3.939

ESTADOS UNIDOS DE AMÉRICA

3.287

REINO UNIDO

3.094

ALEMANIA

1.927

URUGUAY

1.411

SUIZA

1.079

BÉLGICA

1.069

Tal y como muestra la tabla el mayor número de países con más de 999 electores vascos se encuentra en el continente americano, constituyendo un 51,30% del total del electorado vasco en el extranjero. A éste le sigue el electorado residente en países de Europa con un 30,31%.

Según indica la Oficina del Censo Electoral, del total de vascos residentes-ausentes que viven en el extranjero inscritos en Euskadi que podían solicitar el voto por correo para las próximas elecciones vascas, solamente un 11,15% (6.320) de ellos lo han hecho: 3.000 se encuentran inscritos en municipios de Gipuzkoa; 2.767 en municipios de Bizkaia; y 553 en ayuntamientos de Araba. El mayor número de vascos registrados para votar se encuentran en los siguientes países: Francia (2.310), Argentina (759), Reino Unido (397), Alemania (366), y Estados Unidos (334). Esto significa que el electorado de la diáspora en relación al total del electorado vasco ha disminuido drásticamente hasta un paupérrimo 0,36%! ¿Desidia, hartazgo con la clase política, falta de compromiso político con el autogobierno vasco, despreocupación por Euskadi…o simplemente el desconocimiento de la implantación del voto “rogado”? Sinceramente no me atrevo a aventurar una respuesta sin disponer de más información. Todo indica que la complejidad del nuevo sistema de voto rogado establecido en 2011 (Ley Orgánica 2011, de 28 de enero)—por el que todo residente-ausente tiene que comunicar personalmente y por escrito su voluntad de votar—ha propiciado que la participación de comunidades emigrantes como la asturiana o la andaluza en sus respectivos comicios autonómicos de 2012 haya caído a mínimos históricos. Por ejemplo, en las elecciones al Parlamento Gallego de marzo de 2009, un 28,7% de gallegos residentes en el extranjero votaron. Con la introducción del voto rogado, un mero 5,9% del electorado de la diáspora gallega va a poder ejercer el derecho de voto en las elecciones al Parlamento Gallego del 21 de octubre.

Como explica la Oficina del Censo Electoral los residentes en el extranjero pueden votar depositando personalmente su voto en el consulado o embajada en la que se encuentre inscrito—entre el 17 y el 19 de octubre—o bien remitiendo su voto por correo certificado a las sedes diplomáticas antes del 16 de octubre. Ahora bien, ¿cuántos de los 6.320 ciudadanos vascos que han solicitado el voto ejercerán tal derecho? ¿Cuántos se abstendrán? ¿Cuántos votos serán nulos o irán en blanco?

En la otra cara de la moneda política de nuestro peculiar mundo, los cuatro grandes partidos de la escena política vasca han tenido en cuenta, aunque con diferente intensidad y empatía, a la diáspora en sus respectivos programas electorales de cara a la cita electoral del 21 de octubre. ¿Dónde queda la sociedad vasca más allá de las fronteras de Euskadi para los partidos políticos que concurren a las elecciones al Parlamento Vasco?

hauteskundeak

Bajo el eslogan “#somos+del51% los que nos sentimos Vascos y Españoles” Antonio Basagoiti, candidato del PP a Lehendakari, aboga por la desaparición de las Delegaciones del Gobierno Vasco en el exterior, sojuzgando toda acción exterior del Gobierno Vasco a la red de embajadas y consulados del Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores del Gobierno de España. Desde el “Estamos en lo que hay que estar. Guk, gure bidea” Patxi López, candidato del PSE-EE PSOE a Lehendakari, promete en su Programa Electoral promover “la Ley del Estatuto de los Vascos en el Exterior, como herramienta que establezca un reconocimiento ordenado de los derechos de la ciudadanía vasca en el mundo y fortalezca su relación con Euskadi. La Ley deberá recoger también una serie de medidas que faciliten el retorno, el acceso a programas educativos, a la asistencia social, a programas sanitarios o de vivienda”. Ambos partidos de ámbito estatal tienen una amplia representación institucional en el extranjero: PP en el Exterior y PSOE en el Mundo.

La coalición Euskal Herria-Bildu (EH-Bildu), formada por la izquierda abertzale y los partidos Aralar, Alernatiba y EA (con presencia institucional en Argentina), se presenta bajo el lema “Soluzioak zure esku. Es tu momento”. En el apartado de Relaciones Exteriores del Programa Electoral marcan entre sus objetivos fundamentales “estrechar los vínculos con la Diáspora Vasca y los países en los que se integra…” Proponen, entre otras iniciativas, elaborar un “Plan Integral de Juventud de la Diáspora”, un “Plan de Fomento de la participación de la mujer en los centros vascos”, y la creación de un “Centro de Estudios sobre la Migración Vasca”. EH-Bildu ha incluso elaborado un video-mensaje de Laura Mintegi, candidata a Lehendakari, dirigido a la diáspora.

Eusko Alderdi Jeltzailea-Partido Nacionalista Vasco (EAJ-PNV) cuenta con la mayor presencia institucional en el extranjero de todos los partidos políticos del ámbito vasco a través de sus históricas Juntas Extraterritoriales de Argentina, Chile, México y Venezuela. Bajo el eslogan “Euskadi Berpiztu. Nuestro Compromiso con Euskadi. Aurrera” el candidato a Lehendakari, Iñigo Urkullu defiende en su Programa Electoral “Compromiso Euskadi” la creación de la red “Global Basque Network” que integre a agentes empresariales en el exterior, las oficinas permanentes y delegaciones del Gobierno Vasco y el mundo asociativo de la diáspora. A su vez se compromete, también, a “reforzar los lazos con la diáspora vasca” con 6 iniciativas: “apoyar a las colectividades y Centros Vascos en el exterior” (por ejemplo, aboga por establecer programas para la formación de las personas jóvenes asociadas a los centros vascos y continuar la recuperación de la memoria histórica de la diáspora); “divulgar la realidad vasca actual en los centros vascos”; promocionar “intercambios juveniles con la diáspora” (por ejemplo, pretende desarrollar un programa de captación de talentos y de promoción de prácticas en empresas vascas entre los jóvenes de los centros vascos repartidos por el mundo); “potenciar las relaciones con las personas vascas en el mundo” a través de la creación de un portal de comunicación en Internet que sirva de relación a todas las personas de origen vasco dispersas por el mundo; “extender la red de centros vascos”; y, finalmente, “desarrollar, con la asistencia, propuesta y colaboración de las colectividades de la diáspora vasca, la política de cooperación y apoyo a los centros, federaciones y a los ciudadanos vascos en el exterior”.

Las elecciones al Parlamento Vasco del 21 de octubre se van a producir en el contexto del fin de la actividad armada de ETA, de la participación de todas las expresiones ideológicas, y de una brutal crisis socio-económica, resultado de un empobrecimiento ético de ciertos sectores de la elite política y financiera. La inclusión de la diáspora vasca en los programas electorales de los principales partidos políticos da cierta normalidad a las relaciones que han de existir entre un país y aquellos de sus ciudadanos que residen en el extranjero. El voto de la diáspora, cuantitativamente hablando, y más aun tras la implantación del voto rogado, no es decisivo en la elección de uno u otro candidato. Quizás por esto, por la falta de un interés partidista en búsqueda de réditos electorales, la voz de la diáspora debe ser más que nunca escuchada y los derechos de los ciudadanos vascos que la conforman protegidos. También ellos, aunque no residan en este momento entre nosotros, son parte de la sociedad vasca—de una sociedad vasca transnacional, abierta y plural. Hoy es tiempo de promesas…

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No place for children

“A child associated with an armed force or armed group refers to any person below 18 years of age who is, or who has been, recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, spies or for sexual purposes. It does not only refer to a child who is taking, or has taken, a direct part in hostilities.”

(Paris Principles and guidelines on children associated with armed forces or armed groups, United Nations, 2007)

The Declaration of the Rights of the Child was adopted by United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1959. This international norm was followed, three decades later, by the Convention on the Rights of the Child (November 20, 1989)—the first legally binding instrument “to incorporate the full range of human rights—civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights”—and by the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (May 25, 2000). This protocol “establishes 18 as the minimum age for compulsory recruitment and requires States to do everything they can to prevent individuals under the age of 18 from taking a direct part in hostilities.” It entered into force on February 12, 2002, marking the International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers. Since then, more than 140 countries have ratified the protocol.

Ounder18-red

As of February 2012, 27 United Nation Member States have not signed or ratified the Optional Protocol, while another 22 have signed but not ratified it. According to the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research 2011 has been the most violent year since World War II, with twenty more wars than in 2010. Currently, it is estimated that tens of thousands of boys and girls under the age of 18 take active part in armed conflicts in at least 15 countries. The children, once again, are powerless to escape from such violence. They are forced to fight or participate somehow “voluntarily” in popular insurrections that have taken place within the context of the Arab Spring, for instance. However, the military use of children is not a new phenomenon and goes hand by hand, almost inevitably, with our tragic history of human self-destruction. This was the case of some of the children caught at the outbreak of the war between Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Joseph Stalin’s Russia in June 1941. The children had previously been evacuated from Spain—immersed in a fratricide war—to Russia.

It is estimated that 30,000 Spanish children were evacuated during the Spanish Civil War, and 70,000 more left after the end of the war in 1939. Among them 25,000 Basque children went also into exile. Most of the children were temporarily sent to France, Belgium, the United Kingdom, the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as well as Switzerland, Mexico, and Denmark. They became, and are still, known as “los niños de la guerra” (“the war children”) and the “Gernika Generation,” in the specific Basque case.

Between March 1937 and October 1938 nearly 3,000 children, between 5 and 12 years old, were evacuated from Spain to then the Soviet Union in four expeditions. Most of the children were from the Basque Country (between 1,500 and over 1,700), and Asturias and Cantabria (between 800 and 1,100). In the majority of the cases their parents were sympathetic to the anarchist, socialist, and communist ideals. On June 12, 1937 over 1,500 children and 75 tutors (teachers, doctors, and nurses) left the Port of Santurtzi in the Basque province of Bizkaia on board of the ship “Habana.”

From the moment of the children’s arrival to the German invasion of Russia they lived in good care in the so-called “Infant Homes for the Spanish Children.” There were 11 homes located in the current Russian Federation—including 1 in Moscow and 2 nearby Leningrad—and 5 in Ukraine—including 1 in Odessa and another in Kiev. Soon, their lives were, once more, dramatically turned upside-down. The homes had to be evacuated.

ChildrenRussia“The war children” from Spain and tutors, August 1940, Russia (Image source: Sasinka Astarloa Ruano)

During the Siege of Leningrad, the children Celestino Fernández-Miranda Tuñón and Ramón Moreira, both from Asturias, were 16 and 17 years old respectively at the time of enlisting as volunteers to defend the city, while Carmen Marón Fernández, from Bizkaia, worked as a nurse and dug trenches at the age of 16. Over 40 children were killed before they could be evacuated in 1943. It is considered the longest and most destructive city blockade in history. It resulted in the deaths of 1.5 million people and in the evacuation of 1.4 million civilians.

The survivors of Leningrad together with the rest of the children were taken to remote areas such as today’s republics of Georgia and Uzbekistan, and Saratov Oblast in southern Russia. It is during this time when it is reported that some children were victims of sexual assaults and exploitation, and a few of them ended up in delinquent gangs in order to survive.

ChildrenClassParamilitary training in one of the children’s colony. Shooting practices were a norm in many of the homes (Image source: Spanish Citizenship Abroad Portal)

According to the Spanish Center of Moscow, over 100 “niños de la guerra” voluntarily enlisted in the Red Army, while many others had to carry out some type of work to support the war efforts alongside their schooling time. For instance, Begoña Lavilla and Antonio Herranz, both from Santurtzi, worked at an arms factory in Saratov at the age of 13 and 14, respectively. Eight of the Basque niños—six of them from the “Kiev home”—entered in combat after receiving flight training courses in a military academy. It has been said that some of the children were able to pass themselves off as older men such as Luis Lavín Lavín who was just 15 years old at the time. The eight young Basques were Ignacio Aguirregoicoa Benito (born in Soraluce in 1923), Ramón Cianca Ibarra, José Luis Larrañaga Muniategui (born in Eibar in 1923), the aforementioned Luis Lavín Lavín (born in Bilbao in 1925), Antonio Lecumberri Goikoetxea (born in 1924), Eugenio Prieto Arana (born in Eibar in 1922), Tomás Suárez, and Antonio Uribe Galdeano (born in Barakaldo in 1920). Larrañaga, Uribe, and Aguirregoicoa died in 1942 (Ukraine), 1943 (Dnieper), and 1944 (Estonia), respectively. Aguirregoicoa took his own life in order to avoid being captured by the enemy.

Between 207 and 215 Spaniards were killed as active combatants at the Eastern Front of World War II (also known as the Great Patriotic War; June 22, 1941-May 9, 1945), while another 211 people died of extreme starvation, disease, and the intensive bombardments. According to Lavín, 50 of the enlisted “children” out of a total of 130 were killed during the war.

After two long decades of exile, the first convoy of “children” was allowed to return to Francisco Franco’s Spain in 1957. As of 2012, it is estimated that 170 “niños de la guerra,” all of them over 80 years old, live in the former Soviet Union. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the bombings of Basque cities and villages and the evacuation of their children—fatidic preamble to World War II.

For more information see the interview (in Spanish) to Mateo Aguirre S.J., on the Democratic Republic of Congo child soldiers’ situation at Alboan’s EiTB Blog; and the Child Soldiers International organization; and Luis Lavín Lavín’s conference of 2007 (in Spanish).

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The Crossing

“You shall leave everything you love most dearly: this is the arrow that the bow of exile shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste of others´ bread, how salty it is, and know how hard a path it is for one who goes descending and ascending others´ stairs”

(Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy)

On July 16, 1950, a group of nine Basque men sailed from the Port of Santurtzi (Bizkaia) to the Port of Veracruz (Mexico) on a small hand-made ship named “Montserrat” in order to escape General Francisco Franco´s brutal dictatorship and post-war socio-economic depression. Only one of the men was a professional sailor. This thrilling first-hand account story (La Travesía del Montserrat—The Crossing of the Montserrat) as narrated by one of the men, Félix San Mamés Loizaga, has been recently published in Mexico. Félix´s on board diary captures the ninety-one long days it took them to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The Basques had to cope with the failure of the boat´s engine, shortage of food and water, hurricanes, and tropical storms. This was a 7,000 mile trip whose storyline rivals some of Hollywood´s best cinematographic adventures.

The nine men were Félix San Mamés Loizaga (24 years old at the time), brothers José Luis and Manuel Algorri Villanueva (40 and 39 years old, respectively), brothers José Luis and José Ramón Bilbatúa Madariaga (30 and 28 years old, respectively), José Martín Barinagarrementeria Eguzkiaguirre (19 years old), Ismael Martin del Rio (30 years old), Agustín Palacios Lopategui (25 years old), and Gregorio Solano Ahedo (41 years old). Different generations, ages, socio-economic backgrounds and political traditions but one same goal: to improve their lives for themselves and their loved ones.

On July 16, 1949, on the feast of Our Lady of Carmen, Patron Saint of Santurtzi, Manuel suggested to Ismael, Félix and the Bilbatúa brothers to escape Franco´s Spain: “If we leave Spain, where will we go?” Manuel asked. That same night they all decided to go to Mexico as its government was sympathetic to the Spanish Republican cause and the government-in-exile. It is estimated that between 1939 and 1942 25,000 refugees from Spain went to Mexico. All four men worked for the Algorris on their shipyard, Astilleros Alsa, in Erandio (Bizkaia). Later on, they were joined by José Martín, Agustín, and Gregorio. On the following day, they secretly began to build the wooden sloop “Montserrat.” A year later the men set sail to North America.

On their way to the Canary Islands, the “Montserrat´s” engine failed. On July 28th, Gregorio wrote in his diary: “There are nine men on board the ‘Montserrat,’ with courage, strong will…our decision is to continue.” Plans had to be rearranged. From then on they depended on the trade winds, which obviously delayed the original goal of reaching Mexico within a month. Soon, they began to run out of supplies, and even more important, fresh water. After weeks of wind sailing, the “Montserrat” reached Barbados where they obtained supplies and fixed the engine. In Martinique the Basques were able to send the first letters to their families. They set course to Puerto Progreso Yucatán, Mexico. Upon arrival, the local authorities placed them under arrest, while allowing Manuel to leave the boat to contact representatives of the Spanish Republican government-in-exile. Soon, they were allowed to sail to Veracruz.

After three months and thousands of miles, the “Montserrat” finally reached its destination, where, once again, they were arrested. On October 15th Félix wrote: “At 12:30 we entered the port of Veracruz, the end of our troubled trip. Here our journey that will always stay in our memory concluded.” With the help of the Spanish Republican government-in-exile all men obtained permission to legally stay in the country under the political refugee status. The men were naturalized Mexican and remained in the country until the end of their lives. Ismael was able to bring his wife and daughters to Mexico after two long years of separation. In 1974, after twenty-four years, Félix returned to the Basque Country for first time and reunited with his family. His mother had already passed away.

The story of the “Montserrat’s” crew is the story of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who risked, and are still risking, their own lives in pursuit of freedom and socio-economic prosperity. Between 1948 and 1951, sixty-two sailing boats, the so-called ghost ships, departured, in dramatic conditions, from the Canary Islands to Venezuela carrying a total of 4,000 Canarian passengers who escaped from Franco’s political repression and hunger. Some ships took over eighty days to reach shore.

It is estimated that 150,000 Basques, including 25,000 children, went into exile, while an estimated 100,000 were imprisoned and 50,000 died as a result of the Spanish Civil War.

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