Gavin Smith: Chasm: Interrupted Lives

Over the last few years I have found myself talking to people who have experienced radical displacements in their lives as a result both of economic distress and of political disturbance. They have been obliged to “move on,” to “move out,” to “move away.” Yet these are not really narratives that help put order into the world we live in. They are less to do with narrative, which is a rather literary way of believing the world can be settled for us. They’re more to do with the simultaneous solidity and the elusiveness of the role place plays in these people’s lives—even when they are not there. And they’re about the slipperiness of a time-past that sometimes deceives people that it can help deal with the present, and a time-future that keeps jumping about and producing either perpetual anxiety or, simply, resignation.

So actually these stories are driven by an inability to settle on the kind of order that comes with a coherent narrative. They are instead about interruptions and the failure—in reflecting back—to come to grips with the shock those interruptions produced and continue to produce. As in a Borges story, the events that would have produced a different path from the one that actually happened remain there as a reality that now will never be. There is a shock that tosses a life out of its path, and yet that untaken path is what energizes these accounts. Each experience is what a person feels might not have been: a moment caught them when it should not have.

Some years ago Jaume Franquesa and I found ourselves in frequent discussions as he was about to begin his fieldwork in southwestern Catalunya. Once he got to La Fatarella, the base for his research, it was apparent that he faced some elements of a situation that seemed to have certain similarities to my first fieldwork in Peru, at least in the sense that people had to assert the value of the place where they lived and many of them worked, against forces set on devaluing the people and the place. As a result, as in my own case, Jaume was witnessing animated discussions about the use of land and labor. I meanwhile had become interested in tracing the links between Spanish Republican families living in France and the families that had remained in Franco’s Spain. Soon after he began his fieldwork Jaume got in touch to tell me that he had spoken to a woman whose family was from La Fatarella and who was especially excited about talking to me about her experience of migration to France and that of others like her. Jaume let me stay with him in those early days of his fieldwork, and eventually we spent a day talking to Marta, now living in nearby Tarragona, about her life.

The Battle of the Ebro was, of course, the longest and bloodiest of the Civil War battles, one in which the Republican forces were gradually beaten down by the Nationalists and La Fatarella, in the Republican-held zone, was embroiled in that horrific confrontation. But earlier in the War an incident occurred in the town, which has coined its own complicated set of memories. Like many Republican towns, the people of La Fatarella had mixed and no doubt shifting sympathies and loyalties—socialists, anarchists and people simply with broadly felt Republican sympathies, as well as those close to the Church and those retaining their ties to the now-absent landowners. Not surprisingly, as in many such communities acrimonious discussions arose over the re-organizing of both the land and the labor that worked on it.

Sometime in late 1936 thirty people were executed, most likely those with rather indecisive Republican loyalties who were dragging their heels in respect to a thorough land reform, as well as more open supporters of the Church and the Right. There is little doubt that responsibility lay with the anarchists, though there were just a few in the town and the stronger story suggests that the perpetrators came from the nearby town of Móra d’Ebre and/or were members of the anarchist guardia de as alto sent from Barcelona. In the weeks and months that followed, the anarchists in the immediate area were forced to leave accused of complicity, if not active involvement, in what had happened. Many of these were from the nearby community of Ribarroja, but a few were from La Fatarella and among them was Marta’s father.

So Marta’s parents found themselves in exile in France some years before the end of the War and among people unfamiliar to them from their own town. Though many with political views similar to Marta’s father settled in the area around Toulouse, the couple ended up in Orleans, where just a few Spanish exiles from Franco’s Spain were later to be found. Marta’s father found a job in a local factory but died in an industrial accident soon after she was born. Marta says that at this point her mother, a Catholic with deep attachment to the Church, thought of returning to La Fatarella, but others in the exiled community warned her of the dire economic conditions in Spain, not to mention the heavy-handed repression, and eventually she found a job in Orleans.

Nevertheless, she did manage to send Marta home for her first communion, a rite of potential re-integration that, in the event, Marta remembers only in terms of the isolation she felt as the sole communicant, separated from her peers.1 Soon thereafter Marta’s mother died of cancer, and Marta was taken into a foster home. A condition of her upbringing, insisted by a person she refers to as a “judge,” was that she return during her school summer holidays to the community of her birth. So for three or four years Marta remembers being shuttled back and forth between two alien communities, speaking French in school, Spanish among the small exiled community in France, and gradually picking up Catalan on her returns to an inhospitable hometown. Nevertheless, by the time she was eighteen she had met her fiancé in La Fatarella and decided not to return to France.

Even so I think that what moved Marta to want so much to tell me her story when she heard from Jaume that I was interested in the displacement of Spanish Republicans is that she remained a marginal figure in what was supposedly her hometown. Others had Republican parents of radical persuasion, but nobody was such an open symbol of the events of 1936. There were fractures in La Fatarella not so deeply hidden beneath the surface and still the source of distrust and discord, as was the case in so many small towns in rural Spain, and these surfaced whenever issues of space and place arose. One way Marta dealt with her predicament was that she remained a floating figure in a sense. This was partly due to the fact that her father’s closest friend, finding himself in exile in a town close to Toulouse, became active in the Republican community thereabouts. Well before Franco’s death and continuing thereafter, Marta visited these people. Then with the coming of the nineties, the son of one of the prominent figures among the exiles, a Mallorcan anarchist who had married a woman from the town, became mayor of Fonsorbes, one of the small towns close to Toulouse.

Meanwhile, back in La Fatarella, the issues of land persisted. They were different now, but the divergent views of how to resolve them called up old differences and disputes. By the nineties the initial hesitations that came with the Transition following Franco’s death in 1975 were in the past, and Spain’s membership in the European Union turned people’s gaze across the Pyrenees. The presence not just of scattered exiles in France but of a community whose coherence arose from the way Republican sentiments infused current vibrant politics became evident to the municipal leaders in La Fatarella. As a result it was decided that local differences might be resolved by sending a “commission” to the Toulouse area. Over three or four summers delegates went back and forth with a view to resolving tensions in La Fatarella by including the exiles in France, with Marta not just as the translator but—crucially—as the mediator. By the time we spoke to her, the two towns had been “twinned,” thus formalizing the ties between them.

Recently my Peruvian godson, Gavin, now a migrant in Italy, said to me “All our experiences are different.” We were walking by the Stations of the Cross on the Sacromonte di Varese, not far from where he lived. “Joel has been sent back three times, once from Spain and twice from here. My older sister came through France in a meat refrigeration truck. I tried to get in twice. Once I tried from Romania through Switzerland, but I was sent back from the border. Then I came on a boat from Albania with about thirty others. I was the only Latin American. I waded ashore somewhere near Brindisi with a plastic bag above my head with everything I owned in it—really just a set of clothes.” There were just the four of us. Besides Gavin and his wife, there was my other godson Ramiro and me. Gavin shrugged, “I could go on. It’s a long story I’ll tell you sometime.” In fact I knew that he had graduated from a provincial university top of his class with a degree in chemical engineering, though back then there were no jobs. But we went on to talk of other things. It was a special day, a day they had taken off work to spend with the two men’s padrino.

At lunch Jenifer, Gavin’s wife, told me that she was not from Huasicancha as my godsons were, but from the neighboring community of Chongos Alto. “Why are they so jealous of the land?” she asked me. “Is it true that the land we have belongs to them? You must know what the facts are. Personally I’m not especially concerned about all that, but Gavin…and all the migrants from there, they get so emotional and they won’t leave it alone.” One glance across the table and it wasn’t difficult to see that she was right about that! Gavin’s eyes were already intense and he shifted in his seat nervously, in case I had a definite reply. Ramiro intervened, “He’s been away from there for a long time. He can’t answer you. And anyway he wouldn’t if he could. He’s not supposed to get involved.”

At the time Ramiro and Gavin were born I was finishing two years’ fieldwork in highland central Peru, among people who had a long history of struggling to secure the (mostly pastoral) land that had been taken from them by ever-expanding large haciendas, or ranches. When I left, Huasicancha had secured some 30,000 hectares of land and left two haciendas in ruins. In the previous thirty years, when the struggle had been at its most intense, many had been obliged to migrate—to Huancayo, the nearest market town; to the mines; or to Lima. Yet in complex and often contradictory ways they remained entangled in the struggle for the recovery of the land essential for pastoral livelihood.

Through the 1980s and early ’90s the confrontation between the Peruvian military and Shining Path guerrillas escalated in the area around Huasicancha and Chongos Alto. This, combined with the turn toward more neoliberal policies, resulted in the decline of the ambitious livestock cooperatives that had replaced the old haciendas and the withdrawal of government interest in the development of highland pastoral farming. As a sustainable livelihood in the community grew ever harder, people moved away, some of them into displaced people’s camps in and around Huancayo. Initially a small number of people, with the aid of agents, attempted the hazardous journeys of migration beyond Peru. Though these were quite haphazard and often unsuccessful, an earlier familiarity with the possibilities attendant on migration—combined with the circulation of stories, sometimes true but often unverifiable—served to raise discussion about the possibilities of making the much longer journey to Europe.

By the mid-nineties a small number of people from Huasicancha had found work in scattered parts of Europe. One had apprenticed as a nurse in a German clinic in Lima and managed to get transferred. Another had used an agent to get her to Italy via Spain and had a precarious job as a domestic servant. By the beginning of the century, a sufficient number of Huasicanchinos were pursuing albeit irregular jobs concentrated in peri-urban Milan to constitute the making of a “community” of sorts.

When I had returned for a brief visit to Huancayo and Huasicancha in January 2013, I was surprised at the extent and the importance of this migration. I had known that a few people had ended up in Italy, but I now discovered that the migrants there were much more numerous and indeed considered now part of the various constituencies—besides those in Huasicancha itself, those in Huancayo, and the various concentrations in Lima—to be consulted over the current land claims campaign. For indeed there was a quite vigorous campaign. The first time I met old contacts, a thick file of photocopied documents was thrust into my hand, and I was told, “Our claims have cleared the first two of three courts.”2 And on our journey up to the community itself, we passed a spot where I was told, “Two years ago we had a confrontation here. We were here with a few police; they were over there. But we were stronger. They had to leave.” The documents I had been given showed that Huasicancha was making a claim to land that included vast areas of the now-scarcely-operating cooperatives that had replaced nearby haciendas—an area almost twice the size of the land they had gained during my initial fieldwork. I assumed that those who had been forced to leave must have been erstwhile members of the cooperatives.

The day before that walk along the Sacromonte di Varese, I had spent the afternoon at a campeonato de fútbol that involved seven teams all from Huasicancha and its annexes in the mountains, or from migrant communities in Huancayo or Lima. Ramiro told me that in fact there were ten teams but three had split off over differences in how to conduct the campaign to regain Huasicancha’s rightful pastureland. There are about a thousand migrants in and around Milan now. I sat beside Ramiro’s oldest sister, who I last saw when she was fifteen, now forty-five and working six days a week from seven in the morning to nine in the evening as the cook, cleaner, shopper, and childcare provider for a family in Varese. Back in 2002, Angelica’s salary as a rural schoolteacher in remote villages in the highlands was insufficient and so infrequently paid that she couldn’t support her five children, especially after her husband took off. She and her younger sister took the journey to Ecuador to buy passports, since Spain did not recognize the tourist visas of Peruvians. Once there, they were to continue on to Spain and thence to Italy, but Angelica could not stand the idea of leaving her children without her in Huancayo and so returned, leaving her sister to go on. A year later conditions forced her to make the journey, this time with the assurance that her sister was now settled in Italy.

As we were talking Ramiro interrupted, “Primitivo’s son is here. You should meet him. He’s over there; let’s go.” Primitivo, a few years older than I and recently deceased, had been an especially charismatic community leader and key figure in the land recuperation that was taking place as I did my fieldwork back in the early seventies. His son had inherited much of his confidence. He laughed as he gave me a firm handshake. “I remember your father well,” I said. “He was a crazy rascal. Even in jail a couple of times!” “Oh yes,” replied his son. “He knew about jail. He was a real pistolero.” I was referring to the fact that in the course of the campaign that I had witnessed, Primitivo had been imprisoned on at least one occasion.

But as it turned out, I think his son was referring to something much more recent. Even though a year or so ago when people had told me about the recent “confrontation” the expressions on their faces had indicated that this had been a serious business, I had not realized just how serious. One person had been shot dead, and in fact most of the opponents were not directly from the large cooperative but from the neighboring community of Chongos Alto. Primitivo was quickly implicated and initially hid in the mountains until he surrendered and spent some of his last days in jail. Indeed, despite the distance between Huasicancha and Varese, despite the overwhelming gap between urban work in Italy and the highland pasture of the Peruvian puna, and even despite migrants’ wide variety of livelihood pursuits, what intensifies the powerful sense of community among them is the continuance of this struggle over the pasture. It is so embedded in their history, despite all the dispersals, as to provide them with the current that energizes their sense of collective identity: what you might call their “culture.” And so perhaps Jenifer’s question to me was a lot more fraught and urgent than I had originally understood it to be.

These are the stories. Perhaps they have little in common. As Gavin said, “Everybody’s experience is different,” and anyway there is a vast span in time and space between the two settings. Possibly the only thing that connects them is that they were told to me and that when they were, I found myself both taken aback and overwhelmed—perhaps at the distance between these experiences and my own—but also made aware of what injustice it would do to these experiences to try to render them in anything approaching analytic terms. Yet I’m not sure what we do when experiences like these keep slipping out of the net our training has set for them. I’m not sure what our responsibility is. To try to understand them and thereby somehow lay them to rest? Or to try to continue the sense of shock and surprise and helplessness that the speaker him- or herself really feels at the moment of putting such stories together? On both occasions I had the sense too that the people themselves were surprised at their own lives. Their stories seem to me to capture moments when they were asking, “Can I be living this? Where will it all go now?” But the urgency of the telling, in both cases I think, suggests that these questions are not contained just within the stories themselves—of finding oneself a teenage girl shuttling back and forth between two alien communities; or of leaving a life of rural school teaching and one’s children to join a sister in an unknown destination—but are present also at the moment of telling.

The little that draws their experiences together is that they are always about displacement when economic instability conjoins in some way with political upheaval. And so all I wish to do as an intellectualized observer “from a distance” is to provide a sense of the way in which the mobilization of crisis by the powerful produces a chasm that then becomes a permanence in a person’s life and that of those close to them. It is a chasm you struggle daily to avoid slipping into, or one into which you have already slipped and again and again are clawing back to get out of. As I said at the outset, the sadness of these stories comes from the shadow cast upon them by what might have been, not simply diverted by accident but rather by the economic and political projects of those with the reins of history in their hands.

Gavin Smith is an anthropologist who has worked in Andean South America and Europe over the past forty years.

1. It is not clear whether Marta had her first communion alone because she could only travel to the community at a time of year not normally reserved for that event, or whether it was the result of her connections to the exiles.

2. This was not entirely off the cuff; they were aware that the book I had written provided historical evidence that related to their land claims.

Cite as: Smith, Gavin. 2014. “Chasm: Interrupted lives,” FocaalBlog, July 25,