The story of the 1,700 Galicians who went to Cuba to seek their fortune and ended up enslaved – 09/18/2022

A real and terrible event, but which remained unknown for a long time because its protagonists were unable to tell it, inspired the novel ‘Azucre’, by Bibiana Candia.

They were called Orestes, Rañeta, the Tísico, Trasdelrío, José, the Satisfied, and Tomás de La Coruña, and formed a group of young people who decided, in 1853, to leave Galicia, Spain, in search of a better future in Cuba. .

It could have been just one of the thousands of stories that marked the Galician community that, between the mid-19th and mid-20th century, saw entire generations travel to the American continent, fleeing poverty, hunger or war.

But these young people were the protagonists of an emigration story that has not been told, at least not in detail, and that inspired azucrethe first novel by Galician author Bibiana Candia.

The work of fiction is based on a real and terrible story – that of 1,700 Galicians who emigrated to Cuba at that time and were enslaved by another Galician, Urbano Feijóo de Sotomayor, who was based on the Caribbean island.

The book begins with a dedication that is a complete declaration of intent: “To the emigrants who were never able to tell their story and to those who stayed and never received a letter.”

Candia believes that this story had not reached popular memory because its protagonists were unable to tell it. That’s why the author gave them a voice through captivating characters who lose their innocence in a brutal journey into terror.

BBC News Mundo – the BBC’s Spanish service – spoke to Candia.

BBC News World – Considering how little is known about this story in popular culture, how did it come to you?

Bibiana Candia – I had never heard of her either. One day, a friend simply asked me if I knew the story of the Galicians who were taken to work with sugar in the 19th century and enslaved.

At first I was very skeptical and thought it wasn’t true. Then I thought it was an anecdote about some people who were and were not lucky, and that this story has been exaggerated over time.

But she sent me a message with two links, one of them to a Spanish Radio and Television documentary. That is, it was not something hidden.

I believe she sent me with the idea that I should write an article.

BBC News Mundo – But, in the end, it was much more than an article… why a fiction novel?

Candia – When I saw what she sent me, I said, “But it’s a lot of people; it’s not an isolated episode, it’s something much more serious.”

I went looking for information and found academic articles, court proceedings and a lot of documents.

I started asking people and nobody knew the story. Nobody knew anything, except people very specialized in historical matters, specialists in the 19th century, or people in a very specific niche.

At that moment, a narrative enigma arises for me: if we, Galicians, have this tradition of oral literature and migration, how can this story not have come to us through popular memory? Something here is not right.

So I came to the conclusion, after a lot of analysis, that it really hadn’t reached us because, in fact, its protagonists hadn’t told it.

The accounts we have are valid for the official part of life, but the human legacy brought by a story to popular memory is the first-person voice.

So there was no point in writing an article, because it wouldn’t get where I wanted: what needs to be done to make this story known?

What is needed is to recreate these voices, recreate the popular story, the collective memory. And for that, a novel is needed, a fiction – and that fiction, in a way, restores reality.

Cover of the book 'Azucre' - Disclosure - Disclosure

‘Azucre’ book cover

Image: Disclosure

BBC News World – And the result is azucrewhich is technically a historical novel, but not so much from a formal point of view, as the historical data is absent, and the voice falls entirely on the protagonists.

Candia: The priority was to see the situation through their eyes.

Of course, the novel has very serious formal documentation. The data is not in the text, but I had to study everything that happened in order to build the world around them and put them in the right situations.

The key was to understand how those people felt who left their village, who didn’t know anything, and suddenly they are put on a ship and taken to the other side of the world without having any idea.

Many of them had never seen the sea in their lives, they couldn’t read, they couldn’t write and they appear in Cuba, which was like another planet, totally helpless in the face of what is going to happen to them.

This was a really strong story. What was important, what was crucial, what was fundamental were their voices.

BBC News Mundo – They are also very familiar characters to people who know emigration stories, those young people who emigrate from their small village and face a totally unknown world. They are the protagonists of Galicia’s collective history.

Candia – At first, when I already knew it would have 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 a voice to tell this.”

But at that moment I thought of my grandfather, who was a worker in a village near Santiago de Compostela who never had a skilled job and could barely read and write. And I thought, “Of course, my grandfather would have perfectly been one of them.”

It was there that I realized that I knew them, knew who they were, because they are the memory of my grandfather, of my great-grandfather, of what they told about pilgrimages, about walking and going hungry.

And that makes you, even if you haven’t lived, continue to have very strong contact with all that memory.

BBC News World – azucre it’s almost a horror story, but you get caught up in the charm and innocence of its characters.

Candia – What worried me most when I wrote it was that, just as, to me, they were very real people, I wanted readers to be enchanted by them.

Because when you see the back cover of the novel, you already have all the spoiler — you already know they will be enslaved. When you break through that tension of narration from the start, you need an incentive to keep reading.

My only trump card was then precisely to make the readers delighted and wanted to see what would happen to them.

I was told in a presentation that azucre it was a work about the loss of innocence. And it felt very right.

Normally, when a person suddenly becomes an adult, it is usually because of trauma, or because of a death, because of a loss, because of an attack, because of a war…

And that’s what happens to them, who, within their poverty and living conditions, were innocent people, innocent children, and suddenly, the only thing they have in front of them is their own survival.

Yes, I wanted there to be traces of light within the terror, otherwise it would be unbearable to read. And part of that was that they were nice, that they were tender, that they were able to make us laugh despite everything they were going through. Which is also part of the reality of the stories, even in the most terrible moments.

Bibiana Candia - Angel Manso - Angel Manso

Bibiana Candia

Image: Angel Manso

BBC News World – Did you feel that there was some kind of debt to them?

Candia – Totally. I believe 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 I think that, especially nowadays, when we are further away from their generations, we need even more to have a very clear and solid idea of ​​what life was like at that time.

I think it’s important to be clear about where we came from so that we know who we are. And all this history that precedes us is going to affect us in exactly the same way, whether we confront it or not.

Therefore, we become more adults as a society when we are aware of what is behind us, that there were people very close to us, in very close generations, who went through many difficulties.

I believe that, in the construction of our collective memory, people told us above all the history of heroes and great works, but the memory of anti-heroes, of the poor of the land, of those who were nobody, does not deny but enriches, and very, epic story.

For me, it is very important to be clear that the works are often built on the lives of many people in disgrace.

Now, luckily, we’re on the more favored side of the world, but these 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.

BBC News World – We see this now in the stories and hardships of so many immigrants, including Central Americans who cross Mexico to reach the United States.

Candia – It’s a constant. The 19th century was the beginning of global trade. In fact, the first global product that crossed the world to be sold were precisely the people who left Africa and were taken to America.

And since then it’s been exactly the same. The world has become technologically sophisticated, but the mechanisms that move the world are the same. Therefore, people continue to experience the same outrages around us.

There are still desperate people who will try in every way to seek a better future. And there will always be, unfortunately, unscrupulous people trying to take advantage of them.

And these people are in the Mexican desert, in the job offers that make Latin American or Eastern European women come to Spain to work in domestic services, but end up finding prostitution, which is terrible slavery.

We have that in the Mediterranean every day, and a year ago we saw people trying to escape hanging from planes in Afghanistan… and these stories, these little stories, will not be in the books.

It is fantastic material for literature, which has enormous potential to challenge History with a capital letter, which will always be much colder, counting only the successes.

Illustration of a sugar plantation in Cuba - Getty Images - Getty Images

Illustration of a sugar plantation in Cuba

Image: Getty Images

BBC News Mundo – Speaking of unscrupulous people… these boys were enslaved by one of their own, by another Galician: Feijóo de Sotomayor. Is it a character that you tried to hide in some way?

Candia – No, he even has a Wikipedia page. [em espanhol e galego].

He is a classic character, a gentleman who is a deputy, has total impunity and, in fact, knew perfectly well that nothing would happen to him.

The company is dissolved, he keeps all the money raised so far and, of course, he doesn’t have to compensate the workers. And it is established that, if any of the workers wants to claim compensation, they must file an individual complaint in an arbitration court.

Of course, there were very few cases. He didn’t lose any sort of status for this situation, which is also a very modern story.

There are people who take advantage of their privileged position to get a business and get rich in a fraudulent or criminal way. And then they don’t suffer consequences for their actions. And they still maintain their social standing.

In the novel, he basically appears as a ghost, literally, for two reasons: because, for me, what was important were the voices of the boys and because he is also a widely known character, we know many like him. He’s a very classic villain.

– Text originally published at

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