I have a very good friend, who to aid my conversational Spanish and Galego, tells me about her family life and how the people of the Ribeira Sacra lived in the days of Franco. She is a few months older than me and it has been fascinating to compare our lives growing up.
Inland Galicia was a very remote place. The main road to Madrid was little more than a wide track and it could take days to journey from one large town to another.
I have been told stories of life in the 1950s and 1960s, which in the UK was a time of great change, yet here, life went on as it had done for centuries. Whilst I was looking for information on some of the names that have been mentioned, whilst researching more about life here in those years, I discovered little. To be honest, this part of Galicia isn’t mentioned in many guidebooks, despite the great and dramatic beauty of the countryside.
The civil war didn’t end at the same time as it did in other parts of Spain. There were guerrilla skirmishes in the eastern mountains of Galicia, but these were hushed up – there seems to have been a deliberate embargo on reporting news. It is ironical that the guerrilla activities of the Basques are well known, but the battles of Galicia are rarely discussed.
Here in remote Galicia, there had been a secret guerrilla war, which ended with the capture and execution of José Castro Veiga (“El Piloto”) and Benigno Andrade (“Foucellas”) in 1965. There had been many years of secret battles in the eastern mountains, kept secret by the administrations. Even now, if a researcher is prepared to interview residents, there are hushed conversations over morning coffee.
The Guardia Civil in those years, were feared. They would patrol in pairs, walking a beat of approximately twenty kilometers a day. They knew who lived in all the houses and would occasionally check to make sure that the only people there were those who lived in that village.
I asked my neighbours what happened on the day that General Franco died. They laughed, ‘nothing!’ they said. Galicia was too far from Madrid for change and even now, it is regarded as being some years behind the rest of Spain.
My friend’s father, whom I shall call Roberto, is now in his mid eighties and as agile as a mountain goat. He was born the fifth son of nine children. His father died when Roberto was sixteen, leaving him the eldest of the last four children and of course, he had to go out to work.
Roberto vowed that he would never work for the rich landowners, as he felt that they exploited their workers, paying them in stale bread and maybe one or two pesos per day.
He managed to find a carpenter who agreed to take Roberto on as an apprentice, paying him little, but training him to take over his carpentry business one day.
Roberto noticed that down on the river Miño, just north of a small village called Pesqueiras, work was beginning on a very large dam, or embalse as it is known in Spanish.
He left the carpenter as soon as he could and walked the ten kilometres to the works office to sign up as a carpenter. The work on the dam was going to take years and he got a job pretty quickly. Roberto worked on the tunnels that run through the body of the dam and then moved onto various other projects that ensured steady work.
He would walk to work at first, a walk of about 11 kilometres. He stayed with the project, moving from casual labourer to salaried employee – one of the first people in his parish to have a real salary. He bought a bicycle, then a small motorbike and finally a tiny Seat.
The dam was completed in 1963 and by then Roberto was in a unique position; he had built himself a house and had money in hand.
As the infrastructure improved, with rail travel from Monforte de Lemos to Orense and onwards to Vigo, people were beginning to leave to look for work in Switzerland and the UK.
Those from the coastal areas, used to sea travel, had left in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for Cuba, Venezuela and Argentina.
For those who wished to leave and look for work, there was a problem – how could those who earned a few pesos per day, afford to leave?
The basic pay was very low and people generally had no jobs, living off their small plots of land, a subsistence living, which meant that cash was in short supply.
Roberto, as the only man with a salaried job, became a de facto local banker, lending money to people who wished to leave and as he knew everyone in the parish, this money was always paid back, often with tears and gifts.
This part of Spain, fertile, temperate and green looks as though it’s the perfect place for farming – and it is, but historically, its population and economy wasn’t based only on cash, but on what people could grow and swap, to help their family, friends and neighbours.
The winters were especially difficult for those who had limited mobility and heavy rain and mud often meant that old people were trapped in their houses, unable to get out to their gardens.
The Romans discovered Galicia’s riches and now it’s time that the rest of the world became familiar with the wines, wonderful beef, sea food and farmed fish, so that people don’t have to leave to look for work again.
Incidentally, many of those who left for northern Europe, returned. They sent their children here for the summer holidays, to be looked after by their grandparents and they fell in love with Galicia and its summer of fiestas and long evenings.
These children, now in their twenties and thirties are moving here, living the life that they fell in love with as children. They are renovating the old houses or building new homes on the site of those that had collapsed. Most importantly, they are raising their children here, helping to rebuild populations that are disappearing.
I think the future looks good.