In 2015 I was working on a project which involved finding maritime data to create a visualisation of boats, which you can see in this link:
and I was planning to develop it further into a poetic visualisation of the boats from the port of Buenos Aires, when I remembered that my grandfather had lived in Argentina.
I had only just recently found an ID card at my mother’s house in their place of origin, a village from the province of Guadalajara in España. As nowadays we look for everything online, I decided to google his name, Franciso Mencía Roy and the name of the city where he lived in Argentina, Comodoro de Rivadavia, and to my surprise I found his name together with that of his brother Cosme, on the passengers’ list of a boat called the Winnipeg. I was astonished as I didn’t expect to find their names online and from this moment on, the project took a different direction. I was too curious not to carry on researching and exploring the possibilities to create an artistic project based on such a personal and intimate event, as well as historical to present it at the E-Poetry Festival in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Therefore, I started to research about the Winnipeg, nobody in my family knew they had travelled on this boat. After the Civil War in Spain, there were many Spanish Republicans that fled to France and were kept in concentration camps in the south of the country and it seems as though my grandfather and his brother were in these camps. This news was a massive surprise for all the family and more so when I also discovered that the famous poet Pablo Neruda from Chile, who worked as the Consul Immigration Officer, living in Chile at the time, with his love for Spain and moved by this situation, in a gesture of solidarity, had decided to help these refugees with the assistance of Pedro Aguirre Cerda, the Prime Minister of Chile at the time. He organised the Winnipeg and interviewed every passenger on the boat, being able to accommodate 2,200 Spanish civil war exiles to travel from Trompeloup, France to Valparaiso, Chile on the 4 of August 1939. (You can read Neruda’s beautiful poem “Misión de amor” in his book Memorial de Isla Negra. It might be translated like “A Labour of love” or “Love mission” where he explains how he was calling them and they were appearing with their different professions. He also compares them to seeds he is spreading over the sea on their way to peace.)
It is said, that when the Winnipeg was about to leave, Pablo Neruda was so touched by the emotional atmosphere created at the port with the people leaving, that to keep this memory, he wrote: “Que la crítica borre toda mi poesía, si le parece. Pero este poema, que hoy recuerdo, no podrá borrarlo nadie”. “The critics may erase all of my poetry but this poem that I today remember, nobody will be able to erase”.
I was completely astonished that thanks to Pablo Neruda, my grandfather had been saved from the concentrations camps in France and given a place to travel on this vessel. As far as I know, he was a medic so I presume this must have been a valuable skill to have in a long trip like this one. I tried to find any long lost family who might have any information about the Winnipeg, perhaps have family in Chile but I had not much luck until recently, when I was told Cosme, his brother, had been married in Chile and had family there. This unfortunately came after I had already had been to Chile and I am yet to be in touch with them.
Thus, starting with the exploration of the visualisation of maritime data and the use of mobile Apps, my artistic research evolved into reading about historical events of the Spanish Civil War and the Historical Memory including Spanish and Chilean Memory. I have found books, exhibitions about the Winnipeg, its passengers, their lives, family and a very useful link to the archive of La Memoria Chilena. It was amazing to see not only my grandfather’s story unravelled in front of my eyes- at discovering stories and information about this important historical event, which as a matter of fact, it is still lost in the memory of Spain as it is not that well known- but also how this fact had impacted and influenced my own life.
To start with I was interested in creating a poetic visualisation of the ships traveling to Latin America during the month of August 1939, with the Winnipeg being the star as the cargo ship of many feelings, hopes and farewells. I contacted libraries to find the log of the Winnipeg or any digitised information about the boats sailing on that year from France or Spain to Latino America but I have yet to find the route of the Winnipeg digitised. The data and coordinates would have been useful to visualise an accurate route but I found a map in the archive of La Memoria Chilena showing the trajectory from Trompeloup to Valparaiso, which now has become part of the project with the name of the passengers appearing as a string of text delineating the route of the Winnipeg.
I travelled to Buenos Aires and presented the first prototype of the project at the E-Poetry 2015 Festival, getting the audience engaged and curious about the story. The day of the opening at the Museo de la Inmigración (MUNTREF), which in the past had been the hotel of the immigrants because of its vicinity to the port, I had another amazing surprise. I found out they had digitised all the passengers’ arrivals to the port and consequently, I found documents stating the arrival of my grandmother and her four children on their visit to my grandfather on the 12th of February 1951 in the vessel of Cabo de Buena Esperanza. She had travelled with all her children apart from my father because due to his age he had to do the military service in Spain. My aunts and uncles were young, with ages from twenty the oldest girl, eighteen and sixteen the two boys and thirteen the youngest girl. The date revealed that they hadn’t seen my grandfather for very long eleven years, and on top of it all, we found out the reason why my grandmother and her youngest daughter had shortly come back to Spain, was because my grandfather died soon after they arrived. The three other children stayed in Latino America looking for a better live until they finally settled in Caracas, Venezuela. Years later my father travelled with my mother to visit his family, this visit was extended to seven years and there I was born.
I would have never thought I was going to be indebted to the poet responsible for the “Twenty Love Poems: And A Song of Despair” that I had so many times recommended to my students of Spanish in London, the Pablo Neruda of the “The book of questions”- for how he had forged and contributed somehow to my interests in life: travelling, cultures, languages, literature, art, the need to explore and be curious, the always feeling like being from somewhere else and somehow different, of being melancholic and happy at the same time, of being able to stand up on my own two feet with perseverance and determination, because somehow I had inherited this from my family. And finally for having saved my grandfather and his brother. I also need to add that my father was always surrounded by a sadness and bitterness due to losing his father when he was about eleven years old, when my grandfather went to war and later to exile and never to see him again, and for the consequences it all brought.
It could be said that this story that has accompanied me, without me knowing, is the fruit of many of my projects and especially of those very related to this “Poem that crossed the Atlantic” such as: “Cityscapes: Social Poetics / Public Textualities” 2005 and “Connected Memories” 2009. How unaware we are of some of our deeply ingrained feelings!
After the E-Poetry Festival in Buenos Aires, I wanted to research this further and went to the wonderful and magical city of Valparaiso in Chile, I visited Neruda’s houses, Isla Negra, and Santiago de Chile where I carried on researching on archives, community centres, galleries, videoing, taking photographs, talking to people and when they asked me why I was visiting Chile, I told them my grandfather had taken me there. It was a beautiful feeling, which warmed my heart and made me feel welcomed as if somehow part of me belonged to that country, I felt at home in a country where I had never been and had gratitude for its generosity.
Finally, now we have created this website which invites the reader, the passengers’ families and anybody interested in this event to add their stories, so these become the material for the poetic visualisation of the journey of the Winnipeg, what I have tiled “The Poem that Crossed the Atlantic”, I think I saw this title somewhere on line or in the readings and I liked the idea of the vessel with its many stories to be the poem. These interconnected stories of the passengers and family which this cargo vessel carried, with their feelings, hopes and farewells, are now represented in the sea of the World Wide Web, together with the poems by Pablo Neruda and relevant information about this event.
A poem created with love to a grandfather I never met, and to my father who never saw his father again from the age of eleven. And to all of those who are currently in similar situations of hardship, displacement, lost and in exile.