by Natalia Diaz, script writer and documentary filmmaker

Road to Gibraltar; Dependence and livelihood in La Línea and Gibraltar. By  Beatriz Díaz Martínez. Published by Provincial Health Board (Cádiz), Junta de Andalucía, 2011

In the year 2010, Beatriz Díaz, a professional writer and social researcher for many years and a woman with a strong social commitment, launched one of her workshops on Oral Memory in the town of La Línea (Cádiz, Spain). This Andalusian municipality has an unusual origin in our Spanish geography: La Línea (translated as “The Line”) was founded and grew alongside and because of Gibraltar. A small urban nucleus in the beginning, migrants -mostly Andalusian- will repopulate it, as the majority of workers who come looking for a job in the colony does not reside or stay overnight in Gibraltar. Until a few decades ago, the population of La Linea was essentially urban and working-class, in open contrast with the rest of the region. Today, La Línea remains dependent on Gibraltar. This is the social framework in which Diaz places her latest book, “Road to Gibraltar”, which is part of a broader project led by medical researcher Antonio Escolar Pujolar, on the social determinants of cancer mortality in the area of “El Campo de Gibraltar” (the results are collected in his book “Cancer mortality in El Campo de Gibraltar. Social environment, the keystone”).

The book of Díaz presents the results of the one-year workshop “The story of my life”, carried out with two groups of elderly people of La Linea and coordinated by Díaz. As she explains in the book, “Oral Memory is an essential tool to reveal a psycho-social context, and to look more closely at the socio-economic situation of our recent past”, and it can make a huge contribution to an epidemiological study because “any social reality (…) has social conditions that must be known, and institutional responsibilities that need to be assumed”. No doubt this is one of the main objectives of Beatriz Díaz since the beginning of her professional journey: to denounce and to expose unknown, hidden or deformed social situations that our society is not always willing to reflect. She not only wants to get to the heart of the issue but also to raise awareness and move us to action. Each of her books is the result of deep research that aims to show a different aspect of our society: police abuse to migrants from a suburb of Bilbao (The Color of Suspicion); aid networks among migrants (The Invisible Help), etc. Debates, conferences and social networks after the appearance of each book, contribute additionally to expose the issue.

In recent years, since she established herself in Tarifa (Cádiz), Beatriz Díaz has approached reality from an unexpected, though accurate and incisive, new point of view, little explored in our Spanish territory: Oral Memory. Spain, still a country of fragile and scared memory, needs an urgent review of this aspect of our identity. Oral Memory means that “real” people of flesh and blood, the ones who can give their testimony and live word, can recognize themselves as protagonists of History. Oral Memory means that no one speaks for no one, people themselves tell their own story. Oral memory means, finally, that what one feels, thinks and does, is accepted and recognized as priority agent and motor of our society’s movement forward. A renewed awareness that Spanish society needs today more than ever, and that forces us to understand that we have “two inseparable human dimensions: the individual and the social.”

This pattern of work has allowed Beatriz Díaz to expose sadly silenced aspects of our more recent history: “The smell of mint leaves” (Spanish migrant workers in Morocco since 19th century), “Memories of Juan Quero, farmer, shepherd and writer” (a vision of post-war Spain in the huge Andalusian estates and big houses) through the eyes of a shepherd and poet), “Hungry, thank God, never were we” (five village women from Cádiz province tell about their childhood and youth, working in the fish canneries and “cortijos”), and the most recent, “A rosebush of very tiny flowers” (testimonies of repression and survival by a group of elders during the civil war and post-war Spain). They are fascinating works that reflect a neat job, where the discovery of the intense need and desire of their protagonists to tell and share their story, quite jolts us.

In her last book, “Road to Gibraltar”, Díaz has once more brought together a group of elders born in the 20s and 30s of the last century. Díaz says that, this time, “it has been a real challenge to be faithful to the interests and needs of the protagonists.” They are stigmatized and pointed at as criminals, due to their involvement in the past in black market and smuggling (…). “For more than a century, people from La Línea have felt misunderstood and manipulated according to political interests”. Yet, after one year of intense recollection of testimonies, reviving a past closer to us than we are willing to admit; after a year of intense emotions and building up companionship, breaking down fears and suspicions, there comes forth a book that makes its protagonists proud, because “this is the true memory of our people. This is our history”. This statement does away with the reservation with which some people looked at the project in the beginning, and confronts us with a reality that questions us with no mercy: who ever wanted to listen to what the protagonists had and needed to say? Who decides what to tell or not to tell? And, above all, a crucial revelation: If people get support and not prejudice, if people feel valued and taken into account, fears disappear and society becomes stronger and mature; it becomes capable of looking at itself and recognizing what it truly is. What we all are.

Through exciting stories of life and using “informative windows” adding on the psychosocial context, we learn of a new social and economic reality: Gibraltar as an area of refuge and support, and as port for clandestine emigration; the opportunity that for tens of thousands of Andalusian migrants it was to survive in the shadow of the “British Rock” and the dependency that this generated; the industry of sex and the trafficking of women in this cross-border area; political repression through labor marginalization and criminalization; the stigma that the Spanish women had to bear because they were working in the colony and the sexual abuse towards those who worked in the black market; bureaucracy and robbery to workers who had to cross the border daily, and which fed corruption and promoted the very same smuggling against which they were supposed to fight. Finally, the culture of smuggling that settled in the area, or the relationship between the military industry and smuggling.

As Beatriz Díaz points out in her book, “to reveal what happened in their lives dismantles the impunity long time supported in silence and stigma, an essential step to restore dignity to the protagonists.” No doubt, Díaz has achieved this goal: “Road to Gibraltar” brings back a dignity never recognized, washed away, first of all the protagonists who, in their own name, courageously give their testimony in the book; but also to thousands of anonymous men and women who strived and worked in La Línea and Gibraltar. Francisca Aguilar says in the book: “When they tell me ‘Stop talking, this is something from the past!’, I say, ‘This is the History of life. Didn’t it happen to me.?’ If we didn’t talk about things, there would be no history”…

We wish to emphasize that Díaz’s work has had an unending support in Antonio Escolar, doctor and researcher. To decide to know from within the social reality that determines the differences in health, and do so through life stories, crashes against the classical methodological approach in epidemiology. We are grateful to him and his lucid and courageous vision. And our thanks too to Beatrice Díaz for having given voice, in a magnificent, honest and generous work, to an unknown piece of our history. “Road to Gibraltar” has been very well received in La Línea and in Gibraltar, both in grass root communities and local media. Hopefully it will also reach other parts of our country, because no doubt at all it will make a valuable contribution to our Spanish society on the whole.

Esta entrada también está disponible en: Spanish