18 March 2017

Los estraperlistas - Andalucia´s black marketeers

It's carnival time again in Alcalá.  This year's theme for Galindo's comparsa (singing group) was "Los Estraperlistas" - the men who smuggled and sold much-needed goods on the black market during a time of acute shortages. Here's a video of their performance, followed by some historical background which I translated a few years ago from an original article by local writer Juan Leiva.


The shortages of the postwar era couldn't have hit Alcalá at a worse time: the fields had been abandoned, the able-bodied workforce had been recruited into the Civil War (many young men were recruited twice over); essential goods were scarce; measures imposed by Franco's regime to relieve the famine [which often made things worse], and many other misfortunes all landed on a large part of the population. Not only was there unemployment and a shortage of work, but basic foodstuffs were in short supply. As a consequence, many people turned to the "black market".

The word for black market, estraperlo, had its origin in a game of foreign invention, a type of roulette, which permitted the banker to manipulate the game [by pressing a secret button] in order to win. It was invented in the 1930s by a Dutch Jew (Strauss) and his colleague (Perlo), and from a combination of their abbreviated names came the word "Straperlo". In Spain, in 1934, some public personalities wanted to introduce it into the Casino of San Sebastian, although the police closed it after a few hours because the game was prohibited. Subsequently the name was used metaphorically to describe the black economy and clandestine trading of essential goods for financial gain.

Food producers and sharp-witted businessmen made a killing on the black market in the postwar period. This was a hard, cruel era of Spanish history. According to some historians it lasted ten years, from 1940 to 1950; according to others, fifteen years from 1940 to 1955, and yet others claimed twenty years, up to 1960, although in a more moderate form. In Alcalá it was as bad as everywhere else. Franco's regime wanted to control the situation with three measures: an autarchic political economy, ration cards, and foreign aid from friendly countries.

The first measure was to demand from millers the maquila - the portion of grain, flour or oil which they got in exchange for the milling. This failed to be applied to all the wheat, oil and cereals harvested during the year, because an unspecified part was hidden and sold on the black market. The ration cards also ended up on the black market, because many people sold them to the highest bidder. And the goods sent by friendly countries hardly ever reached their destination, because certain bureaucrats and distributors offered them to the black marketeers.

Within this world of famine and the black market, nobody could control the fraud and trickery. Everybody knew where they could get their basic goods, but  Alcalá was on the contraband route between Gibraltar and Jerez. It was like a gateway, through which the finest foodstuffs passed on their way from the countryside and the mountains. That world belonged to a more ancient practice, of which we will speak on another occasion – smuggling.

I remember, in this respect, that there was a food made from flour, water, oil and sugar which relieved much hunger. It was called poleadas or gachas, but we children called it espoleá [from the verb espolear, to spur on]. We hated it desperately, but it quelled a lot of hunger in Alcalá. One day I went with Father Manuel to visit a sick old woman. When we arrived at the house, we found a pathetic scene. The old woman and her son were embroiled in a violent argument, the two of them fighting over who was eating more spoonfuls. Father Manuel restored order, making them each eat a spoonful in turn instead of two at a time. These scenes were repeated frequently, provoked by the hysteria of starvation. It wasn't unusual to see children in the streets with their bellies swollen with malnutrition. There were cases of children who died of hunger.