27 September 2018

R.I.P. Paco Pizarro, 1936-2018

When we first came to Alcalá, the main watering-hole for the small colony of Brits was Pizarro's, or Pizzies as it was usually called.  These days the Paseo de la Playa is full of bars and cafes, but back in 2005 there was very little choice.  One of the reasons we liked to go there was the charming owner, Paco.  He was still cooking then, and used to bring us out little plates of food to try, often sitting down for a chat, listening patiently to our broken Spanish.  He loved meeting people, especially foreigners who had elected to visit or move permanently to his home town.

So it was with great sadness that we learned of his death last week, at the age of 82.  He'd been ill for a while, but would still come down to the bar occasionally for a game of dominoes.  Just two weeks before he died, I drew a picture of him and was wondering how to give it to him as I hadn't seen him for a while...

Paco Pizarro may be the best-known Alcalá resident of all time, by virtue of having a nephew named Alejandro Sanz.  Most Brits have never heard of him, but he is one of the most successful pop stars in the Spanish-speaking world.  In 2006 Paco went to stay with him in Miami, and accompanied the singer on a year-long tour throughout the Americas and Spain.  He was put in charge of liaising with the fans, who christened him Tio Paco (Uncle Frank).  He won them over with his gentle charm, and ended up being nearly as popular as his nephew.

A few years ago he published an autobiography, Tío Paco.  It's a fascinating read, and since it isn't available in English, I've extracted some of the highlights and translated them.  You can read the results below.



Childhood

Francisco Pizarro Medina was born in Alcalá de los Gazules on 25 February 1936, the third of seven children.  His father, José Pizarro Torres, was a baker and his mother, Maria Medina Gonzales, gathered firewood for a living. They were both illiterate, not unusual at that time, but his mother was particularly keen that all her children should learn to read and write.  Paco described her as a hungry she-wolf, fighting ceaselessly to raise her cubs.

Civil War broke out a few months after Paco was born.  One of his uncles, who was literate, was assassinated by the nationalists for organising agricultural workers and reading them "subversive" materials.  His aunt had her head shaved and was marched through the streets in a display of public humiliation, for the crime of being the sister of a Red. So it was not surprising that Paco's parents took the children and fled to the sierra.  José returned to the town each night and cadged some bread from his colleagues at the bakery.  One night the boss said it would be safe for them to return, so they did.

The family home, in C/ Rio Verde, consisted of just one room and a cooking area under the stairs.  So José borrowed the money from his boss to buy a further room upstairs, which is where the children slept.

Work in the bakery was long and hard. José had to get up in the small hours to make the dough, light the wood-fired oven, cook the bread, and then load the loaves onto mules to sell them round the streets. So eventually he decided to open a bar. It was christened “Los Panaderos” (the bakers) and was located on the Alameda next to the church. It served whatever foods were easily available –tagarninas, wild asparagus and artichokes in spring, the meat from the matanza (pig-slaughter) over the winter, barbel, carp and eels during the fishing season.

Despite the cramped living conditions and poverty, Paco describes his childhood as being happy, full of laughter and solidarity amongst the neighbours. He was a mischievous and talkative child, with jet-black hair and wide eyes, and all the neighbours adored him.  He didn’t do well at school, and was frequently beaten by the teacher, Manuel Marchante. But he was a good singer and sang in the church choir. Once he had a sore throat and refused to sing: Marchante slammed the boy’s head against a door, and he had to be sent home because he was bleeding profusely, though the cut wasn't deep.  His mother gave Marchante quite a mouthful.

When he was seven, Paco felt obliged to start contributing to the family’s finances. After school he would collect cigarette ends from the streets and bars: a tinful would earn 50 cents. The woman who bought them would roll them up into fresh cigarettes, making five or six from a tinful. 

His next job, at the age of eight, was selling newspapers door-to-door and on the street. His father didn’t approve of this sort of child labour, but eventually gave his consent. He did well, not only selling all the papers that were delivered, but receiving small gifts from his customers, such as milk to drink, cakes and fruit. In the evenings he sold sweets at the local cinema, which meant he got to see the films. He was particularly impressed by Marlene Dietrich and Humphrey Bogart. He would also make toys for Christmas presents, such as brightly coloured hoops made out of old bicycle wheels.

C/ Rio Verde, with the church in the background.
The Pizarro family home is on the left.

When Paco was eleven, his mother gave birth to Luis. She contracted an infection after the birth and spent some time in hospital, leaving Paco and his sister to care for the baby, himself a sickly child. At times like this the solidarity between neighbours came to the fore. Both recovered, but there no more babies. Luis later became a distinguished socialist politician, and his son Javier is the current mayor of Alcalá.

Once the bar was up and running, Paco gave up his other jobs, going there after school to clean fish and fry sardines. He left school at 12 and went to work there full time, Another teacher, Don Antonio, recognised his artistic and dramatic talents and offered to pay for him to continue his education, but his father refused, as he needed him to work in the bar. Nonetheless, Paco became involved in amateur dramatics in his spare time and showed a special flair for impromptu comedy. This would serve him well throughout his life.

At thirteen, Paco contracted typhus when playing in the town’s sewer, and nearly died. The only treatment was to cover his stomach with a paste made of mashed cabbage leaves and vinegar, alternated with bags of ice. It took him the best part of a year to recover, during which he spent some time with an aunt in Cádiz because it was thought the sea air would do him good.


Plaza Alameda de la Cruz, location of the bar "Los Panaderos"

Adolescence

Paco lost his virginity in a brothel on the Plaza Alta, to a prostitute named “Ana la Gorda”. He and his friends weren’t officially allowed in because they were under 21, but the madam, Mari Cruz, said they could come in the afternoon when there were no other customers.. The five of them lined up and took her one after the other, and then had to clean themselves with potassium permanganate solution to avoid infection.

As a child, Paco had been close to Father Manuel, the parish priest.  He used to do odd jobs round the church. and took over ringing the bells when the stairs became too much for the old man.  But when he retired, things changed. The new priest, Father Jésus, not only did not want his help but would look at him strangely. The first time Paco went to him for confession, he was told he was saying it wrong. He instructed Paco to follow him into the sacristy, where he would give him a private lesson. Paco felt very uncomfortable and left the church as quickly as he could. 

This experience left Paco feeling uneasy, almost fearful.  The Church had enormous power in the town, on a par with the Mayor or the Guardia Civil, and this priest could make life difficult for him and his family.  So he decided to go to Paris.  

He and his friend Ramón went to the French capital by bus, a journey that took five days.  When their savings ran out they busked, with Ramón playing guitar and Paco singing Andalusian songs.  Paco was astonished by the amount of freedom enjoyed by the Parisians, kissing and holding hands on the street.  Very different from Franco's Spain.  He had a fling with a French girl called Anne, but just as it was starting to get serious he received a letter forwarded by his mother – his call-up papers for military service.  So, after less than a year, they returned to Alcalá.

While waiting for his posting, Paco returned to working in the bar.  Times were desperately hard, and there were chronic food shortages.  They often handed out food to mothers who had nothing to give to their children, and gave breakfasts on credit to men with temporary jobs in the campo while they were waiting to be paid.

The "Mili"

Paco did his military service in Algeciras, where he was taught to be a good patriotic Spaniard and follow orders.  Nonetheless his sense of mischief got the better of him on occasions.  One night, on guard duty in the small hours, he applied a lipstick he had purchased for a local girl to the mouths of his comrades while they slept.  Next morning on the parade ground there was mayhem.  He confessed and took his punishment (two hours extra patrol outside the camp), but the girl never got her lipstick.

His official duties involved escorting soldiers returning from Morocco, Ceuta and Melilla from the ferry port to the station, and seeing them safely onto their homeward train.  He also did a bit of wheeling and dealing on the black market - tobacco, stockings etc. 

The Bars on the Playa

When Paco returned to Alcalá, his father had just taken a lease on the bar known as La Parada, right by the Algeciras-Jerez bus stop.  It hadn't been doing particularly well, and Paco decided to change tradition and leave the doors open all the time.  This made it more inviting for passengers getting off the bus, and also for local women who could see whether their friends were inside.  On the first day of opening, he invited the bus driver in and gave him a bocadillo de lomo on the house.  Business took off from that point, and the bar also became the local haunt of estraperlistas (black-marketeers) who would trade their goods there.  Paco installed a jukebox, which brought in a younger clientele, and soon it was the most successful bar in the town.

After two years the lease came up for renewal and the owner asked for double the rent.  They decided to renew, but started to make contingency plans and put money aside for the future.  When a plot of land came up for sale that had previously been the site of the open-air cinema, they were able to purchase it for 365,000 pesetas (€92,000 at today’s value).  This would become the site of the Restaurante Pizarro. 

Bus stopping at La Parada

Marriage and Family

In 1964 Paco got the travel bug again and set off to San Sebastian in the Basque Country.  He was taken aback by how formal the Basques were compared to Andalusians, and even encountered some prejudice against the southerners, but he soon charmed people with his good humour and his songs and got a job in a well-known hostelry, El Cleri.  After a few weeks, however, the pull of home became too strong and he returned to Alcalá.

The following year he married his childhood sweetheart, the blue-eyed Francisca, fourteen years after their first date.  In an attempt to restrict the congregation to close friends and family, the service took place at 6.a.m.  Paco and Paca went on to have five children: José Antonio, Yolanda, Franciso Javier, Miguel Ángel and Gema.  

They also had a dog, Pirri, a much loved family pet.  One day they had been out in the car and stopped at a venta in Medina on the way back.  The dog jumped out of the car and ran off, but nobody noticed he was missing till they got home.  The boy Miguel Ángel was particularly upset.  They went back several times but couldn’t find him.

A year later, someone spotted the dog tied up outside a warehouse.  He told Paco and the whole family went over to reclaim him, but the new owner wouldn’t give him back as his young daughter had got attached to him.  Eventually Paco suggested they release the dog to see which family he went to.  The animal bounded straight over to Miguel Ángel and started licking his face.  There was no doubt it was Pirri.

José Pizarro died in 1976, leaving his sons Paco and Ángel to run the bar.  It continued to be profitable, and to help ease his widowed mother’s loneliness, he bought her a colour television set from Radio Hogar across the road. At first she refused to believe it had been paid for, but soon came to love it.   He took good care of her until she died in 1986.

Paco was fond of cats, and the restaurant was full of them.  They would wait silently under the tables for titbits from the customers. He named them after the teachers at the high school, according to their observed characteristics.  Then one day the pharmacist told him it was unhygienic as they might pass diseases on to the customers.  Ángel, who was less sentimental and more businesslike than Paco, arranged for them to be taken off to the campo.  One of them, Doña Elena (mother of all the rest) found her way back to the restaurant, but she disappeared the next day.

Paco had always had a yearning to paint, and now found himself in a position to attend an art school in Cádiz.  He studied there for four years, then set up a studio in his home where he continued to paint alone.  His works were exhibited on several occasions, but he didn’t paint them to sell, preferring to give them to friends and family.

Paco the Businessman

Pizarro's bar/restaurant became well-known across the region for its good food and lively, slightly bohemian atmosphere.  It was a popular meeting place for the bullfighting fraternity, and flamenco artists, many of whom were good friends of Paco. 

The chef, Juan Panera, was gay as was his assistant Miguel, known as Tita Ingrid because of his devotion to Ingrid Bergman.  They were inveterate practical jokers and added much to the local colour.

In 1980 Paco opened Alcalá’s first discotheque, adjacent to the restaurant.   It was an instant success, being the only such enterprise for miles around, and became a friendly and safe meeting place for young people from across the province.   The evening would start with lively dance music, then popular hits of the day, followed by rumbas and sevillanas, and finally they would dim the lights and play romantic ballads.

On New Year’s Eve the disco would open for all those who didn’t have family dinners to go to, serving food and doing all the trditional nochevieja customs, followed by dancing till dawn.

Inevitably, after a while the drug dealers moved in, followed by plain-clothes policemen; musical tastes changed in favour of “heavy” and punk. A few concerned parents started to prevent their kids going there, and complained to the authorities demanding its closure.  He avoided this by keeping a close eye on everyone who came in, and discreetly ejecting anyone he suspected of dealing drugs.

Paco always dressed unconventionally, which upset a few people. He liked the Elvis look; leather trousers, Cuban heel boots and waistcoat. He strongly believed that dress was a form of personal expression.

In later years, Paco explored the possibility of becoming a freemason.  He received an invitation to a conference on masonry in Cádiz, and was intrigued because it had always been a taboo subject.  He listened to the speakers and had many questions for them, but was frustrated because none of them were answered.  He was interviewed, and told that he would have to attend a lodge meeting in Cádiz every week and be subject to an extensive background check.  After some thought he decided that although he agreed with the principles of charity and brotherhood, he preferred to exercise them under his own terms.

The Pizarro empire in 2006: Restaurant, disco and hostel.

Politics and Politicians

Paco used the disco to express his political beliefs, taking the microphone to promote the policies of Felipe González and the newly reformed Spanish socialist party.  This may seem odd to us, but in context, after decades of dictatorship during which no-one dared express their political views in public, it’s perhaps not so strange. 

However the authorities decided that the disco could only remain open on condition that Paco stopped “indoctrinating the youth”.  He was in effect barred from his own local.   Word reached González himself, who wrote to Paco after his 1982 election victory: “Dear Paco, go back to the disco, for as long as there is a socialist in Spain nobody will bother you again”.  That night he did just that.  

González visited Alcalá for a meeting shortly afterwards and promised to call in at the disco afterwards to meet Paco in person.  However word got round and the venue was so crowded he couldn’t even reach the bar, where Paco was waiting with some refreshments. They could only wave to each other from a distance.   His security team escorted him out, but he would return several times in subsequent years to meet the family and eat in the restaurant.

The day after González’s visit, the police turned up and demanded to see all the documents and licences relating to the disco.  Paco had them all to hand, but they insisted that he was disobeying the order to stay away.  Paco showed them the letter from Felipe González.   They read it carefully then went away.  The disco stayed open another twenty years, until the point when the trafficking in drugs could no longer be kept under control.

There is a story that when the disco was in its heyday, the religious processions during Semana Santa used to lose their followers as they were enticed into the disco by the sound of Bob Marley et al.  The priest asked Paco to turn the music down, which he did, but the problem continued.  In the end the priest decided that the processions should not pass along the Paseo de la Playa, which remains the case to this day.

When Paco was barred from his own disco, he ran the bar in the San Jorge Hotel which his father had purchased.  He decorated it with coloured lights and soft music, with the occasional jazz singer and other live entertainers.  It became as popular as the disco, in its own way.

During a general election campaign, some teachers and local politicians were having lunch in Pizarro’s dining room when in walked the leader of the right-wing Allianza Popular, Manuel Fraga.  Being of a somewhat different political persuasion, the locals started to heckle him until the point where Paco had to ask them to quieten down.  Meanwhile Fraga. a notorious gourmand, took full advantage of the local dishes presented to him, and offered his congratulations to the chef.   Seeing that his guest was somewhat the worse for wear, Paco let him use his bed to take a siesta afterwards, so he would be fresh for his meeting in the evening.  The following day, people in the town shouted “fascist!” at his mother, but she countered them by saying that one should be generous to everybody, regardless of their social class, economic position or religion.

The Arrogant Argentinian

Carlos Perdomo was a wealthy Argentinian businessman who in 1985 brought a finca and 1000 hectares of land in Alcalá.  He and his wife ate regularly at the restaurant, and Paco started to act as a go-between between Perdomo and local tradesmen, whom Perdomo treated with disdain, stating publicly that you should never trust anyone, not even your mother.  This upset Paco greatly, as it went completely against his personal philosophy.  But he carried on doing favours for this odious gentleman, and they continued to ply him with expensive gifts.

Their demands became more and more bizarre; they decided they wanted some rabbits on their finca, so Paco arranged for some friends in Paterna to bring over a few sackfuls, which were duly released.  

Three years after purchasing the finca,  the Perdomos were away for Christmas and someone burnt their house down. The culprit was never caught.  Perdomo wanted Paco to buy the land off him, and he even offered to let him pay in instalments, but it was far too expensive.  So he authorised him to sell the land on his behalf, though it was Ángel who did the work, as Paco didn’t have a head for that sort of thing.  They ended up with a gift of 5 million pesetas (€70,000 in today’s terms).

Sotogrande

During the second half of the 1980s, Paco took the lease on a restaurant in Sotogrande, an upmarket resort/marina at the western end of the Costa del Sol.  He sussed out the competition, and decided to model it on his successful restaurant in Alcalá, with the same name and specialising in traditional rustic dishes.  He lured in the English visitors, who he knew liked to dine early, by offering free aperatifs in the early evening.  He also undercut the prices of his main competitors, particularly on the wine list.

Word got round and many famous people including the King’s daughter, the Infanta Elena, came to enjoy home-cooked pheasant, partridge, wild boar and venison.  Paco would go out and chat to his well-heeled guests, who of course found him totally charming.  One English aristocrat who lived nearby admired his paintings, which were hung on the walls.  She invited him to her studio and they became good friends.  Another of the same stripe, Lady Fiona Lowsley, invited him to exhibit four of his paintings in her mansion.  He was offered the job of providing artworks for a new hotel that a friend of hers was setting up. He was tempted for a while, but knew his heart was in his restaurant business and he could not do both.

In 1986 the film crew of Empire of the Sun visited Sotogrande to shoot some scenes.  The producer asked if they could take over the restaurant for three days, using their own chefs.  Paco offered a compromise; he would set aside a table for them on the terrace while he continued to service his regular customers inside.  This was how Paco got to meet Stephen Spielberg, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson and Chrstian Bale.

Another guest introduced himself as Antonio Pizarro, a professor of medicine from New York.  He wondered if they were related.  Paco explained that they were probably all descendants of the conquistador of Peru, Francisco Pizarro, who came from Trujillo in Extremadura. Paco’s great-great-grandfather had married against the wishes of his family and moved from Trujillo to Alcalá, where he set up a greengrocer store in Rio Verde.  The visitor said that his family had emigrated to the US from Cáceres, Extremadura, so the two of them went on a pilgrimage to discover their roots.

The other Francisco Pizarro

The Peruvian connection was genuine. Previously the mayor of Alcalá had received a letter from the Peruvian government, addressed to everyone in the town named Pizarro, detailing all the land and property that was their inheritance in that country.  Everyone started planning what they would spend the money on, but it turned out that the 75% inheritance tax and the large number of heirs made it not worth the effort of going to Peru to claim it.

One day the owners of the restaurant arrived and offered Paco a partnership and a share of the profits.  Recalling his father’s experience with La Parada, he declined their offer and continued to rent it on a monthly basis.  They put the rent up every year, until after eight years it was three times as much as the original rate - 900,000 ptas (about €10,000) a month..  They knew he could afford it, he was doing well and had bought a house.  But Paco had decided it was time to go home.

Return to Alcalá

So once again Paco returned to Alcalá, where for the next few years he worked in the restaurant during the day and the disco at night.  He was shocked and saddened by the number of young people who had become addicted to heroin, their bright young lives destroyed.  

But there were good things happening in the town as well. Paco had always been interested in the theatre, and was invited by Mercedes, Inma and Maribel from the recently established adult education centre to help put on a performance of Lorca’s play Bodas de Sangre (Blood Wedding).  It was quite a challenge, because none of the cast had acting experience and some were barely literate.  But they pulled it off, gave a memorable performance in the patio of the Sagrada Familia, and went on to take the production to other towns in the area.

Directing the drama group at the Adult Education Cenre
It was clear that the actors felt a strong emotional connection to the characters they were playing.  They were invited to represent Cádiz in an Andalucia-wide amateur dramatics competition, which took place in Almeria; the cast and crew were put up in a four-star hotel, which was something beyond the wildest dreams of most of them.  Despite the fact that they were competing against experienced drama companies from Seville, Malaga and all the other regional capitals, they were awarded first prize.  Paco continued as drama director at the Centre for a further eight years, producing almost the entire Lorca repertoire.

Miami!

One day in 2006 Paco received a call from his sister’s son Alejandro inviting him over to Miami for a couple of weeks.  He accepted straight away – his children were grown up, the restaurant had good staff and would prosper without him, and he had always loved to travel.  He ended up staying two years.

Alejandro Sanz
Alejandro Sanz is one of the most famous pop stars in the Spanish-speaking world, winner of countless awards and gold discs.  He had lived in Miami for many years and wanted to show off his “Tío Paco” to his American friends, and vice versa.  Paco was introduced to countless stars, actors, film directors,  artists, musicians, politicians and businessmen, and had the time of his life.   Alejandro’s famous house parties were given an Andalusian flavour by Paco's presence, and the locals loved it.  Highlights of the stay including reading Jennifer Lopez’s palm, swimming naked in Shakira’s swimming pool, and dinner with the family of the late Bob Marley, where he was ordered to smoke all the ganja he was offered so as not to offend them.  

When dining with David and Victoria Beckham in a restaurant, Paco asked the waiter for some lemonade to mix with his red wne, as was his custom when at home.  Alejandro gave him a strange look.   Later he had a glimpse at the menu and realised he’d just made tinto de verano with wine that cost $1,400 a bottle.  Paco wasn’t terribly impressed with the tasting menu, especially some foam which exploded in the mouth.  He also noted that during the whole evening Victoria only ate two broccoli florets and a couple of endive leaves, washed down with champagne.

Other anecdotes were edited out of the manuscript by Alejeandro, to spare the dignity of  his friends...

The Grand Tour

In March 2007 Paco accompanied Alejamdro on a year-long tour, El Tren de los Momentos.  This gave him a chance to satisfy his wanderlust further, as they visited countries in Central and South America as well as the USA and Spain.  All the concerts were sold out well in advance.  He would watch every performance from backstage, dancing and joining in the songs.  While they were in Spain, he took on the role of liaising with the fan club organisers, who affectionately christened him “Tío Paco”.

Paco got see as much of the places they visited as he could.   True to form, when told to avoid venturing into what were considered dangerous areas of cities such as Mexico DF, he would sneak off on his own just to see why.  He also enjoyed the more usual tourist venues, including the studios of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, which affected him deeply.

Whilst in Mexico City, he noticed from his hotel window a home furnishing shop called Lienzo de los Gazules.  Curious to know the origin of its name, he went in and introduced himself to the owner, who told him that his father had founded the business in Alcalá de Guadaira, near Seville, in 1991.  But he didn’t like that name and looked for a different Alcalá.  He liked the sound of Gazules, which had an Arabic ring to it, so he wrote to the mayor asking permission to use the name for his enterprise.  He never received a reply.


The Final Return

After two years, Paco decided it was time to home to his wife and family.  His brother Ángel, who had been running the restaurant, was ill and there was no-one else to take over.  He had thought that in America he would be able to enjoy the liberty he loved, but it turned out that people there were nothing more than numbers controlled by the authorities.  This came to a head on his return journey; at Miami airport he was seized and taken to an interview room.  The police were looking for a terrorist named Francisco Pizarro Medina, from Alcalá de los Gazules.  Clearly, somebody had stolen his identity.

Five hours later they returned his passport and he was released with instructions to get his paperwork sorted.  No explanation, no apology, no refund on his missed flight.  Even though he had committed no offence, he was treated like a criminal.  Eventually Alejandro managed to resolve the issue and Paco was able to leave the country.  But if he hadn’t had a famous nephew, who knows what might have happened.

Back in the restaurant, playing dominoes and chatting to his old friends about his adventures, Paco knew he had made the right decision. He had made the most of his life, and was ready to enjoy his old age back where he started.   And now he had a book to write.


Epilogue

In 2010 Paco realised a long-held dream of seeing his nephew give a concert in Alcalá de los Gazules

Fans arrive hours early for the concert in the football ground.

The book Tío Paco was published in 2013.  Alejandro wrote the introduction, and flew over for the launch party in Madrid.

Paco and Alejandro, reunited for the book launch.

In the same year, the TV show "Diez Razones para ir a ..." (Ten reasons to go to ...) came to Alcalá.  Alejandro was Reason No 3, and the programme included an interview with Paco:



Last year a Brazilian Sanz fan, Gina Clavijo, came to Alcalá to meet Paco.  She made this video, which includes an interview with him in his house:



A few weeks before his death, we were walking down the Playa one night with some friends and we heard a chorus of female voices outside Restaurante Pizarro chanting “Tío Paco!  Tío Paco!”  It was a coach-load of Alejandro’s fans, doing a tour of their idol’s origins.  They all wore black T-shirts with Tío Paco written on them.  The entertainment was provided by a carnival group from Cádiz, and then they all had a meal in the restaurant.  I don't know whether he was well enough to attend in person, but he would have certainly been there in spirit.

Paco's fan club outside Pizzies

17 September 2018

Defecating on deities: Willy Toledo and the right to free speech

Swearing in Spanish involves a fair amount of shit. Me cago en la leche (I shit in the milk) or me cago en el mar (I shit in the sea) are fairly mild expletives, along the lines of "Oh fuck".   Me cago en tus muertos/tu puta madre (I shit on your dead relatives/whore of a mother) are stronger, and more likely to get you into a fight.  Me cago en Dios (I shit on God) is in the first category - vulgar, certainly, but not likely to get you arrested.

But Spanish actor, theatrical director and left-wing activist Willy Toledo went too far for some people when he posted on Facebook last year: "Yo me cago en Dios. Y me sobra mierda para cagarme en el dogma de la santidad y virginidad de la Virgen María" (I shit on God, and have enough shit left over to crap on the dogma of the holiness and virginity of the Virgin Mary).



This outburst was in response to the reopening of the case against three women who in 2014 had paraded an enormous vagina around the streets of Seville in a May Day procession (1 May is international workers' day).  They called it El coño insumiso (the insubordinate pussy).  The original case against them was shelved in 2016 when the judge decided it was a political statement and not intended to offend religious sensibilities.  However the Spanish Association of Christian Lawyers disagreed, and appealed against the decision.

The Insubordinate Pussy
That same association claimed Willy Toledo's Facebook post most certainly did offend religious sensibilities, contravening Article 525 of the Spanish Penal Code which criminalises those who offend the feelings of members of a religious faith by "publicly disparaging their dogmas, beliefs, rites or ceremonies".  The same law applies to those of no religious faith.

Toledo twice failed to turn up at the court hearing, stating that as an atheist he has the right to express anti-religious opinions. He was subsequently arrested for ignoring a court summons.  The Religious Lawyers Association claims his actions are a publicity stunt, as his acting career has been moribund for seven years (Toledo himself believes he was blacklisted for his political beliefs).  They are also asking for him to be tried for hate crimes, after he stated publicly that priests killed by Republicans during the Civil War "probably deserved it", given that they openly supported the Francoist uprising.

Defiance in the face of authority
Last week he was escorted by police to a court in Madrid to answer the charge of obstruction of justice.  He spent the night in a cell, during which he was denied access to his lawyer, but was set free after the hearing, without bail.  He was greeted outside by a crowd of supporters shouting "Me cago en Dios", and assured them that as far as he was concerned, he hadn't committed any crime and had a right to free speech.

It is not not known at this stage whether the Courts will continue with the case against him. The Christian lawyers certainly won't give up without a fight. But he has stated that he will see it through to the end, whatever that may be, in the name of free speech.

The case has certainly brought this formerly obscure law to public attention.  Given the number of Spaniards who shit on God on a regular basis, one has to ask whether those right-wing Christian fundamentalist lawyers singled him out for some other reason ...


03 September 2018

Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente, the Spanish David Attenborough


The municipal park in Alcalá, next to the Paseo de la Playa and site of the new tourist information office, is named after one Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente.  But few visitors from outside Spain have a clue who he was.

Félix was born in 1928 in Poza de la Sal, Burgos, into a middle-class intellectual household.  During the Civil War (1936-1939) he was home-schooled, and spent a lot of time outdoors where he developed a deep passion for the natural world.  At the age of ten, he was sent to a religious boarding school and lamented his lost freedom, but on a summer holiday in Santander he apparently witnessed a hawk taking a duck in flight, which led him to become interested in falconry.

At a falconry exhibition in 1955

After leaving school he went to the University of Valladolid to study medicine, at his father's insistence, but he was more interested in environmental issues and was never a good student.  It was there that he met and became influenced by the biologist José Antonio Valverde, who was campaigning to stop the government draining the wetlands which later became the Doñana National Park.  Félix also took time out from his medical studies to research medieval texts on falconry, which hadn't been practiced in Spain for 150 years, and was a founder member of the Spanish Ornithological Society (SEO) in 1954.


Felix graduated in dentistry in 1957 but after a couple of years, following the death of his father, he decided to devote himself full-time to his true passions.  In 1961 he worked as falconry advisor during the filming of El Cid, a Hollywood movie starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren, filmed mainly in Spain.  He published the first of many books, The Art of Falconry, in 1964 and in the following years made a name for himself through numerous television and radio appearances as well as articles in newspapers and magazines.

In 1965 he rescued two wolf-cubs being beaten to death in a village, and took them away to raise at home with his future wife Marcelle Parmentier.  He named then Sibila and Remo, and acknowledged them as his first children.  It was with them that he first practiced the technique of imprinting, becoming "alpha male" in this small pack.  The experience was to develop into a life-long passion for wolves.



Félix's big break came in 1970, when he produced and presented a documentary series for Spanish state television entitled El Planeta Azul (The Blue Planet), in black-and-white.  Unlike David Attenborough's series of the same name, which appeared 30 years later, it dealt with all kinds of wildlife, not just marine life.  But like Attenborough, he alternated between speaking directly to camera and narrating film footage shot in the wild.  His passion and enthusiasm is clearly shown in this episode on big cats, where he explains the relationship between the behaviour of domestic cats and kittens and their larger predatory cousins.  The show ran for four years and won acclaim across the Spanish-speaking world.

In the following years he continued to produce and present documentaries on TV and radio, and edited a series of wildlife conservation volumes, Enciclopedia salvat de la fauna mundial, which was translated into 14 languages and sold 18 million copies worldwide.

At the same time he became involved in a number of conservationist projects.  The most memorable and successful of these was the protection and reintroduction of the almost extinct Iberian wolf.  This gained him respect amongst conservationists worldwide, but also the animosity of hunters and farmers.   Other campaigns included the brown bear, Iberian lynx, golden eagle and Spanish imperial eagle, as well as fighting to preserve precious habitats such as Coto Doñana and the Tablas de Daimiel, which later became National Parks.

His most famous documentary series, El Hombre y La Tierra (The Man and the Earth) was launched in 1973 and ran till his premature death in 1980, a total of 124 episodes which can be watched online on the RTVE A la Carta archive. The project was divided into three parts, covering Iberia, South America and North America.  They are subtitled in Spanish, and well worth watching even if you don't speak the language because of the stunning photography.   It was shot in 35mm colour film and the crew frequently had to lug bulky equipment across inhospitable terrain, but their combined efforts resulted in numerous awards and a whole new generation of fans across Spain. 


Felix's "David Attenborough-with-gorillas" moment came when he used the imprinting method first devised with the cubs Sibila and Remo to make himself a member of a pack of wild wolves, in order to study and record their behaviour as if there were no humans present.

In March 1980 Felix flew to Alaska with the film crew to cover the Iditarod Trail sled dog race.  He was apparently afraid of flying, and quipped on take-off “what a beautiful place to die”.   Tragically the small plane on which he was travelling with two of the crew became unstable when one of its skis came loose, and crashed with no survivors, not far from the Klondike.  The date was 14 March 1980, his 52nd birthday.


Felix believed passionately in a future where humans and animals could live in harmony, and dedicated his life to that goal, leaving a whole generation of Spanish children (and adults) with a new respect for the natural world.   I’ve no idea whether he ever met David Attenborough, but they would certainly have got on.  Had he survived, he would no doubt have been a comparable force in the fight against mankind's wilful disregard for the environment.

Statues, monuments and plaques bearing the name of Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente can be found all over Spain, including Alcalá de los Gazules, located in the park which was given his name in 1983.