26 August 2019

Homage to the Muleteers of Alcalá


The Alcornocales Natural Park is one of the last places in Europe where mules still work for a living.  During the cork harvest, which takes place in the summer months, they are used to carry the strips of cork down steep narrow tracks through dense woodland to a clearing where it can be loaded onto lorries.  The rest of the year they graze peacefully on patches of open space in and around the town.  They are cared for year-round by a dedicated team of arrieros (the dictionary translation of that word is muleteer, but as you will see, the are more than just drovers). 

Last weekend during the feria, the arrieros of Alcalá were honoured at a special event in the caseta la Gloria.  Here are some extracts from the tribute speech, written and presented by local anthropologist Agustin Coca.


"Today ... we acknowledge the professionalism and wisdom of a handful of people who weave their lives in with those of their animals, through good times and bad, through rain, wind and heat ...  We are a rarity in Europe, or to put it another way you, the arrieros, maintain a reservoir of wisdom that is transmitted down through the generations.

Behind a beast of burden such as a mule, there is an entire lifetime of learning ... The dialogue with the animal starts from childhood and will never end.  The job involves pampering and caring for the animal.  It eats before you do, you love it as if it were part of the family, you must care for it whether it is working or not, and be as attentive to it as if it were a child ...  Inside every arriero is a surgeon, a vet, one who knows about remedies, herbs and potions. He is also a blacksmith and a saddler, always ready out in the forest to do a repair job.  He is an expert at finding his way around the densest woodland, by day or night, with our without moonlight.  He knows about knots and packing, and a thousand ways to load up the cargo ...  He knows about contracts and business deals, reaching agreements in good times and bad, and has a family which extends beyond the home among comrades, forming a network of solidarity and mutual help ...

The women also carry this knowledge, the mothers, wives and daughters of the arrieros who used to carry bundles from farm to farm, looking after the men, the children and the animals, taking care of their food, clothes and other needs, quietly working alongside the men as they do today ...  And now is the time to acknowledge their value.


The arrieros are the professors in the world of beasts of burden; their knowledge is becoming extinct, and we are fighting to preserve it in Andalucía ... This is why we are here today, with the local authorities and representatives of ACOAN [Asociación de Corcheros y Arrieros de Andalucía]. We must demand that everything possible is done to defend this profession ... a mule is more eco-friendly than a tractor and ideally suited for any kind of work in the forest.  To defend this collective means that the sector must be professionalised, the breeding of mules must be supported, and ways must be found to make the job of arriero attractive to future generations, a job which although difficult and labourious must be treasured by Andalucian society and protected by its institutions.

Today the Alcornocales Natural Park has many problems.  But to resolve them we must depend on these experts amongst us ... Your knowledge must be passed on via dialogue with those who learn about the forest from books, not on a daily basis since childhood.

Now is the time to act, for if not, tomorrow there will be neither cork-oak forest nor people to work in it."

Returning to town after the cork harvest


Watch the corcheros and arrieros in action in this video clip:


16 August 2019

Diego Valle and the birth of socialism in Alcalá

The source of material for this article is a paper by Ismael Almagro Montes de Oca, "El Movimiento Obrero en Alcalá de los Gazules en el Último Tercio del Siglo XIX", published in Apuntes Históricos y de Nuestro Patrimonio 2019, and online at historiadealcaladelosgazules.blogspot.com.

Alcalá de los Gazules is known as the “cradle of Andalusian socialism” mainly because of the work of those who rebuilt the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) in the dying days of the Franco dictatorship.  But its socialist history dates back to the 19th century, with the Agrupación Socialista  founded by Diego Valle Regife and his comrades in 1886.  It was only the second such group in the whole of Andalucía, and the first in a rural context.


The first signs of workers’ organisation in Spain came with the foundation of the Asociación Internacional de Trabajadores (First International) in 1864, and the Glorious Revolution of 1868 which led to the rapid spread of anarchism amongst the agricultural labourers of Andalucía, reduced to the most miserable existence by the custom of only being paid for the days they worked. But their hopes for a brighter future would not last long, because the First International was banned in 1874, obliging the workers’ associations to go underground.

The first recorded instance of organisation in Alcalá was in March 1883 when, following a spate of crimes committed by the infamous Mano Negra, the authorities discovered a field-workers' union affiliated to the anarcho-syndicalist Federación de Trabajadores de la Región Española, founded in Barcelona in 1881. Nearly fifty men were arrested for belonging to an illegal organisation, but the judge could find no evidence of any connection with the Mano Negra, and the Mayor confirmed that they were all of good character, so they were released.

By March 1885 the number of affiliates had increased, and the association extended its remit beyond agriculture. The man in charge of administrative correspondence was Diego Valle Regife, one of those arrested in 1883.  They opened a Centre for Instruction and Recreation for the working class, aware that one of the best ways to promote their ideas was to fight against the illiteracy of the workers, most of whom had been obliged to labour in the fields from a very early age and had thus received no formal education.

However there is no further evidence of this association after October 1885. It appears from correspondence published in the newspaper El Socialista in January 1887 that many of the workers of Alcalá were abandoning the anarchist current, which they found too utopian, to follow the other current which emerged from the First International – socialism and political class action.

El Socialista 44 p.3, Jan 1887
(Hemeroteca de la Fundación Pablo Iglesias)

The committee at the head of Alcalá's socialist group, formed in December 1886, comprised several of the former anarchists arrested in 1883.  Diego Valle became President in June 1887.  Clearly a committed and articulate man, he was the local correspondent for El Socialista, graphically describing the working conditions of agricultural labourers in the town:

El Socialista 41, Dec 1886, pp 3-4
If the exploitation suffered by workers in manufacturing industries grows more insufferable by the day, imagine how the agricultural workers must suffer, not having, apart from a few exceptions, the backing of the association. Wages squeezed to the bare minimum, working days of 14 hours or more, and to top it all, the brutal and rude treatment by landowners and half-savage foremen; this is the picture of the miserable situation of the field workers, aggravated and sustained by the very position in which they find themselves, and which makes more difficult the concentration of their efforts to contain the excesses of the ferocious exploitation of which they are victims. 
 He wrote again in June 1887, this time signing the letter, as part of the campaign to reduce the working day to eight hours:

El Socialista 67, June 1887, p.3
The bourgeoisie of this district exploits them scandalously; the working conditions could not be worse. The daily wage is miserable in the extreme, as they are considered fortunate to be earning 75 cents in exchange for working a 16 or 18-hour day. So the workers are agitated by continuous and unsuppressed misery, cursing the monopolist society and the thieves who squander the riches that they tear from the earth.
As you can see, comrades, this ground is not so abandoned that the seeds of socialism cannot bear fruit on it.  The way is open for our ideas, and in spite of so many obstacles which we have to fight against, we, the handful of revolutionaries who defend with love and energy the theories of Karl Marx, are confident of organising on solid bases the Agrupación Socialista in Alcalá de los Gazules, and we also hope that in a short time the neighbouring villages will join us in rallying round the flag of the Workers’ Party. 
Jornaleros near Alcalá

But there were further setbacks to come.  During raids on anarchist groups elsewhere, the Guardia Civil came across a reference to the Agrupación Socialista in Alcalá.  As a result, Diego was arrested at the cork-processing factory where he worked and taken by force to his house in Alcalá, where they seized the membership book and some correspondence. Other members of the group were then arrested and they were all taken to the jail in Medina Sidonia (curiously, not the jail in Alcalá itself).  They were then carted around the province, handcuffed and chained, via Chiclana, San Fernando, Puerto Real, El Puerto de Santa Maria, Jerez, Arcos, Ubrique and ultimately to Grazalema where the trial would be held - a journey of well over a month, treated like criminals and given barely enough bread and water to survive.

In Grazalema the judge ruled that they had committed no crime, as the socialist workers' party was not an illegal organisation.  They were released within half an hour, and had to find their own way back to Alcalá.  Nonetheless, a few weeks later other members of the group were arrested and given similar treatment.

The group dissolved temporarily, but soon reconsituted itself with a new committee, Diego Valle being re-elected as president. The revitalised group proposed organising societies of resistance for various trades - shoemakers, cabinet-makers, blacksmiths, cork-workers, wine-producers, farmers, builders and horticulturalists, and setting up a night-school to educate people over thirteen years old.   Diego Valle had already made his views on education known in the pages of El Socialista:

El Socialista 67, June 1887, p.3
... The majority of workers here work in agriculture, they are somewhat ignorant and superstitious, qualities which they owe to the bourgeoisie. Attached to the old systems and almost totally lacking an education, it is not strange that among them fixed ideas don’t last, they are subject to a multitude of ever-changing theories which they experience when any passing orator approaches them and preaches four words empty of meaning.
Alcalá de los Gazules consists of 12,000 inhabitants. Education of women is undertaken by the Holy Mothers of the Sweet Heart of Jesus, whose establishment takes in all the young girls who have no resources to access any other form of education. At barely 15 years old they leave this sanctimonious place impregnated with religious fanaticism, deaf to humanitarian sentiments, and implacable enemies of the world and of the family.
The consequence of this appalling moral organisation is the ignorance of the working class of Alcalá who, ignoring the causes of their ills, continue to roll down the fatal slope on which religious sectarians have placed them. At the same time the Republican bourgeoisie itself, preaching a deceptive and seductive equality, continues to spìn this kind of nostalgia which overwhelms them.
The school opened in Calle los Pozos on 1 January 1888 and within two months had more than forty adults attending classes in reading, writing, grammar and arithmetic.  It was named la Escuela Regeneracíón, possibly as a way of restoring good relations with the leaders of the Partido Republicano Progresista, who had opened a masonic lodge in the town also called Regeneración.  There had recently been some biting criticism of that party's administration of Alcalá in El Socialista, and although anonymous, the finger was pointed at Diego Valle.  The President and Secretary turned up at the school, insulting and threatening him, saying that he was a traitor to the town.

Plaque in C/ Montesa, off C/ los Pozos

The first few months of 1888 were especially hard for the day-workers because due to a lengthy period of heavy rain, they were unable to work and their families were starving.  On 29 March a group of them petitioned the mayor for assistance, but were told there were no funds available.  They then turned to the Socialist group, who interceded with the administation resulting in a payment of 50 cents per person per day, shared amongst more than 300 workers.  The Socialists also shared out the money they had reserved for a dinner to celebrate the anniversary of the Paris Commune.  But it was not enough, the daily rate was quickly reduced to 25 cents, and workers were reduced to begging from door to door.

From that point, there is no more documentary evidence of the Socialist group in Alcalá.  No more publications in El Socialista, and no representative at the PSOE First National Congress in August.  It is likely that, rather than being formally dissolved, it ran out of steam - partly because of a lack of funds, both within the party and among the workers themselves, and partly because its driving force Diego Valle left Alcalá to work in Jerez de la Frontera.  It was certainly still in existence in late September 1889, because it was declared an illegal organisation, and the municipal judge ordered the search and capture of 27 individuals who belonged to it.  Their names included all the various committee members as well as the former president of the anarchist group, Cayetano Rodríguez.

So maybe it is not surprising to see, on 13 October, a group of Alcalá families heading for Cádiz to board the steamship "Giana", bound the following day for Argentina.  They had dreams of setting up their own community there, "Nueva Alcalá", and the trip had clearly been planned for some time because there is evidence of passports and permits being issued for some of the emigrants.  Cayetano Rodríguez and his family were amongst them; they and most of the other families established themselves in the newly-founded city of Resistencia, in the Chaco district of Argentina, which welcomed thousands of European immigrants.

Monument to migrants in Resistencia
Diego Valle also emigrated at some point, but it is possible that on finding himself on the judge's hit-list he assumed the identity of his brother Eduardo.  Eduardo had certainly planned to emigrate, because his passport arrived in Alcalá on 12 November, but in fact he stayed in Alcalá and eventually became secretary of another workers' group in the early years of the 20th century.

In the Argentine port-town of Paraná, on the river of the same name, there is a record of one Diego del Valle whose year of birth coincides with that of the alcalaino.  Moreover, in the census documents for that place, the only one who filled in the box stating which religion they belonged to was Diego del Valle, who classified himself as Libre Pensador  - Free Thinker.

Paraná, around 1900