Bergondo: Stories of Returnees

David Miranda-Barreiro

Dr. María Seijo Richart was born in Galicia, but has lived in the United Kingdom since the early 2000s. She has worked in language teaching for almost fifteen years. María is also an academic researcher in cinema. She holds an MA in World Cinema from the University of Leeds and an International PhD about the Film Adaptations of Emily Brontë’s Work from the University of A Coruña.

The municipality of Bergondo, half an hour from A Coruña, has around 6,000 inhabitants. However, it also has a considerable number of what they call “vinideros”: people with roots in the town, who come and go, emigrants who visit more or less frequently… My father and mother summered in Bergondo since they were children, but they didn’t meet until Dad emigrated to Barcelona in the sixties. They went to live in A Coruña after the wedding, and I was born in 1975. Every weekend and on holidays, like characters in Garci’s film Las verdes praderas, we went to Bergondo, to the house that my great-grandparents had built. At that time, no one talked about the history of the town. You had to reconstruct it based on of things you were told.

From the beginning of the twentieth century, a large part of the emigrants from Bergondo settled in New York, a city that in my imagination as a child, I associated with the musicals and cowboy movies I watched with my father. Two of them were Calixto and Antonio Seijo López, brothers of my paternal grandfather Francisco. Calixto’s daughter, Judith Seijo, did regional dance at Casa de Galicia in New York, and performed on several occasions on American television. One who had returned was uncle Jesús do Bazalar, who as a child taught me to count to ten in English. He had worked in New York all his life, while his wife and daughters stayed in Bergondo. Once, he sent them money to buy some nice watches. His wife sent him a photo of the girls on the day of Bergondo’s local fiesta, wearing new dresses and with their arms up, showing their watches to the camera. At that time, it was very common to take photos with the gifts sent by relatives who had emigratede, photos which were then sent to America. My uncle Manolo, who was a photographer, had many commissions making this type of “visual postcards”.

Another emigrant was Antonia de Xermade, who had returned from New York after becoming a widow. His children, now grown, had stayed there. She was a very sweet and loving woman, who always opened the garden of her house for us children to play. One day, the photo of his son, who was an athlete, appeared in the newspaper: “A Galician participates in the New York marathon”. My father cut out the news for me to take to her, and she was so happy that she gave me fifty pesetas, the old Spanish currency (a fortune for me at the time).

The town’s history was also hidden among the stones of places like A Senra which, in the early eighties, was nothing more than a dilapidated building next to the fields where the local fiesta used to take place. I imagined it was a medieval castle (like in that Robin Hood movie). Little did I know that the brave knights who had built it did not live in the Middle Ages, but in New York in the 1930s. In one of their few visits back to Bergondo, uncles Calixto and Antonio Seijo told my parents that the Bergondian community that had emigrated to New York (including them) had contributed financially to buy A Senra. They intended to build an educational, cultural and sports center for the village, a commendable effort at a time when illiteracy was quite high and many people did not have the opportunity to go to school. Imagine their disappointment when they learned that the inauguration, on July 12, 1936 (just a week before the Spanish Civil War began) literally ended in gunfire, and that the building was quickly confiscated by Franco’s troops.

Myself, as a child, at A Senra.

In 1949, Benito Santos Aguiar, an emigrant from Bergondo in New York who would go to great lengths to recover the Senra building, came for the summer with a modern camera and shot a film of his vacation. The film begins with an outdoors mass and dance in the courtyard of the Church of San Salvador (former Romanesque monastery of the 13th century), the same one where my great-grandparents, my grandparents, and my parents got married and where I was a altar girl. Despite this, my family’s history (like Bergondo’s) was built around departures and returns, goodbyes and welcomes.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, my great-grandmother Pepa Fernández, a rag and bone woman by profession, walked to and from A Coruña every week to work. She was one of those ‘widows of the living’ that Rosalía de Castro spoke of. Her husband, my great-grandfather José Martínez Nogueira, had left for Cuba in 1916, when my paternal grandmother Josefa was a month old baby. The intention had been for both of them to meet him there, but the great-grandmother’s sisters pressured her to stay. My great-grandmother was illiterate and they were the ones who read and answered her letters (we suspect they told her what suited them). Grandma Josefa did not get to know her father, who died in Cuba quite young, in an accident. When she married my grandfather Francisco, she contacted Calixto and Antonio who, from New York, helped her claim her inheritance.

Great-grandmother Pepa and great-grandfather José Martínez, shortly before he left for Cuba.

Bergondo is also a town of jewelers. The image of San Eloi (patron of goldsmiths) occupies a privileged place in the Church of San Salvador. My mother used to tell me that, back in the 16th century, the people of Bergondo brought Galician goldsmithing to the Antwerp market for the first time. His grandfather José Carabel Gándara (my great-grandfather) used to make the “round” with his father since he was ten years old. Like many other merchants, they traveled Spain on foot buying and selling silver, and only with a dog for protection. Already married to great-grandmother María Núñez Otero, the family went to live in Valencia, where my grandmother Maruja was born. They then settled in Barcelona, ​​where my great-grandfather Carabel opened a jewelry store. In the Galician Center of Barcelona, ​​grandmother Maruja met grandfather Tito (emigrant from A Coruña).

Santos Aguiar’s film shows Patron Saint festivals in detail, for example the Xira dos Caneiros and the San Roque in Betanzos. We see a community enjoying the summer. We don’t see my maternal grandparents, but they arrived every summer on the “Shanghai Express” train: three days from Barcelona to A Coruña sitting on a wooden bench. However, in the film there are small signs (giant flags at the celebrations, the parade of Franco’s Moorish Guaer at the Riazor Stadium…) that remind us of the tragedies that had happened only ten years earlier.

Summering in Bergondo (possibly in 1949): my mother (the child), aunt Laura, great-grandparents behind them, grandmother Maruja (in black), grandfather Tito and uncle Pepe (behind her).

Just before my father was born in October 1936, my grandfather Francisco, who worked at the Weapons Factory in A Coruña, was arrested together with his cousin Ramón. The reason? His brother Andrés, who was a sailor, had brought some books from the United States and left them at home. When the war broke out, the authorities discovered that the books talked about socialism. They didn’t care that they were written in English, a language none of them understood. They released them immediately, but then they sent the grandfather to the front, to fight for the Franco side. At the end of the war, the great-grandparents Carabel Núñez, traumatized by the famine and the bombings in Barcelona, ​​decided to return definitively to Bergondo. Grandfather Tito, a Republican soldier recently returned from a refugee camp in France, traveled there to finally celebrate the wedding with grandmother Maruja that the war had postponed. They returned together to Barcelona, ​​where Mom was born in 1942. As a child I once asked if my grandparents got along, since they had fought on opposite sides. They were always very good friends.

A Senra building, still standing, also appears in Santos Aguiar’s film. At the entrance, a sign with the unmistakable bundle of Falange arrows says “Albergue Universitario” (University Accommodation). In the 1940s, A Senra was used as the headquarters of the SEU summer camps, organized by the Frente de Juventudes (Fascist youth organization). One year, the priest refused to let the students go down to the beach because one of the village girls (horror of horrors) was wearing a bikini. The same year that Santos Aguiar shot his film (perhaps a year later, the dates are uncertain), one of the students who attended the SEU camp was Alfredo Kraus, years later a tenor of international fame. At the Sunday mass, Alfredo Kraus and my aunt Laura (soprano in the Catalan Orfeon) sang the “Ave Maria” as a duet. One night, Kraus and the rest of the boys went to serenade my aunts. Great-grandfather Carabel’s dogs, considered the fiercest in the neighborhood, started barking like crazy. To annoy the girls, my great-grandfather did nothing to catch them. And the boys ran away in fright. From there they went to a palace near the road, to serenade other girls. What they didn’t know was that they didn’t live there. Ashamed of their modest summer house, the girls lied that they lived in the palace. The owner was an older lady, with a certain resemblance to the housekeeper in the film Rebecca, who was amazed that such gallant students came to sing to her.

In August 2023, after thirty years of absence, I visited Bergondo. The Senra is finally the community center that the emigrants from Bergondo dreamed of. When I see it, I realize that I want to know more about my ancestors. As Dad (now deceased) once said: “It is always necessary to go back”.