Migration Diary

Francisco Álvarez "Koki"
Poet, prose writer and cultural activist

Francisco Álvarez “Koki” is a poet and prose writer, who has published both in Galician and Spanish. Some of his works (such as Rats in Manhattan, 2007) are set in New York and reflect his own experience as a migrant in this city for thirty years. Apart from his own work, Koki has coordinated a number of events about Galician and Hispanic cultures in New York, he founded the collective Celso Emilio Ferreiro, and edited the poetry anthologies Piel palabra (muestra de la poesía española en Nueva York) (2003) and Luna y panorama sobre los rascacielos (2021). In this text he offers a brief history of his life as a migrant.

Koki, in the center of the image. On the left, the journalist Arturo Conde, descendant of Galicians. On the right, the also writer Claudio Rodríguez Fer. Tribute to Rosalía de Castro at La Nacional (New York, 2013. Photo provided by Francisco Álvarez)

Although in my childhood I was surrounded by the children of migrants living with their grandparents or with their mothers because their father was away, I had never imagined that I would also become a migrant myself years later. In the library owned by the family’s priest, Don Juan Silva (whom I never met), I found a book with photos of migrants saying their goodbyes, and I used to look at them – they were pitiful. Photos of ships and trunks carrying dreams and sometimes bringing back death. As a child I used to think that migrants were adventurous and courageous people. With the passing of time, I came to think that those who stayed to fight for what they had were braver.

My first experience as a migrant took place in France, as a sort of escape from the “inquisition” that employers imposed on us in the workplace, as they still do today. Someone told us that an important person from a factory called Bonduelle would arrive in our village in search for workers, and that the pay was good. The factory had already hired workers from this area, and they had good references owing to their good conduct and hard work. The Frenchman was tall, strong and bald, and upon his arrival he found a good number of workers eager to get on board for the journey to France. Those who had been there before thought that they would educate us with their experience. I found their references to French people to be barbarous, as they described their women as whores who’d go to bed with anyone. I think they were ignorant of the sense of personal self-determination and didn’t understand anything. It was 1977 after all. I didn’t understand much myself. Years later and with the experience of leaving again for other places, I gained a better understanding of the drama of migration.

The day of our departure we received our train tickets from the Instituto Nacional de Emigración (National Institute for Migration), which had signed our six-month contract with the vegetable canning company Bonduelle. Also just before leaving, a public servant gave us a plastic bag containing a loaf of bread, a bottle of water and a can of sardines. We were arranged in a soldier-like formation, and they put a badge on our chest as if we were cows. I thought about Jewish people in Nazi Germany. It was an old passenger train, with more travelers, and we were ushered into two wagons. We were all from A Guarda and O Rosal. Some had been going to that same factory for years, others like me were newbies. Two days and two nights to get to the Boundelle Factory. We left from Vigo and we changed trains somewhere along the way (I don’t remember where), to go to Irun and Hendaye. We traveled on a different train to Paris, where there were buses waiting for us, that’d take us to Estrées-Mons, in Peronne-Saint Quentin. When I read this name I remembered the Battle of St. Quentin, so often mentioned in our history of Spain.

The truth is that were treated quite correctly, despite the fact that there is intellectual racism in all countries. It was the first time I was working in a factory with about five thousand men and two thousand women. There I became friends with an Irish Catholic from Belfast, a friendship that has lasted to this day and will continue for life, since we met again in New York, years later. He was a language student and used to go to France in the summer to pay for his studies. He was highly intelligent and very religious. Thanks to him, who acted as translator, I could get my cycling racing license, as I had already competed in races in Galicia and had been somehow the founder of the José Riego Lomba team – one of the best national amateur teams, which even produced professional cyclists. I couldn’t understand much of what the French cyclists said, because of my difficulties with the language, but even with signs, we managed to communicate. They were very good to me.

As soon as we had left from Vigo, most workers drowned their angst drinking and eating the cured ham and chorizo that their families had been able to spare for them. Wine and homemade alcohol, augardente, left a mark in the head of those men, some of whom vomited through the train window. In the factory we were part of a multiracial group of migrants with Andalusians, Koreans, Japanese and Blacks making up the workforce. After a while, the workers began to feel unhappy, due to the timetables and the salaries. In A Guarda, the bald Frenchmen had promised equal pay and night shifts (which were better paid), but then, as always, a group of bad co-workers tried to take advantage by getting the night hours so they could earn a higher pay. We went on strike and the problem was solved. The months went by and some of us felt like going back, so several workers resigned and returned to Galiza. In those days my Irish friend was also going back to Ireland. I felt sad when I said goodbye, because we were good friends already. His name was Jim Herrom, and he could now also speak a bit of Galician. My French experience ended the day a line manager was abusing one of my co-workers. He was from Santa María de Oia. I felt so enraged that I laid hand on the boss and frightened him away. I left the job the next day and went back to Galiza, finishing my first migratory journey in this fashion. After migrating to France, there was the forced migration to Madrid to fulfill my patriotic duties with the country. The damn military service, so good for some and so terrible for me.

Defending the Galician language (New York, 1988. Photo provided by Francisco Álvarez)

The second and longest chapter for me and my family was so long that it lasted for thirty years. I didn’t have the intention of migrating again, but after getting married and with a child on the way, I was looking at an uncertain future. In the small villages ruled by a handful of oligarchs, life was scared away. And so, not long after and following two court cases against a dimwit and greedy employer, I didn’t have many other choices left. After winning the cases and losing jobs, I left that world akin to Valle-Inclán’s fiction, and together with my family we went to try our luck in America. We arrived in New York in early October. A few days after, we watched the Columbus Day Parade, on Sunday for the Spaniards and on Monday for the Italians. It was there where I realized that kind of human stupidity behind the need to create heroes and fight over nationalities. I never came back to these parades.

For a while I spent my time walking around in search for a job. I had arrived with a tourist visa and became an illegal undocumented. In a city like New York it’s not difficult to find employment. As soon as I entered one of the restaurants with “Iberian flavor” owned by a Galician Spaniard, I saw a photograph of Franco’s former minister Manuel Fraga Iribarne at the front of the bar. And so, I changed latitudes and developed my working life in Italian hospitality. Next, I tried to get close to my community. Culturally, it was a waste of time, to the extent that when I published Rats in Manhattan some felt offended and banned me from the aforementioned center, and this is not just gossip mongering. One day I went there with BNG militant Ana Miranda, and they let her in but not me, with the president saying I was persona non grata for the center. I have sad anecdotes from those years, but it’s not worth talking about them.

From left to right: Dino Pacio, Koki, Emilio González López, Lola Álvarez, Xoán González Millán. Cultural event at Casa Galicia (New York, 1988. Photo provided by Francisco Álvarez )

I also met people who did leave an affective imprint on me and from whom I learned a great deal. One of them was the bookseller Eliseo Torres, who owned an immense book distributor based in the Bronx. I enjoyed afternoon talks with him, during which I learned a lot. I also knew Emilio González López, the historic politician of the ORGA (Galician Republican Autonomous Organization) exiled in New York. But one of the greatest men I met and who is, for me, the most important Galician in New York after Castelao, is the sociologist Dino Pacio Lindín. He was the founder of Solidaridad Humana (Human Solidarity), which in the 1970s brought the university to the street, saving students who had abandoned their studies because of drug abuse. I also met Xoán González Millán, responsible for the area of Galician Literature at the university and who died so tragically in a car accident. Many years after, sat in my house in Os Eidos here in Salcidos in A Guarda, I begin to remember a time passed, which doesn’t look better than the present. Just different.

(Translation by David Miranda-Barreiro)