When I was little, dad took me to a Spanish Civil War exposition on the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas. It was gruesome for someone of that age, but the lack of color made it look distant, dreamlike.
I knew about Hitler and had a rough idea of World War II, but I remember asking my father about the war in Spain; it was new to me. I couldn’t imagine how it had defined my great-grandfather’s life. Like many Venezuelans, my idea of ancestry ends with the oldest living relative; I grew closer to my mother’s family, with a blurry image of father’s side, including my great-grandfather.
Well, he was born in Tenerife at the turn of the century. An entrepreneur of sorts, he was also a lifelong socialist.
He was one of over 50,000 Spaniards who came to Venezuela between 1920 and 1970.
“I wanted to be a filmmaker,” my grandfather told me once. “My father said filmmakers were not needed in Venezuela. The country needed teachers, not movies.”
That’s what grandpa became, teaching at UCV. Throughout the years, though, I gathered a more complete image of his father. His name was Joaquín González Estarriol and he arrived at La Guaira in 1929. He was one of over 50,000 Spaniards who came to Venezuela between 1920 and 1970. In La Guaira, he met my great-grandmother, Margot Jiménez, and joined the local teachers’ union.
In 1936, he was arrested for organizing a worker’s strike in the dockyards and expelled from the country, despite having Rómulo Betancourt speaking on his behalf. Simultaneously, war broke out in Spain.
“He arrived to Le Havre, crossed Paris and ended in Marseille” said my great-aunt Keta. “He had the ship set to Spain, but a dispute between Anarchists and Communists cancelled the trip. After talking to the Venezuelan consul in Marseille, he headed for Trinidad, with his wife and children joining him afterwards.”
I stayed several times at his now-gone house in Chacao, and must admit they lived pretty well.
My grandpa, born in 1934, was a toddler when this happened. From their time in Trinidad, two things left an impression on him: His mother singing El Manisero on local radio, and the time he peed from a window on a policeman’s helmet.
They returned to Venezuela in 1940, and Joaquín became citizen in 1948. I stayed several times at his now-gone house in Chacao, and must admit they lived pretty well. But despite finding love, fortune and freedom, his heart was still bound to his homeland. As business thrived, he took important positions in Casa España, Amigos de la República Española and Centro Canario, helping those fleeing from Franco’s Spain.
With the arrival of Pérez Jiménez, the timeline gets blurry. Grandpa and with his brother were sent to England and then a boarding school in France. Later on, the rest settled in Paris. I remember stories of big meals with other Venezuelan exiles, toasting with scotch on January 23rd, 1958. Grandpa swears it was the first time he drank Ballentine’s.
Despite finding love, fortune and freedom, his heart was still bound to his homeland.
It was around this time that he started businesses across the Iron Curtain to finance the Spanish Communist Party. From what I found online, he bought goods from Soviet satellite countries, selling them in the Americas. But Communism wasn’t all wine and roses.
“When we visited Moscow in the 50’s, there were people sleeping in shacks on the Red Square.” Grandpa reminisces. It was disappointing for a family that mourned the death of Stalin, and after travelling through Eastern Europe, he got disenchanted, breaking with the Soviets after the invasion of Czechoslovakia.
For years, González Estarriol saved a bottle of cava catalana to celebrate the downfall of the regime in Spain. When Franco finally died in 1975, he was too old and ill to drink.
When we visited Moscow in the 50’s, there were people sleeping in shacks on the Red Square.
Not long after, he had a stroke and passed away.
I’ve wondered about how the children of the Bolivarian diaspora, so many fleeing Venezuela with every day that passes, will react to exhibits in the future of what’s happening today. Will they judge us? Cry for our tragedy? I, for one, don’t feel connections to Spain. It starts and ends with paella, and I’ve never been anything but a Venezuelan through and through.
I don’t know all the stories, and which ones are exaggerations, but I have the safety to look back and find inspiration in the hard work and dedication of Joaquín González Estarriol.
He may not have seen the Spanish Republic he desired, but he outlived Francoism – something many people under many regimes, including our own, always yearn but sadly not always manage to do.Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.