This article first appeared in Llafur, the Journal of Welsh People’s History, Volume 11 No.3
Homage to Patagonia?
2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first Welsh emigrants at Puerto Madryn as they began a new life in Patagonia. Today, there is a majestic statue next to the beach to mark where the Welsh landed. Their presence is evident in other ways. The tourist office in Trelew distributes maps of the Welsh chapels in the Chubut valley and the Welsh heritage in Patagonia has become a stop on the tourist trail. In Gaiman, conveniently located for the main tourist destinations of the sea elephants at Peninsula Valdes and a million penguins at Punta Tombo Penguin Reserve, Welsh teashops thrive serving ‘traditional Welsh cakes’ to coaches of Italians and Swiss stopping off on their way to Trelew airport. ‘Torta galesa’ (Welsh cake) made with ingredients the Welsh had to hand is delicious, even if it is unlike any cake served in Wales today.
The leading book on the Welsh colonisation in Patagonia, The Desert and the Dream, by Glyn Williams, wrote of the Welsh experience up to 1915. It gives a detailed account of the experience of the Welsh in Argentina in the 50 years leading up to the First World War. The first Welsh arrived in the Chubut valley in 1865. The last group to arrive was in 1913.
His subsequent book ‘The Welsh in Patagonia’, which was published in 1991 and for which he did the field work in the late 1960s and early 1970s, considered relations between the Welsh community and the Argentine state. In the preface Williams explained that the Welsh settlement ‘came, with time, to have more to do with Argentina than with Wales’. By the time Williams was doing his research the population of Trelew had grown to 26,000 and while the original Welsh population had been diluted by later immigrations including Italians, there were still 10,000 people of Welsh descent in the area. Though they were fully integrated into Argentinian life, the economic, cultural, linguistic and religious characteristics of the Welsh meant that they were still a significant presence in the region.
At the time that Williams was preparing his second book the people of Trelew were already writing the next chapter of their history in relation to the Argentine state. The important events of 1972 in Chubut were recorded in Tomás Eloy Martínez’s book ‘La pasion segun Trelew’ [The Passion According to Trelew] and in Mariana Arruti’s film ‘Trelew’ and were a key moment in recent Argentine history. However, what neither the book nor the film identified was the role played by the locals of Welsh descent. Initial investigation suggests that there may be a previously unidentified part played by the ‘Welsh‘ population in Patagonia in the events of the time.
In 1970 the Argentine government started using the maximum security gaol in Rawson (originally Trerawson and the provincial capital of Chubut) to incarcerate guerrillas from the various politico-military organisations then operating in Argentina. The Chubut Valley was 1,000 miles south of the capital and presumably considered to be a sufficiently remote location to incarcerate them. Its distance from the bulk of the Argentinian population meant that when relatives visited the gaoled guerrillas they would sleep at the houses of the local people. A bond grew between the relatives and the local population and when the relatives or the prisoners’ lawyers were unable to visit the locals would visit the guerrillas in their place, helping the prisoners and taking them cigarettes or other goods. While the local population was not particularly sympathetic to the prisoners’ politics, personal bonds grew with individual guerrillas over two years. A Commission of Solidarity for Political Prisoners in Rawson was also set up in Trelew by lawyers and supported by people of all political persuasions and none.
However circumstances changed dramatically on 15 August 1972 when the guerrillas, took over the gaol in a plan for over one hundred of them to escape to neighbouring Chile, then led by the socialist government of Salvador Allende, in a hijacked plane from nearby Trelew airport. In the event only a small number of guerrillas succeeded in escaping to Chile, before gaining exile in Cuba. A further nineteen guerrillas were stranded in Trelew. In spite of surrendering without fighting, they were taken to a nearby military establishment where they were shortly afterwards machine gunned (although three survived).
The population of Trelew, which was not involved in the planning or implementation of the breakout, was appalled at the murders of those whom they had got to know. The military, for their part, falsely announced that the guerrillas had been killed while trying to escape. On the night of the escape the government declared a state of emergency in Trelew and the surrounding areas, including Rawson and Puerto Madryn. The military also declared that the local population had been involved in supporting the breakout, which angered the locals even more. Trelew was put under military occupation.
Two months later, in October 1972, many members of the Solidarity Commission and others were detained as a reprisal and transferred to Devoto prison in Buenos Aires. The police and military also searched a hundred houses across the region looking for guns, explosives and documentation, saying that the local people had collaborated in the action, but none were found. The actions sparked an immediate response and the ordinary people of Trelew rose up against injustice, holding the town for a week with thousands actively involved. A general strike affecting industry, business, administration, transport and education took place. A commune was formed with its own supply system and almost all local organisations, including the rugby club, supported the rising. An exception, which did not condone the rebellion, was the local CGT trades union led by Gilberto Hughes, which was associated with the military government and opposed by many grassroots trades unionists.
The mobilisation of its people succeeded in gaining the liberty of the detainees.
Martinez described Trelew as having been a quiet and peaceful town, yet which came to live a history which heated the blood of its people (p 31).[i]
While the Welsh descendants may not have been involved in the breakout itself, some participated afterwards. After visiting Patagonia in 2005, where I read Martinez’s book and saw Arruti’s film, I contacted some of those involved in reporting the events about the role of the Welsh descendants. Arruti said:
What I can tell you is that those who had been empowered to act on behalf of the guerrillas and their families were persecuted, jailed and some went into exile or moved to other parts of the country.
I knew that the Welsh strongly supported [fureon muy solidaros] those who had responsibility for taking the escapees from the gaol to the airport. Some of them had to hide in the area [afterwards] and were well received on the [Welsh] farms.
Daniel Carreras was a local journalist who by chance became prominent in the events by interviewing the guerrillas trapped at the airport before they were led away. Year later he spoke of the significance of the events of 1972 for the people of Trelew. He recalled that the relation between the people and the prisoners was a very emotional one.
The injustice of the deaths weighs heavily. From an ideological perspective [Trelew] is not left leaning. But in October and November 1972, when a group of [local] people of the left were detained, everyone took to the streets [in protest].
However, the stand made by the local people would cast a long shadow. The reaction of the state towards events in Trelew proved to be a precursor of the state terrorism and illegal repression of ‘the Dirty War’ which gripped the country from the mid-1970s until the early 1980s. During that period some local people were murdered by the military dictatorship, some were ‘disappeared’, while others had to flee the country. Martinez’s 1973 account of events was considered subversive and banned with hundreds of copies of the book later burned by the military. Carreras said that local people did not speak of the events of 1972 out of fear, adding:
For years we were a ghost people, stigmatised as synonymous with the massacre. We were inseparably united with them [the guerrillas].
Carreras himself was picked up in 1976, one of many local people suspected of having helped the guerrillas in the gaol breakout. He was disappeared for 25 days, tortured under interrogation while held naked and handcuffed with tape on his eyes and paper in his ears until his captors were convinced that he knew nothing.
The Argentine military dictatorship and the state terrorism it peddled were overthrown following the Faklands/Malvinas war, when Joneses and Willamses fought against each other from both sides. Four years after the fall of the dictatorship, in 1987, hundreds of participants of the popular rising got together again in the theatre Español in Trelew to commemorate their action. They celebrated with traditional Welsh cakes.
Alun Burge adds: On returning from Argentina in 2005 it had been my intention to go back to Patagonia to explore the role of the Welsh population in the events of 1972. I still have my ‘to do’ list from that time including a list of provisional questions to assess the extent to which it had been active or passive. I was given contact details of individuals and local historians in Trelew who might help as well as the name of LU 17, the local radio station along with the Director of Culture in Trelew… I was also given the name of one Welsh speaking Patagonian who I was told had come to Wales as a political refugee as a result of the repression. An ex-colleague from the Latin America Department of Christian Aid, who was originally from Chubut, had a cousin who had been a guerrilla and had been held in the gaol and killed: we discussed doing a joint project. However a change in my employment in 2005 meant that my research was put to one side. Questions such as what did the Patagonian Welsh language newspaper Y Drafod report or did it stay silent remain unanswered. But there is still a job to be done and further research is needed. Some sources are now beyond reach. Tomás Eloy Martínez who was helpful to me has since died. So has Daniel Carreras. The power of the web, though, now makes the task in some ways easier than then. But it is now not a job for me. So, with the 150th anniversary on us, my question is – is there anyone out there who is interested who wishes to pick it up where I left off…?
Alun Burge is a Welsh writer and historian who has worked with co-operatives since 1985 including five years living in Nicaragua. After returning to Wales, he worked in the Welsh Government’s Department of Social Justice.
[i] Others later challenged Martine interpretation saying Trelew was a vigorous place. See González Canosa, Mora (2005) Las puebladas del principio de los ’70,un estudio de caso: Movilización y protesta social en Trelew: La ‘Asamblea del Pueblo’ (octubre de 1972) Trabajo final de grado. Universidad Nacional de La Plata. Facultad de Humanidades y Ciencias de la Educación. p 33, fn 48. & p 36, This dissertation provides a detailed backdrop to the events of 1972