Human Rights Column by Isabel Allende: A Dark Time

November 14, 2020

Isabel Allende. Photo Quim Rosés. CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Isabel Allende, the Chilean author and philanthropist, spoke at ALBA’s Lincoln Brigade Monument Celebration on September 12, 2020. This is what she said.

Welcome to this virtual gathering organized by ALBA, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade archives, in which we honor the Americans who went to Spain in 1936 to fight against fascism. We also celebrate the monument of the Lincoln Brigade in the Embarcadero in San Francisco. And we also recognize today No More Deaths, or No Más Muertes, which works to protect the lives of Central and South American refugees trying to find safety in the United States.

First, some history. In 1936, a Democratic leftist government was elected in Spain, the Second Republic. Immediately, the forces of the right, the Catholic Church and the military, led by General Francisco Franco, rebelled against the government. They were helped by Mussolini and Hitler. A brutal civil war ensued. The country was torn to pieces. Hundreds of thousands were killed in battle or executed after being conquered. Franco’s fascist dictatorship would last 40 years. Many young men and women around the world saw the Spanish Civil War as an epic struggle between democracy and fascism, which had already triumphed in Germany and Italy.

Between 35,000 and 40,000 volunteers went to fight for the Republic in the International Brigades. Among them were 2,800 Americans who came to be known as the Lincoln Battalion or the Lincoln Brigade. In October 1938, when the Civil War was practically lost for the Republicans, the International Brigades were sent home. They had played a crucial role in major battles where they were used as shock troops and suffered devastating losses. In Barcelona, they received a hero’s goodbye from tens of thousands of grateful Spaniards, including the famous Dolores Ibárruri, whose voice had accompanied the Republican loss during those three terrible years.

Bidding farewell, she talked about how volunteers gave up everything, and they asked for nothing only for a post in battle and the honor of dying for Spain. How thousands remain shrouded in Spanish earth and would never be forgotten. She asked them to return in the future for Spain. They would find a homeland among those who remain shrouded in Spanish earth, where with one third of the American volunteers, they will never be forgotten. As the fascists conquered the last bastion of democracy, half a million people escaped in freezing January weather to the French border.

They were herded into improvised concentration camps in beaches surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by cruel Senegalese troops without shelter, water, food or medical help. Thousands died, among them many children. At that time, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda convinced the Chilean president to receive some Spanish refugees. He went to Europe, raised money, bought a cargo ship, conditioned it and selected 2,200 passengers. The ship arrived in Chile the same day the Second World War started in Europe.

Refugees from Aragón disembarking from the SS Winnipeg in Valparaíso, Chile. Biblioteca Nacional de Chile.

At the port, masses of people had gathered to welcome the Spaniards, Chile received them with open arms. Those refugees and their descendants contributed immensely to the country that gave them a home, as most immigrants usually do. I told that story in my latest novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, because the plight of displaced people is close to my heart. I have been a foreigner all my life. I was a political refugee for 13 years and now I am an immigrant.

My foundation works helping refugees worldwide, especially at the Mexican border, where thousands and thousands of people seek asylum in the United States. The Trump administration has made sure that they get no help. I am therefore particularly moved by the extraordinary work of No More Deaths/No Más Muertes. Today, there are more refugees in the world than ever before, and the number keeps growing. They are escaping from war, crime and extreme poverty. They are desperate.

They risk their lives in dangerous journeys because anything is better than staying in their own land. This is a dark time, my friends. It’s a time of war in many places and potential war everywhere. A time of nationalism and populism, of racist cruelty, fear, violence, poverty and inequality. A time when the threat of fascism is present again. But this is also a time of hope for a new kind of life, for a better world, for a brighter future.

Today, like 84 years ago in Spain, we need brave and idealistic young men and women like the volunteers of the Lincoln Brigade, willing to come forward in defense of the values and principles that sustain our civilization.

Isabel Allende, the world’s most widely-read Spanish-language novelist, is the author, most recently, of A Long Petal of the Sea.  The Isabel Allende Foundation, created in 1996, is dedicated to investing in the power of women and girls to secure reproductive rights, economic independence, and freedom from violence. For a video of this speech, see here.