Cachita, the unknown history of slavery in Spain
The official story hides this dark part of Spain's past, but a recently released documentary film faces the truth.
History being written by the victors is something we have long assumed, and so is the need to rewrite it in times when the demand for civil rights has become strong again with movements like Black Lives Matter in the United States, as well as the new de-colonial narratives that seek to recover the history of the Latinx ancestors within the framework of harsh colonial repression.
In Spain, however, historians are having trouble publishing essays that address the country's role in the slave trade. Places as emblematic as the Encantes in Barcelona were once markets of people and it was common to find adverstisements in the newspapers of the 16th, 18th and early 19th centuries where Black women were sold along with leeches, hair-growth remedies and other classifieds.
But a documentary released last Oct. 21 is about to shake the foundations of the "Spain brand" by director and producer Álvaro Begines.
Its title, remember it well, is Cachita. Esclavitud borrada (Slavery erased).
"Reading a couple of novels I discovered that there were many Black slaves in Spain between the 16th and 19th centuries and I was so astonished that they didn't talk about that subject that I decided to investigate. I discovered fascinating characters such as the slave trader Pedro Blanco, the slave Juan Latino, who became a professor at the University of Granada, or Cándida La Negra, the last slave. And I decided to focus on those three characters to articulate a story that would not remain in the cold data but would allow me to move the viewer," Begines explained to RTVE.
The documentary combines episodes about legendary characters related to slavery with testimonies from researchers and experts in the field from Cuba, Africa, Portugal and Spain. They include professor of Historical Anthropology Aurelia Martín Casares, musician and researcher of Black music, Santiago Auserón, writer Carlos Bardem, and Jesús Cosano, a scholar of slavery in the country and author of Las Negras de la Inmaculada.
Cachita is the name given in Cuba to the Virgin of Charity, who is also the patron saint of Spanish towns such as Sanlúcar de Barrameda (Cádiz) or Illescas (Toledo), and serves as the trigger for a story that reflects how the slave-owning past is still alive in Spanish culture and society.
"It has left a tremendous legacy. For example, it is curious how many streets in Granada, Cadiz or Seville are called 'Barrancos de los negros', 'Placita de los negros' or 'Callejón de los negros'. In those days, the freed slaves who did not die in the streets took refuge in the poorest areas of the city, in the suburbs. And those streets are a testimony to that," said the director.
"There they would join with other repudiated people like the gypsies and, from there, flamenco and other musical rhythms would emerge. Because the dance of flamenco has black roots. In addition, we have a lot of Afro-Egyptianisms in the language like fandango, tango, banana, chimpanzee ... and the more I investigate that heritage the more things I find, like food," he added.
The reason why the history of Black slavery in Spain is so unknown has to do, according to Begina, with the fact that "many powerful families tried to hide it because they got rich from that business," citing the example of Catalonia, where the ancestors of some of the families that pull the political and economic strings today made their gold from the sale of slaves.
One of the great protagonists of Cachita is Juan Latino, who was born in Cabra (Córdoba) in the 16th century. Son of a Black Ethiopian slave who belonged to the Count of Cabra, Juan was so famous that Cervantes mentions him in Don Quixote.
It is said that the slave had a prodigious mind and when the teachers taught Gonzalo, the Count of Cabra's son, Juan also learned the lessons. Later, he did the same as Gonzalo went to college: Latino followed the class from outside.
The Count of Cabra allowed him to enter the library and supported his education, which explains why he became a professor at the University of Granada. Although, according to anthropologist Aurelia Martín, Juan Latino may have been the Count's illegitimate son.
"In the end, he wrote very important books of poetry and became one of the greatest experts in Latin, so everyone consulted him on issues related to that language," the historian recalled.
Her name was Candida 'La Negra,' she was born as a slave in the Portuguese colony of Luanda and died when she was 110 years old in Cadiz, Spain.
Played in the documentary by Cuban actress Kenia Mestre, 'La Negra' arrived in Cadiz when the ship she was working on as a slave sank in the mid-19th century and a peasant rescued her and took her home to live with him.
Cándida belonged to a well-known slave-driver, Antonio López López, who traded with orphans in Cuba as a gift to powerful lords.
Another of Cachita's characters is the most cruel and emblematic slave-driver and pirate of the Spanish empire, Pedro Blanco, also known as 'el Mongo de Gallinas.'
Blanco began to travel to the colonies when he was 17 years old and jumped into the slave trade and much more.
"He modernized slavery and created slave factories. Before, the slave traders went to Africa, bought slaves from the African kings and sold them in the West. But he did it wholesale. He stored the slaves in several islands so that when the ships arrived, they did not have to go looking for them but only to load them. Besides, he was famous for his cruelty," said Álvaro Begina.
Characters like the Queen Regent of Spain, Maria Cristina, and many other families of the high society were involved in the sale of African slaves until its prohibition, in the middle of the 19th century. But the only one who was directly targeted and disowned was Pedro el Mongo.
"Now something similar is happening with the drug trade, which is controlled by large fortunes that pay the traffickers to do their dirty work for them," the director concluded.