By David Miranda-Barreiro (Bangor University, UK)
Invited post by Fighting Fascist Spain -The Exhibits. See Rubia Barcia Exhibit here.
José Rubia Barcia was born in 1914 in Mugardos (Galicia, Spain), a small coastal town next to Ferrol, a city which, coincidentally, was also the birthplace of his antagonist in exile, Francisco Franco, and of the founder of the Spanish Socialist Party, Pablo Iglesias. Rubia Barcia defined himself as a Socialist Humanist, influenced by the ideas of the professor in political law and Spanish politician, Fernando de los Ríos. In 1931, he began his university education at the University of Granada, where he studied a degree in Liberal Arts, became involved in politics and learnt about De los Ríos’ version of socialism, wrote for several local magazines, took part in the university theatre group, “La carreta,” met Federico García Lorca, and completed a PhD in Arabic Studies. In short, he enjoyed and contributed to the thriving cultural and political life of the Spanish Second Republic, whose project he saw as a historical opportunity to fully modernize the country (González Herrán 2014: 54).
It is no surprise then, that when the fascist military uprising against the Spanish democratic government failed in 1936, leading to the Civil War, Rubia Barcia became fully involved in the defense of the Republic. He fought at the front, became director of the magazine Armas y Letras, and was placed in charge of the correspondence with the Soviet Union with the title of Jefe de Negociado, asignado a la Secretaría Técnica de Correspondencia Secreta con Rusia, en la Subsecretaría de Armamento (Ocampo Vigo & Piñeiro de San Miguel 1995: 22). At the end of the war, he started his exilic wandering. He crossed the French border and was sent to a concentration camp in Saint-Laurent-de-Cerdans where he almost died because of the cold. After he managed to escape to Paris, he contacted one of his uncles who lived in Havana (González Herrán 2014: 66-68). Thanks to the economic aid he received from this relative, Rubia Barcia was able to travel to the island, where he stayed from 1939 to 1943, when fellow exile Américo Castro invited him to work as a language assistant at Princeton University (Ocampo Vigo & Piñeiro de San Miguel 1995: 24-25).
As soon as he set foot in the United States, the authorities became suspicious of his intentions: they detained him at the Miami airport and questioned him for four days. The US authorities did not deport him, and he soon managed to settle down in the United States, yet he continued to encounter difficulties, as he was suspected of being a communist agent. In an interview given after his retirement, Rubia Barcia argued that the US authorities viewed all Spanish refugees as communists, “todos los refugiados españoles éramos rojos, éramos comunistas” (González Herran 2014: 83). In 1945, he met the film director Luis Buñuel in New York, who convinced him to work with him for Warner Bros in Hollywood. For the next two years they dubbed US English films into Spanish. According to disclosed FBI files, the Bureau maintained Buñuel under close surveillance. These same files reveal that Rubia Barcia’s movements were monitored. The following year, US immigration authorities began a deportation process against him, imprisoning him in Seattle, and almost securing his return to Spain.
His struggles with the US authorities came to an end ten years later, thanks to the support he received from the University of California, where he had been hired as teaching assistant in 1947. As Roberta Johnson recollects (1982: 8), Rubia Barcia developed a prolific academic career in the field of Hispanic Studies at this institution, publishing extensively on authors such as Miguel de Unamuno and Ramón del Valle-Inclán, supervising many PhD dissertations and becoming head of Department of Spanish and Portuguese in 1963. Together with Clayton Eshleman, he published The Complete Posthumous Poetry of César Vallejo (1978), for which they received the US National Book Award, in the Translation category. He retired from his post at UCLA in 1985.
Rubia Barcia sustained a vocal political commitment to the Republic until the death of the Spanish dictator in 1975, including his participation in two events against the Francoist regime, organized in New York in 1943. However, probably because of the hostility he felt from the US authorities, most of his political activism took place in the articles he published in several newspapers, especially España Libre. An anthology of these articles was gathered in the volume Prosas de Razón y Hiel. Desde el Exilio: desmitificando al franquismo y ensoñando una España mejor (1976), published in Venezuela. The prologue to this volume sets out the guiding principle of Rubia Barcia’s project: to challenge the official discourses of Francoism that distorted the reality of the war and the Franco regime, which had been accepted by the Spanish population during the dictatorship. In his articles, and as expression of his Republican ideals, Rubia Barcia placed all hope for change in the population itself, if they were able to go back to the democratic essence of Spain that had been embodied by the Republic, kept alive in the voice of the exiles, and waiting to be recuperated after the fall of the dictatorship.
Significantly, the prologue provides a recounting of the Spanish Civil War from a Republican perspective. This is indeed symptomatic not only of how the exiles constantly relived the traumatic past that caused their displacement, but also of the responsibility they assumed to correct Francoist historiographic manipulation. Although this might sound obvious nowadays, one of the contentions held by the exiles was that Spain was not a free country, not only because it was under the control of a military dictatorship, but also because the Republic (seen as the pinnacle of Spanish cultural and social progress and supported by the majority of the country) had been obliterated by foreign forces, specifically Germany and Italy. Rubia Barcia disputed the regime’s historical narrative; by challenging the Francoist official discourse, he portrayed the Spanish army, the economic elites, and the Church as the real traitors to their country, who resorted to the support of foreign allies to protect their privileges and put an end to the Second Republic’s progress. As a reminder of the destruction of the Basque town of same name by Nazi warplanes, the choice of Picasso’s painting Guernica as book cover reinforces this view of Spain being invaded by external powers.
Throughout his articles, Rubia Barcia reclaimed his Spanishness, representative of the democratic and progressive spirit of the Spanish people who sacrificed themselves to fight fascism in the name of justice, freedom, reason, and goodness (in his own words) (1976: 52). The true Spanishness –construed by Francoism as the anti-Spain, the internal enemy of the nation– was now only alive in exiles, whose return would bring Spain back to the Republic. Because of Franco, he claimed, “España […] ya no es España” [“Spain … is no longer Spain”] (1976: 53). This sentence was published in 1947, in an article entitled “Amargura,” which describes a sorrow that comes from the disappointment of seeing the lack of international intervention in the Spanish dictatorship even after the defeat of fascism in the Second World War.
Rubia Barcia, who constantly referred to Franco as “el enano sangriento” [“the bloodthirsty dwarf”] throughout his articles, continued to challenge the characterization of the Spanish tyrant as an almost harmless and sentimental old dictator promoted in the international press (for example in the US magazine Time), and reminded his readers about the monstrous crimes from which his regime originated. His writings ripped off Franco’s mask of a weeping grandfather to show the monster that hid behind it: “la piel arrugada de lagartija fría, la voz aflautada de bruja aterradora, la actitud gagá de la degeneración progresiva […] Suponer sentimientos caritativos en esa lamentable figura sería tanto como si los creyentes atribuyeran a Dios características satánicas” [his wrinkled skin like a cold lizard, his fluty voice like a terrifying witch, the loopy attitude that shows progressive degeneration […] To assume charitable feelings in this wretched figure would be as if Catholics attributed satanical characteristics to God] (1976: 161).
Given his life circumstances, Rubia Barcia occupied a privileged position to criticize the US government’s tolerance and later endorsement of the dictatorship in the defense agreements signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Franco in 1953. For example, in a 1956 article about the Nobel Prize awarded to Juan Ramón Jiménez, he criticizes the use of “self-exiled” by US newspapers to refer to the poet, as it implies that “es algo así como salido por su gusto, sin que nadie lo forzara” [“is something like leaving by choice, without being forced by anyone”] (1976: 68). Echoing his own experience in the United States, Rubia Barcia alludes to the treatment received by the Spanish Republican exiles in this country: “este poeta – no criminal, no asesino, no vulgar delincuente, no comunista, no socialista, no anarquista – no ha podido vivir en los últimos veinte años – veinte años de patria secuestrada – en contacto con su pueblo” [“this poet –not a criminal, not an assassin, not a vulgar delinquent, not a communist, not a socialist, not an anarquist– has not been able to live in contact with his people for the last twenty years–twenty years kidnapped from his homeland”] (1976: 69).
Apart from his anti-fascist articles, Rubia Barcia also reflected on the trauma caused by exile in the volume of surrealist prose poetry, Umbral de sueños (1961), illustrated by Eugenio Granell, another Galician Republican exile who lived in New York. The text is a poetic account of the author’s journey into exile written in a style reminiscent of Salvador Dalí’s paintings and Buñuel’s early films. The journey is framed within another journey taken afterwards, as the main character dreams about his past while travelling on a plane. Each chapter is an account of a different dream, and although the theme of a traumatic journey and the presence of some recurrent characters unify the volume, there is an apparent lack of chronological and spatial coherence, as the action seems to move back and forth from Spain to France and Latin America, and the nonlinear timeline alternates between the origins of humankind, the Middle Ages, the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath, and even the future. By contrast, the book follows a rigid structure, whereby each chapter is preceded by a 16th– or 17th-century Spanish poem and takes its title from the verses that open the chapter as an epigraph, which are quotes from classic works of Spanish literature (Cantar de Mío Cid, poems by Lope de Vega and Jorge Manrique, etc.). On the one hand, this structure inserts the text into a literary and cultural tradition that depicts the exiles as embodiment of a historical continuity interrupted in their country. On the other, the dreams express the spatial and temporal dislocation caused by exile.
Despite his academic and literary work, Rubia Barcia is still largely unknown in Spain, as is the case with other exiles. However, his figure was reclaimed in Galicia after the dictatorship in publications, public tributes, the creation of a cultural center in Ferrol named after him, and even his appointment as a member of the Real Academia Galega. In turn, he published a collection of poetry in Galician and Spanish, A aza enraizada. Cantigas de bendizer (1981), and devoted the last years of his life to the study of Galician literature and history, a project that he could not finish before passing away in California in 1997.
González Herrán José Manuel (ed.), José Rubia Barcia: unha vida contada. Santiago de Compostela: Consello da Cultura Galega, 2014.
Johnson, Roberta, “José Rubia Barcia”, in Studies in Honor or José Rubia, ed. by Roberta Johnson and Paul C. Smith. Lincoln, Nebraska: Society of Spanish and Spanish-American Studies, 1982.
Miranda-Barreiro, David. “Galician New York: a Cultural History” at https://newyork.gal/en/
Ocampo Vigo, Eva and Esperanza Piñeiro de San Miguel. Xosé Rubia Barcia, un intelectual ferrolán no exilio. Ferrol: Liceo Rubia Barcia, 1995.
Rubia Barcia, José, Prosas de Razón y Hiel. Desde el Exilio: desmitificando al franquismo y ensoñando una España mejor. Caracas: Casuz editores, 1976.
___ A aza enraizada. Cántigas de bendizer. Sada: Ediciós do Castro, 1981.
___ Umbral de sueños. Barcelona: Anthropos, 1989), facsimile of the first edition in Orbe Publications (1961).
David Miranda-Barreiro is a Senior Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at Bangor University and co-editor of Galicia 21: Journal of Contemporary Galician Studies. He specializes in travel writing, migration, and exile in both Spanish and Galician. He studied the representation of New York in early 20th century Spanish literature in the monograph Spanish New York Narratives. Modernization, Otherness and Nation (Legenda, 2014, AHGBI Publication Prize), and is now working on the connections between the US and Galicia. Visit his digital project: “Galician New York: a Cultural History” at https://newyork.gal/en/