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A Canarian Inspiration for Hard Times

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A CANARIAN INSPIRATION FOR HARD TIMES María-Jesús Vera-Cazorla Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain The best-known figure of Spanish literature all over the world is that of Don Quixote, the idealistic knight who decides to leave his home and family to fight evil, aid the helpless and look for true love. And, although we love Don Quixote and his quest, his impossible dream, readers are rather expected to identify themselves with his squire Sancho Panza. Eventually, down-to-earth, realistic Sancho not only helps Don Quixote in his pursuit but also ends up believing in his vision. Spanish Literature has also produced a third well-known character: the figure of the “pícaro”, the tricker, with some wonderful examples such as Lazarillo de Tormes, Guzmán de Alfarache or don Pablos, el Buscón. One of these examples is the Canarian character Pepe Monagas, a tourist guide, a bloom-seller, a musician, a parrot-trainer, who tries to make ends meet in Spanish post-civil war times by doing whatever it takes to survive, even if it means interpreting the law in a rather personal broad way. In this paper, I will make a contrastive analysis between Pepe Monagas, the main character of Los Cuentos Famosos de Pepe Monagas (1976) and both the young blind- guider in El Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) and the down-to-earth “sage”, Sancho Panza, from Don Quijote de la Mancha (1605): three characters that seem very different in age, time and place of birth, but surprisingly close to each other in their character profile for various reasons. At a time when the mass media constantly remind us of the current financial and moral crisis, we get the impression that greed, selfishness and absolute disregard for others are at the core of the crisis we are going through. In this scenario, the story of an ordinary, cheerful man living the post-civil war hardship in Spain and yet enjoying life
Transcript

A CANARIAN INSPIRATION FOR HARD TIMES

María-Jesús Vera-Cazorla

Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain

The best-known figure of Spanish literature all over the world is that of Don Quixote,

the idealistic knight who decides to leave his home and family to fight evil, aid the

helpless and look for true love. And, although we love Don Quixote and his quest, his

impossible dream, readers are rather expected to identify themselves with his squire

Sancho Panza. Eventually, down-to-earth, realistic Sancho not only helps Don Quixote

in his pursuit but also ends up believing in his vision.

Spanish Literature has also produced a third well-known character: the figure of

the “pícaro”, the tricker, with some wonderful examples such as Lazarillo de Tormes,

Guzmán de Alfarache or don Pablos, el Buscón. One of these examples is the Canarian

character Pepe Monagas, a tourist guide, a bloom-seller, a musician, a parrot-trainer,

who tries to make ends meet in Spanish post-civil war times by doing whatever it takes

to survive, even if it means interpreting the law in a rather personal broad way.

In this paper, I will make a contrastive analysis between Pepe Monagas, the main

character of Los Cuentos Famosos de Pepe Monagas (1976) and both the young blind-

guider in El Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) and the down-to-earth “sage”, Sancho Panza,

from Don Quijote de la Mancha (1605): three characters that seem very different in age,

time and place of birth, but surprisingly close to each other in their character profile for

various reasons.

At a time when the mass media constantly remind us of the current financial and

moral crisis, we get the impression that greed, selfishness and absolute disregard for

others are at the core of the crisis we are going through. In this scenario, the story of an

ordinary, cheerful man living the post-civil war hardship in Spain and yet enjoying life

to its fullest is most encouraging for the average citizen of contemporary Spain. Perhaps

it is that inspiration for the reader that could explain, after so many years of oblivion,

the rebirth of the character of Pepe Monagas. The local culture and heritage authorities

have recently decided to publish a new edition of Pancho Guerra’s works, the author of

Pepe Monaga’s character, thus contributing to the reappearance of the popular figure.

1. A brief geographical and historical introduction.

The Canary Islands are located off the northwest coast of mainland Africa, 100 km west

of the disputed border between the Western Sahara and Morocco. Conquered by the

Spaniards in the 15th

century, the archipelago is nowadays one of the Spanish

Autonomous Communities and an Outermost Region of the European Union. The

Canarian economy is based primarily on tourism with about 11 million tourists visiting

the islands per year, followed by construction and tropical agriculture, primarily

bananas, tomatoes, flowers and tobacco.

The book to be studied in this paper, Los Cuentos Famosos de Pepe Monagas

(1976) by Pancho Guerra, Pepe Monagas’ famous stories, is set in Gran Canaria, one of

the Canaries, in the years after the Spanish civil war. After the war, the economic

situation of the country was very difficult and in the Canary Islands it was no different.

People tried to overcome these hard times the best way they could. Sometimes, this

meant stealing electricity or cheating tourists by charging them abusive prices, but it

was also a time when people helped each other the best way they could, celebrating life

with every possible excuse.

Likewise, life in the second half of the 16th

century was hard and difficult.

During the 16th

century, Spain and Portugal explored the world's seas and opened

world-wide oceanic trade routes. Large parts of the New World became Spanish and

Portuguese colonies, and while the Portuguese became the masters of Asia's and

Africa's Indian Ocean trade, the Spaniards opened trade across the Pacific Ocean,

linking the Americas with Asia. But, although there was wealth, it was only for a few,

and prices rose due to a drastic increase in the inflation rate.

European politics became dominated by religious conflicts. As one

manifestation of the Counter-Reformation, the Spanish Inquisition worked actively to

impede the diffusion of heretical ideas in Spain by producing "Indexes" of prohibited

books. According to Kamen (1997: 109, the author’s italics), “the weight of the Index

was directed to keeping out of Spain books that had for the most part never entered the

country”. Included in the Indexes, at one point, were many of the great works of

Spanish literature, and a number of religious writers considered as Catholic Saints saw

their works appearing in the Indexes.

Although in theory the Indexes imposed enormous restrictions on the diffusion

of culture in Spain, some historians, such as Henry Kamen (1997: 131-6), argue that

such strict control was impossible in practice and that there was much more freedom in

this respect than it is often believed. Despite repeated publication of the Indexes and a

large bureaucracy of censors, the activities of the Inquisition did not impede the

flowering of Spanish literature's "Siglo de Oro", that is, "golden century", yet almost all

of its major authors crossed paths with the Holy Office at one point or another. Among

the Spanish authors included in the Index is the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes, but

also

Góngora had minor problems with the censor in 1627; in 1632, one line by

Cervantes was excised from Don Quixote; the expurgations of Francisco de

Osuna and Antonio de Guevara in the Index of 1612 are trivial; that of Florián

de Ocampo in 1632 ridiculous. Many creative writers had brushes with the

Inquisition, but the total effect of these incidents appears to have been so slight

that no convincing conclusion can be drawn. Lope de Vega appeared on the

Index, but a century after his death (Kamen, 1997: 133).

And, although for Kamen (2006: 123-152) the so-called customary religiosity and

Catholicism of Spain has been a myth created long before Franco’s time, in the second

half of the 16th

century and in Franco’s time, religion was very much a state tool to

control any political or social unrest, and also to decide whether or not you were

allowed to work or participate in any social events. According to Tusell (1984: 38-9),

the Spanish Catholics’ compliance with the state was typical of the Spanish Roman

Catholic Church, for whom the main interests were never related to politics.

2. Los Cuentos Famosos de Pepe Monagas (1976) by Pancho Guerra.

Los cuentos famosos de Pepe Monagas is a series of short stories, normally with no real

beginning or end that were published between the years 1976 and 1978. The protagonist

is Pepe Monagas, a twentieth-century picaresque character, who in post-Spanish civil

war times does whatever he can to provide for his family. In some stories, he undertakes

little assignments, usually legal, to get some money. Thus, he is seen painting a house,

taking care of little children, training the parrot of a Cathedral canon to sing «Retosna

vinchitore», selling brooms he had “borrowed” from a nearby stall, guiding tourists or

driving a carriage and, although he sometimes works, he is most remembered for his

famous aphorism «Todo aquel que trabaja es porque no sirve pa otra cosa» (1976: 384),

that is, «If anyone works, that’s because they’re useless for anything else».

His neighbours call him for help or as a mediator, but especially when there is a

party. Witty, mischievous, funny, there is a mixture of admiration and greed in his

attitude towards the English visitors (Vera Cazorla, 2009), the major group of tourists in

the islands, as he really likes the British much better than Spaniards and considers them

an endless source of money.

3. Pepe Monagas and Lazarillo de Tormes

The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities is an anonymous

16th

century epistolary novel written in the first person. Its oldest edition dates from

1554, although many believe there must have been an earlier 1553 or 1552 version

whose success generated the four simultaneous editions in Burgos, Alcalá de Henares

and Medina del Campo, Spain, and Antwerp, Flanders.

Lazarillo de Tormes is credited with founding a literary genre, the picaresque

novel, because of its realistic elements, first-person narration, and itinerant structure as

he moved from one master to another and its moralistic and pessimistic ideology. It is a

autodidactic novel in the form of a letter sent to probably a church dignitary, which

begins when Lazaro is apprenticed by his mother to a blind beggar after his father dies,

and finishes when he is married and writing this autobiographical letter. Lazarillo

introduced the picaresque device of delineating various professions and sectors of

society (the blind beggar, the priest, the poor knight, the monk, etc.) through its

characters. In these usually autobiographical novels, the adventures of the pícaro expose

injustice while amusing the reader.

In spite of the centuries that separate both characters, Lazaro and Pepe Monagas

share many experiences and the fact that both needed to become cunning to survive.

They live through hard times and they will do anything to get some money, even if it

means breaking the law, in the case of Pepe Monagas, by charging abusive prices for

services usually to Englishmen who either live on the island or come to visit, or by

stealing, as when he stole brooms from a nearby stall. In this story the owner of the shop

could not understand how Pepe could afford selling the brooms so cheap until Pepe tells

him that he is taking the brooms from him.

While Lazaro moves from one master to another, from the blind beggar to the

mean priest, from him to the poor knight and then to the friar, the papal bull seller or the

chaplain, he grows up and becomes a cynical man. Except for the poor knight, who is

gentle and kind to the boy, -so gentle that Lazaro shares his alms with him- they all treat

him in a cruel manner and soon he learns to look after himself. The cruelty of the blind

beggar, the greed and hypocrisy of the priest, the meanness of the friar, they all turn

Lazaro into the cynical disillusioned man who at the end of the novel pays no attention

to the rumours about his wife and his employer.

However, even though Pepe Monagas is always looking for new ways of getting

money, his attitude towards life could never be described as cynical or disillusioned. We

could see him, among other tasks, selling typical Canarian sweets in nearby Telde

during the holidays, volunteering as an assistant to a knife-thrower who comes to the

city with the circus and lost his assistant in an “accident”, risking his life acting as a

referee at a hazardous football match, or selling a liquid that promised buyers to get

them fatter instantly. In this last story, the buyers were weighted before and after the

purchase, the trick was that they were given some coins when they paid for the product

which explained the difference in weight, although the public were not aware of it.

However, it is when he works for the English that he seems at his best. English people

with their pounds are irresistible for Pepe. There are four different stories which include

English people, either residents on the island, or tourists, or sailors. They all have in

common that the protagonist wants to get as many pounds as possible from them.

Probably, “When Pepe Monagas sold a Canary bird to a sailor” is the best of

these stories with the British topic. One of the many British sailors who arrived at the

port wants a typical Canarian bird and Pepe agrees to sell him one. While the sailor is

leaving, he suddenly realizes that the bird is lame and starts shouting in a dreadfully

funny Spanish that he wants his money back, that the bird has only one shoe. Pepe,

always quick in his answers, asks him whether he would like the bird for singing or

dancing. Some months later, the sailor returns and Pepe has forgotten the incident. This

time the sailor wants revenge and sells Pepe a cheap ship chain that intentionally sinks

his little boat, no mattering Pepe’s crying out for help.

Finally, hunger is very much present in both works. In El Lazarillo de Tormes,

the boy had to leave his family and work from an early age. Most of his masters were

mean and tightfisted except for the nobleman, who was very poor but could not work

because it was humiliating, and disgraceful for a nobleman to work. In Los cuentos

famosos de Pepe Monagas, set in the city of Las Palmas on the island of Gran Canaria

some years after the end of the Spanish civil war, life was hard. As many other

Canarians, he had to emigrate to Cuba, but he returned just with a gold tooth and some

cigars.

Families were usually big, composed of nine or ten children together with

parents and grandparents, and food was scant. The shortage of food led to the

appearance of the expression: “to eat gofio (a typical Canarian flour) and onion” as that

was what most people could eat. Also, there are some stories related to buying food on

credit and how difficult it was sometimes to do it, as some grocers were tired of not

being paid.

4. Pepe Monagas and Sancho Panza

Sancho Panza is the squire of Don Quixote in the novel Don Quijote de la Mancha

written by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra in 1602. He provides

comments throughout the novel that are a combination of broad humour, ironic Spanish

proverbs, and earthy wit.

The surname Panza means belly in Spanish and both Sancho Panza and Pepe

Monagas are typically depicted with a prominent tummy. If physically they resemble

each other, their character and attitude to life is very similar. They are down-to-earth,

pragmatic, modest and unassuming.

As described above, Pepe Monagas is mainly a pícaro, but there is a lot of

Sancho Panza in him. If compared to Don Quixote, Sancho Panza seems illiterate or

ignorant, as, contrary to the general rule during Cervantes’ times, he does not seem to

enjoy reading novels about knights and knighthood very much; however, there are many

instances of his folk wisdom in his stories. Likewise, there are many examples of Pepe’s

common sense throughout the book. In one story a sailor who has been fishing for

months comes back home and his wife has just had a baby. Happy at the beginning, he

suddenly does some calculations and realizes that the baby cannot be his, until Pepe

tells him “If you want to be happy, do not analyze”. On another occasion, a girl who is

going out with a man from upper-middle class is advised to leave him and go out with

somebody else from her own social class. It is not a bitter comment, but an old saying

“every Jack has his Jill”.

From the beginning of the book, Pepe is depicted as the personification of

common sense and ironic understanding of human nature. In the first story of the book,

a sailor dies while working at sea. He is taken home and his widow cries and shouts that

he was the best husband in the islands, that he was “the support for her home, the

shadow in her yard, the warmth of her toes”. She then criticizes bad men and wonders

why they had not died instead of her husband. Neighbours give her some lime tea and

try to calm her explaining to her that we are all going to die, “we are nothing”, “it is

fate”. But she still shouts her husband was the timber of her life and, when the priest is

celebrating the funeral, she does not allow the ceremony to continue. At the end, Pepe

tells her: “You know what? If you insist he is such good timber, we are leaving and you

make a wardrobe out of him.”

5. Pepe Monagas: a symbol of cultural resistance

Pepe Monagas is a symbol of Canarian cultural resistance on his own merit. Los

Cuentos Famosos de Pepe Monagas, set in the decades after the Spanish Civil War,

reflects the hardships Canarians had to endure at the time. Yet, the use of humour as a

cohesive identity instrument and the use of the Canarian variety of Spanish are basic in

the construction of this symbol.

In the model for the social functions of humour presented by Martineau in 1972

(cited by Ziv, 1984: 32), this author emphasized the tasks of humour as a device for

raising the morale of group members and strengthening ties between them. He also

noted that humour contributes to the maintenance of consensus within the group and

narrows the social distances between its members. These social functions of humour

could be seen in Los Cuentos Famosos de Pepe Monagas. In these stories, humour

minimizes the economical problems the inhabitants of the island are going through, and

though there are rich people, especially British tourists and residents, there is no real

social tension in this work, but abounding humour.

When considering otherness, Petersoo (2007: 120) proposes a typology of Others,

based on two dyads: external versus internal and negative versus positive, resulting in

four ideal types of Others: internal positive Other, internal negative Other, external

positive Other and external negative Other and adds that “all four types may or may not

be relevant for identity formation at any given time” (2007: 120). In general, it could be

said that in the Canaries, while Spaniards are usually the internal negative Other, the

Englishmen are the external positive. They could be cheated or laughed at, yet there is

admiration and gratitude for this group of outsiders. The British were considered to be

the prestigious makers of the island progress. Their initiative certainly had important

effects on the economy of the islands, such as the increase in commerce and the

beginning of two essential industries, the export of agricultural produces and tourism,

which are still our main economic resources. On the contrary, Spaniards with their

aquiline noses, fricative sounds and superiority pretentiousness are not depicted in a

positive way. In Los cuentos, the few of them who appeared in the book usually try to

cheat Canarian people or steal their girlfriends.

Opposite to all these outsiders, Pepe Monagas represents the shrewd common

man. Although he lives in the city of Las Palmas, he is some kind of a country bumpkin,

the main character of so many caricatures. According to Franck González

If, initially, the country bumpkin was made fun of, it will soon represent the

concept of “people” and in the 50s and 60s it will be considered a myth of cultural

resistance due to Eduardo Millares. The figure of the country bumpkin will finally

turn into an ideal. His reputation as “free man” which comes from Romanticism

will embody “Canarianism” (González, 2003: 430).

Long before the appearance of the first Spanish TV channel in the Canary Islands in

1964, Pepe Monagas -and Cho-Juáa, his cartoon representation- was considered the

symbol of Canarian cultural resistance. However, with the appearance of television in

the islands, together with mass tourism and the arrival of workforce from mainland

Spain, this symbol gradually disappeared.

In an interesting reversal process, some years later -in the 90s- the mass media

will be a key element in protecting national identities from outside powers. Fecé (2003)

highlights the salient role played by the mass media in defending local cultural identity

in Spain, not only from the influence of American television fiction but also from the

dominant cultural power of Castilian Spanish.

But the wrong has already been done. Nowadays, a large number of Canarian

people cannot understand many of the expressions and vocabulary used to recount

Pepe’s adventures. If it is difficult to fully comprehend life in those times, it is even

harder to make sense of some of the stories not only because of the language, but also

because of the reality they depict. However, the inspiration remains in our minds and we

appreciate his value in the difficult times.

6. Cited works

Fecé, José L. (2003). “Teleseries de producción propia e identidad nacional”, in

Sampedro Blanco, Víctor Fco (ed.). La pantalla de las identidades. Medios de

comunicación, políticas y mercados de identidad, pp. 285-304. Barcelona: Icaria.

González, Franck. (2003). El humor gráfico en Canarias apuntes para una historia

(1808-1998). Las Palmas de Gran Canaria: Cabildo de Gran Canaria.

Guerra, Pancho. (1976). Los cuentos famosos de Pepe Monagas. Las Palmas de Gran

Canaria: Excma. Mancomunidad de Cabildos de Las Palmas/Ayuntamiento de San

Bartolomé de Tirajana.

Guerra, Pancho. (1977). El léxico de Gran Canaria. Las Palmas de Gran Canaria:

Excma. Mancomunidad de Cabildos de Las Palmas/Ayuntamiento de San Bartolomé de

Tirajana.

Kamen, Henry. (1997). The Spanish Inquisition. A Historical Revision. (New Haven and

London: Yale University Press).

Kamen, Henry. (2006). Del imperio a la decadencia: los mitos que forjaron la España

moderna. (Madrid: Temas de Hoy).

Petersoo, P. (2007). ‘Reconsidering Otherness: Constructing Estonian Identity’.

Nations and Nationalism 13:1, pp. 117-133.

Tusell, J. (1984). Franco y los católicos. La política interior española entre 1945 y

1957. (Madrid: Alianza Editorial).

Vera Cazorla, Mª Jesús. (2006). ‘La visión del otro en algunos de los Cuentos famosos

de Pepe Monagas, de Pancho Guerra’, in Lengua, sociedad y cultura: estudios

interdisciplinares, edited by Mª Isabel González Cruz (Las Palmas de Gran Canaria:

Servicio de Publicaciones de la ULPGC / La Caja de Canarias. Obra Social, 2006), pp.

311-326.

___________________ ‘Todo aquel que trabaja es porque no sirve pa otra cosa, como

dijo mi compadre Pepe Monagas en los famosos cuentos que llevan su nombre’, in

Ironizar, parodiar, satirizar. Estudios sobre el humor y la risa en la lengua, la literatura

y la cultura, edited by Eduardo Parrilla Sotomayor (Monterrey: Ediciones Eón /

Tecnológico de Monterrey, 2009), pp. 265-280.

Ziv, A. (1984). Personality and Sense of Humor. (New York: Springer Publishing

Company).


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