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Home/Stories and articles/Recovery
October 2004

The story of the Winnipeg:
The poem that crossed the Atlantic

65 years ago, Valparaiso's Prat Wharf received the legendary Winnipeg ship, full of Spanish immigrants whose escape from the Civil War was assisted by Pablo Neruda. "The critics may erase all of my poetry, if they want to. But the poem I'm now remembering, nobody will be able to erase it", wrote Neruda afterwards.

By Rosario Mena

There were about 2,500 Spanish immigrants on board, including men, women and children; who wrrived to Valparaiso on September the 3rd, 1939. They were republicans that had been defeated on the Civil War, and that had had to escape and seek for shelter in France after Franco's assumption. They were painters, writers and sellers, who found in our country a new future for their families, and who would get to contribute enormously to our culture and social life, considering the remarkable work later developed by people like historian Leopoldo Castedo, and painters Roser Bru and José Balmes (who was 12 years old when he left Spain), among others.

We are now celebrating the 65 years of the Winnipeg's arrival, and the Painters and Sculptors Association organized during September a special act in which thousands of people got to know a little more about the history of this ship that left the French port of Trompeloup-Pauillac on August the 4th. During the ceremony, people got one of the 2,500 pieces especially painted for the ocassion, representing visually and poetically each one of the passengers of that time.

Neruda's biggest poem
Back in Chile, in 1937, after working as consul in Barcelona and Madrid for three years, Pablo Neruda got to know the tragic situation of the Spanish refugees then living in French concentration camps. He was specially moved, mainly because of his profound link with Spain and the many friends he made while living there. Neruda then decided to leave his writing for a while and look for a way to help these people. He was perfectly aware that these immigrants would be of great help for Chile not just to practice its collective generosity, but also to be benefited by the valuable work they would do here. So he convinces the administration of Pedro Aguirre Cerda to sponsor this ambitious idea.

In 1939 Neruda is sent to France to organize the travelling process. He holds the diplomatic title of Special Consul for the Spanish Inmigration, and gets an office in Paris, where he arrives with a cast over his leg. He inmediatly starts an intense work with the thousands of applications mailed, which he reads one by one with his wife, Delia del Carril. With the help of the former republican Spanish government, then exiled, they choose the immigrants that would get to Chile, a hard task considering the pressure from the Spanish dictatorship and the division of the families in different concentration camps all over France. But the work gets done, through the creation of the Evacuation Service for Spanish Refugees.

For the trip, Neruda hires an old French container ship, which used to travel between Marsella and the African coast with no more than twenty passengers. Somehow, in this humble ship, the Winnipeg, they make the beds fit for 2,500 people that would end up arriving in Chile.

At the same time, all the preparations start being organized at the French port of Trompeloup —Pauillac, near Bordeaux. Even Pablo Picasso applauds the Neruda iniative.

A few hours before the boarding, couples, parents and children, dispersed until then because of the tragedy, meet again. "The trains would get to the pier, and the wives would not stop looking for their husbands through the wagons' windows. They had been apart since the end of the Civil War, and then they were seeing each other again, in front of the ship that would take them away. I have never again seen such dramatic gestures: hugs, cries, kisses and laughs", wrote the poet.

A month later, after an eventful trip, the old ship, Neruda's biggest poem, entered the Valparaiso Bay, packed with dreams and hopes.

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