Teresa Pla Meseguer, Part II

A group of policemen (called Civil Guards) stopped Teresa once and forced her to strip naked. They had heard that her genitals were “weird” and wanted to see for themselves. It is needless to say that Teresa was traumatized by this horrible violation. She had been trying so hard to fit into what a woman was supposed to be like. She had even bought a red dress, curled her hair, and started attending dancing fetes. And now, she was forced to undress and reveal her body to drunken Civil Guards.

Teresa

This was when Teresa decided to stop pretending. She joined the Republican guerrilla fighters and started living her life as a man, Florencio. The guerrilla fighters were more open-minded than the villagers. They easily accepted Florencio as a man and never questioned his identity. They helped him to achieve his greatest dream, which was learning to read.

Unfortunately, the Republican guerrilla movement was administered by the Soviets. Stalin was the person who decided what they were supposed to do, when, and how. For Stalin, purges were an integral part of ruling the Communist allies all over the world. Florencio’s closest friend among the guerrilla fighters, Francisco, was accused by a Stalin’s emissary of treason. Francisco decided to escape in order to avoid being killed by his own comrades. As a good friend, Florencio joined him and the two men formed a rogue guerrilla unit.

Florencio and Francisco survived for a while in the forest until Francisco was killed. After that, Florencio remained hiding in the forest on his own. He knew the terrain so well that he managed to avoid capture for years.

At that time, the Republican guerrilleros had already withdrawn from Spain on Stalin’s orders. Florencio was left completely alone. The Civil Guards hunted him and the newspapers published articles describing Florencio as “a wild beast,” “a woman with entrails of stone” (yes, they were shitty writers, what can I say?), “a blood-thirsty hyena”, etc. The authorities were especially bothered by rumors that Florencio was living his life as a man. This gender-switching made him even more suspect in their eyes.

In 1960, Florencio was captured by the Civil Guards. He was given the capital penalty for 29 murders that were erroneously attributed to him. Florencio, however, always denied killing anybody and the authorities never managed to prove that he was guilty of murder.

At first, the authorities tried to place Florencio in a women’s jail. They dressed him in a mini-skirt and a blouse that was so tight he could barely breathe. Florencio was a man, however, and nobody could pretend he wasn’t. In the first part of the post, you have a photo of how Florencio looked right after he was captured. It soon became obvious that keeping him in a jail for female prisoners would not do.

A group of military doctors studied Florencio for a while and arrived at a unanimous conclusion that he was a man. From then on, he was placed in a men’s jail and his gender was never again disputed.

In 1977, Florencio was released from jail. In 1980, he finally managed to get the authorities to recognize him legally as a man. Florencio Pla Meseguer died in 2004 at the age of 87. He had survived the dictator Francisco Franco by 29 years and had witnessed Spain’s transition to democracy.

________________________________

Sources:

If you don’t read in Spanish, there are no good sources for this information. At least, not until my article is finished and comes out. 🙂

If you do read in Spanish, I recommend the following books:

Calvo Segarra, José. La Pastora. Del monte al mito. Vinarós: Antinea, 2009.

Giménez Bartlett, Alicia. Donde nadie te encuentre. Barcelona: Destino, 2011.

And Now Let Me Bore You With My Research: Teresa Pla Meseguer, Part I

I never do this, folks, so I think I can be excused for discussing my research just this once. Especially because you will not find this information on English-language websites and I think it’s fascinating.

Florencio, 1960

Teresa Pla Meseguer was born in a small village of Vallibona in Spain in 1917. Today, we would call Teresa intersex because her gender could not be determined at birth. In her tiny village of shepherds and poor farmers, however, nobody knew this word. Teresa’s parents registered her as a woman because being female would have allowed her to avoid being drafted into the army.

Teresa never performed femininity very convincingly, though. People ridiculed her and taunted her for looking like a guy and her elder sisters beat her mercilessly. Teresa grew up to be very tall and strong, which made people afraid of laughing at her in her face. When the Civil War started in 1936, Teresa didn’t join either of the warring sides. She was considered a woman, which gave her the right to stay in Vallibona. She could do hard physical labor as well as a man and men were scarce. This allowed Teresa to make good money and even start saving.

As we all know, the progressive Republican forces lost the Civil War in Spain. The fascists, led by the General Francisco Franco (or, as I refer to him in my lectures, vile cockroach*), won. The defeated Republican forces withdrew to France. The Republicans** fought heroically against Hitler in Europe because they believed that once the Nazis were defeated, the Allies would proceed to remove Franco and his fascists from power.

This never happened. The Allies allowed the fascist dictatorship of Franco to remain in power until 1975.

The Republican fighters decided to take matters into their own hands. They organized guerrilla units, crossed the border between France and Spain, and started engaging in subversive activities against the regime. Teresa was one of the many people in the area who helped the guerrilla  fighters by providing them with food and helping them pass messages to their families.

One day, however, a really horrible thing happened to Teresa.

[To be continued. . .]

* And I always follow this with a disclaimer that the students should feel free to form a different opinion about Franco but that this is a subject where it makes me feel better to say that he is a vile cockroach.

** These, of course, are very different from the American Republicans. The Spanish Republicans were people who defended the democratically elected legitimate government of the 2nd Republic against the military uprising of fascists between 1936-9.

What Have You Heard About the Holocaust?

In this area where I live, the Jewish community is absent and in order to explain to my students who the Jews even are, I have to engage in the following kind of dialogue that annoys me beyond what I can express.

Me: Have you heard of the Holocaust?

Students: Yes.

Me: So what is it?

Students: When many people died?

(Note the “died.” Like they just got old and died, or didn’t take their vitamins and died.)

Me: What people?

Silence.

Me: Why did they die?

Silence.

Me: Who killed them?

Students: Bad guys?

Me: Yes, you could put it that way. Bad guys.

Are Horrible Acts Always Horrible?

Reader Kinjal says:

People ought to be judged according to the times and social mores they lived in.

I disagree with this statement profoundly. I believe that horrible acts such as rape, murder, torture, abuse of children, and pedophilia are always horrible. Their evilness is immanent and does not depend on when the perpetrator lived and what his or her society sanctioned. If you abstain from doing horrible things only because you are afraid of retribution, what is the value of your morality?

Tolstoy raped his wife. In my eyes, he is as much of a vile rapist as anybody who lives today and does the same thing. He saw a human being in pain, crying, begging him to stop, suffering because of what he was doing to her. And he somehow didn’t know that it was wrong because nobody told him that it was? And then he continued doing it many times over because he kept not knowing? I just can’t buy that.

Major crimes like the one I listed are not relative. Some people are capable of them and some aren’t. Different times and changing social norms are just an excuse used to justify perpetrators and disgusting creatures who mask as human beings.

Should the October Revolution Be Celebrated?

Most of my readers probably didn’t notice that yesterday was the anniversary of the October Revolution. Around every November 7th, the Russian-speaking blogosphere explodes with discussions as to whether this date should be celebrated. My answer to this question is an unequivocal yes.

Regular readers of my blog know that I hate the Soviet Union with abandon. Unlike many of my compatriots, I fail to find a single redeeming feature to this horrible, repressive, monstrous country. The October Revolution, however, was a progressive, profoundly transformative event that initially* destroyed all of the remaining vestiges of the hopelessly outdated and degenerate Empire of the Romanovs.

Whenever I read late XIXth and early XXth century literature by American authors, I always feel stunned by how much freedom women in North America enjoyed compared to the women of the Russian Empire. The October Revolution bridged the gap in women’s rights between the countries of the Russian Empire and North America overnight and allowed women to move very far ahead on this issue, overtaking every other country in the world instantly.

The Revolution also liberated the Jews of the Empire from the pale of settlement and allowed them to become integrated into society easily and in any form they chose.

The decade of the 1920s saw an explosion of artistic production in Russia and Ukraine. The Russian Modernists of this decade created outstanding works of art and started the Silver Age of Russian literature.

Of course, later Soviet Union transformed into a repressive totalitarian state. The Russian Modernists were silenced. Their Ukrainian counterparts were exterminated. Soviet Jews rediscovered antisemitism in the late 1940s. Women were persecuted by puritanical ideologues for any suggestion that they can be sexual beings and not just productive workers and efficient baby machines.

Any good idea and any hopeful event can be perverted to the point where they turn into their exact opposite. This is what happened to the October Revolution. The society it ended up creating was structured very rigidly in terms of economic and social classes. Inequality was shocking. Artistic creation was stifled. Ethnic minorities were oppressed and subjected to genocide.

Still, even knowing what I do now about the results of the Revolution, if I happened to live in 1917, I would have fought for the Revolution. For a woman, a Ukrainian, a Jew, a peasant and a descendant of slaves, there was no other legitimate course of action.

* Stalin reestablished quite a few of the traditions of the Russian Empire in late 1930s.

Was Stalin Aware of Romeo and Juliet?

I’m reading a new novel by Almudena Grandes, one of Spain’s leading authors. At the very beginning of the book, the narrator tells a story in which Stalin makes a reference to Romeo and Juliet. “This must mean the story is apocryphal,” the narrator immediately concludes. “Stalin couldn’t have been aware of Romeo and Juliet because his Russian was never very good.”

It is true that Stalin spoke Russian with a strong accent his entire life. This is not surprising since it wasn’t his language. However, poor knowledge of Russian has never prevented anybody from being familiar with works of Shakespeare. I have a strong suspicion that Shakespeare himself was not a fluent speaker of this language.

At the same time, having an accent, even a strong one, in no way precludes very high proficiency in reading in a language. Stalin was not only a poet, who in his youth managed to get published and even included into an anthology of best poetry in Georgia, he was also an avid reader, and not only in Georgian but also in Russian. His party nickname was “Koba”, after a character in a novel. After his death, Stalin’s huge personal library was recovered and is now available to researchers. Many a learned volume has been written on the extensive notes Stalin left in the margins of his favorite books.

It is important to remember, that even at the height of purges, Stalin almost never killed writers who wrote in Russian. He exterminated every single Ukrainian writer of note but Russian-language authors were cherished by him. Osip Mandelshtam, the greatest poet of the twentieth century in Russia (in my opinion) and a Jew, and Isaak Babel, another Soviet Jewish writer, were the only ones killed by Stalin. Mandelshtam wrote a poem criticizing Stalin and making fun of his appearance, and Babel had an affair with the wife of the NKVD chief. Save from these two egregious cases, Stalin protected Russian-speaking writers.

Stalin’s favorite writer, Mikhail Bulgakov (not a Jew and actually a notorious anti-Semite), wrote books that were very critical of the Soviet Union and also very complex in a truly Modernist way. Stalin loved Bulgakov’s work so much that he attended the performance of one of his plays dozens of times. He also protected Boris Pasternak (who was actually one of the greatest translators of Shakespeare into Russian. And a Jew). Pasternak’s name was put on a list of people to be arrested and Stalin himself crossed him off the list.

There is ample evidence that Stalin read very carefully every single work of literature that was nominated for the highest literary prize in Soviet Union, a prize that bore Stalin’s own name.

I’m not writing this to defend Stalin in any way. He was a bloody dictator and a horrible person. An ignoramus, however, he was not. He was an autodidact from an indigent family who spoke with an accent. None of these things, however, suggest that he was stupid or illiterate.

A Ukrainian Alternative to a Barbecue

Since I just criticized the American barbecue parties in my previous post, I want to show you what we, the Ukrainians, do instead. We had this kind of garden party in Montreal a couple of weeks ago. Of course, the weather was pretty cool, otherwise we wouldn’t have done it.

The huge black pan you can see on the photo contains my favorite food ever. We call it “a soldier’s pottage” (the clumsy translation is all mine.) As I shared before, my maternal grandfather fought in World War II. He started the war as a teenage kid on the very first day of Hitler’s invasion of Ukraine and ended it in Berlin, on may 9, 1945 when he wrote his (and, eventually, mine) last name on the walls of the defeated Reichstag. This soldier’s pottage is what he and his comrades ate during the war.

The point of the pottage is that you place every kind of foodstuff you have available in the pot, add some water, and let it brew. Obviously, food is much easier to find in Montreal today than in the swamps of Polesie or the forests of Bayern during a war. So our soldier’s pottage ends up being far richer than the original.

This time, we added chicken, potatoes, carrots, millet, and poured in some eggs. In the past, we have used rabbit instead of chicken, canned meat (which made the pottage more like what it was originally), or no meat at all. Barley can be used instead of millet. After the pottage is left brewing for a couple of hours, you can eat it. It isn’t only delicious, it also offers us an opportunity to experience an emotional connection with the history of our family and of the entire world.

Gladiators: Another Funny Teaching Story

The good news is that as long as I keep teaching, there will always be funny stories to share with my blog’s readers.

I was talking about the rise of the Inquisition in Medieval Spain. (The Spanish Inquisition was established by the Catholic Kings Ferdinand and Isabella in 1478). A student raises her hand.

Me: Yes?

Student: When are you going to talk about the gladiators?

Me: You want me to talk about the gladiators?

Student (enthusiastically): Yes, I’d love to hear about them.

Me: Does anybody else want me to talk about the gladiators?

Students (all speaking excitedly at the same time): Yes! The gladiators! They are so cool!

Of course, the gladiators were around about a millenium and a half before the rise of the Inquisition. But hey, why should I dampen this kind of enthusiasm for history?

So I talked about the gladiators and managed to connect this discussion to the topic of our course on Hispanic civilization (the Roman Empire, Spanish as a Romance language, the consolidation of Spanish as a language in its own right and not just a degraded version of Latin, etc.)

I can’t tell you, people, how much I love teaching. When I stand there, in front of a classroom, talking about this stuff that interests me so much and see the rapt, curious, young faces of my students (and, of course, anybody is young while they are receptive to new knowledge), there is nothing that can compare to this feeling. It feels a little bit like flying. They’ll have to cart me off to the funeral home straight from a classroom because I’m never giving this up.

Anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, Part III

What the veterans discovered when they came back from the war wasn’t just the poverty, the hunger and the destruction. They also came back to a country that had changed completely between 1941 and 1945. The former idealism, the faith in the revolution, communism, fraternity and equality were dead and gone. Profound cynicism and materialism set in. A very visible elite was formed that consisted of people who had connections and could get objects of luxury and trade them for other objects of luxury. The last generation of party leaders who took a tram to work was the pre-war one. The new generation led truly princely lifestyles. (This is something that would never change. Today, their grandchildren are the political leaders and the owners of the supposedly post-Soviet Russia.)

Understandably, the popular discontent was growing. People realized that even though they had won the war, all they had to come home to was misery and back-breaking labor that would only enrich the lucky few. Stalin needed to channel this massive unhappiness somewhere. As usual, he didn’t invent anything new but simply copied one of the people he admired the most in the world: Hitler.

The remedy took. People remembered how comforting it was to hate those greedy, nasty, scheming Jews and popular anti-Semitism grew.

There was another reason why Stalin encouraged anti-Semitism, though. There is ample evidence that at the time right before his death he was preparing to unleash World War III. Of course, he couldn’t initiate a nuclear conflict and expect the downtrodden of the world to support him. He needed to provoke his greatest enemy, the United States. I strongly believe that public trials of Jews  and mass deportations were planned specifically to provoke the United States into doing something that would justify the entrance of the USSR into a global nuclear conflict.

After Stalin’s death, anti-Semitism remained the daily reality both on the popular and on the institutional levels until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nowadays, I don’t think that anti-Semitism is much of an issue in the FSU countries for the simple reason that most Jews left.

This concludes this series of posts. I will now accept questions and comments on how well I explain complex facts of history. 🙂

Anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, Part II

In 1945, Soviet Union defeated the Nazi Germany and liberated the surviving Jews from the concentration camps. Soviet Jews had participated in the war effort heroically, in every capacity imaginable.

Three years later, a vicious anti-Semitic campaign was unleashed within the country against the Soviet Jews. If Stalin hadn’t died (or had been killed, which is far more probable), Soviet Jews would have been deported to Siberia. This was a very doable plan for Stalin, since he had already deported several nations to Siberia in their entirety. The deportations were going to be preceded by 1937-style trials over prominent Jews. The first such trial was going to be one where famous Jewish doctors would be condemned to death for, supposedly, organizing the murders of the Communist leaders of the Soviet Union, starting with Lenin and Gorky.

Many people believe even today that this anti-Semitic revival was a result of Stalin’s personal dislike for Jews. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no evidence that Stalin ever relied on personal sympathies or lack thereof in any of his crucial decisions. Let’s remember that he played the key role in the creation of the State of Israel. Besides, he collaborated with Jews in his government for decades. It’s very hard to believe that one day he just woke up and decided to entertain some long-held grudge against Jews all of a sudden.

Just like everything else he did, Stalin’s anti-Semitic policies served very practical purposes. On the one hand, anti-Semitism was what the country needed to vent the grievances caused by the war. During the war, many people crossed the Soviet borders for the first time in their lives. My Ukrainian grandfather was from a small village that had been ravaged by the Soviet policies aimed at destroying the Ukrainian agriculture. He walked across the entire Eastern and Central Europe with his regiment. And that was when he discovered that Soviet propaganda had been lying to him his entire life. Polish and German farmers lived incomparably better and richer lifestyles than he on the most fertile soil in Europe, in Ukraine. Even after the destruction of the war, it was obvious that he was a pauper compared to these “poor victims of capitalist greed.”

There were millions of soldiers and prisoners of war who came back with such stories. Many of them were sent to the concentration camps. Stalin couldn’t jail every single war veteran, however.

(To be continued. . . )