Gabriel Jose Garcia Marquez was born on March 6, 1928 in Aracataca, a town in Northern Colombia, where he was raised by his maternal grandparents in a house filled with countless aunts and the rumors of ghosts. But in order to get a better grasp on Garcia Marquez’s life, it helps to understand something first about both the history of Colombia and the unusual background of his family. Colombia Colombia won its independence from Spain in 1810, technically making it one of Latin America’s oldest democracies, but the sad fact is that this “democracy” has rarely known peace and justice.
In the beginning, there was of course Spain and the Indians, happily hating each other as the Spaniards tore the land up in quest for gold, El Dorado, religious converts, and political power. The English, too, played their part, with Drake attacking Riohachi in 1568 and the countless colonial squabbles of the next few centuries. Declaring itself independent from Spain when Napoleon ousted the Spanish King in 1810, the new country experienced a brief period of freedom and then was quickly reconquered in 1815 by the unpleasant and bloody campaigns of General Murillo.
So much did their internal bickering allow their fledgling country to fall to the sword of Murillo, the period is immortalized in Colombia’s history with the colorful name of la Patria Boba, or “The Booby Fatherland. ” Round two, however, fell to the Colombians, when Simon Bolivar reliberated the country in 1820 and became its very first president. In 1849, the country was sufficiently advanced enough to concretize their squabbling in the form of two political parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, who exist to this day.
These two parties form the political framework for much of Garcia Marquez’s fiction, and understanding their true natures is both a key to his writing and, unfortunately, an important insight to Latin American politics in general. Although initially forming around the nucleus of two distinct and different ideologies, long years of bloody conflict have served to significantly erode the distinctions between the parties. The Conservatives and the Liberals are more like warring factions or clans than any parties with firmly established and radically different ideologies.
Both tend to be repressive, both are corrupt, and both terribly abuse power when it falls into their hands; and throughout the sad history of Colombia, both parties have been more or less at war. It has often been said of Colombia’s parties that you do not join them, you are born into them; and indeed they act more as territorial and familial units than as peacefully functioning parties with distinct political platforms. In addition, the country is split into two main regional groups — the costenos of the coastal Caribbean, and the cachacos of the central highland.
Both groups use those terms as pejorative of the other, and both view the other with disdain. The costenos tend to be more racially mixed, verbally outgoing, and superstitious. They are primarily the “descendants of pirates and smugglers, with a mixture of black slaves,” and as a whole are “dancers, adventurers, people full of gaiety. ” The cachacos, on the other hand, are more formal, aristocratic, and racially pure, who pride themselves on their advanced cities such as Bogota and on their ability to speak excellent Spanish.
Traditionally, the tropical Caribbean coast has been a Liberal bastion, and the cool mountains and valleys of the interior tend to the Conservative side. Garcia Marquez has often remarked that he views himself as a mestizo and a costeno, both characteristics enabling his formation and development as a writer. Throughout the nineteenth century, Colombia was wracked by rebellions, civil wars of both the local and national variety, and several coups d’etat.
This century of bloodshed had its culmination in 1899, when the War of a Thousand Days began — Colombia’s most devastating civil war, a conflict that ended in late 1902 with the defeat of the Liberals. The war claimed the lives of over 100,000 people, primarily peasants and their sons. Garcia Marquez’s grandfather fought in that war, and many of its veterans would eventually find their way into immortalization as fictional characters in his work. Another event that would influence his work was the prevalence banana industry and the massacre of 1928.
Although coffee is generally considered Colombia’s main export, for the first few decades of the twentieth century, bananas were also of crucial importance to the economy. The banana trade had its principle manifestation in the United Fruit Company, an American outfit that had a virtual monopoly on the banana industry, which at the time was the only source of income for many of the costeno areas, including Aracataca. The UFC had unlimited economic power and tremendous political clout, but it was a corrupt and amoral company that abused its Colombian workers terribly.
In October of 1928, over 32,000 native workers went on strike, demanding, among other such unreasonable things, toilets and payment in cash rather than company scrip. One night a huge crowd of them gathered to hold a demonstration. In order to quell the incident, the Conservative government sent in the troops, which fired on the unarmed workers, killing hundreds. Over the next few months, more people simply vanished, and finally the whole incident was official denied and struck from the history books.
Garcia Marquez would later incorporate the incident in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The next significant event that would eventually affect his writing was a period of time that he himself would live through, a horrible period of time called la violencia, or “the Violence. ” The Violence has its roots in the banana massacre. At that time, one of the only politicians courageous enough to take a stand against government corruption was a man named Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, a young Liberal member of congress who convened meetings to investigate the incident.
Gaitan began to rise in prominence, a champion of the peasants and the poor, but an annoyance to the powerful members of both parties, who viewed him with something akin to fear and loathing. Using radio as his medium, he heralded a time of change, a time when the people would take part in a true democracy and corporations would be forced to act responsibly. By 1946, Gaitan was powerful enough to cause a split in his own party, who had been in power since 1930.
The split caused a Conservative return to power, and fearing a reprisal, they began organizing paramilitary groups whose ultimate purpose was to terrorize Liberal voters; which they did admirably, killing thousands of them by the end of the year. In 1947 the Liberals gained control of the Congress, putting Gaitan in charge as party leader. (Despite the Conservative’s efforts, the voter turnout was at a record high. ) Tensions rose, and on April 9, 1948, Gaitan was assassinated in Bogota. The city was convulsed by lethal riots for three days, a period called el Bogotazo and responsible for 2500 deaths.
La violencia entered a more deadly phase. Guerrilla armies were organized by both parties, and terror swept through the land. Towns and villages were burned, thousands — including women and children — were brutally murdered, farms were confiscated, and over a million peasants emigrated to Venezuela. In 1949, Conservatives even gunned down a Liberal politician, in the middle of giving a speech in the very halls of Congress! The Conservatives finally dissolved Congress, declared the country to be in a state of siege, and Liberals (now conveniently branded “communists”) were hunted, persecuted, and murdered.
The country was ripped apart; la violenciawould claim the lives of some 150,000 Colombians by 1953. The Violence would later become the backdrop to several of Garcia Marquez’s novellas and stories, most notably In Evil Hour. His Family The most important relatives of Garcia Marquez were undoubtedly his maternal grandfather and grandmother. His grandfather was Colonel Nicolas Ricardo Marquez Mejia, a Liberal veteran of the War of a Thousand Days. He lived in Aracataca, a banana town by the Caribbean, a village which he helped found.
The Colonel was something of a hero to the costenos, for among other things, he refused to stay silent about the banana massacres, delivering a searing denunciation of the murders to Congress in 1929. A very complex and interesting man, the Colonel was also an excellent story teller who had lead quite an intriguing life — when he was younger he shot and killed a man in a duel, and it is said that he had fathered over sixteen children! He would speak of his wartime experiences as if they were “almost pleasant experiences — sort of youthful adventures with guns.
The old Colonel taught the young Gabriel lessons from the dictionary, took him to the circus each year, and was the first one who introduced his grandson to ice — a miracle to be found at the UFC company store. He also told his young nephew that there was no greater burden than to have killed a man, a lesson that Garcia Marquez would later put into the mouths of his characters. His grandmother was Tranquilina Iguaran Cotes, and would be no less an influence on the young Garcia Marquez than her husband.
She was terribly filled with superstitions and folk beliefs, as were her numerous sisters, and they filled the house with stories of ghosts and premonitions, omens and portents — all of which were studiously ignored by her husband, who once said to young Gabriel, “Don’t listen to that. Those are women’s beliefs. ” And yet listen he did, for his grandmother had a unique way of telling stories. No matter how fantastic or improbable her statements, she always delivered them as if they were the implacable truth.
It was a deadpan style that, some thirty years later, her grandson would adopt for his greatest novel. Garcia Marquez’s parents were more or less strangers to him for the first few years of his life, and the reason behind this is quite interesting. His mother, Luisa Santiaga Marquez Iguaran, was one of the two children born to the Colonel and his wife. A spirited girl, she unfortunately fell in love with a man named Gabriel Eligio Garcia. Unfortunately, for Garcia was something of an anethma to her parents.
For one thing, he was a Conservative as well as la hojarasca, a derogatory term applied to the recent residents of the town, drawn by the banana trade. (La hojarasca means “dead leaf,” as in something that descends in useless flurries and is best swept away. ) Garcia also had a reputation as a philanderer, the father of four illegitimate children. He was not exactly the man the Colonel had envisioned winning the heart of his daughter — and yet he did, wooing her with violin serenades, love poems, countless letters — and even telegraph messages.
They tried all they could to get rid of the man, but he kept coming back, and it was obvious that their daughter was committed to him. Finally they surrendered to his Latino tenacity, and the Colonel gave her hand in marriage to the former medical student. In order to ease relations, the newlyweds settled in the Colonel’s old home town of Riohacha. (The tragicomic story of their courtship would later be adapted and recast as Love in the Time of Cholera. ) Early Life Gabriel Jose Garcia Marquez was born on March 6, 1928 in Aracataca, although his father contends that it was really 1927.
Because his parents were still poor and struggling, his grandparents accepted the task of raising him, a common practice at the time. Unfortunately, 1928 was the last year of the banana boom in Aracataca. The strike and its brutal reprisal hit the town hard; over one hundred strikers were shot one night in Aracataca and dumped into a common grave. It was a sad start to his life, one that would later resurface in his writing. Nicknamed Gabito, little Gabriel grew up as a quiet and shy lad, entranced by his grandfather’s stories and his grandmother’s superstitions.
Aside from the Colonel and himself, it was a house of women, and later Garcia Marquez would later remark that their beliefs had him afraid to leave his chair, half terrified of ghosts. And yet all the seeds of his future work were planted in that house — stories of the civil war and the banana massacre, the courtship of his parents, the sturdy practicality of the superstitious matriarch, the comings and goings of aunts, great aunts, and his grandfather’s illegitimate daughters — later Garcia Marquez would write: “I feel that all my writing has been about the experiences of the time I spent with my grandparents.
His grandfather died when he was eight years old, and due to his grandmother’s increasing blindness, he went to live with his parents in Sucre, where his father was working as a pharmacist. Soon after he arrived in Sucre, it was decided that he should begin his formal schooling. He was sent to a boarding school in Barranquilla, a port city at the mouth of the Magdalena River. There, he acquired a reputation as being a shy boy who wrote humorous poems and drew cartoons. So serious and non-athletic was he that he was nicknamed “the Old Man” by his classmates.
In 1940, when he was twelve, he was awarded a scholarship to a secondary school for gifted students, run by Jesuits. The school — the Liceo Nacional — was in Zipaquira, a city 30 miles to the north of Bogota. The journey would take a week, and in that time he came to the conclusion that he did not like Bogota. Exposed to the capital for the first time, he found it dismal and oppressive, and his experience helped confirm his identity as a costeno. In school, he found himself growing quite stimulated by his studies, and in the evening, he often read books aloud to his companions in the dormitory.
And much to his amusement, even though he had yet to write anything significant, his great love of literature and his cartoons and stories helped him acquire a reputation as a writer. Perhaps this reputation provided him with a star by which to steer the ship of his imagination; and he would need it, for after graduation in 1946, the eighteen year old “writer” followed his parents wishes and enrolled in the Universidad Nacional in Bogota as a law student rather than as a journalist. It was during this time that Garcia Marquez met his future wife.
While visiting his parents, he was introduced to a 13 year old girl named Mercedes Barcha Pardo. Dark and silent, of Egyptian decent, she was “the most interesting person” he had ever met. After he graduated from the Liceo Nacional, he took a small vacation with his parents before leaving for the University. During that time, he proposed to her. Agreeing, but first wishing to finish primary school, she put off the engagement. Although they wouldn’t be married for another fourteen years, Mercedes promised to stay true to him.