Mireia Sentís and the Untold Story of the African Americans in the Spanish Civil War

The professional artistic and introspective journey of Spanish author, journalist and visual artist Mireia Sentis represents an true exercise in following one’s passions that predates the popularity of this ideal as a way of life. Ms. Sentis, guided by her many interests and curiosities, particularly in African American history and culture, has explored such themes for decades in varying formats.

The first Sentis work I encountered was her documentary film “Invisible Heroes” which tells the story of a group of African American freedom fighters that traveled to Spain during the Spanish civil war to fight for their vision of justice. It is a moving story about empathy, generosity and sacrifice, particularly considering the burden of oppression that African Americans have always confronted in the United States.

The story poignantly exemplifies Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Ms. Sentis’ body of work is a refreshing reminder that one need not be African American to take an interest in the lives of African Americans. Likewise, one need not be Spanish to deepen their understanding of the Spanish Civil War and or Spanish society.

The quest for justice anywhere in the world is a quest that should move all human beings with a focus and compassion that places common divisions like nationality, race and religion on the backburner. More than anything, Ms. Sentis’ lengthy career trajectory epitomizes the importance of deliberate action – of taking concrete steps to pursue the seeds that mystifyingly plant themselves in our hearts and minds. These pursuits are the highest expression of our humanity and are worth exploring even if the journey is long and expensive. The pursuits that seek us out are worthy of manifesting just because, they do not require an end game or even a ready audience.

RP M Sentís - E Balcells - Arts Santa Mònica, 22 set 2009

  • Can you please tell us a bit about your professional background?

My career is a bit bumpy because it has adapted to my interests. I do not have a college degree but I have faculty titles in several languages. I grew up in Paris and studied two years in Oxford, England – and two in Italy –in Perugia and Florence. My first job was as an interpreter of French and Italian at a Congress of Angiology in Barcelona. With that money and the one I made  helping my father with his work, I went to New York where, after a few entrance exams, I went to work in the United Nations, in a section called Reference Section.  I left after two years. I wanted to devote myself to the world of art.

I enrolled in a television school in New York and started to send small films on Spanish artists that were broadcasted on a television program in Barcelona. Then an offer came to me. I returned to Spain where I worked in television for about 7 or 8 years as a reporter, presenter and finally director of my own program. When I started to receive offers for programs that did not interest me, I started to write. I returned to New York where I collaborated with several newspapers and magazines; primarily with the Spanish newspaper El Pais.

After a few years I received an offer in Madrid to start a quarterly publication of art and thought directed by Borja Casani, a very interesting person. We created the magazine between four people. It lasted two years. The chapters that I published on my experiences in SoHo, became a book called To the limit of the Game, about the most heterodox American artistic avant-garde of the 60’s & 70’s.

Then I moved to Los Angeles, where I started working on my next book: In the Eagle’s Beak: An Introduction to African American Culture that was told through 16 interviews with artists and intellectuals such as: Amiri Baraka, Cornel West, Ishmael Reed and Angela Davis. Currently I am running Biblioteca Afro Americana Madrid (BAAM), together with José Luis Gallero. It consists of a library people can come, do research or find information and of  a collection of books by African American authors. And I’m still writing and publishing. Mainly essays.

Parallel to all of  this, I am also an artist and I have exhibited for years in various places and countries. I use photography as a means to think. I have also been a curator at large centers and museums for a few years.

  • A significant part of your career has been in the US, what explains your desire to leave Spain?

I grew up in Paris and my parents returned to Spain when I was about 13 or 14 years old. At 17, I was sent to study abroad. I never wanted to “leave” Spain. My impulse was another: I did not have a vocation, I did not know what to devote myself to that I was really passionate about and  I thought that New York was a place where, given that there are so many options, I could maybe find mine. It was clear that it would be in the field of culture, but I did not know where to start. My work at the UN gave me time to think and see it clearly:  my calling was art and writing.

  • You seem to carry a dominant interest or theme linked to the history of African Americans in your art works and historical works. How do you explain the dominance of this theme?

I find it difficult to try to “explain” the steps which I have taken in my life. I work based on my interests. When something excites me, I strive to understand it and order it in my head. Journalism served for that: to introduce me where I would like to, understand it and order it in my head.

When I arrived in New York the Hispanic world interested me. I even wrote about Spanglish. Then I entered into the black American world, which seems to me to be the most interesting group of people in the United States. In part because without the input of their culture, the United States would just be a reflection of the Anglo-Saxon world. Afroamerica defines America. It is a group with a history unknown to a large audience and a very peculiar situation: treated as if immigrants and not as the most representative of America; yet a group who has given us the classical music of the 20th century. There is no doubt that jazz defines North America. Perhaps my time working at the UN first made it possible that African-Americans were not strangers to my daily life.

  • I find that your documentary “Invisible Heroes” is a bridge between your interest in the African American world and the history of your country of origin. How did you first learn of the story that led to the creation of your documentary?

I buy many books by African American writers. In fact, in Madrid (I’m from Barcelona, but I live in Madrid) I have an African-American reference library. In terms of the history of Invisible Heroes, one day while at a warehouse in the East Village, I discovered the book Mississippi to Madrid, the autobiography of James Yates, an African American who was part of the Lincoln Brigade. When I finished it, I told the story to Alfonso Domingo, a documentary filmmaker friend of mine who specializes in the Spanish civil war. He had never heard of the small African American contingent of the Lincoln Brigade. And that gave us the idea to further expose the story.

  • What was your role exactly in your creation of this documentary Invisible Heroes?

I discovered the book and I passed it on for reading to the filmmaker. My role since then was to work with him. At one point I came to New York to find money for the project. Money that I never found. But  what I did find, by chance, was a friend, Jordi Torrent, also a filmmaker, who on hearing about my project  gave me the shocking news that he had met James Yates and had interviewed him on several occasions. He had never done anything with the interview footage. Due to a lack of money and time; but not of interest. We decided to join forces.

For the film credits, we decided to divide our roles in the following manner: they would be co-directors and the three of us would be co-idea and co-producers. It is clear that it has been a project completed by three sets of hands, where each one has often played interspersed roles. On the other hand, and on my own, I published the translation to the Yates’ book in BAAM. I have also written about this topic in a newspaper. Always with the same result: significant interest from an audience that was previously unaware of the contingent of African American belonging to the  Lincoln Brigade .

  • Why in your opinion does this story remain relatively unknown in the United States and Spain?

With a contingent of 3000 American soldiers, the African Americans comprised only around 85. The sheer number would be one of the reasons. Another reason is that if United States need a black history month to spread part of its own history and much of it is still very unknown, imagine how it is in Spain… Our documentary and publication of the book by Yates in Spanish, makes us very happy: we have filled a niche; we have unveiled a piece of history. A history of a generous people.

  • To put all this in the historical context of the time, can you enlighten us with the reasons that led to the outbreak of this war?

The Spanish civil war is a very complicated issue and I’m not a historian. So briefly: a war involving perhaps as all wars, a class struggle, different religious believes,  different forms of nationalism, and competing political ideas. Spain, in 1936 –the year that the war erupted–was a Republic. A Government chosen by the people. But it was a very poor country with a backward economy, an oligarchy landowner concerned about profits and immovable as to change in its structure.

There existed a huge difference between the rich and the poor and the middle class was limited and, therefore, not sufficient to maintain the balance between the two. Thus, tensions between right and left were extreme. To all of this one should add that the Catholic Church, a great force in Spain, felt threatened with the anticlerical spirit of the left which, due to the economic situation, was growing. The violence between the two was becoming more present and the Republican Government was not able to maintain public order. This is how the right, backed by the military and the Church, initiated the coup d’état and overthrew the government chosen by the people. This is what gave way to civil war.

  • One of the features of this “war” is the influx of foreign fighters who have joined the ranks of the Republic Army forming what has been called the international brigades. Can you tell us more about these international brigades?

Europe was also going through a process similar to the one in Spain: economic and social tensions that led to a major confrontation. Two systems faced off: the fascist and communist; two ways of understanding society. Spain thus became the prelude to the second world war. A trial, as it has been said. The first time that civilians were bombed. The foreign volunteers were, overwhelmingly, communist. They were enrolled from all over. In total 54 countries and 59,500 fighters. Of these fighters, 15,000 died. The battalions had different names. Brigade – or battalion – Garibaldi was Italian; the Thaelmann, German; The Juarez, Mexican; Mac-Pap, Canadian. Many fighters were French – 10,000 – composing the battalions André Marty and the Commune de Paris. The Americans were known as the Lincoln Brigade, with 3,000 members. As we have said, all of them came to combat the advance of fascism in Europe.

  • “Invisible Heroes” is all the more interesting at the time where these young black men pledged to fight with the Spanish Republicans, while lynchings were still taking place in the United States. Do you think that the Spanish, and the world in general, realize the symbolic power of the commitment of young American ‘black’ men to this conflict?

No, not many  realize the symbolic power for the simple reason that as mentioned above, the majority of the people don’t know this passage of history. But when the information reaches them I think they realize it. At least this is the intention of  Invisible Heroes. The documentary also explains the invasion of Abyssinia, the only black independent state at the time, by the Italian fascist government. African-Americans poured in aid to that country, but could not support it (North America blocked all aid) so that aid turned to the Spanish civil war which was also seen as a fight against fascism that was taking hold of Europe.

  • Was it easy to find archives and possibly the testimonies of people who are still alive or who had been interviewed as part of their commitment during this conflict?What methods did you choose in making this documentary?

Part of the documentary footage was already filmed by Alfonso Domingo who had interviewed several fighters while they were still alive. When we started this project virtually all of them were deceased. But we decided to include their testimony alongside the historians who were interviewed for this documentary.

We combined the interviews of the living who are still among us and those who are missing. It was the only way to tell the story through the participants, thus resulting in a lively and direct documentary. Giving a voice to the fighters, even if they are no longer living, was important to us. The common thread is James Yates, who had also disappeared and whose footage was still unseen. Much of the footage of the civil war is in files: both in the Spanish film library as in the archives of the Lincoln located in the Tamiment Library at NYU where there are, in addition, many photos. Part of our footage was also found online.

  • One of the lessons I draw from this documentary on a personal level is the fact that desire for justice helps abolish the notion of race and skin color to focus only on the search for justice. What was your feeling in finishing this project?

My feeling is that the more you know “the other” the more you will understand that we are all equal. That race is a social and economic construction. And that history, always written by the victors, has different points of view and, therefore, different versions. At the end of this project, I don’t think I had a feeling different from when I write or publish books: it is a step forward in my efforts to publicize what is lesser known and therefore judged by other parameters than the usual of each community, group of individuals, or countries.

  • If you were to compare the reception of your documentaryfilm in Spain versus the United States. What would it be?

In Spain it is a very much discussed documentary . Viewers are more prepared to contribute political commentary. They tend to discuss the reasons for the civil war itself. This documentary obviously simplifies the war: it seems as if there were the bad and the good. As we have seen above, the topic is very complex. As well as the right was a more compact group, the left was very divided and its different factions even fought each other. In the the United States viewers give more importance to the participation of African-Americans, becase  few people know about it. And many American viewers who did not know of the Spanish civil war all together are grateful to have been introduced to the subject.

  • What does the civil war represent for the younger generations in Spain?

The Spanish civil war is very much still alive in Spain. The creation of the law of historical memory (2007) shows to what extent things need to be resolved. The younger generations are interested in knowing what happened. They also understand that it is a chapter that must be overcome. The poet Antonio Machado, at the beginning of the 20th century, launched the concept that there are two Spains. When the Civil War broke out, this concept was much remembered. And there are still two streams of very antagonistic political thought.

  • Is the Spanish civil war a common topic of discussion in Spanish families? Or is it a part of history that they prefer to obscure?

The generation after the civil war did not hear much talk about it. The prior one, which had participated and suffered  in the war, did not  want to keep talking about something so painful. And it was not easy to discuss it in the midst of a dictatorship. But two generations later, it is a subject which is talked about openly and with great interest. In fact, many contemporary writers focus their novels on the time of the civil war. It is a subject that is very, very present in Spain.

  • Can you tell us about the Afro-American research library you founded in Madrid?

It is a very personal adventure, accessible by appointment. It exists to advise and inform any interested person on any issue of black American culture: art, philosophy, gender, politics, history, literature studies… I have obviously not all, but enough as to open the way to any topic that you want to investigate. Among other things, we have directed  someone who is writing a master’s degree on the artist David Hammons; we have advised an editor wanting to include African-American women’s poetry in a book; we have managed to translate and include the autobiography of the cowboy Nat Love in a collection of stories about the American West; we have helped an African American Studies Professor in her efforts to gather information on the writer Frank Yerby who after living in Spain for 40 years became Spanish and is buried in our land.

Currently, BAAM is a rarely visited library. But it is still worthwhile to support the project because it is unique in the country. BAAM maintains a Facebook page with news, articles, etc. referring to Afro-America:https://www.facebook.com/pages/BAAM/740148382673029?ref=hl

  • You translate and edit a number of Spanish books related to black American issues, do these issue receive much interest there?

For the moment, the BAAM collection has published seven books. We are a young project. We have two more in production and two in preparation. But because Spain is a small country and African American culture interests a minority of people, we sell very little. For some titles we print 1000 copies, for others 750 copies.

No title had previously been translated into Spanish. The collection aims to cover the different stages of African American history. We started with Writings on Spain by Langston Hughes, our compilation of everything that Hughes wrote about or from Spain (as a correspondent, poet, memorialist) and the aforementioned book of Yates. That covered a significant relationship while unknown between Spain and Afro-America.

We continued with the Reagan era: essays by June Jordan and Ishmael Reed (Technical Difficulties and Airing Dirty Laundry, respectively). We went on with the Harlem Renaissance: the novel Cane by Jean Toomer and the most important book on that time, When Harlem Was in Vogue by Pulitzer Prize winner David Levering Lewis.

We are now in the sixties: the story of the Black Panthers by Elaine Brown in Taste of Power and the first anthology that will exist in Spanish s of Angela Davis’ essays, covering her writings from her beginnings to the present. Both women discuss the subject of prison, such a pending review topic and currently present in the United States. We are preparing something on the literature of slaves and the post-black era.

  • What do you think of the reigning political context currently in Spain with the emergence of the Podemos party?

I think that Spain has finished the post‑Franco era during which we have divided power into two unique parties. It is time that more minority parties are also represented. Spain will have to be governed plurally, if you want to put an end to a climate that already led to the civil war…

  • How do you envision the future of Spain in the medium term?

The future of Spain is not separated from the European or other countries. I think that we are finishing one stage of history and opening another. The capitalist system is giving signs of fatigue…

  • What is the next project you are working on?

The books of BAAM, a series of photographs, entitled Words, that will be exhibited at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and will soon be exhibited in Madrid, prologues to a couple of books… and life goes on.

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