One hot, asphyxiating morning in the early 1930s, in the tropical coastal region of northern Colombia, a young woman gazed through the window of the United Fruit Company train at the passing banana plantations. Row after row after row, shimmering from sun into shade. She had taken the overnight steamer, besieged by mosquitoes, across the great Ciénaga swamp from the Caribbean port city of Barranquilla, and now she was travelling down through the Banana Zone to the small inland town of Aracataca where, several years before, she had left her first-born child Gabriel with her ageing parents when he was still a baby. Luisa Santiaga Márquez Iguarán de García had given birth to three more children since that time and this was her first return to Aracataca since her husband, Gabriel Eligio García, took her away to live in Barranquilla, leaving little “Gabito” in the care of his maternal grandparents, Tranquilina Iguarán Cotes de Márquez and Colonel Nicolás Márquez Mejía. Colonel Márquez was a veteran of the bitter Thousand Day War fought at the turn of the century, a lifelong stalwart of the Colombian Liberal Party and, latterly, the local treasurer of the municipality of Aracataca.
The Colonel and Doña Tranquilina had angrily disapproved of Luisa Santiaga’s courtship with the handsome García. He was not only a poor man, and an outsider, but also illegitimate, a half-breed and perhaps worst of all, a fervent supporter of the detested Conservative Party. He had been the telegraphist of Aracataca for just a few days when his eyes first fell upon Luisa, one of the most marriageable young women in the town. Her parents sent her away to stay with relatives for the best part of a year to get the wild infatuation with the seductive newcomer out of her head, but to no avail. As for García himself, if he was hoping that his marriage to the Colonel’s daughter would make his fortune he was disappointed. The bride’s parents had refused to attend the wedding he eventually managed to organize in the regional capital of Santa Marta and he had lost his position in Aracataca.
What was Luisa thinking as she gazed out of the train window? Perhaps she had forgotten how uncomfortable this journey was going to be. Was she thinking of the house where she had spent her childhood and youth? How everyone would react to her visit? Her parents. Her aunts. The two children she hadn’t seen for so long: Gabito, the eldest, and Margarita, his younger sister, also now living with her grandparents. The train whistled as it passed the small banana plantation named Macondo which she remembered from her own childhood. A few minutes later Aracataca came into view. And there was her father the Colonel waiting in the shade . . . How would he greet her?
No one knows what he said. But we do know what happened next.1 Back in the old Colonel’s Big House, the women were preparing little
Gabito for a day he would never forget: “She’s here, your mother has come, Gabito. She’s here. Your mother. Can’t you hear the train?” The sound of the whistle arrived once more from the nearby station. Gabito would say later that he had no memory of his mother. She
had left him before he could retain any memories at all. And if she had any meaning now, it was as a sudden absence never truly explained by his grandparents, an anxiety, as if something was wrong. With him, perhaps. Where was grandfather? Grandfather always made everything clear. But his grandfather had gone out.
Then Gabito heard them arrive at the other end of the house. One of his aunts came and took his hand. Everything was like a dream. “Your mamma’s in there,” the aunt said. So he went in and after a moment he saw a woman he didn’t know, at the far end of the room, sitting with her back to the shuttered window. She was a beautiful lady, with a straw hat and a long loose dress, with sleeves down to her wrists. She was breathing heavily in the midday heat. And he was filled with a strange confusion, because she was a lady he liked the look of but he realized at once that he didn’t love her in the way they had told him you should love your mother. Not like he loved grandpa and grandma. Not even like he loved his aunts.
The lady said, “Aren’t you going to give your mother a hug?” And then she took him to her and embraced him. She had an aroma he would never forget. He was less than a year old when his mother left him. Now he was almost seven. So only now, because she had come back, did he understand it: his mother had left him. And Gabito would never get over it, not least because he could never quite bring himself to face what he felt about it. And then, quite soon, she left him again. Luisa Santiaga, the Colonel’s wayward daughter, and mother of little Gabito, had been born on 25 July 1905, in the small town of Barrancas, between the wild territory of the Guajira and the mountainous province of Padilla, to the east of the Sierra Nevada.2 At the time of Luisa’s birth her father was a member of a defeated army, the army of the Liberal Party vanquished by the Conservatives in Colombia’s great civil war, the War of a Thousand Days (1899–1902).
Nicolás Ricardo Márquez Mejía, Gabriel García Márquez’s grandfather, was born on 7 February 1864 in Riohacha, Guajira, a sunbaked, salty, dusty city on the north Atlantic coast of Colombia and diminutive capital of its wildest region, home to the redoubtable Guajiro Indians and refuge for smugglers and traffickers from colonial times to the present day. Little is known about Márquez’s early life except that he received only an elementary education but made the most of it and was sent westward, for some time, to live with his cousin Francisca Cimodosea Mejía in the town of El Carmen de Bolívar, south of the majestic colonial city of Cartagena. There the two cousins were brought up by Nicolás’s maternal grandmother Josefa Francisca Vidal. Later, after Nicolás had spent a few years wandering the entire coastal region, Francisca would join his family and live under his roof, a spinster for the rest of her life. Nicolás lived for a time in Camarones, a town by the Guajira shoreline some fifteen miles from Riohacha. Legend has it that he was a precocious participant in one or more of the civil wars that regularly punctuated nineteenth-century life in Colombia. When he returned to Riohacha at the age of seventeen he became a silversmith under the tutelage of his father, Nicolás del Carmen Márquez Hernández. It was the traditional family occupation. Nicolás had completed his primary education but his artisan family could not afford for him to go further.
Nicolás Márquez was productive in other ways: within two years of his return to the Guajira, the reckless teenage traveller had fathered two illegitimate sons—“natural sons,” they are called in Colombia—José María, born in 1882, and Carlos Alberto, born in 1884.3 Their mother was an eccentric Riohacha spinster called Altagracia Valdeblánquez, connected to an influential Conservative family and much older than Nicolás himself. We do not know why Nicolás did not marry her. Both sons were given their mother’s surname; both were brought up as staunch Catholics and Conservatives, despite Nicolás’s fervent Liberalism, since the custom in Colombia until quite recently was for children to adopt the political allegiance of their parents and the boys had been brought up not by Nicolás but by their mother’s family; and both would fight against the Liberals, and thus against their father, in the War of a Thousand Days.
Just a year after the birth of Carlos Alberto, Nicolás, aged twentyone, married a girl his own age, Tranquilina Iguarán Cotes, who had been born, also in Riohacha, on 5 July 1863. Although Tranquilina was born illegitimate, her surnames were those of two leading Conservative families of the region. Both Nicolás and Tranquilina were, visibly, descendants of white European families and although Nicolás, an incorrigible Casanova, would dally with women of every race and colour, the essential hierarchies from light to dark would be implicitly or explicitly maintained in all their dealings both in the home and in the street. And many things were best left in obscurity.
And thus we begin to grope our way back into the dark genealogical labyrinths so familiar to readers of Gabriel García Márquez’s bestknown novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. In that book he goes out of his way not to help his readers with reminders about the details of family relationships: usually only first names are given and these repeat themselves obsessively down through the generations. This becomes part of the work’s unspoken challenge to the reader but it undoubtedly reproduces the confusions and anxieties experienced by its author when, as a child, he tried to make sense of the tangled historical networks of family lore.
Take Nicolás, who was born legitimate but brought up not by his parents but by his grandmother. Of course there was nothing unusual about this in a frontier society underpinned for security by the concept of the extended family. As we have seen, he had two illegitimate sons before he was twenty. There was nothing unusual about that either. Immediately thereafter he married Tranquilina, like Altagracia, a woman from a higher class than himself, although, to balance things up, she was illegitimate. Furthermore, she was also his first cousin; this too was common in Colombia and remains more common in Latin America than most other parts of the world though of course, like illegitimacy, it still carries a stigma. The couple had the same grandmother, Juanita Hernández, who travelled from Spain to Colombia in the 1820s, and Nicolás descended from her original legitimate marriage whereas Tranquilina came from her second, illegitimate relationship, after she was widowed, with a Creole born in Riohacha called Blas Iguarán who was ten years her junior. And so it transpired that only two generations later two of Juanita’s grandchildren, Nicolás Márquez Mejía, and Tranquilina Iguarán Cotes, first cousins, were married in Riohacha. Even though none of their surnames coincided, the fact was that his father and her mother were both children, halfbrother and half-sister, of the adventurous Juanita. You could never be sure who you were marrying. And such sinfulness might bring damnation or, worse—as the Buendía family members fear throughout One Hundred Years of Solitude—a child with a pig’s tail who would put an end to the family line!
Naturally the spectre of incest, whose shadow a marriage like that of Nicolás and Tranquilina inevitably raises, adds another, much darker dimension to the concept of illegitimacy. And later Nicolás spawned many, maybe dozens more illegitimate children after he was married. Yet he lived in a profoundly Catholic society, with all the traditional hierarchies and snobberies, in which the lowest orders were blacks or Indians (to whom, of course, no respectable family would wish to be related in any way despite the fact that, in Colombia, almost all families, including the most respectable ones, have such relations). This chaotic mixture of race and class, with so many ways of being illegitimate but only one straight and narrow path to true respectability, is the same world in which, many years later, the infant García Márquez would grow up and in whose perplexities and hypocrisies he would share.
Soon after his marriage to Tranquilina Iguarán, Nicolás Márquez left her pregnant—from the patriarchal point of view, always the best way to leave a woman—and spent a few months in Panama, which at that time was still part of Colombia, working with an uncle, José María Mejía Vidal. There he would engender another illegitimate child, María Gregoria Ruiz, with the woman who may have been the true love of his life, the beautiful Isabel Ruiz, before returning to the Guajira shortly after the birth of his first legitimate son, Juan de Dios, in 1886.4 Nicolás and Tranquilina had two more legitimate children: Margarita, born in 1889, and Luisa Santiaga, who was born in Barrancas in July 1905, though she would insist until near the end of her life that she too was born in Riohacha because she felt she had something to hide, as will be seen. She too would marry an illegitimate spouse, and would eventually give birth to a legitimate son called Gabriel José García Márquez. Little wonder illegitimacy is an obsession in the fiction of Gabriel García Márquez, however humorous its treatment.
Nicolás’s illegitimate children did not die dreadful deaths in the civil war, as the Colonel’s favourite grandson would later fantasize in his novel (in which there are seventeen of them).5 For example, Sara Noriega was the “natural” daughter of Nicolás and Pacha Noriega, and she too became known as la Pacha Noriega, married Gregorio Bonilla and went to live in Fundación, the next stop down the line from Aracataca. In 1993 her granddaughter, Elida Noriega, whom I met in Barrancas, was the only person in town who still had one of the little gold fish which Nicolás Márquez had fashioned. Ana Ríos, the daughter of Arsenia Carrillo, who was married in 1917 to Nicolás’s nephew and close associate Eugenio Ríos (himself related to Francisca Cimodosea Mejía, who also lived with Nicolás), said Sara looked very like Luisa, “skin like a petal and terribly sweet”;6 she died around 1988. Esteban Carrillo and Elvira Carrillo were illegitimate twins born to Sara Manuela Carrillo; Elvira, Gabito’s beloved “Aunt Pa,” after living with Nicolás in Aracataca, eventually went to Cartagena near the end of her life, where her much younger half-sister, the legitimate Luisa Santiaga, would “take her in and help her to die,” according to Ana Ríos. Nicolás Gómez was the son of Amelia Gómez and, according to another informant, Urbano Solano, he went to live in Fundación, like Sara Noriega.
Nicolás’s eldest son, the illegitimate José María Valdeblánquez, turned out to be the most successful of all his children, a war hero, politician and historian. He married Manuela Moreu as a very young man and had a son and five daughters. The son of one of them, Margot, is José Luis Díaz-Granados, another writer.7
Nicolás Márquez moved from the arid coastal capital Riohacha to Barrancas, long before he became a colonel, because his ambition was to become a landowner and land was both cheaper and more fertile in the hills around Barrancas. (García Márquez, not always reliable in these matters, says that Nicolás’s father left him some land there.) Soon he bought a farm from a friend at a place known as El Potrero on the slopes of the Sierra. The farm was called El Guásimo, named after a local fruit tree, and Márquez set to cultivating sugar cane from which he made a rough rum called chirrinche on a home-made still; he is thought to have traded the liquor illicitly, like most of his fellow landowners. Later he purchased another farm closer to the town, beside the River Ranchería. He called it El Istmo (The Isthmus), because whichever way you approached it you had to cross water. There he grew tobacco, maize, sugar cane, beans, yucca, coffee and bananas. The farm can still be visited today, half abandoned, its buildings decayed and in some cases disappeared, an old mango tree still standing like a dilapidated family standard, and the whole tropical landscape awash with melancholy and nostalgia. Perhaps this recollected image is just the visitor’s imagination, because he knows that Colonel Márquez left Barrancas under a cloud which still seems to hang over the entire community. But long before even that happened, the Colonel’s sedentary existence would be overshadowed by war.