Spoiling the Coast of Spain

November 22, 2002

The sinking of the oil tanker, the Prestige, off the coast of Spain this week feels all too familiar to me. I grew up in La Coruna, Spain, a city about 100 miles from where the ship went down. This is the fourth major oil spill in the last 30 years that has taken place near the coastal city that much of my family still calls home.

I remember clearly May 12, 1976, when a tanker carrying about 30 million gallons of oil sank near La Coruna. Less than seven months earlier, Gen. Francisco Franco, the fascist ruler of Spain for nearly 40 years, had died. The country was filled with new political and social expectations. I was 8 years old, and like the rest of the country I was learning to speak using the subjunctive, a tense that expressed our mood of wishful hope. Watching that tanker sink dampened those dreams.

Riding the school bus that gray May morning, we saw the hell. Hell was not the place the nuns at our Catholic school had described. That morning, hell was the ocean. There was a huge ball of fire in the middle of the sea. It was raining black drops and all the seagulls screamed like pigs being pushed to the butcher. I remember the black smoke covering the horizon and the high flames that could be seen from every part of the shore.

At the time, the sinking was not called a major ecological disaster in Spain. Though Franco was gone, the press was only just becoming free of his grip. So we all believed it could not be as bad as the local fishermen said it was. But the truth was that it was an ecological disaster - and now it has happened again.

La Coruna is one of the most beautiful and charming cities in Spain. Its people, called the Coruneses, have Celtic roots; they play the bagpipe and drink a lot of beer but don't dance flamenco, cook paella, run the bulls or say "Olé" in a bullfighting arena. La Coruna is in the north, which is nothing like other parts of the country - Castilla, cosmopolitan Barcelona or the ever sunny Andalucía. It is the opposite, and not only for its idiosyncrasies and the terrible London-like weather (people often joke that the Coruneses are shadowless because the sun never comes out) but also for economic reasons.

Galicia, the region in the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula that includes La Coruna, was one of the poorest areas of Spain for at least a century. Even the fact that Franco was from the region didn't help it to get any financial assistance. Many people fled to other places to build better lives. So many went to Argentina, in fact, that anyone who arrived there from Spain - no matter what part of the country they'd come from - is called a gallego, the term used for people of my region. But La Coruna is no longer a poor city that people leave. Today the place is flourishing.

Even now, the most important part of La Coruna's culture and economy is fishing. The gallego fishermen are the most earnest and hard working people that I've known. But in spite of Galicia's economic boom, the fishermen still work one of the riskiest and most poorly paid jobs in Europe. I have seen them fishing in boats of such poor condition that only the urgency of bringing food to the family could explain their use.

The sinking of the Prestige has damaged the sea and our coast, and brought terrible harm to people who make their living from the sea. Thousands are dependent on the season's catch, particularly at Christmas time. The typical Galician Christmas dinner is made almost exclusively of seafood. They say it's the best seafood anywhere.

In this same sea now rests the Prestige, a coffin filled with enough oil to cast a long shadow over a city that has already seen enough darkness.

Mara Mahia has writes a column for Hoy, a Spanish-language newspaper.


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