Spoiling the Coast of Spain
November 22, 2002
By MARA MAHIA
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
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
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