Málaga to Canberra, the long way around

John (Juan) Rodríguez was born on 8 July 1949 in Málaga, a city in the south of Spain, as the last of seven children.  After attending a Catholic school (Escuelas Avemarianas) as a child, he joined the workforce at age 14 and had a number of jobs, including Office Boy in one of Moro’s olive oil refineries.  At age 17, with two other friends, Juan moved to Barcelona where he came face-to-face with political protests and restlessness.  After a year, he returned to Málaga.  The rest is history.

2020.07.08 - Memoir - Juan Rodriguez - From Malaga to Canberra - Image

“Málaga la bravía, con dos mil tabernas y ninguna librería.”  Málaga the brave, with two thousand drinking holes and not a single bookshop.

This is one of the strongest descriptions I remember hearing  of the city where I was born as a young teenager.  Málaga, of course, has other things to boast about.  For one, it is the birthplace of Pablo Picasso.  So, if you are not into tabernas, you can go and visit Picasso’s home; it is still there and is now a modern art museum.

Málaga suffered a lot during the Spanish civil war, being the entry port of Franco’s Moorish forces; it was subjected to a terrible and prolonged bombardment, which led to what became known as “la Desbandá” (the Stampede).  Men, women, children and the elderly literally ran away from the city to escape the bombing.  To cut a long story short, the war ended in 1939, Málaga survived and recovered, and I was born ten years later.

Life in Málaga in the early sixties was harsh and devoid of hope; even more so when you are the last child in a poor, working-class family comprised of a widowed mother and six children. I remember thinking to myself, ‘there must be more to life than friends from the Jesuit school, the beach and the odd job to help the family.’  So what does a seventeen-year-old boy do in such a situation to expand his horizons?  He migrates.  For this boy, there were to be a few different migrations in the next few years.  I arrived in Canberra, Australia, at the end of a long and winding journey indeed.

My first stop was Barcelona. In the mid-sixties, Barcelona was the intermediate destination of restless youth from all over Spain looking to improve their station.  Three of us left our homes in Málaga to head for the metropolis.  Life in Barcelona was not easy for a young Andalusian boy with not much to offer other than his ability to talk under water and to appear to know more than he did.  Somehow or other, though, we made it work and began living there.  One year later however, we returned to Málaga.  I guess we all felt a need to return.  My two friends ended up carving themselves a future in that city; the city where we were all born.  They still live there today.  Me, I decided to continue on further afield.  Stop two was Geneva, Switzerland.

Geneva was the ultimate in sophistication to me at the time, and I loved that it was the host city to the United Nations, which was only some 20 years old at the time.  It featured the stunning Lake Geneva and its ‘water jet’ fountain, the English Garden with its beautiful flower clock, and the Gare Cornavin (railway station), where a lot of young Spanish migrants like me used to congregate to tell each other stories about work and boast about our (non-existent) love lives. It was at the railway station that I first saw an Australian in person. A group of Australian Olympians had gotten off their train in Geneva on their way to Grenoble for the 1968 Winter Olympics, and we were there to pester them.  I put my limited English to the test in response to a question by one of them.  Afterwards, I asked him where he was from, and he said, “Australia”.

“Australia!  What!  And you came all the way from there to ski in France?”  “Yes,” he said, “I am part of the team.” Wow!  That was February 1968.

A few weeks later, a Basque I had befriended and I made our way to the Australian Consulate to apply to migrate to Oz. We arrived in Australia on 26 August 1968.

After Geneva, Sydney – at least the part we saw from the bus on our way from the airport to Villawood –  looked rather dull and unimposing.  We spent a few hours in Villawood before we got out and headed to the street outside, looking for the closest railway station.  A young man in a ute offered us a lift to Villawood train station and we accepted.  From there, we found our way to Sydney’s Central Station, and then we made our way to Innisfail, Queensland.

My friend had the name and address of a Basque friend of his family who had migrated to Australia after the Spanish Civil War.     This man, a cane sugar farmer, received us when we arrived, but quickly did his best to get rid of us as soon as he could.  Looking for somewhere to make a bit of money, we moved on and ended up working in a sugar mill in a little town called South Johnstone.

After a few days there, we were introduced to ‘Goyo’, one of the old workers; a man who was the spitting image of Henry Fonda.  He turned out to be Spanish-born but did not speak a word of Spanish and had no memory whatsoever of anything Spanish.  He must have felt sorry for us, because over time he took us to some interesting places – Paronella Park, which was near a lovely little town called Mena Creek, and even to the beach, at a place called Flying Fish Point.  What a great day that was!  The place was simply idyllic.  Goyo explained to us that it was where a lot of the sugar mill workers retired to.

Whilst in South Johnstone, two things happened.  I had a work accident that nearly cost me two fingers, and we had a visit from an Anglican priest who had spoken to us when we had first arrived in South Johnstone.  The priest told us about an Italian family who needed temporary workers for their farm.  They were tobacco farmers and apparently spoke “our language”, or so the priest said.  We thought it sounded okay, so he arranged for the farmer to come all the way from Dimbulah (some 170km) to pick us up.

In Dimbulah, we ended up working for, and living with, three families from the Veneto region of Italy.  It was almost like being back home.  We worked, ate, slept and enjoyed our weekends, and celebrated Christmas together, too.

After about six months, I felt restless again, and decided to go south.

I landed back in Sydney in April and stopped there for two or three days before continuing on to pick tobacco in Myrtleford, Victoria, on the recommendation of a young Spanish migrant I had met at the Spanish Club.  He saw me put $10 down on the pokies and said, “friend, you’d better stop that before you run out of money”.  It was the best advice I ever received in my life.  He also suggested I could work with one of the Spanish or Italian families there, and so, I did.  The Spanish family didn’t treat me particularly well and often even forgot to pay me at the end of the week.  After a while, I got sick of them and went to work for the Italian one.  What a difference! At the end of the season, having accumulated a bit of money, I decided to get my driver’s licence, buy my first car, and drive all the way to Ingham in North Queensland.

A Spanish friend I had made in Victoria decided to come along, and took his own car, so we made our way up to Queensland in our mini convoy.  We had heard that there were a lot of Spaniards and Italians there and lots of work in the sugar industry.  Unfortunately, a couple of days after arriving, I had a terrible car accident.

I didn’t suffer any major injuries, but the car was a write-off, and so I was lucky when my friend very generously offered to drive me back south.  It was traumatic at the time, but looking back now, each occurrence was taking me closer to where I would eventually settle.  Who knew?

On our way back down the east coast of Australia, me not being sure of where to go or what to do next, we stopped in Canberra.  It was the year 1969.  In the years to come, I would work many other jobs, encounter many other migrants, and eventually meet my future wife (herself the daughter of Italian migrants) and start a family with her in the nation’s capital.

51 years later, I am still here.

© Juan Rodríguez, 2020