Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
On Monday afternoon, MarÃa Luisa Guardiola delivered a lecture titled “Voices and Visions of Exile: Literary Restoration of the Majorcan Xuetes in En el Ãºltimo azul“ to an audience of 20 faculty members, staff members, and students. Professor Guardiola, Associate Professor of Spanish in the Modern Languages and Literatures department, focused on Carme Riera’s historic fiction novel, En el Ãºltimo azul, and the author’s unique interpretation of a historical event in the seventeenth century.
Guardiola started the lecture by discussing the historical marginalization of Xuetes, a social group composed on Majorcan Jews on the island of Majorca. Starting in the late 14th century, the widespread persecution of the Jewish population in Spain spilled over to Majorca where more than 300 Jews were murdered.
Since then, there has been a series of violent incidents against Jews in the island, including the 1492 expulsion of Jews who refused to convert to Christianity. There was a high degree of segregation between the Xuetes and the rest of the Majorcan population and as Guardiola describes, “being a Xuete is being the ‘other’, an impure outcast.”
Using a PowerPoint presentation, Guardiola showed the audience photos, historical documents, and maps to visually illustrate parts of this societal marginalization. From pictures of traditional Jewish attire in the 16th century to a drawing of one of the Spanish Inquisition’s infamous prisons, La Casa Negra, Guardiola offered the audience a comprehensive historical narrative of the widespread stigmization that Xuetes suffered.
After presenting this brief history, Guardiola dives into discussing En el Ãºltimo azul (translated as In the Last Blue) and its role in discussing the Xuete experience. Guardiola describes the novel as “ a rewriting of the escape attempt from the island of Mallorca by a group of crypto-Jews, or conversos, on March 7, 1687.”
However, what is different about Riera’s interpretation is that the novel’s narrative serves as an alternative version of history. Guardiola explains, “Historic fiction…recovers the marginalized elements of society and uses irony and parody as effective narrative strategies. Thus, history becomes a human construction.”
The novel describes the historical event in 1687 where a group of Majorcan conversos boarded a ship to the “lands of freedom” over fears of the Inquisition. However, with the weather was not in the ship’s favor, the people had to disembark the ship and were later made captives where they were taken to the Inquisition’s prison, known as the Casa Negra.
Guardiola then provides a detailed summary of the novel where she describes the internal conflicts of identity that Xuetes undergo in the narrative. With Riera using the novel as a “metaphor of exile in different time periods”, the novel highlights the idea of a double life at home. The author uses unique litrary techniques such as the appeal of smells, sights, and hearing where the rich, pleasant senses in the beginning of the novel sharply contrast to the stench of the prisons in the end of the novel.
Furthermore, Guardiola focuses on the concept and role of identity in the prisoners’ experiences. Guardiola expands, “The notion of “expatriates in patria”, people who have to lead a double life right in their own homeland, because of the outside imposition of religious principles and an unfamiliar way of life, reverberates into the life of the Xuetes in the ghetto of La Calle in Ciutat de Mallorca.”
One of the novel’s key characters, Gabriel Valls is the leader of the Majorcan crypto-Jews and he suffers from an “inner exile that creates ambiguity and confusion.” Guardiola elaborates, “It is hard to be aware of one’s own identity while being forced to practice a foreign religion that alienates. There is an inner tension between what is expected of them and their own image.”
Throughout her lecture, Guardiola emphasizes the importance of this novel in bringing about a new historical narrative about the Xuetes marginalization and stresses their struggle to live a dual life with conflicting identities. Towards the end, she looks to the importance of the written word to provide voices for those silenced people. With the narrative reconciling and vindicating Xuetes’ silenced voices, Guardiola ends the lecture with this particular insight: “For the Majorcan author, the tragic consequences of the events of 1691, with the ensuing exclusion and humiliation of the Jewish martyrs and their descendents, can only be amended by the power of the word.”