(Translated by Diarmuid Breatnach from Castillian [Spanish] in Publico)
(Reading time: 4 mins.)
At the end of the 1970s, an elderly woman came to to live alone in the town of Moià, 50 kilometers from Barcelona. Nobody knows anything about her. No neighbour knew her or knew anything of her past. The only thing that is becoming apparent, little by little, is her unfriendly character. The old woman doesn’t communicate much but when she does she is dry and sharp. Like a knife just sharpened. She has a reputation for being elusive and sullen. Some people joke that not even dogs dare to bark at her. She will live twenty years in the village, the last of her life. And it will only be after her departure that the mystery that surrounds her will begin to fade. Under so much loneliness and silence a secret could only throb. When they find out, those who crossed paths with her in that last bitter stage of her life will be shocked.
The first time he came across the name Anna Maria Martínez Sagi (1907-2000), Juan Manuel de Prada was reading a González-Ruano interview book. The author, in the same volume in which he conversed with Unamuno or Blasco Ibáñez, referred to that woman as “a poet, trade unionist and virgin of the stadium.” It was these last three words that triggered De Prada’s curiosity, that he began to follow the trail of that person of which he had strangely never heard. He asked colleagues, academics, and historians, but they could not help him much. He searched archives and newspaper back-issues without luck. And, when he was about to give up, a friend who worked in the Treasury found the address of his missing woman, which confirmed that she was still alive. The novelist sent her a letter so they could meet and chat about her story.
“Why do you want to resurrect a dead woman?” was the answer that came from Moià. Martínez Sagi, at age 90, had resigned herself to anonymity — or more, to oblivion. Because someone who has been famous at some point is no longer anonymous, no matter how much they disappear from the conversations or stop being mentioned in the newspaper. Rather she fades from memory. And that is what she found when she returned home from the long exile to which the conclusion of the Civil War condemned her; she had been wiped off the map. Her vibrant reports had been of no use (she had become one of the most influential journalists of the Second Republic), her penetrating verses (the poet Cansinos Assens saw in her “the heiress of Rosalía de Castro”) or her milestones as a pioneer of feminism in Spain (she founded the first women workers’ literacy club in Barcelona) during the 1930s. Her interesting and unusual life had been reduced to zero.
That enormous and valuable legacy had been buried under the mantle of the dictatorship, first, and later by the passage of time. And now it seemed that Martínez Sagi did not exist. Or, worse, that she hadn’t existed. Something that De Prada remedied when, respecting the pact they had reached, he published her unpublished work two decades after the death of the author. That volume that was released in 2019, La Voz Sola (The Lone Voice), served to begin to repair the injustice of this inexplicable ignorance.
Anna Maria Martínez Sagi became the first woman member of the board of a soccer club
But where did that “virgin of the stadium” reference come from that had piqued De Prada’s interest? Anna Maria was born into a family of the Catalan gentry. Her father was in the textile industry and her mother was a conservative woman who wanted her daughters to study in Spanish and French and not in Catalan, which she considered “a peasant language.” That child would not have mastered the language with which she would later write so many journalistic texts if it weren’t for the help of her nanny Soledad, who would also open the doors to the world of the popular masses who got on the trams, populated the bars and walked through the streets of the city centre.
In any case, Martínez Sagi’s life would not change completely until, having hormonal problems, the doctors recommended that she play sports. She felt the benefits of physical exercise. And not only that, but she was especially good at it. Skiing, tennis, swimming. There was no discipline in which that girl with agile and resolute movement did not stand out among the young men. Neither in soccer, which she practiced assiduously with her cousins and her brother. Or the javelin throw, in which she would later become the national champion. Precisely as a result of her other vocation, that of a reporter, she began to collaborate with the sports weekly La Rambla, where she met its founder, Josep Sunyol, a member of Esquerra Republicana1 party and president of FC Barcelona,2 who was later shot by the Francoists. In 1934, when the writer had just turned 27, Sunyol would even give her a position in the Barça organization to create a women’s section. In this way, Anna Maria Martínez Sagi became the first woman to be a member of a football club board.
She would last a year in office, from which she escaped as soon as she realized that those men in suits with cigar stink in their mouths didn’t really want to change anything. “The environment at that time was one of very densemasculinity,” says De Prada. “And they saw her as a threat, because she was not only a woman with her own ideas, but she also fought them to the end.” She understood sport as a necessary vehicle to lead women to modernity. She dressed in the latest fashion, she attended the demonstrations of the progressives and did not allow herself to be stepped on by anyone. In the newspapers, she interviewed from beggars and prostitutes to politicians, and she also made a name for herself writing reports in defense of women’s suffrage, which at that time was not even supported by some sectors of the Left. She also aligned herself with the proclamations of Buenaventua Durruti, who dazzled her in a speech the anarchist gave at the Palau de Pedralbes. In 1936, when the war broke out, she asked permission to accompany the antifascists to Aragon and report from the front.
Those who saw her write in the conflict say that when she heard the whistle of bullets she did not crouch low. Perhaps that reckless bravery is nothing more than a legend, but it helps to focus Martínez Sagi in the time, a person who defied roles and stereotypes. With the arrival of Franco’s troops in Barcelona, she was left with no choice but to flee to France. That circumstance would initiate the process of her loss. And would forever mark the exile, whose life continued to follow the dips of a roller coaster.
She first settled in Paris and then she went to Châtres, where she slept on the park benches and ended up working as a clerk in a fishmonger’s shop. She later joined the Resistance. “All my life I have fought against injustice, dictatorship, oppression, so I decided to join and saved many Jews and many French fleeing the Nazi advance,” she said. “It was always voluntary. I always did it because I wanted to.” In 1942 she herself was on the verge of being caught by the Gestapo, who appeared by surprise at her apartment. She escaped through a window and by miracle was saved. On French soil she also became a street painter, selling patterned scarves to passersby, and thus she met the Aga Khan’s wife in Cannes, who hired her to decorate their house for them. When she had some more money, she retired to a town in Provence to dedicate herself to the cultivation of aromatic flowers, and later she moved to the United States, where she taught language classes at the prestigious University of Illinois.
While her story jumped and changed landscapes, Martínez Sagi did not abandon poetry either, which was perhaps of all her passions that to which she gave herself most vehemently. Her poems were a mark of her existence, the sentimental record of what was happening to her. And for a long time they rested in the shadow of another woman, Elisabeth Mulder. Martínez Sagi met Mulder when the latter reviewed one of her first collections of poems and praised her, defining her as “a woman who sings among so many screaming women.” Martinez fell madly in love with her, despite the fact that Mulder was a widow and had a seven-year-old son. They came to spend a vacation together in Mallorca during Easter 1932, but the idyll was unexpectedly broken. The pressures of the young poet’s family and distancing by her lover, who never wanted the relationship to develop, ended the relationship and opened a wound that Martínez Sagi took many years to heal. “I found myself in front of you. You looked at me. / I was still able to stammer a banal phrase. / It was your livid smile … Later you walked away. / Then nothing … Life … Everything has remained the same”.
This frustrated love, conditioned by the rejection that the writer received for wanting to live freely in homosexuality, may be one of the causes that explain why the flame of her memory was allowed to go out so abruptly. Also the distancing by exile, the story of politics, inclement weather, the cruelty of memory. Faults that portray a country with very poor retention that always forgets those who matter most. Among many other reasons, that is why it was necessary for someone to renovate the name of Anna Maria Martínez Sagi and make an effort to rescue her from oblivion.To do justice.
SOURCES & FURTHER INFORMATION:
1Republican social democratic pro-Catalan independence party that had many members killed in battle, executed or tortured and jailed during the Spanish Antifascist War and the following Franco dictatorship. Currently the party has a couple of leaders in Spanish jail, including elected members of the Catalan autonomous Government and Members of the European Parliament. The party is currently negotiating coalition government with other Catalan pro-independence parties; ERC has one seat less than Junts per Catalonia, another independentist party (D.B)
2Famous Catalan and international soccer club (D.B).