Antonio Gonzalo Soto Canalejo was born in El Ferrol (Spain) on 8 October 1897. His parents were Antonio Soto Moreira and Concepción Canalejo González. His father perished on board the [Spanish naval flagship] ‘Oquendo’ during the war in Cuba shortly after Antonio was born. When Antonio was three, his mother remarried, becoming the wife of Eduardo Rey and the whole family then moved away to Argentina. Antonio had problems getting along with his stepfather and because of this his mother sent him back to Galicia.
After some years in El Ferrol, Antonio Soto returned to Buenos Aires at the age of seventeen in 1914. The city was a political cauldron with strikes, demonstrations and anarchist newspapers urging struggle.
Without doubt, the Russian revolution in October 1917 was the most telling factor in the political making of Antonio Soto, just as it was for the Argentinean workers’ movement of the day. Antonio clung to high expectations of the achievements of the Bolshevik workers.
At the age of 22, Antonio joined the ‘Serrano Mendoza’ Theatre Company touring the towns of Patagonia. On one of its many tours the company stopped over in Río Gallegos. The working class atmosphere in the little town captivated Antonio. Before performing and moving on with the drama troupe, Antonio paid a visit to the Workers’ Society local there. There he heard the Basque journalist Jos Mara Borrero, an advisor with the Workers’ Society. This journalist wielded great influence. Borrero exercised a telling influence over the Río Gallegos workers and it was he that spotted Soto as a potential leader holding out great promise for the expansion of the union, so much so that he encouraged Soto to drop out of the theatre troupe and take over the leadership of the union.
Within months, on Sunday 24 May 1920, Soto was elected general secretary at a general meeting of the FORA-affiliated Río Gallegos Workers’ Society. Tensions were running high at that point: on the one hand the farm labourers were holding out for better working conditions and on the other the estancia (ranch) owners were worried about the slump in wool prices and the levels of organisation and demands emanating from the anarchist workers. In light of this, the union called a general strike. Things were very strained. Santa Cruz province was brought to a standstill by the workers.
Repression soon followed. The military authorities mobilised sailors and police and set about a crackdown on anything reminiscent of a strike. In just a couple of hours, dozens of union activists were rounded up. According to contemporary witnesses, Antonio Soto dodged the crackdown and took shelter in the home of a Galician woman living on the outskirts of town. This housewife was known in anarchist circles as Doña Máxima Lista (i.e. Mrs Maximalist)
On 28 January 1921, the 10th Cavalry Regiment under Lieutenant Colonel Héctor Varela boarded the ‘Guardia Nacional’, bound for Río Gallegos. And the provincial governor arrived on 29 January, months after he had been appointed. Governor Yza’s arrival brought some mellowing to both sides and negotiations began. Meanwhile Yza released the jailed trade unionists and eased up on the repression in the southern towns. This ‘jaw-jaw’ approach and an undertaking that the workers’ demands would be met brought the strike to a conclusion.
In July 1921 a number of incidents occurred that led to a breakdown in relations between the workers and the employers. The conditions agreed with the estancia owners were not fully implemented. Meanwhile, ten shots were fired through the window of the home of the Trading Company of Patagonia Ltd.s book-keeper Eloy del Val in Puerto Deseado after he had laid off some workers. The book-keeper came through that unscathed but the attack made a huge impact in Buenos Aires. Members of the Workers’ Society stopped the leader of the Santa Cruz Patriotic League, Dr Sicardi, in the street and relieved him of a gun that he was carrying. Even as this was happening in town, out in the countryside the peons overran seven estancias and made off with horses. But without question it was an incident that occurred on the night of 9 July (Argentinean National Day) that was to leave its mark on subsequent developments. A whole schedule of patriotic events culminated that evening in a banquet held to mark Argentinean independence. The Español Hotel was the location chosen for this feast, attended by leading personalities from around the province. Almost a hundred guests were about to take their seats when one of the waiters tipped off the chef Antonio Paris, a countryman of Soto’s, that those present included Manuel Fernndez, the owner of the Varela & Fernández company that was under boycott on Soto’s instructions. Antonio Paris called the waiters together and, on behalf of the Workers’ Society, banned them from serving at the tables. His Galician countrymen backed the Workers’ Society delegate’s decision. The Galicians’ refusal outraged the guests who saw it as an affront to their Argentinean homeland. Given how things were, the guests plumped for self-service under the watchful eyes of the waiting staff who saw this as a minor victory. Such insubordination and anti-Argentinean conduct, as the estancia owners saw it, pushed the various bourgeois factions into closing ranks against the workers.
Tensions in Río Gallegos were rising and Antonio Soto was also having to contend with attacks coming from other trade union groups egged on by reactionary factions.
In Río Gallegos the police jailed Antonio Paris, a Workers’ Society member. During the arrest operation the union local was searched. On 24 October 1921, a general strike was called.
Up in Buenos Aires, President Yrigoyen invited a friend of his, Lieutenant Colonel Varela, to oversee a crackdown in Patagonia. Whilst Varela was preparing his troops in the Campo de Mayo barracks, on 31 October Antonio Soto brought out the peons from the Buitreras, Alquina, Rincón de los Morros, Glencross, La Esperanza and Bella Vista estancias. A straggling 300-man column of farm-workers then headed for El Turbio and Punta Alta. Other union delegates brought out the workforce on all the estancias between Lago Argentino and Punta Alta. In less than seven days, these men had spread the rebellion across the enormous area covering southeast Santa Cruz territory. This first phase of the campaign, led by Antonio Soto, was entirely peaceable. The object was to secure the release of those jailed in Río Gallegos. By 5 November the entire south of Santa Cruz had been brought to a standstill. Several columns, 60-, 100- or 200-men strong roamed the desolate south under a red flag.
The night of 6-7 December was one of the longest in Antonio Soto’s life. The army was at the gates of the La Anita estancia. The workers called a meeting. Juan Farina, who was of Chilean extraction, suggested that they call off the strike and negotiate with the army. Most of the Chilean peons backed that option. Then it was the turn of the German anarchist Pablo Schulz to speak and he pointed out that the only way to win was to stand and fight.
Faced with a meeting leaning towards a compromise solution, Antonio Soto played his final hand and suggested that they dispatch two men under a white flag to where the troops were to ask the officer commanding for conditions relating to the release of the comrades held in Río Gallegos and the honouring of the previous year’s agreement. Two Chileans were to be assigned this task. As they approached the military, they were shot out of hand and the military rejected any sort of negotiations. The military commanders then sent in three troopers under a white flag to inform the rebels that the army was only prepared to offer them unconditional surrender, in return for which they would all be spared and treated decently. The strikers’ leaders asked for an hour to hold a meeting. The Chilean leader Farina was all for acceptance of the army’s offer. Schulz on the other hand was of the view that now more than ever they had to stand firm. Meanwhile, Soto delivered the speech of his life. [Historian] Osvaldo Bayer gives this account of that part of the meeting: “In more theatrical tones, he called upon all there to listen. And he was more than ever the Galician as he told them:
‘They’re going to shoot every man jack of you. Nobody will be left alive. Let’s move out. Comrades, let us carry on with this strike indefinitely until we win. Do not put your trust in the military: they’re the most wretched, treacherous, craven scum on earth. They are cowards above all else, resenting their obligation to wear uniform and give lifelong obedience. They have no idea what work is and they despise anybody that enjoys freedom of thought. Do not give yourselves up, comrades. Wait for the dawn of social redemption and freedom for all. Let us fight for that, let us take to the hills. Do not surrender yourselves.’”
He pounded his fists, beat his chest, yelled until tears rolled down his cheeks but no answer came. Antonio Soto - tall, wearing a revolutionary’s cap, talking about the meaning of freedom. He tried to use his words to boost a morale that had died once and for all, its fate now sealed. Soto was reluctant to admit defeat. And there, surrounded by that marvellous landscape, this was his last meeting.
“You are workers, toilers. Keep up the strike, until you are victorious once and for all and shape a new society with neither poor nor rich, where there are no guns, no uniforms, where there is consideration and respect for every human being, where no one needs to bend the knee to any soutane [ie priest] or bully-boy.”
The meeting then put things to a vote and Farina’s motion won. Schulz stated that he was completely opposed to that option but would defer to the decision of the meeting. For his part, Soto also spoke out against it, stating that he wasn’t about to let himself fall into the hands of the military and lose his life in such a wretched manner. He made one last appeal for them to follow his example. And bade them farewell saying: “I am not meat to be tossed to the hounds. I’ll stay if it’s a fight we’re talking about, but you comrades have no stomach for a fight.” (Evidence of eye-witnesses Fernández and Lada).
Soto was followed by twelve of the strikers and they used the fall of night to ride off into the mountains. That was one ghastly night. The military indulged in some real human butchery and most of the surrendering strikers were humiliated, tortured and shot. According to the figures bandied about, something between 500 and 6,500 strikers surrendered at the La Anita estancia. According to the anarchist FORA, between 150 and 250 strikers were gunned down in La Anita; and, during the entire conflict, about 1,500 workers.
Antonio Soto and his band fled for Chile via the Sentinela pass after five days roaming the Cordillera pursued by the Argentinean army and with Chilean carabineers on their heels, trying to stop them from entering Chile. Soto made it out to Puerto Natales, where comrades from the Workers’ Federation harboured him. Conscious that he was in danger in town, the Chilean leaders decided to move him by ship to Punta Arenas where he would find shelter at the local of the Magellan Straits Workers’ Federation. He was to stay in Punta Arenas for a few days until, on the urging of his comrades, he moved on to Valparaiso. Soto moved into a small hotel near the city docks, striking up a friendship with the daughter of his landlords. A few months later he married Amanda Souper and moved to Iquique in northern Chile. That first marriage produced six children: Alba, Antonio, Mario, Aurora, Amanda and Enzo. But Soto had an accident in that nitrate-mining town and moved away to Santiago de Chile, where he carried on clandestinely with his political activities whilst working as a driver of his own bus. Police harassment prompted him to move house continually until he settled in Punta Arenas before moving on to Puerto Natales. There he set up a cinema, giving it the name “Libertad” (Freedom). Things did not go well for him there and he was prompted to return to his trade as a farm labourer and for many years he was an advisor to the trade unions in southern Chile.
In 1936, when civil war erupted in Spain, Soto wanted to fight for the Republic but his health forbade that. On 5 March 1938, he re-married, his wife this time being a native of Chiloé island, Dorotea Cárdenas, with whom he was to have a daughter, Isabel Soto. In 1945 the family moved to Punta Arenas where he found work in a yard repairing ships’ engines and later he opened up a fruit stall in the market and the ‘Oquendo’ restaurant, named after the ship on which his father had served.
It was during these years that he founded the Spanish Republican Club, the Galician Club and a local chapter of the International Red Cross.
Soto’s deteriorating health forced him to give up his restaurant and he decided to open a small boarding house in his own name: that was in the Calle Ecuatoriana and his earnings were supplemented with a lorry for hire at the docks.
In 1962 he gave up work entirely and on 11 May 1963 died in Punta Arenas of a stroke, aged 65.
His funeral drew a massive crowd. The procession was headed by the banners of the Red Cross, the Spanish Republican Club and by the Galician flag carried by the Galician Club.
From: Article written by Lois Pérez Leira (Vigo, 1 October 2000). In 1998, Lois Pérez Leira published a biography of Antonio Soto as O Galego Soto, Lider Da Patagonia Rebelde (Vigo, 168 pages). Translated by: Paul Sharkey.