Although Pedro Catalo was a friend of mine I was never inquisitive about establishing whether he was Brazilian-born or naturalised Brazilian.
In September 1969 Tierra y Libertad in Mexico carried a biographical piece by A. Gomez. This was reprinted by the mimeographed bulletin Autogestao distributed clandestinely in February 1970. This presents Pedro Catalo as a Brazilian-born son of Italian parents. Meanwhile, his unpublished memoirs, which are in our possession, leave the matter unresolved.
We shall let Pedro Catalo tell us himself how and where he entered the class struggle and when he embraced anarchism:
My first contact with libertarian ideas came through the Union of Footwear and Allied Workers’ Union in Sao Paulo in October 1921, when I was 21 years old. At the time, the shoemakers were cockahoop because they had emerged victorious from a boycott campaign against an industrialist who had been reluctant to accede to a request that he employ more staff, and it was this that had induced me to join the union. I admit that I was stunned by the first union meeting I attended, for, since arriving from Argentina in 1917, I had had no concept of what a trade union or the social question were all about. Maybe this was because I had been born in Santa Fe, far removed from Buenos Aires and Rosario, where, of necessity, the proletariat must have been a lot better informed and because most of my school years had been spent at a Franciscan school and thus exposed to the conservative influence of those Franciscan fathers.
In 1921 something outstanding came to pass among the shoemakers. Something that left no doubts as to the power of the unions under proper guidance. The Footwear Manufacturers’ Centre, an employers’ organisation set up to combat the activities of the Footwear Makers’ Union in pursuit of its demand for a 600 reis increase in pay per head per pair of Louis XV shoes, decided to enforce a lock-out. So it was that on 9 December that year, all of the factories affiliated to the Manufacturers’ Centre, about 20 to 25 in all, locked their gates. This employers’ strike or lock-out, lasted for between 18 and 25 days and when the bosses decided to reopen their establishments, the workers refused to work unless they were paid for the days when they were locked out, plus that 600 reis raise per pair. This was yet another resounding success that prompted the workers to flood into the union. The bosses had no option but to agree to the conditions imposed by the workers, failing which their establishments would remain idle.That first night when I attended a meeting of the Union of Footwear and Allied Trades is etched in my memory because I was deeply impressed by the eloquence, ardour and persuasiveness of two speakers which left a deep impression on me, who was still a novice in political matters. One of them, Ricardo Cipolla, was blessed with a booming voice and had a captivating, poetic and persuasive way of speaking and I was taken by the power of his arguments and the beauty of his rhetoric. It is pretty much down to him that I embraced the social struggle and plumped for anarchism. The other speaker, Antonio Dominguez, a Spaniard, was an intelligent fellow, physically tiny and delicate, whom one would never have taken for a shoemaker. Although clear, well-paced and understandable, his address, delivered in a thick Galician accent, was bolstered by a comprehensive knowledge of the social question and he was, so to speak, the complete anarchist militant. Those two men, as far as I was concerned, opened my eyes to a completely new world: the world of social struggle, with its lofty values of justice and fraternity.
Now to what happened in the years that followed:
In 1923 the Footwear and Allied Trades Union called a general strike in order to get better conditions for the shoemakers and, as ever, ran into strong resistance from the employers, most of whom were Italians and brazen reactionaries who had come there determined to make their fortunes by whatever means might be necessary. Banded together as the Manufacturers’ Centre (there was no Manufacturers’ Federation in those days), they were unhappy with and stubbornly opposed to the sway then enjoyed by the Footwear Workers’ Union, whose drive to offer guidance, education and leadership to the workers made life harder for the employers’ exploitation and scheming and they devised all sort of schemes to thwart our flourishing union.
In many of the shoemaking factories and workshops in Sao Paulo, the workers were soundly organised and on every worksite they had a ‘delegate’ whose task it was to look after the proper functioning of the organisation, dealing with the employers’ complaints as well as acing as spokesmen for the workers’ concerns. One of the main duties of the delegate was to ensure that workers not affiliated to the Footwear Workers’ Union were not employed by the company. This was designed to ensure that the company remained well organised and that the bosses did not gain the upper hand. The union has a Placement Office which received from its delegates the employers’ requests for manpower and it kept a register of available workers. Some employers found this a convenient arrangement because the union was responsible for its tradesmen. But others, the more reactionary ones, could not bear this sort of union oversight in their factories and workshops. ‘I’m the boss here’, they used to say, and there would be ongoing disputes which, in a way, helped train the workers in trade union struggles.
The police always played a prominent part in disputes. There was a police trio renowned for their systematic, insidious and discretionary harassment, for which they were well rewarded by the manufacturers and it was made up of Oreste Lascal, Gentile and Antonio (Antonio was known as ‘Barbeirinho’ [the little barber], having once plied that trade). These three individuals were well endowed with the sort of sadism essential to a police thug. Those were the days when we wee under the feudal rule of the PRP (Paulista Republican Party) headed by Washington Luiz, whose term as police chief in Sao Paulo was distinguished by his reactionary stance and by the dictum that summed him up as a ferocious enemy of the working man: ‘The social question can be resolved by the hooves of a horse’.
On a weekly basis, on Monday nights, the Footwear Workers’ Union used to hold general meetings attended by large numbers of workers well used to such meetings. The union had a large number of active
and effective militants, notably one handsome young man of average intelligence and outstanding ability: Afonso Schmidt. Another committed, decent and effective militant was Joao Peres, the father of our comrade Ideal Peres. To get some idea of the numbers of young militants active in the Footwear Workers’ Union, suffice to say that we had a group known as the ‘Legion of the Friends of A Plebe’ which raised funds for that paper and it numbered upwards of 500 people, all of them shoemakers and all of them young.
Each weekly meeting was almost always preceded by lectures given by militants invited along for this purpose. This educational and re-educational drive the union was starting to bear fruit and as a result the struggle between the bosses and the workers was escalating. In the shoemaking trade the Italians were the preponderant element and from the old country they had imported the custom of celebrating their patron saint - St Crispin - every Monday.
As a result of this deep seated practice among the Italian shoemakers, every Monday, the Louis XV shoe factories, where there was comparative freedom, in that the work was piece-work, turned into premises given over to card-games and drinking. Now and again, rows would erupt because of drunkenness and over-drinking. When the Footwear Workers’ Union began to spread its influence among the workers and to organise the factories and workshops, the traditional practice of gambling and drinking and even of rowing in the workplace was systematically clamped down on and replaced by pamphlets, books and discussions focusing on the social question. This education drive by the union, designed to bring education to the workers, was confirmed by a report from the Santos city police chief who stated that as the number of labour unions grew, the crime rates in the city fell.
Shortly after the shoemakers’ strike, in 1923, the workers in the textile plants also went on general strike. At that time, in Sao Paulo, the textile industry was the largest employer. Since the textile strike faced stiff resistance from the bosses, the textile operatives were finding it hard to get by. The shoemakers, at a general meeting, decided to show solidarity with the striking textile workers and every shoemaker’s family undertook to welcome into its home the children of the textile workers and to look after them so that their parents might be free to stand up better to the bosses and win their dispute. This marvellous display of solidarity came to nothing because within a few days the strike ended unexpectedly.
As far I was able to establish at the time, such an exceptional form of solidarity had only been pracised twice: in Milan in Italy and in Spain, on the occasion of the Rio Tinto Mines strike. I have no idea of the dates of those events.
On the night of Saturday 5 July 1924, the Footwear Workers’ Union had planned a great artistic and dance festival to be held in the usual ‘Labouring Classes’ hall then in the Rua Riberto Simons (formerly the Rua do Carmo). As a ‘Kermesse’ could be held at that time, the Festival Commission had piled up a cart load of gifts and presents that were then numbered for the raffle at the Kermesse, during the festival. At daybreak that day Sao Paulo awoke to heavy gunfire. General Isidoro Dias Lopes’s troops were pounding strategic pints in the city, including the government palace, the name of which escapes me right now. The governor, the security forces and loyalist troops (troops loyal to those in power were known as legalistas) and the police fled in panic, mysteriously abandoning the city of Sao Paulo which was then taken over completely by Isidoro’s revolutionary troops.
The July 1924 revolt ended in defeat, the anarchists were tossed into prison or dispatched to Oiapoque and the bosses resolved to make up lost ground ..
Libertarians and syndicalists who escaped the police crackdown also re-examined their groundwork. As Catalo tells us in this part of his memoirs:
Gradually, Sao Paulo returned to the dynamic rhythms of an industrial city and life was returning to normal. The workers’ unions were all reeling from the fury of the Sao Paulo police who had destroyed everything - furnishings, books ,tools, pictures, doors, windows - in short, anything that could be destroyed. The Footwear Workers’ Union was hardest hit because it had the greatest number of anarchist militants and had therefore been the favourite target. Everything in the three rooms that it occupied in the Rua Barao de Paranapiacaba was destroyed, and a huge bust of Karl Marx, a splendid plaster of Paris creation, a gift from an admirer of that thinker, bore hammer marks. The prizes se aside for the Kermesse and which filled one of the rooms were mostly destroyed. The best of them were stolen by the police, including some very splendid cheeses, to which the policemen Lascala, Gentile and Barbeirinho would refer late when they arrested us during strikes and at meetings. ‘That was some good cheese!’ they would say, as cynically as conceivable.
For several years past the international anarchist movement had been waging a fierce campaign to save Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti from the electric chair. Anarchists around the world had no doubts but that the pair were innocent. That campaign also reached into libertarian circles in Brazil, thanks to the newspapers, reviews and bulletins we received from abroad. And so, at the beginning of 1926, at one of the unforgettable general meetings of the shoemakers held every Monday in the Italia Fausta hall (named after an artist of that name who was the daughter of the lady who looked after the hiring of the hall, which is still there in the Rua Florencio de Abreu), it was decided that that campaign, which was commanding attention around the world, should be extended to Brazil too. After some preliminary discussions, a Sacco-Vanzetti Release Campaign Committee was appointed to direct and organise all the propaganda that might be required if the campaign was to be a success. By decision of the meeting, that committee was manned by the following four comrades: Joao Peres, Jose Ramon, Pascual Martinez and Pedro Catalo. Of those four, I am the sole survivor. Joao Peres died in Rio de Janeiro, Jose Ramon in Rio Grande do Sul and Pascual Martinez died some time ago in Buenos Aires.
It will be readily understood that four comrades could not, by themselves, mount the intense campaign carried out in Sao Paulo and the rest of Brazil. But the fact is that around the committee gravitated dozens of anarchist groups which, with dogged enthusiasm backed all of the initiatives and ventures emanating from it. And the anarchist groups also took initiatives of their own which blended in with the work being done by the Committee. The campaign made quite some headway among the population of Sao Paulo where, as we stated earlier, the Italians predominated. Every week we held at least two indoor rallies and a further open air rally on Sundays on the streets. During the week we held meetings in local halls and on Sundays we met in the Largo de Concordia where there was a bandstand readily usable for that purpose. We always had plenty of public speakers and now, 42 years on, I cannot remember them all. But I still recall the names of some who were regulars and ideologically like-minded: Afonso Festa, Joao Penteado, Edgard Leuenroth, Domingos Passos, a dentist whose name escapes me and Plinio Gomes Melo (an anarchist militant from Rio de Janeiro who was deported to Oiapoque at the time of Isidoro’s revolt in 1924. Passos was one of the few deportees who managed to escape from that hell-hole thanks to his spirit of struggle, determination and physical strength. He was able to achieve that feat because surveillance was lax once it was realised that any runaway venturing into the jungle would starve to death, die of thirst and generally be eaten by wild animals. He had to swim across rivers, eat jungle roots and eat the bark of a tree with a reputation in the area for countering the ghastly malarial fever locally and which was endemic in the Clevelandia district.
On the night of 27 August 1927, the two innocent anarchists were executed: the night before, we called a general strike throughout Brazil. We cannot say for sure how things went elsewhere, but to the credit of the Sao Paulo workers at that time, it has to be said that the response to our strike call was well in excess of our expectations. The Sao Paulo proletariat brought most industry to a standstill, awaiting what proved to be the dismal news that represents one of the greatest stains on the honour of US jurisprudence. Folk who had never expected to be caught up in a strike were, on the fateful day prior to the execution of the two anarchist martyrs. How the Sao Paulo proletariat and populace conducted itself in that unforgettable campaign is a page of history that ought to be more widely known to up and coming generations of the knock-down trade unionism of a Labour Ministry that honestly believes that before it came into existence there was no trade unionism in Brazil. Following the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, we fell back into the normal routine of our trade union and libertarian activities: meetings, talks, strikes and, as ever, imprisonment.
In 1928 - Catalo goes on to say - I was working in a well-unionised Louis XV shoe plant. We were nearly all anarchists there and those who were not were sympathisers. It was there, in the Rua Chavantes, that at the instigation of Afonso Festa, we set up an amateur drama group. Working with us there was a veteran theatre lover, Chiarelli and he was made director of the group. Our play was entiled I Senza Patria (Those Without a Homeland) and was an eloquent argument on behalf of Garibaldi’s soldiers fighting for a new Italy where they later found it impossible to live because the new leaders worried about their own problems, leaving the populace to carry on wrestling with hunger and landlessness, with Garibaldi’s men forced to scatter around the globe.
Our group was called the Footwear Workers’ Union Theatre Group and was set up to work on behalf of our union. Our first show, like I Senza Patria, was staged in the great hall of the Spanish Federation, a Spanish recreational association in the Rua do Gasometro. The hall was filled to capacity since, as I say, the Italian community was the main one in Sao Paulo. The second show we staged was an original piece by Gigi Damiani, whom I never met in person since he was deported in 1919 along with other militants and, I seem to recall, with Marques da Costa. This was an anti-clerical play called The Miracle. In the show, Afonso Festa was not involved because by then he had been deported to Italy. His partner, Victoria Guerrero, was involved; in her unmarried day she had been a participant in the libertarian camp. Gigoi Damiani also wrote other plays that were great successes in worker circles and which were several times staged by a group that predated our own and went by the name of the Social Theatre Group. I knew two of its members personally - Marino Spagnolo and Garibaldi Biolosti, the latter a brother of our comrade Hugo Biolosti, a glazier, since deceased. I translated Gigi Damiani’s very powerful play Long Live Rambolot into the Portuguese and it too had a social theme and was staged countless times by our group, which by then had a new line-up and of which I was in charge. I had been a theatre-lover from when I was very young and hardly ever missed an operatta, opera or play in my younger day. I was a regular theate-goer from the foundation of that group in 1928 onwards.In 1928, in Sao Paulo, we launched a Spanish-language theatre group, known as the Aurora Theatre Group. It was almost entirely made up of anarchists and we staged social dramas. Personally I felt very much at home among the Spaniards, having been raised in Argentina and I had a good command of Castilian. At one pint we staged a ground-breaking social drama in which the figure of Tolstoy also featured. I cannot recall the author’s name. The play was called Fallen Freedom. I remember that on the night there were upwards of two hundred families queuing outside in the street. The hall was packed and the hall owners were afraid that it might collapse. When we made to stage a different show and the owners learned that it was for the Aurora Group they refused to hire us the hall, remembering the night Fallen Freedom had been staged. That theatre group was short-lived but even so we staged other shows such as Octave Mirabeau’s Bad Shepherds, again with great success.
In those days there was no requirement to secure a licence to put on a show, nor was the play run past the censor. But Social Theatre was short-lived.
The harassment inflicted on anarchists under the Artur Bernardes government was devastating. Washington Luiz’s ‘cavalry charges’ - although he was less savage than when he had been Sao Paulo police chief and than Bernardes - gave libertarians no respite. Even so they managed to rebuild the old Sao Paulo Federation which embraced the Footwear Workers’ Union, the Metalworkers’ Union, the Glaziers’, Bakers’, Tilers’, Quarrymen’s, Waiters’, Civil Construction Workers’, Hawkers’, Motorists’ unions and the Printing Trades Union, the latter already infiltrated by the henchmen of the PCB (Communist Party of Brazil).
Pedro Catalo helped rebuild the Sao Paulo Workers’ Federation. As he tells it:
In 1931 the Workers’ Federation held a Congress, under the name, I seem to recall, of the 3rd Sao Paulo Workers’ Congress. I can’t quite remember for what reason. This conference or congress made an extraordinary impact and also demonstrated the extent of the anarcho-syndicalists’ great power throughout Sao Paulo state. I am sorry that I do not have any documentation to prove beyond doubt the numbers of delegates attending from around the state. The communists had barely any representation except among the printing trades and a so-called minority group cooked up at the last moment for the purpose of taking part in the congress. There was also the well known and eloquent militant Aristides Lobo, then a Trotskyist, having been expelled from the Communist Party for indiscipline. He later became a great friend of ours and die recently, in November 1968. All of the anarcho-communist and action resolutions on the agenda of the congress were carried by a huge majority, since, as I have said, the communists were a tiny minority. Not until later did we see the emergence of a line of pro-Russian communists.
In March 1932 the Union of Footwear Workers in a general meeting determined to press for a pay increase and certain improvements to footwear. To this end it had a number of placards made, setting out its demands and calling for a general strike on 1 May, should the employers refuse to grant the conditions sought. Those placards were issued to every leather-working establishment . For their part, the bosses also took precautions to hold out against the shoe-makers’ threatened strike. 1 May finally arrived and the vast majority of the employers determined to hold out because they had been tipped off that a PRP-led counter-revolutionary armed revolt was in the offing to counter the 1930 revolution which had removed the PRP from power. As we know, the draconian Washington Luiz was forced to quit the country and was escorted as far as the docks by the cardinal of the time, whose name escapes me.
We hired the Olimpia Theatre in the Avenida Rangel Pestana, Sao Paulo’s biggest theatre, and there, to a packed audience reckoned at about 7,000 people, on 2 May, we declared the general strike with unprecedented enthusism. It was a spectacle that I will never forget. There are many young bucks these days who speak dismissively of the older militants. I wish they had been there with me then. There were shoe-makers who rose to speak but were unable to finish and were overcome by emotion. It was not like a meeting; it was more like some mammoth congress, such was the number of speakers and the solidity of the knowledge possessed by these militants. From where I was it was like watching the waves sweeping in from the sea, such was the impression made by the crowds and its movements and gestures. After a general strike was declared, we set off on foot for some factories which had not yet joined in.
Such was the anarchist Pedro Catalo, a fluent public speaker and controversialist who took part in every anarchist event, contributing to A Plebe, A Lanterna, Acao Directa, Acao Sindical and who was founding director of O Libertario and Dealbar. In 1961 he took part in the Fifth Congress of the Argentine Libertarian Federation (FLA). He was also an outstanding theatre critic whose books won prizes. He was the author of Nativity Story, The Little Bear with Green Fur, the plays The Heart is a Labyrinth, A Different Woman, How a Life Unfurls, Madrid, The Madwoman, and The Hero and the Tramp. He translated plays and comedies for libertarian theatre groups, was a poet and had a profound knowledge of Revolutionary Syndicalism which he championed from platform and page.
Born in 1901, Pedro Catalo died in 1969 following an operation. With his demise the anarchist movement in Brazil lost one of its most loyal and dogged champions and I lost a great friend and collaborator!
In the research from which a number of books ‘emerged’ Catalo was a very important figure!
Translated by: Paul Sharkey.