Manuel Pérez Fernández was born on 10 August 1887 in Santos, a coastal, seafaring city in São Paulo state (Brazil). He was a prominent anarchist activist and trade union organiser, equally outstanding and overlooked. He organised and bolstered the CNT in Andalusia, the Canaries, San Sebastián and the Balearics. While an exile in Portugal and France, he came into contact with leading lights from the international anarchist movement like Makhno, [Maxim] Ranko, Arshinov, Grave, Faure, Malato, Besnard and Schapiro.
He played a leading part in the meetings held in France in 1925 and 1926 that built up to the foundation of the FAI and was one of the chief architects of the I in FAI, signifying the amalgamation of Portuguese, Spanish and Spanish-speaking exiles in France into a single organisation. Initially that I stood, not for Iberian but for Ibero-American, but in the end it was restricted to the Iberian Peninsula because of insurmountable organisation issues.
Alongside Durruti and García Oliver, he featured prominently in the very first authorised CNT rally held in Barcelona in January 1936 (the CNT having previously been outlawed in the wake of the events of October 1934).
He had a hand in numerous rallies and lengthy propaganda and organisational tours that occasionally went on for months on end as he toured the entire peninsula and was in charge of several anarchist newspaper titles as well as a regular visitor to a range of prisons. He stood out on account of his talent in the organising of new CNT unions and as the founder of a number of regional federations.
He was jailed on 53 occasions, in Brazil, Spain, France and Portugal and banished on four occasions, twice from Seville (in 1921 and 1924), once from Santa Cruz in Tenerife (1934) and, most welcomely, from Francoist territory in 1940. He was married, with three daughters.
In 1950s Brazil he wrote his memoirs which are frequently quoted but which have never seen publication albeit that they have been circulated in activist circles.
He was born in Brazil to a family of Spanish extraction. His mother’s deeply Catholic and reactionary family included a number of army generals. Three of his mother’s brothers were Spanish generals and one of them met his end in Cuba in the Cuban war of independence.
In 1905 he was working as an apprentice cabinet-maker in Rio de Janeiro where he came into contact with a Spanish anarchist militant who introduced him to libertarian ideas just as he was joining Rio’s Arts and Trades School. In 1906, he clashed with his father over Mateo Morral’s attempt on the life of Alfonso XIII of Spain, his father being against it. In 1909, after three years of tense family relations and after hearing about the events of Tragic Week and the shooting of Francisco Ferrer Guardia, he had a stormy argument with his father and made up his mind to leave home.
He carried on studying and kept up his relations with Valentín and other anarchist friends as an ordinary trade union member. In 1918, with the First World War over, he started writing articles for the Jornal do Brasil as well as getting involved in trade union struggles. By the end of that year he had been appointed secretary of the Rio de Janeiro Cabinet-makers’ Centre and later became the president of the Cabinetmakers’ Union.
After some bitter struggles, Brazilian workers managed to launch the Woodworkers’ Union of which Pérez was appointed secretary and he later went on to represent the Rio de Janeiro Workers’ Federation. At the same time he was made an editor of the anarchist movement’s weekly paper, Espartacus and a member of the propaganda commission, charged with organising talks and lectures in the unions. In October 1919 a police crackdown forced him out of Brazil. He landed in Vigo (Spain) in November 1919, only to be jailed as he had no papers. And spent time in prison in Madrid and Seville. In January 1920 he was made general secretary of Seville’s Woodworkers’ Union, a post he held up until his arrest in September 1920, at which point he was banished to Cabezas Rubias a tiny town in Huelva province, arriving in one of the usual escorted double-ranks of tied prisoners trudging along the roads. Spending the whole of 1921 there, it was there that he met Teresa, his first wife.
Following the Sánchez Guerra amnesty in 1922, he held the post of secretary of the Seville Local Federation and later served on the Regional Committee for Andalusia. He worked alongside Alaiz and Vallina and mounted a rally tour with Salvador Seguí. Early in 1923, after the Primo de Rivera dictatorship had installed itself, he was first jailed and then, in April 1924, banished to Portugal. He threw himself into the Portuguese trade union movement and was an editor with A Batalha and served on the National Committee of the Portuguese Anarchist Union (UAP). Together with Restituto Mogroviejo and the Galician, Sánchez, he set up the International Committee for Freedom of the Spanish People.
In 1925 he was expelled from Portugal and set off for Paris where he was an editor with Tiempos Nuevos and correspondence secretary of the Federation of Hispanophone Anarchist Groups in France.
In May 1926 he took part as a delegate in the proceedings of the Marseilles Anarchist Congress convened by the Federation of Hispanophone Anarchist Groups in concert with the Spanish interior: there was a sizable international and IWA presence too. The FAI was founded at that meeting on foot of a motion put by De Sousa and by Pérez himself; they defeated the tactics supported by Garcia Oliver and Perez Combina, tactics in favour of political and armed collaboration with [the Catalanist] Macià designed to overthrow the Dictatorship. After their militaristic proposal was turned down, García Oliver and Combina walked out of the congress. One of the most significant motions passed by the congress read: “Congress is unanimously agreed that from now on no pact, collaboration or understanding may be entered into with political personnel and that we shall have an understanding solely with the CNT as long as that body upholds its libertarian communist principles.”
Given the positions he had held prior to this, Manuel Pérez was one of he chief architects of the inclusion of the Portuguese and the hispanophone exiles into Spain’s anarchist organisation.
He was appointed administrator of Tiempos Nuevos, then under the direction of Liberto Callejas.Director was the only paid post and that wagesupported five people – the families of Liberto and of Pérez (Liberto was living in the Pérez home, which also functioned as the Tiempos Nuevos editorial offices).
As the delegate from the Federation of Hispanophone Anarchist Groups in France, Perez helped – as did Besnard, Faure, Borghi, Schapiro, Huart, Hugo and others – to launch the General Confederation of Labour (Revolutionary Syndicalist), i.e. the CGT-SR – which was intended to resist the Stalinist influence with the labour unions.
At the time and as the connection between the Spanish anarchist movement and the IWA, Pérez met with IWA secretary Schapiro on a weekly basis.
In July 1927, in Valencia the seal was set formally on the foundation of the FAI inside Spain, as agreed the previous year at the Marseilles congress.
In February 1928, Pérez returned to Spain, crossing the Catalan frontier, to see to his seriously ill wife; he moved her and the family to Huelva where she eventually died on 20 November 1928. Perez was involved in clandestine activities and served on the FAI’s Liaison Committee, on behalf of which he took part in an Andalusian regional plenum. In December he served on the Seville Prisoners’ Aid Committee, battling against the governor Cruz Conde’s harsh repression of CNT personnel. And he was in Seville throughout 1929.
In June that year, a widower now with three daughters, he took up with Mercedes, his second relationship. He worked as a cabinetmaker on the building of the Brazilian pavilion at the Seville International Exposition and, given that he spoke Portuguese, French and Spanish, he was offered the position of director of the Brazilian Press and Propaganda Agency, which he accepted.
In March 1930 he left for Belgium with his family, all of them travelling on Brazilian passports, to take up the very same position with the Brazilian delegation to the Antwerp Exposition and he remained there from April until December. He turned down the offer of a passage-paid return to Brazil, the land of his birth. And spent barely two months in Paris.
In January 1931 he returned to Spain, crossing the border via Hendaye and Irún and settling in San Sebastian where, with just 17 militants, he organised a CNT Amalgamated Trades union and, within a few short months, a seven union Local Federation of which he was made general secretary.
In June, after the Republic was proclaimed, he left for Madrid to participate as the Northern region’s delegate in the proceedings of the CNT National Congress at the Maria Guerrero Theatre and served in the working parties dealing with the social organisation of the future. At the close of the congress he joined Rudolf Rocker, Pierre Besnard, Lucien Huart and Valeriano Orobon Fernandez in addressing the wind-up rally.
Then, as Spain’s delegate, he attended the IWA congress held in the Barbieri Theatre in Madrid, together with Carbó, Pestaña and Robusté.
In pursuit of his duties as secretary of the San Sebastián Local Federation he took part in a range of national plenums such as the ones in Barcelona in late July 1931 or the Madrid one in December the same year.
In May 1932 he agreed to the National Committee’s request that he should go to the Canaries to overhaul and boost the CNT’s unions there. After arrival he ran En Marcha, the mouthpiece of the Canaries CNT unions and a mere eight months later, in April 1933, a rally was held to mark the establishment of the recently founded Canaries Regional Committee, built on a few isolated unions. He was made secretary of the Canaries regional committee, representing the 32,000-strong membership. Friends and acquaintances began to refer to him affectionately as “el canario“. From then on he was a regular contributor to Barcelona’s Solidaridad Obrera.
He was arrested in connection with the December 1933 uprising and removed to Zaragoza prison where he was held for 45 days, until his case was “set aside” after the evidence went missing (stolen by anarchist groups). By the latter half of March 1934 he was back in Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
In November 1934 the government authorities banished him from the Canaries. He operated underground in Seville and Cadiz where he helped Vicente Ballester organise the Cadiz Local Federation and served on its committee.
In January 1936, he joined the editorial staff of Solidaridad Obrera in Barcelona alongside Manuel Villar (the director), Liberto Callejas, José Peirats, Alejandro Gilabert and Francisco Ascaso.
Together with Buenaventura Durruti, Francisco Carreno and García Oliver, he spoke at the 5 January 1936 CNT rally at the Olympia Theatre, the first rally held after the ban on the organisation imposed after the events of October 1934 was lifted. When García Oliver got stroppy about Pérez’s having been listed in the choice bottom spot in the listings – the sought after spot allocated to whoever gave the final address at the meeting – Pérez had no difficulty in swapping places with him immediately, in keeping with his own innate modesty.
In February 1936 he addressed a reunification rally jointly held with treintistas in Mataró and was effusively congratulated by Peiro. Together with Ramon Alvarez and Francisco Isgleas, he mounted a propaganda-cum-organising tour of Gerona province. In Benicarlo, the “three Perezes” – Vicente Pérez Viche (aka Combina), Manuel Pérez Feliu from the Levante regional committee and Manuel Pérez Fernández aka el canario – jointly addressed a rally.
That same month, the Barcelona Wodworkers’ Union made him its delegate to the CNT congress held in Zaragoza; he took part in the opening ceremony in the bullring with Federica Montseny and Francisco Carreño. He argued for the immediate establishment of a Workers’ Confederation of Iberia. And was appointed to thrash out the resolution on libertarian communism.
He stayed on as an editor of Solidaridad Obera in Barcelona under the direction of Liberto Callejas until 18 July 1936, on which date he sailed for Majorca to represent the paper at the very first Balearic regional congress and at the wind-up rally. When the army coup succeeded in Majorca, he was forced to hide from fascist persecution in the home of the CNT’s Julia Palazón.
On 21 November 1936 he managed to reach Ciudadela and spent a month in Minorca where he ran the CNT paper La Voz de Menorca in Mahon. Towards the end of December 1936 he arrived in Valencia on board the destroyer ‘Ciscar’ which successfully broke the naval blockade on Minorca and in Valencia he wrote the pamphlet Cuatro meses de barbarie. Mallorca bajo el terror fascista (Four months of barbarism. Majorca under the fascist terror) It was published that year in Spanish, English and French. The French translation was by the Valencian type-setter-cum-movie-maker José Estivales who used the alias Armand Guerra.
He spent a few days in Barcelona in January 1937, having gone to pick up his family who were living in La Torrassa. On 5 January 1937 he addressed a CNT rally held in the Gran Price, reminding the audience that exactly a year before he had taken part in a similar rally alongside the now dead Durruti. And he was scathing about the CNT’s collaboration in government business.
In February 1937 he set off for France where he carried out a propaganda and fund-raising campaign over a two month period, alongside Armand Guerra, David Antona, Alexandre Miranda and Fontaine, returning first to Valencia and then to Barcelona in mid-April.
He crossed the border via Puigcerdá where he stopped off for a stroll and a chat with Antonio Martín, who was to be murdered a week later by, as Pérez himself put it, “a gang of killers” in order to destroy the revolutionary achievements of the anarchists in the Cerdaña area. Pérez regarded this as the preamble to the counter-revolutionary gambit that culminated in the 3 May 1937 raid on the Telephone Exchange in Barcelona.
During the May Events he saw action in La Torrassa where he was living and opposed the ceasefire order issued by Federica Montseny and Juan García Oliver, among others.
He was appointed a delegate to the National Plenum held in Valencia on 11 May 1937. On his return he was elected on to the FAI Peninsular Committee alongside Germinal de Sousa, Roberto Cotelo, Jacobo Prince and Lunazzi, but was forced to withdraw, on health grounds, to Igualada for rest and recuperation, although he could not resist taking part in short propaganda visits to nearby towns in order to rebuild an organisation demolished and banished from the comarca by state and Stalinist repression in the wake of May 1937 when the reconstituted forces of Public Order made up of Assault Guards and the old Civil Guard returned to various areas like conquerors to hunt down the CNT “uncontrollables”.
And despite being, in theory,’ retired’, he also took part in lots of meetings of the higher committees called by the Catalan Regional Committee in the Casa CNT-FAI on the Via Durruti in Barcelona.
That May he had published a piece on the front page of Solidaridad Obrera, in which, having analysed recent events, he denounced the crimes carried out against the Organisation such as the corpses of twelve young libertarians found tortured and mutilated and dumped on the highway outside Cerdanyola: and closing with these words: “We are on our own, that’s true, but we have our dignity” … noting how terribly isolated the CNT was in the face of state and Stalinist repression.
In October 1937 he left Igualada and moved to Gelida where he took part in many propaganda drives in neighbouring towns. In late December 1937 he settled in Barcelona, joining the CNT National Committee which appointed him director of the Libertarian Youth mouthpiece, Ruta, a post he filled until July 1938 when he was posted to Oran on a propaganda and organisational mission.
In September 1938 the Andalusian Regional Committee sent for him to take up the post of regional secretary in Baza as the recent regional plenum had determined he should.
On 31 March 1939 he watched with his own eyes as the Italians captured the docks in Alicante where thousands of republicans were waiting for ships to carry them away from Francoist Spain.
In April 1939 he was interned in concentration camps (a few days in the Los Almendros camp and later in the Albatera concentration camp). Later, he was on his uppers and had some horrific experiences, brilliantly recounted in his memoirs and 24 May 1939 saw him arrive at the Seville provincial prison where his record of several stays in prison and two banishments were taken into consideration. In one statement given in 1924 he had lied about his being a Brazilian national and sworn that he was born in Osuna, the purpose at that time being to avoid deportation to Brazil and separation from his wife and daughters. The police zeroed in on this false statement as confirmation of his Spanish nationality. But thanks to determined efforts by the Brazilian consulate which flagged up his post as the Brazilian delegation’s chief of Press and Propaganda at the Seville and Antwerp expositions, he was spared execution and was ordered to be deported from Spain in 1940.
Even so, he still had to serve several months in jail, in permanent danger of being sent to the Miranda de Ebro camp where foreigners were systematically exterminated.
Thanks to help from International Antifascist Solidarity (SIA) and to the unrelenting vigilance and lobbying of the Brazilian consulate in Cadiz, his deportation order was carried out. His odyssey through a range of Francoist prisons, the ghastly portrait of a number of sadistic gaolers, the tortures, degradation and the murder of some vanquished old friends add up to a harrowing and dantesque narrative that would not be out of place in Dante’s Inferno.
He reached Brazil in July 1941 and there he launched Ação Directa, serving as its administrator for many years. He was secretary of the Spanish-speaking anarchists exiled in Brazil. In 1951 he completed his memoirs, entitled 30 años de lucha. Mi actuación como militante de a CNT y anarquista español (30 Years a-Struggling. My Record as a CNT Militant and Spanish Anarchist).
He died in Rio de Janeiro on 16 June 1964.
An obituary carried by Le Combat syndicaliste of 14 January 1965 had this to say of him: “With the gift of the gab and an optimist to the very end, persuasive on account of his belief, a rebel by temperament, he was equally sensible of the obligations of the confederal organisation and his comrades.”
This short outline of the life of Manuel Pérez Fernández gives us some sort of insight into his dizzyingly frantic propaganda activity. He himself writes about shuttling from village to village by taxi and chalking off rally after rally in a single day.
Known to his friends by his nick-name, El canario, Manuel Pérez Fernández was an outstanding propagandist and union organiser who could conjure a CNT union out of nothing in a few short months, followed within months by a local or regional federation with its very own press mouthpiece, normally with Manuel himself in charge. Just as he did in the Canaries, in Andalusia, San Sebastián and Oran.
In his memoirs, Manuel Pérez refused to write an autobiography because he reckoned that his personal life was of no interest and he offers us merely the extraordinary account of his experiences as a CNT and anarchist activist. An outstanding activist with a record that includes 17 years as a militant in the front ranks, but all but anonymous with those commonplace names of his: Pérez and Fernández. For the same reason, his activities underline the importance of so many anonymous militants who are the ones who – over and above the legendary status, greatness and wretchedness of a bunch of leaders – account for the splendour of the collective story of these nameless CNT workers who made up the organisation’s strength, its essence and its grassroots. That the weaving of myth and a personality cult made gods of them and sometimes misrepresented them as heroes and otherworldly beings when they themselves prized anonymity above all else, is the fault of the Organisation alone.
Manuel Pérez’s memoirs are awash with biographical sketches of many CNT militants, some of them complete unknowns and others of a certain repute, as well as with lots of tragic or comical anecdotes about leading lights, turning them into a sort of miscellany of varied and random CNT lives.
Although, in his account of his thirty years as an activist, Manuel Pérez steers as clear as he can of autobiography, he wrote down enough for us to divine an intense, enjoyable family life as well as an extraordinary appreciation of friendship with other militants, over and above any frictions or pettiness. And, on many an occasion, any differences over policy. Fortunately, some letters have come down to us in which his personality appears diaphanous and solid to us, affording us a glimpse of the inner man.
The correspondence shows him candidly as a man deeply in love with his family and a sound friend to his friends. But above all, he appears as a rounded man of integrity, well able to stand up to the challenges, blows and setbacks of life, and all from the vantage point of a revolutionary anarchist commitment. In a letter to one friend, with regard to his wife’s protracted illness and subsequent death, he writes: “We anarchists need to be stronger than pain itself”.
Going by the name Pérez, being a Brazilian national and being an anarchist were weighty factors in his having been virtually ignored by official Spanish historiography, with but a few exceptions who have themselves not delved too deeply into the man and into the ‘coverage’ of his impressive record of activism.
Manuel Pérez’s writing style is fluent and precise. His syntax is characterised by short sentences bereft of metaphor, grandiloquence and flourishes. From time to time a word pops up that betray the influence of Portuguese or French. His style is at all times plain and clear cut, albeit not always grammatically correct. It is peppered with short, pointed anecdotes which are never gratuitously included and which can unlock a situation or define a celebrity, as in the case, say, of García Oliver when, in a single sentence, he spells out the latter’s wounded pride, injured by the running order of the speakers due to address that January 1936 rally. However, Pérez never resorts to insult, much less does he defame anyone. Which does not mean that he does not always put his own view, no matter how unconventional it might be.
Other features worth highlighting are the way in which, in the whole narrative, there is no reference to or mention of any act of violence on his part, nor to his use of arms in his own defence, and, of course, his utterly unselfish commitment to his propaganda and union organising tasks, with an unstinting readiness to change residence, whether alone or with his family, and his acceptance of all the missions entrusted to him by the Organisation. Because he was an anarcho-syndicalist militant, because he was a revolutionary.
From: Balance. Cuadernos de historia No 36 (November 2011). Translated by: Paul Sharkey.