I read a tiny snippet on Isabel Gonzales and Tenerife a while ago and decided to find out more. It was difficult, because the story of Isabel aka ‘Red Lily’ (the tragic love story Le Lys Rouge was the pseudonym used by Isabel) and her struggle in the early 1920s when women fought to occupy their rightful place in Canarian society has been virtually erased from the history books.
Having sort of pieced together the story, I showed Jim – his comment was “boring”. However, I found it fascinating, not because of Isabel’s political beliefs, as I personally have none, but because being a ‘child of the 60s’ and growing up with a more general movement for gender equality based on women’s liberation and feminism, Isabel to me seemed a brave and strong woman years ahead of her time. The following is what I managed to find………..
Isabel Gonzalez was born in Santa Cruz in 1890. She emigrated, with her mother, to Cuba and later returned to Puerto de la Cruz where they had a small fabric shop. It was in Puerto that Isabel met and married Aurelio Perdigón. The couple moved to Santa Cruz, where Aurelio, a shoemaker, established a shop and Isabel, an expert seamstress, ran a sewing workshop where she employed several women. The relatively well-off couple had two daughters, Ligia, who died after contacting whooping cough and Electra, born in 1917 whose name comes from the play by Gran Canarian writer Benito Perez Galdos a favourite of the couple.
Despite not having read the Marxist classics, Isabel was one of the first people in Tenerife who understood what the Revolution of 1917 in Russia really meant. She was in awe of the women workers in Petrograd who left their factories and entered the streets to protest. She had long believed that women were ready to be heard and have a voice in politics and this was enough to inspire her to become a fervent member of the socialist cause and the emancipation of proletarian women.
Her husband also had an active political life in the PSOE. But within a few years, it became clear that his party chiefs retained much of their bourgeois upbringing and were unwilling to become true revolutionaries and follow the Russians.
By 1919, a time when women in Spain were completely marginalised from any political activity, Isabel was totally committed to her political beliefs. For her, the liberation of women and their right to vote could not be separated from the struggle for a socialist society to emancipate the working classes from the oppression to which they were subjected. In June of that year Red Lily published an article in El Socialista where she passionately urged socialist men to recognise and accept the active role working-class woman had to play in the new era.
The following October, the socialist group of Santa Cruz organised a political meeting in Puerto de la Cruz. It was here that Isabel, as president of the Socialist Women’s League, addressed the assembly on the rights of Tenerife women workers and their struggle. She was the first woman who spoke at a political event in Tenerife and while initially her combative speeches and writings shocked, it was not long before her popularity grew among the working classes of the island. Red Lily’s articles always distinguished by their revolutionary sentiment constantly referred to her first-hand knowledge of the suffering of children, single women, the exploitation of seamstresses and the contempt with which women in general were treated by the bourgeoisie.
In January 1921, her husband, joined the Board of the Tenerife Socialist Group. A year later, saw the merger of the Socialist Group and Young Socialists, and he was elected as president. At that time a small red faction believed it was time to leave Reformism and move to a truly revolutionary political strategy, which could only be Marxism-Leninism. However, the conditions at the time prevented this and it took several years before it took root.
In the 1930s, with the rise of the labour movement in the islands, Isabel played an important role and achieved significant impact in Canaries politics. Growing conflict and independent communist groups were gradually increasing throughout the islands and the Tenerife Communists united around Red Lily. It did however take until 1933 at a Congress in Gran Canaria for a unification of all these groups, and the creation of the definitive Communist Party in the Canaries. It was at this time, that Isabel organised “Feminist Clarity” a group that clearly indicated the importance she always placed for the inclusion of women workers into the revolutionary political struggle.
In 1935, Red Lily visited the Soviet Union to attend the May Day celebrations as part of a delegation of workers. She was extremely ill while there, suffering from cystitis and spent several months in a sanatorium during which time she wrote many articles that were published in the USSR newspaper Spartacus.
Upon her return from the Soviet Union, Isabel continued her communist activities in Tenerife and created the group Friends of the Soviet Union. Following the victory of the Popular Front in the elections of February 1936, she was appointed Councillor of the City of Santa Cruz on behalf of PCE. Upon taking office in March 17th Isabel became, if only for a few months, the first councillor of City. However, on July 17th Franco’s military seized power and quickly took control of the archipelago which started the Spanish Civil War, in the Canaries. Although, there was never a proper war in the islands, the oppression was severe and involved the implementation of a fierce policy of repression when fascism tried to annihilate all those who dared to rebel against the semi-feudal, bureaucratic system.
Red Lily and her husband went into hiding, Aurelio sought refuge in Puerto de la Cruz, with his family and Isabel hid in Santa Cruz, frequently changing houses to avoid being discovered. Meanwhile, the fascist military arrested their daughter Electra to question her about their whereabouts. After spending around 10 years in hiding thanks to an amnesty in October 1945 Red Lily received a pardon and returned to a ‘normal’ life resuming work as a seamstress, albeit with a tight police surveillance. The Franco authorities did not trust her, since various sources cited communist clandestine activities and while Red Lily never abandoned her strong communist convictions she never again appeared at the forefront of any public events.
At the age of 71, Isabel suffered a stroke forcing her to spend 7 years in a wheelchair. Finally, at the age of 78 years, Red Lily was the victim of another stroke while taking a shower that was severe enough to end her life.
August marks the 49th anniversary of the death of Isabel Gonzalez, the co-founder of the Communist Party in Tenerife, yet very few remembered the date. Nevertheless, Isabel was one of the most exceptional women in the history of the Canary Islands and deserves to occupy a prominent place in the islands history.