The ¡Alegria! Foundation Story, an Interview with Editor, Mike Booth
.Mike Booth is an expatriate photojournalist and editor. He was granted Spanish citizenship in 1983.
An Interview by Bart Sedgebear
Q: What does Spain mean to you, Mike?
A: “For me Spain is like the girl you fell in love with 40 years ago and, after all you’ve been through together, you love her more than ever.”
I arrived in Spain from the U.S.A. in November of 1968, recently discharged from the army, with a knapsack and a pair of Nikons. I had given away all my worldly possessions and gotten a cheap one-way Icelandic Airways flight to Europe. I was determined to stay away for five years. That was 45 years ago.
I wended my way down to Spain from cold, damp Northern Europe and when I arrived the sun came out, both literally and figuratively, and I rented a stone house in an Andalusian village. There was the Mediterranean on my left, the mountains on my right. It was a cobblestone, whitewashed, Roman-tiled world, still populated by primitive fishermen and subsistence farmers.
Men’s fashion ran to lovingly-patchworked corduroy trousers, black berets called “boinas” and “alpargata” canvas sandals with used tire rubber for soles. Most of the women were obliged by the rules of mourning to wear plain black dresses. An eight-liter carafe of wine cost a dollar. Everything—from the church, the Moorish aqueduct, and the old timers, to the school kids, the garden plots and the seascapes–was yearning to be photographed. I met my love buying squid in the municipal marketplace.
Did you know any Spanish when you got here?
Not at first so I could hardly speak to people, but it wasn’t hard to discern that they were sincerely welcoming and helpful, as well as curious about the exotic foreigners who were beginning to filter into their town for long stays. I, who came here from a Detroit ad agency, via the U.S. Army, had never experienced anything so charming as this society of Spanish peasants.
Where did you live when you arrived?
I lived in a fishing village on the Mediterranean coast of the province of Málaga, but I was only there for eight months before moving with my new compañera to an inland village in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada near Granada. There I learned Spanish from our neighbors—the upland version of the coastal peasants—and photographed their lives. I still have negatives in my files of them threshing grain using mules to drag a primitive sled round and round on a timeless stone threshing floor, then tossing the grain up into the breeze to separate it from the chaff. I shot them slaughtering pigs, tickling trout in the river, cooking kid with garlic on open fires, and all dressed up for the village fiestas.
What was life like in a mountain village in Granada at the end of the 1960’s?
It was bucolic, beautiful and shot through with solidarity and humanity, a life-changing experience for someone who had come here straight from the heart of the U.S.A. The second year I came down with a case of hepatitis that required a month of bed rest with daily injections. A neighbor who had been a medic in the Spanish Civil War came up to our house every day to give me my shot. Other neighbors brought fruit and vegetables, eggs, and homemade cheese. In the third week one of the more prosperous villagers, whom I hardly knew, came up to visit me with a sense of urgency. He said, “Miguel, I just heard you were ill and I want you know that if you need any help, I’ve got some money set aside and I’d be happy to lend it to you.” This sort of treatment leaves a lasting imprint on the heart of a new neighbor.
How did you go about integrating into your new village life?
Learning the language helped to understand everything better. The people were unpretentious and sincere, though their sincerity could be devastating: “Miguel, you look dreadful today; how are you feeling?” Their sense of solidarity was prodigious. After all, a pueblo of 1,000 people is virtually one big family, and they looked after one another.
Photos by Mike Booth