“At 96 years of age, Juan Brito is as bright, fascinating and courteous as ever, and the man who has been called “Lanzarote’s living encyclopedia” is determined to share as much of his wisdom, humour and experience as he can” – writes Shaun Addison.
At 96 years of age, Juan Brito is as bright, fascinating and courteous as ever, and the man who has been called “Lanzarote’s living encyclopedia” is determined to share as much of his wisdom, humour and experience as he can, writes Shaun Addison.
When I interviewed Juan Brito, two years ago, my partner and her friend Consuelo took a copy of the interview up to his finca in Mozaga, keen to meet one of Lanzarote’s living legends. This meeting was the start of a friendship that has continued to the present day
Consuelo returned to her native region of Murcia last year, and when she was there she visited the village of Jumilla, where Juan was stationed as a young soldier during the Spanish Civil War. Her investigations have resulted in a planned trip to the village later this year, in which Juan will be received by the people of the small town where he was stationed.
But the friendship has led to more than this. Consuelo is a schoolteacher, and soon she found Juan offering her stories and poems to share with the children in her class.
In “The Boy Who Knew Silence” Juan writes of his childhood. Born in the hacienda of El Peñon del Indiano in 1919, he “grew up among tough, loud, raw men” and by the age of six was walking at the head of a herd of twenty cattle, leading them to graze on the mountain of Tamia. “I never played like a child because I worked like a man,” he writes.
“I was illiterate like my parents, and always walked barefoot over fields and mountains. I cut my toes many times, but never the soles of my feet because they were hard and tough. I had a nurse that tended to my wounds every day – our guard dog.”
Juan goes on to tell of how, at the age of eight, he was grabbed by Don Leandro “el loco”, who threatened to drop him into a vat of freshly trodden grape juice. Another man intervened and young Juan fell to the ground with a “feeling as if I could not cry or even speak.”
Afterwards he remained silent, communicating hardly at all with humans. Instead, he entered the world of animals, imitating the noises of cattle and learning the songs of all the birds he heard in his long days on the mountain.
At 16 years of age, Juan was conscripted into the army and fought in the Spanish Civil War. On the Sierra de Espadal, a mountain ridge near Valencia, a shell killed 22 of his Canarian fellow soldiers, and Juan was knocked unconscious. When he woke up he could not stop weeping until a corporal shouted at him, then fed him and helped him recover. It was then that Juan realised that speech had returned to him.
Granted leave, he returned to Lanzarote, where neighbours shouted “Juanillo has returned and he’s talking about the war!” The local girls, who never used to speak to him because he never answered, now flocked around him to hear his tales.
His tale finishes by telling children “It is better to learn to find your voice in a school than on a battlefield, where 22 of my friends had to die before I could recover my speech.”