Soto, Antonio, 1897-1963

Antonio Soto in Río Gallegos.
Antonio Soto in Río Gallegos.

A short biography of Spanish anarchist Antonio Soto, who was heavily involved in the Argentinian revolutionary movement and the FORA in the 1920s.

Submitted by Steven. on July 17, 2007

“You are workers, labourers, continue the strike for final victory, for a new society where there will be neither poor nor rich, a society without weapons or uniforms, where reigns joy, respect for the human being, where nobody will have to kneel because there will be neither those in cassocks nor superiors”
- Antonio Soto at the last general assembly of the Patagonian strikers.

Antonio Gonzalo Soto Canalejo was born on 8th October 1897 in El Ferrol, Galicia, Spain. His parents were Antonio Soto Moreira and Concepción Canalejo González. His father, a naval rating, drowned at sea during the Cuban War before he was born. When Antonio was thirteen years old, his family moved to Argentina. Antonio had problems adapting to his new country and returned to Galicia.

At the outbreak of the First World War Antonio was 17. He read Leo Tolstoy’s denunciation of military service and decided to flee to Buenos Aires. The city was seething with agitation, strikes and the mass circulation of anarchist papers. Antonio made contact with the anarchist movement there.

Antonio was an archetypal Gallego (Galician), tall, with red hair and blue eyes, hinting at the Celtic blood in his veins.

At the age of 22 Antonio joined the Serrano-Mendoza Theatre Company which started touring the Patagonian ports in 1919. At that time, the region was suffering from a wool slump, with resulting wage cuts and sharpened antagonism between the mainly British sheep farmers and their workforce. The Workers Society was starting organising opposition to the employers in Rio Gallegos. One of its leading members, the Basque journalist José María Borrero, saw in Soto a dynamic organiser, and persuaded him to leave the Company and to stay to help the Workers Society. He described to Soto the plight of the Chilean migrants, Chilotes, of native Indian stock, who were treated with less respect than the sheep by the farmers. Soto got work as a docker in the port.

In a few months, on 24th May 1920, the general assembly of the Workers Society of Rio Gallegos decided to affiliate to the Argentine anarcho-syndicalist union the FORA, electing him its General Secretary. The workers listened to Soto and other anarchist orators, and that included the Chilotes.

He managed to get the workforce of Rio Gallegos together for a strike and March to celebrate the 11th anniversary of the execution of the Spanish anarchist educationalist, Francisco Ferrer.

An attempt was made on his life, when someone jumped out of the shadows one night. The watch in his pocket deflected the blow.

Soto stepped up the action, calling for a general strike. He was supported by the Red Council, led by Italians. They had 500 horsemen. They attacked the rich farmers and looted money, food and drink. President Yrigoyen sent a cavalry force from Buenos Aires in January 1921 to put down the uprising. This was led by Lieutenant Colonel Varela, who handed out free pardons to all strikers who gave up their arms. The leading activists were arrested, except Soto. He was hidden on the outskirts of Rio Gallegos, by Dona Carmen, "Dona Maxima Lista" (a play on the word maximalist in Spanish) as she was humorously nicknamed by the anarchists. This woman of almost 80 ran a small restaurant for employees, was a convinced anarchist, and supported the workers movement.

By now the Red Council had perished in an ambush. Unrest continued throughout the winter, with strikes in the ports. The group around Soto planned a spring offensive, with land seizures from the farmers.

This time Varela was sent again. This time he had orders not to negotiate and pacify, but to unleash a blood bath. He smashed the workers' movements in the towns. Soto determined to continue the struggle in the countryside and started spreading propaganda among the gauchos and labourers. Varela’s forces began a campaign against the revolutionaries on the pampas. On five different occasions, they surrounded strikers, promised their lives if they surrendered, and then gunned down hundreds.

Eventually Varela’s forces caught up with Soto and his group at a ranch. Soto had no illusions about what would happen and urged the strikers, in the main Chilotes, to break up into small groups, disperse and continue the struggle. The German anarchist Pablo Schulz urged the strikers to make a heroic stand. Neither point of view impressed the Chilotes who believed that if they surrendered they would be treated well. Soto was outvoted. He failed to convince the others of the foolishness of their actions. He then said that he was not prepared to remain, and with ten others, escaped on horseback.

Those who remained were surrounded and rounded up. They were then humiliated, tortured and shot. Up to 120 were murdered there, on December 8, 1921 and the total figure for murdered workers in the repression may have been has high as 1,500, the majority shot and then incinerated on bonfires. The German anarchist Kurt Gustav Wilckens avenged these deaths by killing Varela in Buenos Aires in 1923.

The lie was often repeated that Soto had abandoned the others, and this re-emerged in 1977 with Bruce Chatwin’s book In Patagonia. Soto was determined to explain himself and he slipped back over the border 12 years later and got back to Rio Gallegos. There he delivered what was regarded as the best speech of his life. However, the repression had taken its toll. Only a few Spaniards who had somehow managed to escape the repression turned out. Soto was detained and expelled over the border.

Antonio Soto and his group fled to Chile via the Centinela pass. After being pursued for five days by the Argentinean military and the Chilean infantry, they managed to get to Puerto Natales in Chile. From there, Soto got to Punta Arenas and was sheltered by the Workers Federation of Magellanes. Soto stayed in a small hotel there, and fell in love with the daughter of its owner, Amanda Souper, and a few months later moved with her to Iquique, in northern Chile.

From this first marriage there were six children: Alba, Antonio, Mario, Aurora, Amanda and Enzo. He worked there in a nitrate mine, but a work accident left him with serious saltpetre burns and after a long convalescence, he moved to Valparaiso. At the same time as carrying out clandestine anarchist activity, he worked as a driver of his own bus.

Police persecution made him move home continually. He worked in Punta Arenas as a farm worker, then moved to Puerto Natales. Here he ran a cinema called "Libertad". He had to return to work as a farm worker, also working for many years as an adviser of the unions of southern Chile.

In 1936 when the Spanish Civil War broke out, Soto intended to go to Spain to fight, but his health would not permit it. On 5th March 1938 he married a chilota (from the Isle of Chiloe), Dorotea Cárdenas, with whom he had a daughter, Isabel Soto. In 1945 the family moved to Punta Arenas, where he worked in different jobs, in an iron foundry, as a fruiterer and market-keeper and ran a restaurant, "Oquendo", in memory of the ship on which his father had drowned.

His health obliged him to give up the restaurant and he then ran a little hotel, and drove a small truck that serviced the port. The hotel was a meeting place for journalists, freethinkers, artists and refugees from the Spanish Civil War. Whilst he was unable to carry out open anarchist activity, he remained a convinced anarchist to the end.

In 1962 he abandoned any type of work and died on the 11th May 1963 of cerebral thrombosis, at 65. A large crowd turned out for his funeral, including groups of students, who remembered that Antonio had been the instigator of the first student strike in Punta Arenas which had been to fight for a rise for the poorly paid teachers.

A street bears his name in his home town of El Ferrol.

Nick Heath