food in the arts



Dir: Luis Buñuel/ Sc: Luis Buñuel/ Ph: Eli Lotar/ Spain/ 1933/
English narration: 27 min

Land without Bread

Surrealism, with its often anarchic call to revolt, has also provided a powerful inspiration for exploring the web of unconscious links between eating, sexuality and social order. Across the career of just one surrealist film-maker, Luis Bunuel, it is possible to trace a continuing assault on totem and taboo, much of it expressed through bizarre images of food and eating.

Bunuel's first film in his native Spain was a documentary on the barren region of Las Hurdes. An extraordinarily powerful documentary on the impoverished people living in this region, Bunuel's vision is so strong that the film becomes unsettling, turning the real into the surreal. 

Las Hurdes: The Realism and Surrealism of Iodine Affliction

Las Hurdes is a mountainous enclave in west central Spain, in northern Cáceres, close to Portugal. Because of its "monsters" and "backwardness," it has long been subject to travelogues and medical studies. It was also the subject of a "surrealist" film by the famous Spanish filmmaker, Luis Buñuel. It is therefore emblematic, for myth and polemics surrounding the Hurdenos' plight unite into a highly charged whole. For many, Las Hurdes stands for isolation, affliction, neglect, subhuman living conditions, and subhuman beings. For some medical investigators, Las Hurdes has represented the natural field experiment. For other social and medical investigators, Las Hurdes has stood as an unconscionable expression of disorganisation and misdirection in Spanish medicine and public health. For church spokesmen, Las Hurdes has represented the investment of church and state in compassionate and even visionary efforts. For the purpose of gaining an overview of iodine prophylaxis and the obstacles to it in Spain, one can hardly do better than examine a chronology of missions to, and representations of, Las Hurdes.

Conspicuous efforts on behalf of Las Hurdes began in 1922 when the most famous Spanish physician-statesman of the twentieth century, Gregorio Marañón, who had come to recognize this remote area as a dramatic instance of endocrine disorder, urged the king to accompany him there on a visit. This visit triggered royally sponsored development programs and the creation of the Goiter Commission, headed by Marañón himself.

As a result of this royal attention, Hurdeno children became, though only briefly, the first experimental subjects of dietary iodine supplementation in Spain. Pregnant Hurdena women were also offered prophylaxis "as a wedding present, to avoid the emergence of the goiter normally expected during pregnancy" (Vidal Jordana 1924, Marañón 1927). Before the end of the 1920s, however, both programs were dropped in favour of more general measures aimed at modernization. 

Roads were gradually built into the area, followed by welfare and education programs brought in under the auspices of a charitable foundation (Patronato de las Hurdes) headed by Marañón during the few years of the Spanish Republic. It was in this period that Buñuel filmed Tierra sin Pan (1933, Earth without Bread, often seen abroad as the last of Buñuel's surrealist art films. It was made, according to Buñuel (1982), to draw attention to the plight of the Hurdenos and to prompt long-promised reforms.

The film depicts Hurdenos in a state of perpetual hunger, forever foraging in scrub and forest for whatever the land may offer. Their faces are haggard and their feet bare in a rough and thorny landscape. Normal-appearing Hurdeno men are shown only in labour migration, walking off in single file to the central plateau to mow grain for absentee landlords. Goitrous women, dwarfs, and cretins are filmed from low camera angles that emphasize monstrous deformations. Even the fosterage of abandoned city children, official wards of nearby cities and one of the few sources of local income, was turned against the Hurdenos. For these children were assumed to be syphilitic, having been born to unwed mothers presumed to be prostitutes.

Earth without Bread, surrealist or naturalist, appeared so excessively alarming that Marañón's foundation refused to subsidize a sound track for the film (Buñuel 1982), and officials prohibited its showing. The Franco regime also withheld it from public view.

Indeed, Spanish audiences did not see the film until the winter of 1982–83, soon after the Socialists were voted into office. Since then, it has been shown several times on the national channel.

Nevertheless, toward the end of the 1940s, even without such cinematic promotion, the Franco regime in close alliance with the church began to vigorously promote human and economic development in the area. The aim was to turn Las Hurdes into a symbol of governmental benevolence and national "redemption" (de la Vega 1964). The Ministerio de Gobernación (Ministry of Internal Affairs) sponsored and ultimately oversaw most of these "redemptive" activities, which gradually eliminated malaria and hunger and according to de la Vega, also eradicated goiter (1964).

Indeed, converging forces had the effect of making goiter in Las Hurdes seem to disappear. State-sponsored labour-intensive reforestation after mid-century gradually replaced the forest products, the chestnuts and acorns of the subsistence economy, with a rapid growth timber economy and with previously scarce cash. Such changes replaced the goitrogenous staples of the traditional diet with cultivated and commercial foods. In the course of this dietary transformation, the elderly bearers of gross goiters gradually passed on, while others, less grossly afflicted than their elders, gradually came into maturity.

Popular mythology regarding the people of Las Hurdes held that they were "crossed with wolves," "degenerate vestiges of a primitive race," "descendants of escaped convicts, Moors, or Jews," or simply "representatives of the New World in Spain" or "our own interior Guinea." The traditionally high incidence of disfiguring goiters and dwarfism surely contributed to these myths of different racial origin, or racial degeneration.

There was also an identity dynamic at work. As Spain in the nineteenth century was forced to withdraw from its colonial and missionary enterprise, the foreign "other" was discovered closer to home. Hurdenos conveniently came to represent that other against which normal fitness and level of civilization could be measured. As in Strabo's time, descriptions of these humanoids were disseminated among "civilised peoples" both Spanish and foreign. For instance, the French Guide Michelin in the 1970s still assigned two stars to Las Hurdes, in part because of the picturesque nature of the people, a "picturesqueness" the Hurdenos occasionally exploited and, as far as we know, came to resent and resist only recently (R. L. Fernandez 1986:423–427).

Whatever the dynamics of identity among marginated peoples of the peninsula (see chap. 3), Spaniards after mid-twentieth century had the impression that the prevalence of gross deformity was declining in places like Las Hurdes. This impression was correct insofar as the "irreversible cases, God's preferred children" (de la Vega 1964:88), gradually lost their visibility and diminished in number as the severity of deficiency declined. The precipitousness of the drop was more reassuring than real, however, because many of the afflicted, having become institutionalized, ceased to be on view.

But to one group of medical workers—long focused on Las Hurdes and located at the Instituto Marañón, Spain's national center for experimental thyroidology, a branch of Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC), which, by 1989, had become the Centro de Estudios de Endocrinología Experimental—this decline in overt pathology still left a great deal of room for improvement. For years, a team headed by Dr. Francisco Escobar del Rey had been monitoring the dietary and endocrine state of Hurdeno children in feeding programs, finding the rate of urinary iodine excretion (chap. 2) generally low and endocrine disorders alarmingly high, especially among those not included in the feeding programs. Escobar used these findings to demonstrate that consanguinity plays a minor role, if any, in the high incidence of goiter and other endocrine disorders found among these children and thus ruled out consanguinity as the primary cause of IDD in Las Hurdes. He argued, both in foreign and in national journals (Escobar del Rey et al. 1981a , 1981b , 1984; Escobar del Rey 1983, 1985), and most recently in a special issue of Endocrinología (1987), that only generalized iodine prophylaxis would lower the incidence of endocrine disorder in all the children. In 1983 and 1984, he circulated a letter, under the letterhead of the Subcommittee for the Study of Endemic Goiter and Iodine Deficiency of the European Thyroid Association, later published in Lancet, drawing attention of colleagues both at home and abroad to the continued un availability of iodized salt in Spain. This circulating letter is considered instrumental in "embarrassing the Ministry of Health" and animating it to correct the situation.

Escobar's findings and recommendations were hardly contrary to expectations or new to thyroidology, but their publication in Spanish professional journals and in Lancet makes them noteworthy. Coming from a thyroidologist esteemed both by his national colleagues and by the international members of the WHO goiter eradication team, the carefully presented findings suggest that Escobar set aside his experimental work (at the leading edge of thyroidology) to convince his colleagues in both medicine and public health to set aside their hereditary thinking. Where the health of marginalised people is concerned, such thinking may often be a key obstacle to prophylaxis.


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