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The Discreet Strength of Mercedes Barcha

By Felipe Restrepo Pombo
Translated By Ezra E. Fitz

Mercedes Barcha is best known for her marriage of nearly sixty years to Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez. Today, on what would have been her eighty-eighth birthday, Felipe Restrepo Pombo turns the spotlight from Gabo to Mercedes, remembering her strength of character, devotion to friends and family, and often-underrecognized contribution to her husband's work. 

There are those—whether friends, acquaintances, or strangers—who called her “La Gaba.” At first glance, this nickname cast her in a supporting role, relegating her to the background in the life of a writer known across the globe. It’s been said many times over the past forty years that she was the greatest advocate for Gabriel García Márquez. But Mercedes Barcha never stood in anyone’s shadow: she was at the center and at the forefront of the Nobel Prize winner’s life and work. The nickname, then, was proof that “Los Gabos” were “two people in one, or, if you prefer, one person in two,” as the Puerto Rican journalist Héctor Feliciano has said. Mercedes was, throughout the decades they spent together, the creative force that helped sustain his literary work, up until her death on August 15 of this year.

The story of her love sustains García Márquez's entire oeuvre. In fact, it seems to be interlaced with many of his plotlines. Or, to put it better, García Márquez’s novels retraced the story of his love with Mercedes. From the very first moment, their life together was marked by the inevitability of fate that Gabo was so drawn to and that so haunted his characters.

Mercedes was born in Magangué, on the banks of the Magdalena River, in 1932.  She was the daughter of Demetrio Barcha—a druggist—and Raquel Pardo. She was the oldest of seven children and raised in Sucre. It was there that she met García Márquez, who was from Aracataca. He described this encounter in his book The Fragrance of Guava: “I met Mercedes in Sucre, a town set back from the Caribbean coast, where our families lived for several years and where she and I spent our vacations. Our fathers were childhood friends. One day, at a school dance, when she was only thirteen, I immediately asked her to marry me.  Now I believe that proposition was a metaphor for skipping over all the twists and turns that had to be negotiated back then in order to have a girlfriend. She must have understood this in the same way, because we continued to see each other occasionally, always casually, and I think we both knew, beyond any doubt, that sooner or later the metaphor would one day become true.”

Mercedes later moved with her family to Barranquilla to escape the political violence that had overtaken Colombia’s rural areas. But she continued to be in touch with her boyfriend. By that time, she had already become a beautiful, elegant woman with a lengthy neck. García Márquez constantly praised her slender figure. And he titled his first column for the Cartagena paper Universal in honor of that willowy neck: “The Giraffe.” Demetrio Barcha didn’t look kindly upon the relationship, once telling his daughter—without ever imagining how his warning would resonate—that if she married Gabito, she would end up “eating paper.”

Mercedes spent most of her youth in Barranquilla. She dedicated herself to her family and never pursued a college degree. Her friends from that time say she had always been a good reader. She maintained for quite some time her long-distance relationship with García Márquez, who had since gone to live in Europe. Nobody knows the contents of their extensive correspondence because, many years later, the two of them agreed to destroy it. When he returned to Colombia on his way to Caracas, where he’d accepted a job offer, he stopped in Barranquilla and formally proposed to her. She accepted, and they were married at the Iglesia del Perpetuo Socorro on March 21, 1958, when Mercedes was twenty-five and Gabo was thirty-one.  After that, their roles remained perfectly clear: he was in charge of writing while she handled the practical matters. Though she never spoke specifically about her endeavors, she did once offer this remark: “I’ve never worked. Why would I? I don’t know how to do anything.”

“Mercedes had to pawn her hair dryer in order to complete the shipment.”

After the wedding they traveled to Venezuela. During the flight he told Mercedes about his plans: “that he would publish a novel called The House; that he would write another novel about a dictator; and that at the age of forty he would write the masterpiece of his life,” wrote Gerald Martin, García Márquez's official English-language biographer.

After traipsing across a number of countries, they settled definitively in Mexico City. As everyone who visited her knew, she felt more at home there than anywhere else. By that time, her husband had already published his first novel, Leaf Storm, but she had made the decision to never comment publicly on Gabo’s literary works. A friend of the couple recalled asking her at the time what she thought of García Márquez's debut work. With a shrug, she replied “I read it, but I didn’t understand it.” But she was, however, always the first person to read his work, providing sharp commentary. As Jorge F. Hernández wrote in El País: “What’s certain is that nobody read even a single paragraph before he first read it to her, and that there are sentences that inaugurated a brand new face of world literature that only she—and perhaps the children—heard while sitting in a car heading for the coast.”

The following years, with the two children they now had, were quite complicated. Mercedes had to take over the family’s financial responsibilities. They were barely scraping by, thanks mainly to the generosity of close friends. One weekend, after much worrying, they decided to take a trip to the beach to relax. The rest of this story has been told time and time again: along the way, Gabo got an inkling of the opening line to a new novel and recited it to his wife. She immediately canceled the vacation and forced him to turn back for home.

During the next eighteen months, which García Márquez spent writing One Hundred Years of Solitude, Mercedes managed to protect him from any and all distractions. But they were now facing a dangerous reality: they had accumulated a large amount of debt and no longer had anything to eat. Together they went to the post office to send the novel to the publisher, only to find they didn’t have enough money for postage. They paid to send half the manuscript, and Mercedes had to pawn her hair dryer in order to complete the shipment. On their way out, she grumbled: “Now all that’s left is for the novel to turn out bad.”

Mercedes never spoke much about her relationship to the book. But in one interview with Héctor Feliciano, she did have this to say:

“When they did send it to me from (Editorial) Sudamericana, I read it in bed, with Gabito lying next to me, waiting to see how I would react.”

“And how did you react to it?”

“I read it voraciously,” she said, using that particular coastal adjective, “avorazada” in Spanish, which was appropriate.  Then I asked her if she read any of the drafts of the manuscript.

“I read it when it was printed,” she said. “I don’t much like reading that other stuff (the manuscripts).”

“Which of his books do you like the most?”

“Me? One Hundred Years of Solitude. Right?” She looks me in the eye, surely hesitating before insisting ever so gently, “I’ve read it three times. It’s marvelous. That chapter with the rain and the plague. It’s like a torrent! You go through that chapter and you don’t even realize it. And that Úrsula! Poor Úrsula’s just so wonderful.”

What followed the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Gabo’s Nobel Prize win is widely known. Almost overnight, he became a literary celebrity. His recognition forever changed the couple’s life, and yet, despite this new situation, Mercedes maintained—perhaps with an even greater intensity—the discreet strength she’d demonstrated since the beginning. There are traces of the Barcha family in the history of the Buendías, and the coastal female characters in particular echo Mercedes.

After the coronation, she remained in charge of handling daily life, the children’s education, public relations, and property. She was also the final decision maker on many of Gabo’s financial adventures—when they decided to invest in the magazines Alternativa and Cambio, for example, or the QAP newscast. Along with the agent Carmen Balcells, she managed the rights and royalties to all his works. As Jacqueline Urzola, a Colombian writer who knew the couple quite well, once wrote, “In the house, not even a chair gets moved unless by her marshaling. Mercedes is in control of everything that happens and does not appreciate having her will broken. She doesn’t receive the orders, she gives them.”

One of the functions to which Mercedes was most rigorously devoted was the handling of friends and foes. Those who had the pleasure of entering the couple’s inner circle enjoyed their generosity. She was most relaxed when entertaining friends at home and serving drinks. She would stay until the end of the party, dancing with her husband to the vallenatos they liked so much. The high point of any evening was the moment when their favorite song was played: “La Diosa Coronada” by Leandro Díaz.

“Mercedes made the decision to never talk about her husband’s legacy.”

Mercedes always demonstrated strength of character. A journalist once asked Gabo what his wife’s sign was. “She’s the scorpion of the house,” he replied with his characteristic sense of humor. As Urzola put it, “Mercedes has a strict sense of loyalty.  She doesn’t forgive slip-ups in that sense, nor does she tolerate any sort of foolishness, regardless of who’s the cause of it. Those who are believed to have betrayed her or taken advantage of the intimacy she shared are banished from her affections, and of course from Gabo’s as well, and should not expect much in the way of clemency.  There are no acquittals. The rules of engagement are strict and any relaxation of these conditions must be done either with her consent or without her knowledge. Gabo teasingly ascribes to her the role of managing the family’s grudge department, and she laughs at that. However, it’s clear that he doesn’t dare contradict his wife, and while he has granted forgiveness in the past or may wish to bury the occasional hatchet, nothing moves forward until enough time has passed or the stubborn determination of the exile softens her heart and causes her to change her mind. Something which, more often than not, never happens.”

Perhaps the one novel in which Mercedes is most clearly drawn is Love in the Time of Cholera. Fermina Daza, the young woman with a serious manner whom Florentino Ariza loved his entire life, in many ways echoes the author’s wife. It’s no coincidence that the novel is dedicated to her.

Mercedes and Gabo’s presence was requested for all sorts of engagements. They traveled nonstop—even though Gabo hated airplanes—and were the guests of celebrities and politicians from all over the planet. Among their friends were some of the most important figures of the twentieth century. Mercedes said little about her encounters with power and maintained a strict secrecy about the things she overheard, but, as is well known, they both very much appreciated being in those spheres. In a 1988 interview for Vanity Fair, García Márquez talked about how much he enjoyed this way of life: “You write better with all your problems resolved. You write better in good health. You write better without preoccupations. You write better when you have love in your life. There is a romantic idea that suffering and adversity are very good, very useful for the writer. I don’t agree at all.”

When death finally separated them in 2014, Mercedes retired from public life.  She met only with her closest friends and rarely left her home on Calle Fuego, in southern Mexico City. She continued to smoke and enjoy tequila in the tranquility of her living room overlooking both a garden and her husband’s study. And she was, of course, ever aware of the latest gossip in both Colombia and Mexico. Unlike other widows of great authors, Mercedes made the decision to never talk about her husband’s legacy. Her final discretion was consistent with the way she lived the rest of her life: with independence and a calculated distance. Mercedes Barcha knew and understood how important she’d been when it came to the creation of some of history’s most important literary works. She didn’t have to emphasize it because it was already there, written on each and every page.

Note: All quoted material, with the exception of the quotation from the Vanity Fair interview, was translated from Spanish by Ezra E. Fitz.

© Felipe Restrepo Pombo. Translation © 2020 by Ezra E. Fitz. All rights reserved.

Related Reading:

"Thank You, Gabo": Translators on García Márquez

History of a Conversion: A Political Profile of Mario Vargas Llosa

The City and the Writer: In Mexico City with Lucia Duero

Published Nov 6, 2020   Copyright 2020 Felipe Restrepo Pombo

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