'Cable Girls' Season 5B: The real story behind SS Winnipeg that helped Spanish immigrants flee the civil war

Poet and Nobel Laurette Pablo Neruda helped arrange the ship after he noticed many Spanish Republicans had fled in exile to France where they were detained in squalid camps in miserable conditions


                            'Cable Girls' Season 5B: The real story behind SS Winnipeg that helped Spanish immigrants flee the civil war
SS Winnipeg (Wikimedia Commons)

Spoilers for 'Cable Girls' Season 5B

The latest and final installment of 'Cable Girls' aka 'Las Chicas del Cable' is set in the months after the end of the Spanish Civil War, after which the Franco regime aka Francoist dictatorship headed by General Francisco Franco began. Thus began the political repressions — including executions and rapes — of those the regime considered enemies as they embarked on a "cleansing of society."

Even the Roman Catholic Church legitimized the killing by the Civil Guard (the national police) as the defense of Christendom. More than half a million people died during the civil war and an estimated 150,000 were killed by Franco's regime, while 450,000 were forced to leave Spain, according to estimates.

Those targeted by the regime for persecution included supporters of the Spanish Republic, Liberals, leftists, Protestants, atheists, intellectuals, the LGBTQ community, supporters of the opposing party, Freemasons, Basques, Catalans, and Galician nationalists. Women were also a major target with the overall goal of keeping them in their traditional place in Spanish society. To this end, the Nationalist army promoted a campaign of targeted rape.

This is something that is depicted in the final season of 'Cable Girls' — especially in the treatment of Marga (Nadia de Santiago), Pablo and Julio (Nico Romero), Oscar (Ana Polvorosa), Carlota (Ana Fernandez), and, of course, Lidia (Blanca Suarez). 

'Cable Girls' (Netflix)

While Lidia is openly against the regime and wants to free the women imprisoned in the camp where her former mother-in-law, Carmen (Concha Velasco), is in charge. However, it comes as a surprise when we learn that her former sister-in-law, Elisa (Ángela Cremonte) is part of a clandestine network and has those targeted by the regime hidden in her house. Moreover, she is also helping those hidden in her house get on a ship from a port in Southern France headed to Chile. When Lidia hears of this, she wants all the women she wants to free from the prison on the ship as well. 

Here's the thing though: the ship mentioned by Elisa, the SS Winnipeg, was a real ship that disembarked at Valparaíso, Chile, on 3 September 1939, with 2,200 Spanish immigrants aboard. All immigrants were those fleeing Spain after the Spanish Civil War. 

Here's an even more interesting fact: poet and Nobel Laurette Pablo Neruda helped arrange the ship after he noticed many Spanish Republicans had fled in exile to France where they were detained in squalid camps in miserable conditions. Neruda had strongly supported the Republic when he was stationed in Madrid, Spain when the Civil War broke out in 1936. Radicalized by the war and the murder of his friend Federico Garcia Lorca, he became a communist and would later become a leader of the Chilean Communist Party. Some of his best collections of political poems come from this period, including 'Spain in Our Hearts' and 'Residence on Earth'.

Pablo Neruda (Getty Images)

Realizing the danger that those persecuted faced, Neruda lobbied his government, raised money, and organized the SS Winnipeg which was originally designed to carry up to just 97 passengers. Neruda had the ship gutted and retrofitted so that it could hold as many people as possible. After the ship reached Valparaiso, the Spanish refugees were welcomed by crowds of supporters. Some refugees stayed in Valparaiso, while some traveled to Santiago, and others to Argentina.

Those aboard the ship included historian Leopoldo Castedo, the typographer Mauricio Amster and the painters Roser Bru and José Balmes. Victor Pey, who boarded the ship after being a prisoner of war in France, became one of the closest advisors to Salvador Allende, Chilean President from 1970 to 1973. 

When the ship had set sail from the port of Trompeloup - Pauillac on August 4th, 1939, Neruda wrote, "Que la crítica borre toda mi poesía, si le parece. Pero este poema, que hoy recuerdo, no podrá borrarlo nadie," roughly translating to, "The critics may erase all of my poetry, if they want. But this poem, that today I remember, nobody will be able to erase."

Sadly, the ship came to an unfortunate end during the Second World War. After being captured in May 1941 by the Dutch sloop HNLMS Van Kinsbergen in the Caribbean Sea, the SS Winnipeg was confiscated by the British government. Later, Canadian Pacific Steamships brought the ship and renamed it Winnipeg II. In October 1942, the ship was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine when it was en route from Liverpool to Saint John, New Brunswick. All episodes of 'Cable Girls' are now streaming on Netflix.

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