In the turmoil of 1936 Europe, Civil War had broken out in Spain.
A young Republican captain Eulalio Ferrer was fleeing to France: his father, a reporter for a local Santander newspaper, and his mother, were missing. Ferrer had seen enough of the horrors of war.
Barely twenty years old, Ferrer made it to a refugee camp in Argelès-sur-Mer, France. The captain had nothing: alone, disillusioned and shell shocked, all he had in his pockets was a crumpled pack of cigarettes. Starving, having witnessed war, death, and unspeakable atrocities, Ferrer was on the brink of madness.
There was nowhere to go, and no one to turn to.
“Tobacco for a book”, – Ferrer suddenly heard a voice of an old French guard, looking to exchange a pocket tome for a pack of cigarettes. “Tobacco! Who has tobacco?”, the voice of a disheveled, bearded soldier thundered across the camp.
The book on offer was very small. Ferrer hesitated; the book could serve as a pillow, he decided finally, and gave the soldier his pack of smokes.
But instead of putting the little volume under his head, the young captain opened it and began reading.
He devoured the book from end to end. Then again. And again. And again.
It was “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes – and for Ferrer, it became a light in the darkness.
“Don Quixote’s insanity became an anchor for my own sanity in times of chaos and turmoil, and I read the book over and over again. I read it hundreds of times”, – Ferrer recalled later.
As the darkness of the Second World War descended on Europe, Ferrer fled to Mexico. He began working as a reporter in Mexico City soon creating his own media and public relations company that prospered. Ferrer became wealthy, influential and powerful; his company had offices in Mexico City, New York, and Paris.
But he never forgot the years in the French refugee camp – or Cervantes.
“Don Quixote saved me in my time of need. I felt like I owed the noble Knight”, – he remembered.
Books became Ferrer’s life mission. He established scholarships and generously funded literature courses in universities across Mexico; “the most precious gift for a poor man is a library, and the most powerful magic is books”, – he used to say.
Ferrer began collecting books and artwork that featured Don Quixote. Soon, his house and studio were filled with paintings, sculptures, and literature that was all about Cervantes and his Knight. Artwork on Don Quixote spilled out of every nook and cranny.
In 1987, Ferrer opened the doors of the Don Quixote Museum in a small town of Guanajuato, Mexico. He knew he had to share the Sad Knight with the world.
Every October, the town now celebrates Festival Cervantino – an arts festival to honor Miguel de Cervantes and Ferrer’s Don Quixote legacy in Guanajuato. The festival which started as a grassroots arts celebration fueled by one man’s passion for Cervantes’ work has since gained an international scale, fame and prestige.
If you are ever in Guanajuato, look for Cervantes and Don Quixote – they are everywhere in this town, peering at you from windowsills and roofs, looking up at the sky from statues and monuments.
“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”
― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote