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Manuel Rojas: Hijo de Ladrón (Born Guilty)

The narrator, Aniceto Hevia by name, is, as the Spanish title says, the son of a thief and, as the English says, born guilty. Like his creator he was born and brought up in Buenos Aires, before moving to Chile. When his father first met his mother, he told her that his job was selling tobacco. After they were married and he did not seem to work during the day but only at night, he admitted to her that he was, in fact, a professional gambler. Of course, as we know from the title and she soon found out, he was a professional thief. She first discovers it when he does not return home one day. She goes looking for him and one of his friends finds her and takes her to him – in prison. El Gallego (The Galician), as he is known to all, is not, it seems, a very successful thief. He and his friend forge money and he also makes keys in moulds, presumably for breaking and entering but Aniceto and his three brothers remember many times when their father is absent, either on a thieving expedition or in prison. Their mother, Rosalia, frequently has to get help from lawyers. But Aniceto generally remembers a happy childhood and money, albeit dishonestly obtained, is often there, though the family does have to frequently move. However, there is one traumatic occasion Aniceto is at home with his mother when the police arrive. Neither mother nor son know where El Gallego is but the police take them anyway. They are left sitting on a bench at the police station all night and then they are separated, the mother taken to the women’s wing, while the twelve-year old Aniceto is taken to the men’s prison, where he is put in a cell with other prisoners. When they learn who his father is, they are very sympathetic as, indeed are some of the police, and he is told interesting stories about other criminals and their escapades.

Tragedy strikes when Rosalia suddenly dies, with little warning. The father vows to continue supporting his sons and the boys rally round, cooking and cleaning (the father is incapable of any domestic chores, except for sewing on buttons). Then the father disappears. When the two elder boys check at the police station, they learn that he has once again been arrested and this time, he will be put away for many years. The boys are told to fend for themselves. They sell off what they can, though there is not much. Aniceto drifts off to his old neighbourhood, where he is recognised by a former woman thief who lost a leg in a night-time robbery and taken in by her and her partner. However, he is ill-treated and flees. He sees a passing train with people who are riding illegally and joins them They are off to work in the fields and he goes with them. When he returns home, he finds that his house his now occupied by another family. His brothers have disappeared and the police refuse to tell him where his father is imprisoned.

The book actually starts at this point, as he again hops a train and heads for Chile. He meets another man, hears his long story and they become friends and travel together. But when they get to Valparaiso and want to take a boat, Aniceto is not allowed to continue without appropriate papers, which he does not have, and has never had. His friend goes off and he is left penniless in Valparaiso. His travails never end. He gets caught up in a demonstration that turns into a riot and, of course, he gets arrested. Wherever he goes, his lack of papers, his lack of any skill, except for having assisted a painter, and his background as the son of a thief follow him around. The only saving grace for him is that most of the ordinary people that he meets befriend and help him. This is one of several books Rojas wrote about the wandering of Aniceto Hevia but it is this one that has had the reputation, winning many prizes and being reprinted many times in Chile (though not in the English-speaking world). As a tale of woe, it is certainly an interesting book and Rojas tells his tale well, though in some detail, but it still remains well worth reading.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1951 by Zig-Zag, Mexico City
First published in English in 1955 by Library Publishers
Translated by Frank Gaynor