Chapapote tar


The book Chapapote was published in November 2022 in remembrance of the most devastating environmental catastrophe in Galicia’s history. On November 13th, 2002, the oil tanker Prestige burst a tank, spilling 60,0000 tons of fuel oil and polluting 1429 miles of coastline, causing the almost annihilation of the fishing industry and killing thousands of animals. Composed of twelve journalists’ essays, the book Chapapote was introduced by Galician writer Manuel Rivas and coordinated by Xosé Manuel Pereiro. The book revolves around three main topics: the political reaction to the disaster by governments and political entities, the coverage of the disaster by the media, and the response of thousands of volunteers from all over Spain and Europe who left their homes to come to Galicia and help in the tasks of recovery.

This was one of thirty-two books published about the Prestige disaster, and Xosé Manuel Pereiro, among the other authors, was the most critical of the government’s reaction. Pereiro despises the contempt and lack of interest the Spanish Government showed towards Galician society. He criticized the attempt to draw a smoke screen over the tons of oil emanating from the sunken ship. He compared the Prestige disaster with the situation created by the emergence of the ‘mad cows’ disease’. In the case of the disease, cows were burned and buried. The British government tried to hide the extensity of the problem to keep the population calm and oblivious. That was the case with the Prestige catastrophe.

Xosé Hermida compares the sinking of Prestige and the revolution of 68. The sinking of the oil tanker started a series of protests, the immobilization of the government, the Iraqi war, and even the Atocha attack of March 2004.

One of the achievements of this book was, as stated by Alfonso Pato, to introduce into the vocabulary words such as monocasco (‘monohull boat’), batiscafo (‘bathyscaphe’), fueloleo (‘fuel oil’), or chapapote (‘tar’).

The word ‘chapapote’ can be translated as ‘asphalt’ or ‘tar’. According to the Cambridge dictionary, ‘asphalt’ refers to ‘a black, sticky substance, often mixed with small stones or sand, that forms a strong surface when it becomes hard’. It is the material of which roads, driveways, and roofs are made. This is important to keep in mind because of the consequences of the spread of oil fuel on the coast. It is not only a type of polluting liquid, but it hardens, and it attaches itself to living and non-living surfaces, making them unable to keep living or being used for their purposes. Following this thought, the word ‘tar’ should be the one used to translate the title of the book Chapapote. Still, it is essential to remember that when talking about the ‘chapapote’ on the beaches of Galicia, authors were not only talking about tar in a liquid state but a type of substance that would harden with time and that would impregnate all surfaces to the point of breaking them down, and the same that happens with asphalt. Asphalt could designate oil fuel in a solid or semi-solid state; it is not waterproof, is produced from petroleum, and has a short setting time. Tar is the opposite. It is liquid. It is waterproof, and it is produced from wood or peat.

When Manuel Rivas talks about ‘chapapote’, he describes it as ‘asphalt’ (12), but he states that ‘chapapote’ is a popular name used by the people living on the coast to designate petroleum or raw oil: ‘Desde el principio, las autoridades prefirieron hablar de fuel. A efectos de impacto público parecía un término menos inquietante que “petróleo” o “crudo”. Pero la gente hablo de chapapote, la denominación popular para el alquitrán del asfalto’ (‘From the beginning, the authorities preferred to talk about fuel. For the purposes of public impact, it seemed a less disturbing term than ‘‘oil’’ or ‘‘crude’’. But people talk about ‘‘chapapote”, the popular name for asphalt tar’, 12).

All these words, except for ‘chapapote’, could be considered euphemisms for the same grim reality: a man-made substance spilled due to the complacency and ineptitude of companies and governments. The consequences of the spill, however, had to be paid for by the Galician people, their fishermen and sailors, and Galician nature. ‘Chapapote’ refers to the substance spilled in the ocean and the environmental and economic catastrophe to be felt thereafter.

According to Rivas, ‘chapapote’ is a word from Mexico belonging to the Nahuatl language and whose direct translation is ‘smoky oil’. However, as this author indicates, the authorities, and the companies responsible for the ship (and the wellbeing of the environments of those countries that were visited), did not like this term: ‘no se empleó nunca esa palabra silvestre, de sonoridad folkie’ (‘that wild word, with a folky sound, was never used’, 12) but that was the word that prevailed, because according to Rivas, ‘chapapote’ was ‘una palabra que se pega a los labios. Que el monstruo tenga un apodo familiar, reconocible, ‘‘domestico’’. La primera manera de luchar contra él’. (‘A word that sticks to the lips. It gives the monster a familiar, recognizable nickname, “domestic”. The first way to fight him’, 12)

According to the book’s authors, the Spanish government decreed administrative silence immediately after the catastrophe. State officials, scientists from state-owned institutions (and all bureaucrats whose salaries depended on the government) were silenced. Only authorized personalities could talk about the disaster and make statements to the media. However, as Fernando González, Xosé Hermida, Arturo Lezcano, and Lucía Taboada made clear, the media were also censored and silenced. It was what Fernando González called information contamination (260). Certain newspapers and television channels decided not to give space or time to the Prestige catastrophe. In contrast, others followed step by step what was happening and how governments and institutions were responding to the problems.

It is within this environment of censorship and suppression that the word ‘chapapote’ emerged. Opposing authorities and subordinates who were afraid of speaking up, the rest of the population called it as they saw it.


“Asphalt.” ASPHALT | Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary, 2015,

González, Fernando “Gonzo”. “Así lo vieron y así lo contaron (o no).” Chapapote, by Manuel Rivas et al., Libros Del K.O., 2022, pp. 247-278.

Harley, Andrew. “Asphalt.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 1999,

Hermida, Xosé. “Bajo la playa, los adoquines.” Chapapote, by Manuel Rivas et al., Libros Del K.O., 2022, pp. 203-238.

Lezcano, Arturo. “Esperando El Big One.” Chapapote, by Manuel Rivas et al., Libros Del K.O., 2022, pp. 59–93.

Pato, Alfonso. “Chapapote: 20 Años Del Caos Del ‘Prestige’ a Través De Una Mirada Periodística Colectiva.”, 8 Nov. 2022,

Pereiro, Xosé Manuel. “Charlie-Six-Mike-November-Six.” Chapapote, by Manuel Rivas et al., Libros Del K.O., 2022, pp. 29–34.

Simpson, J. A., and E. S. C. Weiner. “S.O.S.” The Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 1989,

Taboada, Lucia. “Vidas en negro.” Chapapote, by Manuel Rivas et al., Libros Del K.O., 2022, pp. 103-130.

“Tar.” T.A.R. | Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary, 2015,

Ana Carballal Gonzalez

Dr. Ana Carballal is a Professor of Spanish Literature at the University of Nebraska. She wrote the book What Makes Galicia a Nation? Postcolonialism and Subalternity in Alfonso Rodriguez Castelao and she is in the process of publishing Emigration and Globalization in the Works of Alfonso Rodriguez Castelao. She published numerous articles in some of the most prestigious academic journals, among them, Journal of Feminist, Gender and Women Studies, RMMLA, Teacher Education Quarterly, and Letras Hispanas.

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