In the early hours of August 18, 1936, the dim morning light cast shapeless shadows on the ravine of the road that connects Víznar and Alcafar, two villages on the outskirts of Granada, Andalusia, Spain.
The huge mass graves were already waiting open. Some had been dug by the convicts themselves hours before.
Those walking toward death might trip over the roots of ancient trees, retinas dilating with darkness and terror. In this last procession, someone might have been clutching a medicine pot, a seamstress’s thimble, a third – objects actually found later in archaeological excavations.
Among those shot by Franco’s troops that night was the Grenadian poet Federico García Lorca, then 38 years old.
86 years ago, in that distant dawn of Spanish summer, Lorca disappeared, and so he remains ghostly: whereabouts unknown. Like the other 300 to 400 people who are estimated to have been killed and buried in the same place.
Lorca, a member of the so-called generation of 27 and the biggest name in 20th century Spanish literature, was one of the first victims of Francoism, just a month after the 1936 coup that would launch the country into a long period of war and dictatorship.
Had he been buried in this barren ravine, piled with other bodies in a hole in the earth? Or transferred to another location? Had it been covered with lime so that the bones could not be easily identified, as murderers used to do?
Lorca, Lorca, Lorca. Celebrity here, his body has been sought after for some years now. “If you’re going to ask me about Lorca, we won’t continue this interview,” Francisco Carrión, a forensic archaeologist responsible for the archaeological excavation in the region, told El Diario.
Understandable: Lorca is important, but, as another member of the forensic team, Rafael Bracero, summarizes, “our job is to exhume the hundreds of people who are still buried there.”
Each year, the anniversary of García Lorca’s death evokes, in Spain, more than the poetic-revolutionary-emotional quality of works such as Bodas de Sangue and Romancero Gitano.
His murder is a symbol of a painful historical period that, for many Spaniards, has not yet been properly ended; a reminder that hundreds of thousands of victims of the Franco dictatorship, especially between 1936, the year of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and 1953, remain unaccounted for.
Family members, now in the third or fourth generation, seek, want, demand historical and personal justice. The battle is political, expensive, intense, complex.
The current socialist government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez recently approved in July 2022 a new Law on Democratic Memory that updates and deepens the Law on Historical Memory of 2007 and establishes as a “state policy” the search and exhumation of those who disappeared from Francoism and Civil war.
This law was forcefully rejected by the opposition, concentrated in the Popular Party (PP), on the grounds that it does not cover victims of “terrorism” and that it is “revisionist”. Other civil entities recognize the progress generated by the new law in symbolic terms, but ask for more concrete measures.
An extremely expressive detail of this “pelea” (dispute): during the previous government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, of the PP, between 2011 and 2018, the state dedicated zero zeee-rohh 000 euros to the cause of the search and exhumation of victims of the dictatorial period.
Because of this, in the meantime there were people who resorted to crowdfunding to exhume relatives. The process is expensive: it involves DNA testing, historical investigation and exhaustive searches that may come to naught.
In the 2022 general budget, the government allocated €12 million for the exhumation of up to 800 bodies.
“ALL WERE LORCA”
The Grenada police station’s 1965 report records that Lorca was “a socialist, a Freemason and a homosexual.” Ie.
Not even the interference of his friend, the famous composer Manuel De Falla Matheu, could save him.
In 2002, the Víznar ravine, now covered by a pine forest planted by the Falangists to cover up their horrors, became a place of historical memory and received a reverential tombstone with the words: ALL WERE LORCA.
Every August 19, a poetic veil takes place at the place. It starts at midnight and lasts until dawn. It’s important to remember.
Spain, according to a recent statement by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, is the second country in the world with the most “forced” disappearances after Cambodia.
Until today, it is estimated that more than 150 thousand victims of the dictatorial period, among republicans (the majority) and Francoists, remain buried in Spanish soil. There are presumably more than 4,000 mass graves across the country. Only 8% of this would have been, to date, completely exhumed.
The Ministry of Justice has created an interactive pit map, where victims can be searched and status of investigation. The above data is from this platform.
The numbers, however, are not unanimous. According to the Spanish Association of Forensic Anthropology and Dentistry, between 2000 and 2019, 785 pits were exhumed, more than double the official statistics. Still, it’s little.
Spain in conflict over this historical issue is evident in the lukewarm reception of “Madres Paralelas”, by Pedro Almodóvar (2021).
The film, the result of a desire and research spanning two decades, has exactly the above theme as its historical backdrop, with the protagonist (Janis, played by Almodovarian favorite Penélope Cruz) struggling to unpack an excavation in her pueblo of origin in order to search for the body of his great-grandfather, murdered by Francoism.
At the time of its release, the relatively weak domestic performance at the box office led the Manchego filmmaker to declare, in an interview with El País: “I sensed a coldness towards the film on the part of half the country, and I attribute this to the subject I am dealing with: historical memory”.
“Spain has always been a divided country,” he said, “and it still is.”