SPAIN DISPATCH Silencing dissent in Galicia: Nomes e Voces

March 15, 2013

Exhumation of the mass grave at As Pontes, August 2006, Ramos Ferreiro family. Photo Jorge Meis, © Proxecto Nomes e Voces

Several years ago, a researcher from the small Galician town of As Pontes, participating in the excavation of a mass grave from the Spanish Civil War in the heavily left-leaning region of Asturias, caught his breath as he heard a vitriolic torrent of abuse directed at the gallegos. The Galicians, he was told, were all Francoists, collaborators. The insults left a deep impact on the researcher—a member of the Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica (ARMH)—several of whose family members had been killed following the Nationalist uprising in 1936. He resolved never to return to Asturias.

Image included in Case #237/37 of the Plaza de Vigo, corresponding to an unidentified body, later identified as José Varela, who fled and was shot. Fondo Arquivo Militar de Ferrol, Proxecto Nomes e Voces.

The myth is deeply entrenched. Yet the widespread representation of Galicia as a bastion of political conservatism silences another narrative: the story of those who fought for democracy and the Republic during the Civil War, who were subject to the first systematic repression of dissent in Nationalist Spain, and who—in their tens of thousands—were imprisoned, tortured, or executed by the roadsides of the Galician countryside. Galicia is no longer a backwater: tourists and pilgrims flock every year to the picturesque medieval streets of Santiago de Compostela. But even in tranquil Santiago, beyond this façade lie other, hidden, realities: the mass civil war grave in the cemetery of Boisaca; the dark past of the chocolate store in the Plaza do Toural, which used to be the headquarters of the local Falange, the police building that served as an interrogation center in the months after the military rising.

This other narrative, brought to international attention in the novels of writers such as Manuel Rivas (The Carpenters’ Pencil; Books Burn Badly), is one that scholars such as Gustavo Hervella García are desperate to recover and illuminate. At the offices of the “Nomes e Voces” (Names and Voices) research center, hidden discreetly on the second floor of a university residence on the campus of the Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, Hervella forms part of an avid team of researchers directed by Professor Lourenzo Fernández Prieto. Their mission is to study the effects of Francoist repression during and after the Civil War, and to gather information on all those who suffered some form of persecution as a result of their political beliefs or their defense of the Second Republic. If by “war” one means open conflict between armies, there was no Civil War in Galicia, Hervella affirms, echoing recent scholarship—there was only repression. This repression was brutal, and left deep and lasting scars.

Francisco Comesaña with his arms around his wife Ascensión Concheiro on board the SS Marqués de Comillas, on their way to exile in Cuba, spring 1942. Fondo Ascensión Concheiro, Proxecto Nomes e Voces.

During the Second Republic, a statute of autonomy for Galicia—establishing its status as a free state within a Spanish federation—was passed with the support of an overwhelming majority of the population. The fact that this statute is less widely known than its Catalan equivalent speaks volumes about the politics of memory. Although Galicia fell quickly to the Nationalist forces following the military coup, there was also a vigorous attempt to defend the Republic—and the principles for which it stood—throughout the month of July 1936. The subsequent “cleansing” of Republican resistance was to be a proving ground for political persecution—including summary trials, nighttime shootings, and the rapid creation of political detention centers (which soon witnessed an influx of prisoners from Asturias, Extremadura, Catalonia, and the Basque country). These practices were then exported to other regions of Spain, as Republican forces elsewhere in the peninsula were crushed. No less repressive was the imposition of new cultural norms across Galicia: the restoration of crucifixes in schools, the changing of street names, the building of statues to local Falangist leaders, and the singing of the Te Deum whenever the Nationalists won a military victory. These measures were designed in part to bury another political reality, and to judge from the long survival of tropes and stereotypes about Galicia, they have been all too successful. For Hervella, the myth of a uniformly conservative Galicia needs to be punctured, although—he drily admits—the repeated election of an ex-Francoist minister, Manuel Fraga, as president of the Galician autonomous region after the coming of democracy “did not help.”

Parade to commemorate the anniversary of the death of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, A Coruña, 1940. Fondo Dionisio Pereira, Proxecto Nomes e Voces.

One cornerstone of the Galician researchers’ work is a searchable database of all the victims of the repression ( among them, Francisco Comesaña Rendo, the doctor and Galician nationalist who is the inspiration for the protagonist of Rivas’s novel—later adapted to film—The Carpenter’s Pencil. “Tried in Santiago for treason, resulting in the death penalty,” reads the laconic database entry. “Commuted to life imprisonment as a result of his status as a Cuban citizen. Exiled in Mexico.” A search for the keyword “Comesaña” produces a sizable list of other names: agricultural workers, laborers, a tram worker, a shoemaker, and a 15-year-old girl, Peregrina Comesaña Costas, whose head was shaven in a ritual of public humiliation. A special “Nomes e Voces” project, entitled Vermellas (Reds), focuses on the political persecution and active agency of women.  Meanwhile, the researchers actively compile oral testimonies from close family members of the victims of repression—they have 513 interviews to date. These oral histories accompany painstaking archival work in locations such as the Archivo Militar in Ferrol–the naval town that was Francisco Franco’s birthplace.

Signs for the Spanish Anti-Fascist Committee of Philadelphia (C50/37). Fondo Arquivo Militar de Ferrol, Proxecto Nomes e Voces.

Memory of these atrocities remains a political battleground. The return to power of the conservative Partido Popular in 2009 brought a gradual reduction of the funding which had been allocated to the “Nomes e Voces” project by the previous Galician government (a coalition formed by the PSOE and the Bloque Nacionalista Gallego). By the end of 2010, this funding had been withdrawn, jeopardizing new lines of research such as a promising comparative project undertaken in collaboration with the University of La Manouba in Tunisia. In Tunisia, too, research into the crushing of dissent—under the French colonial regime—remains an urgent concern, whose political importance after the Arab spring needs no comment. It was to Tunisia that some of the Galician leftists had fled as the Nationalists took over. Even in the face of financial crisis, “Nomes e Voces” hopes that the Galician and Tunisian databases can be combined. Meanwhile, the research team relies on limited financing from the provincial government and the Universidade de Santiago de Compostela.

Hervella looks forward to collaboration with scholars and students in the United States and in Latin America, stressing the importance of oral history in recovering the silenced past. “Until now,” he comments, “most U.S. attention on the Civil War period has been focused on the military conflict, and not so much on Francoist repression of ordinary citizens.” Galicia, he says, can play a significant role in changing this picture.

For further details on the Proxecto Nomes e Voces, contact:

Simon R. Doubleday teaches Spanish history at Hofstra University. Among other recent books he is coeditor of Why the Middle Ages Matter: Medieval Light on Modern Injustice (Routledge, 2011).


One Response to “ SPAIN DISPATCH Silencing dissent in Galicia: Nomes e Voces

  1. Julie Ryan on May 31, 2013 at 1:59 am

    My grandfather was a Gallego, born in 1909. By the time the civil war broke out he was living in Madrid and fought for the Republicans until February 1939 when he fled over the Pyrenees into France (where he spent time in the French concentration camps and was later deported to Algeria to work on the trans-Saharan railway). His story is told in a book that I self published, called ‘In and out of the Lion’s Den: Poverty, war and football’
    (The book also tells the story of my professional soccer playing father, John Shepherd. My Spanish grandfather eventually settled as a Spanish refugee in London, which is where my Spanish born mother met my Englsh father)