Breathing life into the memory of Spain’s Civil War

Sometimes I find myself wanting to begin this story with my study abroad experience in Spain this past summer, but in reality the independent study I’ve created this semester and my upcoming research trip back to Spain is the culmination of my academic passions of the past four years. This project really began with my early love for Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York and my involvement with Humans of William and Mary. As early as my senior year of high school, I was beginning to hone in on what would become so important to me: the stories that shape us. Then, my sophomore year, during my study-away semester in DC, professor Chitralekha Zutshi introduced me to the field of oral history. Ever since then, any research project for any class I’ve taken revolves around the theme of oral history, and more recently, collective memory.

This brings me to last spring. I took my first senior seminar for Hispanic Studies, “El franquismo y sus fantasmas,” taught by professor Francie Cate-Arries. This class focused on Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in Spain and its lasting impacts on Spanish society. I focused my independent research component of the class on a book of testimonies from women who were incarcerated throughout this time period in Spain called Presas: Mujeres en las cárceles franquistas. Their stories were brutal and emotional, but few women had any kind of regret regarding the actions that landed them in prison. The interviewer of the women of the collection, Tomasa Cuevas, was a survivor of Franco’s prisons, and her voice and work has been crucial in bringing the stories of survivors, like herself, to light.

Finally, I spent the past summer studying abroad in Spain. The first half of the summer, I was in Cádiz, a sea-side city in Andalucía. There, I continued research on the Franco Era’s scars through investigating the political and emotional power of mass grave exhumations. I also had the opportunity to sit in on a series of interviews professor Cate-Arries conducted with the descendants of victims of the Franco regime. When this research project and the William and Mary study abroad program ended, I transitioned to WWOOFing, or volunteer farming, in a small town called Torremocha about an hour outside of Madrid. When my host family and my neighbors heard that I had done research on the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship, they opened up their homes to share movies, music, and books relating to the era.

The most formative of these experiences and the reason I designed an independent study for this fall was when my neighbors took me to see the play Presas de papel. This play focused on women who were imprisoned during el franquismo, so it connected beautifully with the research I had done in the spring on Tomasa Cuevas. However, the most impactful part of the performance was the fact that the show itself took place within the forgotten ruins of what used to be a Franco prison. The actresses transformed the tumbling stone walls into the Cárcel de Ventas, the most infamous women’s prison from the time period, and told harrowing stories that closely mirrored the experiences of the women in Franco’s prisons. After the play I knew I could not pass up an opportunity to continue researching the topic that has become so incredibly integral to my college experience, so I worked with professor Cate-Arries to design an independent study for this fall.

Up until now, I’ve spent the semester conducting research on a variety of aspects of the play: “environmental” or “site-specific” theater and how it gives the viewer a completely different experience than traditional theater, the use of art after violence as a way to heal, how oral testimony can be incorporated into art, and how trauma remains as post-memory for generations after a violent event. Next week I will be returning to Spain to interview members of the community in Torremocha whose families suffered under the Franco dictatorship, and I will see a new version of Presas de papel. This version, unlike the first, will take place within the confines of a traditional theater building, and I hope to further understand what is gained and what is lost with this transition. I will continue to update the SURGE blogs once while I am in Spain and once when I return.

Finally, I want to thank the Charles Center for awarding me the funds needed to return to Spain. Without this, I could not complete this crucial aspect of my research.