April 19, 2019

Spain's Open Wounds

“In the course of thirty-seven years, María Martín López sent more than a hundred handwritten letters to the Spanish authorities. She wrote to King Juan Carlos I, and to his successor; to half a dozen Prime Ministers; to judges of the Spanish Supreme Court; and to all the “bigwigs” she could think of. The letters, written in cursive and punctuated by misspellings, made a single request: the right to exhume her mother’s remains, which had lain in a mass grave since 1936. Her father, Mariano Martín de la Cruz, had until his last days sought to give his wife a dignified burial. “You’ll take her to the cemetery when pigs fly,” Francoist rebels told him. Invariably, Martín López signed off her letters as “the woman who is still waiting for pigs to fly.”

Martín de la Cruz, a reaper, met Faustina López in Pedro Bernardo, a town in the center-west province of Ávila. Flanked by a valley and a mountain range, Pedro Bernardo is known for its vast, picturesque views over the Tiétar River. In September of 1936, barely two months after the military coup that marked the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, Francoist troops occupied the town. Martín López’s parents were not especially political, but they had wed, in 1921, in a discreet civil ceremony in France, and they upset Catholic sensibilities by refusing to remarry before the Church in Spain. On September 20th, while Martín de la Cruz hid in a town north of Pedro Bernardo, Francoist vigilantes detained his wife and two other women in the local girls’ school, shaved their heads, and paraded them naked around the town.

At the time, Martín López was six years old. The last memory she has of her mother’s abduction is of her older sister trying to prevent it and being pushed aside by a member of the Civil Guard with the stock of his rifle. A day later, the remains of two women and four men were found on a roadside a few miles away from her home, by a tributary that flows into the river. As the two sisters waited for their father’s return, in the care of an aunt, they were forced to expiate the sins of their deceased mother. For several years after, vigilantes often disciplined Martín López with a dose of six chili peppers and half a liter of castor oil, a noxious laxative. Every now and then, she found herself running from a throat-slitting gesture or a gun-wielding guard.”

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