Jon Lee Anderson
In the Andalusian city of Granada, a little road leads uphill, past the forested ramparts of the Alhambra, to a cemetery. The earth there is a deep, raw red, and the olive trees that punctuate it are green and gray and very old. The cemetery wall is high and long, the same color as the earth, and it is crowned with rough clay tiles.
Twenty feet or so along the wall from its southwestern corner, there are egg-size gouges in the plastered brick. The marks are impacts from bullets. In the summer of 1936, more than a thousand people were brought to the cemetery in open trucks, day after day, to be shot against the wall by firing squads. American tourists who were staying in the little hotels down the lane later told of their horror at being awakened before dawn by the grinding gears of the trucks as they went uphill, and then, minutes later, hearing the volleys of gunfire. On August 16th, thirty people were shot at the cemetery, while down in the city the poet Federico García Lorca was taken into custody. Two days later, Lorca was murdered, along with two bullfighters and a schoolteacher.
Lorca was handsome and dark-haired, and walked with a curious, flat-footed gait that made him instantly recognizable in Granada, where he had grown up. He was a son of the local élite; his father was a wealthy granadino landowner. But, in what was a conservative, provincial city, the family was also associated with the Spanish Republic and its liberal values; one of Lorca’s sisters was married to Granada’s Socialist mayor, who was among those killed on August 16th. With his 1928 book of poetry, “Gypsy Ballads,” and his 1932 play, “Blood Wedding,” Lorca had become Spain’s most renowned poet and dramatist. Among his closest friends were Salvador Dali, with whom he had a turbulent love affair, and Luis Buñuel, the film director. Lorca had toured Spain since 1931 with his own theatre group, La Barraca, for the Republic’s Ministry of Education. At the age of thirty-eight, and more or less openly gay, Lorca was a highly visible figure with known Republican sympathies. And that, in the Granada of the summer of 1936, was enough to get a person killed.
On July 17, 1936, a forty-three-year-old general named Francisco Franco had launched a military rebellion against Spain’s left-leaning government. A cabal of military officers seized control of Granada three days later. In the three-year civil war that ensued, Franco and his ultranationalist Falangists received military assistance from Hitler and Mussolini, and more than half a million Spaniards were killed before the Republic finally succumbed. In April, 1939, Franco formally initiated his dictatorship. It lasted until his death, in 1975.
The old execution ground at the cemetery was deserted when I visited late one recent afternoon, but a bouquet of red roses lay drying against the wall, beneath a cluster of bullet gouges. The impacts were roughly at the level of a standing man’s groin. I said as much to my companion, Juan Antonio Díaz, a professor of English and German philology at the University of Granada. He remarked, “Not if you were kneeling. They would hit you at head height.”
A moment later, Díaz cursed. “They have taken the plaque. I knew they would.” He pointed to a blank patch on the wall. A few months earlier, Granada’s Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, of which he was a member, had installed a small plaque: “To the victims of Francoism who were shot at this wall.” Without it, there was no sign that anything dramatic or historic had ever occurred here.
Lorca’s grave, by the side of a road at the edge of a nearby village, was also long unmarked—he and the bullfighters and the schoolteacher were buried there together, secretly and hastily. In 1966, Ian Gibson, an Irish-born historian who became Lorca’s biographer, identified the probable site, but the bodies remained where their killers had dumped them. Then, late last year, a Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzón, ordered that Lorca be dug up.
Garzón is famous for finding novel ways to use the law in the name of historical justice. In 1998, he invoked international statutes to secure the arrest, in London, of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. This April, he opened a formal investigation into torture at Guantánamo Bay. His exhumation order was seen as a historic challenge to the silence in Spain about the Franco years—the first official inquiry into the dictatorship’s repression. But it set off a raging public debate in Spain. The problem is that although the Spanish Civil War ended seventy years ago, victor and vanquished were never truly reconciled.
The conflict lives on in unexpected ways. With Garzón’s order came the news that Lorca’s own relatives—a group of nieces and nephews—opposed his exhumation. (In fact, they had said so before, but only now did the matter acquire urgency.) In a tersely worded press communiqué, they said, “We reiterate our desire, as legitimate as those of other relatives, that the remains of Federico García Lorca repose forever where they are.” This was incomprehensible to many in Spain and gave rise to all sorts of rumors—that the family was embarrassed about the poet’s homosexuality; that it had already privately dug him up and reburied him years before. His relatives had said that they wanted to avoid “a media circus.” Instead, they found themselves in a fight over Lorca’s body.
Until Franco’s death, a textbook titled “El Parvulito” was standard issue in Spain’s preschools. In it, the civil war was introduced to four- and five-year-olds on a page labelled “The National Uprising.” Under a picture showing a serious-looking soldier, bayonet drawn, it reads, “Some years ago, Spain was very badly governed. Every day there were shots fired in the streets and the churches were burned down. To stop all of this, Franco rose up with the army, and, after three years of war, managed to throw out the enemies of the Fatherland. The Spaniards named Franco their Chief or Strongman”—Jefe o Caudillo—“and he has been governing Spain gloriously since 1936.”
More than four hundred thousand Spaniards spent time in concentration camps between 1939 and 1947. And over the next three decades, Spaniards continued to be persecuted for political reasons; thousands were executed by firing squad and garrotte. Half a million fled the country. In the jittery, attenuated glasnost that characterized the transition to democracy after Franco’s death, however, politicians adopted a don’t-look-back policy. In 1977, Spain’s parliament passed an amnesty law that sealed the past in what became known as the pacto de olvido, or pact of oblivion. That’s how things stood until a decade ago, when “historical memory” groups, formed by the descendants of murdered Republicans, Communists, and anarchists, began to dig up some of their bodies.
The memory groups’ activities inspired a national lobby for a reckoning with Spain’s past, but the conservative Partido Popular of President José María Aznar, who was in power from 1996 to 2004, was hostile to such demands. Aznar was succeeded by the Socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, however, and in 2007 Spain’s parliament approved a Law of Historical Memory, which required the state to support the exhumation of thousands of mass graves. The bill also granted citizenship to the descendants of Spanish Republicans who had been forced to flee the country between 1936 and 1955. More than a million people, most of them in Latin America, became eligible, including as many as two hundred thousand Cubans. In February, the first of the new passports were issued.
Despite the law, Spain’s mass graves remain largely unexhumed. Maribel Brenes, a historian who is the president of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory in Granada, has compiled a map of a hundred and twenty-five of them in Granada Province alone, containing twelve thousand victims. Her motive wasn’t personal; one of her grandfathers had fought for Franco. “It’s not about revenge, it’s about documenting history,” she said. “We Spaniards are hypocrites. We threw our hands in the air over what Pinochet did in South America, but no one has done anything about our own desaparecidos”—disappeared ones.
Last October, Baltasar Garzón, in response to a petition filed by thirteen historical-memory associations, decreed that Franco and thirty-four others were guilty of crimes against humanity—“a preconceived and systematic plan of elimination of political opponents through mass killings, tortures, exile, and forced disappearances.” He tallied more than a hundred and fourteen thousand victims. Declaring Spain’s 1977 amnesty null and void with regard to human-rights violations, Garzón ordered an investigation and the exhumation of nineteen mass graves, including the one believed to contain Lorca’s remains.
Emilio Silva, who founded Spain’s historical-memory movement, called Garzón’s order “the condemnation of Francoism that Spain’s parliament has never dared to do itself.” But there was also anger at Garzón. Former President Aznar, whose grandfather and father both served under Franco, spoke darkly about people determined to “destroy” Spain. Then Javier Zaragoza, Spain’s prosecutor-general, filed an appeal against Garzón’s order, challenging his jurisdiction and accusing him of carrying out an “inquisition.”
Zaragoza managed to put a temporary halt to the exhumations. If his appeal succeeded—and there was a decent chance that it would—Garzón’s investigation would be dead. Garzón responded with a preëmptive and risky move. On November 18th, he suddenly announced that he was dropping his federal case and instead referring the crimes he had identified to Spain’s provincial courts. By doing so, Garzón kept the investigation going. There was no doubt, however, that he had suffered a setback.
Two days later, on the thirty-third anniversary of Franco’s death, around fifty people gathered in a rooftop room in a cultural center in Madrid to express their support for Garzón. An elderly woman who had spent time in Franco’s concentration camps spoke, as did Ian Gibson. The Valencian folksinger Paco Ibáñez, famous for putting Lorca’s verses to music, got up and sang.
Afterward, I went with Ibáñez and Fanny Rubio, a poet who had helped to organize the gathering, to meet Garzón in Riofrío, a café across the street from the Audiencia Nacional, Spain’s high court. We sat in a corner booth. Garzón arrived a few minutes later, with one of his bodyguards. (The militant Basque separatist group E.T.A. has targeted Garzón for assassination; one plot, revealed last week, involved a bottle of poisoned Cognac.) The bodyguard, a young man wearing a duster, stood about ten feet away. Garzón, who is fifty-three and has a distinctive gray streak in his hair, ordered chamomile-mint tea. For legal reasons, he could not speak to me directly about the case, but he allowed me to sit in on his conversation with Ibáñez and Rubio.
Garzón said that he had found himself on his own in the high-court case, without any allies. Senior officials in the Socialist government felt that he had gone too far, and were not willing to back him. But the battle was not over. Transferring the cases to Spain’s provincial courts was a sort of force multiplier. Now it wasn’t just up to him. Judges all over the country would be obliged to investigate, and to do so seriously, whatever their personal beliefs. Presented with a crime, they were required to look at all available evidence, including the grave sites. He had made a thousand Lorcas possible.
“What about Lorca’s relatives saying they don’t want him dug up?” Ibáñez asked.
“Imagine if, as an investigating judge, I was shown to a house where a body was buried in the basement,” Garzón said. “And, when I ordered it to be dug up, the family living in the house said, ‘No, you can’t, that’s our uncle, and we want to leave him there!’ Would I leave him there just because they said so?”
Francisco Galadí, the grandson of one of the two bullfighters killed with Lorca, is a ruggedly handsome man of sixty. When I met him in Granada, he was wearing jeans and a black leather jacket. He had worked in the local brewery, Cerveza Alhambra, until recently, when he had been forced to take early retirement. With time on his hands, he had joined the historical-memory association. Before his father had died, a few years ago, he had begged Francisco to recover his grandfather’s remains. “He told me, ‘Don’t leave him lying there like a dog,’ ” Galadí said. “I’ve been fighting for that. What I didn’t expect was that the Lorca family would object.”
Galadí ’s grandfather, also named Francisco, had been a popular banderillero—a torero who makes the bull charge, plunging darts adorned with bright flags into its neck. He was also an anarchist. For a few futile days in July, 1936, he had led the only resistance in the city of Granada to the military takeover. He and a handful of fellow anarquistas had held out in the Albaicín, the old Moorish quarter, under a withering artillery barrage, but eventually their ammunition ran out. “They were in a cave at the foot of the Alhambra, and my father, who was twelve at the time, had gone there to say goodbye. He told him, ‘Vete, hijo’—‘Go, son.’ ” After his son left, the bullfighter surrendered. “They say that he was tied to a horse-drawn cart and that they drove him through the streets, beating him with sticks,” his grandson said. “They say he was one of the bravest, most fearless, of men.”
Once, when the younger Galadí was doing his obligatory military service, in the late sixties, a colonel had asked him if he was related to “the famous Galadí.” He smiled proudly. “You know, in those days, Federico García Lorca was known only by other members of the élite, those people who could read and go to the theatre. But my grandfather, a bullfighter, was well known by everyone, because this was a workers’ city, and they liked the bulls.” Galadí paused, and then added, “I’ve lived with my parents’ fear all my life. My mother is eighty-five now. She was twelve when it happened. They killed half the people in her neighborhood! But it wasn’t just the war, it was the years of repression afterward, of fear and humiliation. She used to say ‘Shush!’ whenever I tried to ask about my grandfather. ‘It’s that they are real hijos de puta,’ she would say. And the rancor is still there today, you know? But they are the rancorous ones. I’ve heard there are some who are going around saying, ‘We should have killed more of them.’ But I’m not interested in looking for the grandchildren of those who did the killing. All I want is to exhume the remains of my grandfather and to give him a dignified burial. The Francoists can express themselves as they like, as they always have.”
Along with Franco, Ramón Serrano Súñer was one of the men Garzón charged with “crimes against humanity.” He was Franco’s brother-in-law, and served as Interior Minister during the civil war. As Foreign Minister from 1940 to 1942, he negotiated personally with Hitler and Mussolini. He was instrumental in arranging the Gestapo’s arrest of Spanish exiles in Occupied France. Some were returned to Spain and, in many cases, summarily shot; at least fifteen thousand were sent to Mauthausen and other concentration camps. In 1948, Serrano Súñer was the first public figure in Spain to admit that Lorca had been killed by Nationalists, though he blamed “uncontrollables.” Until then, Franco’s regime had denied any knowledge of the crime, and the Nationalist media had tried to blame it on “the Reds.”
Serrano Súñer died in 2003, at the age of a hundred and one, but his son, Don Fernando Serrano Súñer y Polo, agreed to meet me at my hotel in Madrid for tea. Don Fernando, who is in his seventies, wore a sharply tailored English suit. His mother and Franco’s wife were sisters. He remarked that Spain’s Falangist movement had been “misinterpreted,” and that he found Garzón’s inquiry into the past “a little depressing.” “It is very pitiful that we are like we are, all these years later,” he said. “Two of my father’s brothers were fusilados and buried in a mass grave outside Madrid. In other words, not all the victims are Franco’s.” Don Fernando said that he admired the way that Americans had reconciled after their Civil War, and he proceeded to recite, from memory, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in Spanish.
The closest thing to a national civil-war monument in Spain is Valle de los Caídos—the Valley of the Fallen—centered on a vast subterranean basilica that Franco ordered built in 1940. Burrowed deep into the granite of the Sierra de Guaderrama mountains outside Madrid and topped by a five-hundred-foot stone cross, the monument took almost twenty years, and the labor of thousands of Republican prisoners of war, to complete. Although it was billed as a resting place for the dead of both sides, and contains the remains of some forty thousand Nationalists and Republicans, it commemorates nothing so much as Franco’s megalomania and triumphalism. When he inaugurated the necropolis, in 1959, Franco spoke about how his enemies had been made to “bite the dust of defeat.” In the main hall, the only marked tombs are those of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Falange Party, and, since 1975, of Franco himself. (The other remains are in sealed catacombs.) Not surprisingly, Valle de los Caídos has become a sanctuary for Spain’s diehard Falangists.
Last November 20th, the anniversary of Franco’s death, his followers came, as they always do, to pay their respects, although, in accordance with the new Law of Historical Memory, police had been ordered to prevent openly Fascist displays. Franco’s tombstone was a slab of granite in the floor, etched with only his name and a cross. There were bouquets of red and white roses, and a wheel of carnations. Several well-dressed older people bowed their heads. A small group of plainclothes policemen stood watching. A man in a red jacket approached, gave a Fascist salute, and dropped to one knee. He then stood up, and saluted once more. One of the policemen came trotting over, but did nothing. A moment later, two more men, with closely cropped hair and small, trimmed mustaches, met at the tomb and gave simultaneous Fascist salutes of their own.
Lorca was buried less than five miles from Granada, on the outskirts of the village of Alfacar. Following the route that Lorca’s executioners took, Juan Antonio Díaz and I drove first to the nearby village of Víznar. We parked in a little square next to an eighteenth-century archbishop’s palace, which, in 1936, was turned into a military command center. It will soon be converted into a five-star hotel. A small road, cut like an elbow around a deep gulch, led to Alfacar past what had once been a children’s summer camp called La Colonia. In the summer of 1936, La Colonia was used as a holding center for the victims of the Nationalists’ purge in the area. (There were other execution grounds, including the city cemetery.) According to Gibson, Lorca arrived as a prisoner before daybreak on August 18th, as did the bullfighters and the schoolteacher. They were then driven a short distance down the road, and taken for a paseo—a stroll.
We walked on that same road. Below us was the vega, the greensward that surrounds Granada, which Lorca wrote about in his 1921 “Meditations and Allegories of Water”:
I was returning from the dry lands. Down in the hollow lay the vega, swathed in its blue shimmer. Through the recumbent air of the summer night floated the fluttering ribbons of the crickets.
We saw rectangular stands of white poplars, as well as the shining roofs of new industrial warehouses, strung along the way to Lorca’s birthplace, the village of Fuente Vaqueros. This view, minus the warehouses, must have been one of the last things Lorca saw.
Behind an apartment building, we came to a fenced-in sliver of hillside which, some years ago, was belatedly preserved as a Lorca memorial park. At its far edge was a lone olive tree, and near it a small stone marker: “To the memory of Federico García Lorca and all the victims of the civil war.” It was the approximate spot where, according to Gibson’s sources, including one of the gravediggers, Lorca and the others had been shot and buried in a trench “behind an old olivo on a bend in the road.” There was nobody else around; a pair of motorcyclists came racing past, breaking the stillness. Walking deeper into the park, we found a stone wall inlaid with Andalusian blue, green, and white tiles painted with Lorca’s verses. One, from a 1918 poem, “Autumn Song,” reads, “If death is death, what then of poets, and of sleeping things, if no one remembers them?”
On May 29th, the Granada judge assigned to rule on Lorca’s exhumation recused herself from the case. This would have sent it to the Supreme Court of Spain, which was viewed as unsympathetic to Garzón. (Two days earlier, the court had agreed to hear a lawsuit, filed by a far-right group, charging Garzón with “prevarication” in the course of his investigation.) But, on June 9th, Granada’s prosecutor filed a grievance appealing the judge’s decision, potentially returning the case to her. Granada’s historical-memory association, meanwhile, declared that if Spain’s courts continued to stonewall its efforts, it would request that the graves be opened as an “archeological site.” Amid these developments,Lorca’s family was silent.
When I asked Juan Antonio Díaz about the Lorca family, he shook his head. “Any normal person, with a close relative—a father, an uncle, a son—who has been mysteriously disappeared, and is known to have been murdered, has to feel the minimal interest in where he might be. In the case of Lorca, this is even greater, because Lorca isn’t only the patrimony of one family but of all decent people of this world. Normal people want to know what happened, and where Lorca is. But it seems there are people who are not normal, and are incapable of resolving their personal and family traumas.”
Laura García Lorca, the poet’s niece, has a breathtaking view of the Alhambra from the living room of her apartment, on the top floor of a building in central Granada. A former actress, with the large, expressive brown eyes of her late uncle, Laura heads the Federico García Lorca Foundation. On the day I visited, she appeared overwrought. All of the media attention, she said, had been extremely stressful.
"We have, I think, never communicated our feelings well,” she said, with a sigh. “So—why don’t we want him dug up? As far as the remains of Federico García Lorca are concerned, for us—and these are things that are perhaps a little irrational—we will not gain any consolation from knowing exactly where his remains are,” she said. “We would like to leave him there.” She went on, “A great deal has been said about all of this; it is said that we don’t want to stir up history. This is an infamy! As a family, we have done everything in our power for the history to be known.”
Laura’s tone turned sarcastic. “But no, it seems it is conservative to not open a tomb, and progressive to open it. They have even said we are homophobes. This is defamation, just plain crazy. It’s not that. It’s that there is a prurient interest in this search for Federico García Lorca. And it is logical; he was a symbol. But we want him to be respected. For us, the prospect of exposing further the degrading circumstances in which he was murdered is very disagreeable. To violate him further would be, for some—very unpleasant.” Laura wept.
After she had composed herself, she said, “We don’t want this to become a spectacle. But it is very difficult to imagine that the bones and skull of Federico García Lorca will not end up on YouTube.”
Laura remarked that those whose relatives happened to be buried with Lorca seemed much more interested in exhuming them than were other victims’ families. “Isn’t it strange?” she said. “The question is, Why do people want to dig him up? Is it that they want the relic, the bones of the saint? Because it adds nothing to history.”
“But why,” I insisted, “leave him in the ditch where his killers dumped him?”
“What ditch?” Laura retorted. “It’s a sacred place. They’re all in good company there.”
Credits: This article first appeared in 2009 in The New Yorker.