Disturbing the ghosts of San Rafael: the politics of memory in Malaga

Seventy years after the Spanish civil war divided a nation and initiated Franco’s dictatorship, the Andalucian city of Malaga is still haunted by the past


29 years old © digitaldjeli


In a nondescript suburb of Malaga alongside an industrial estate, the Cementerio San Rafael has none of the decorative charm of a typical Spanish cemetery. Thousands of people pass it every day without realising that San Rafael is now recognised as one of the largest burial sites of the Spanish Civil War with 18 mass graves identified within its confines so far.

Breeze block walls six meters high enclose a rough, uneven field peppered with trees, a solitary official memorial and a few simply hewn crosses.  Broken fragments of religious artefacts, small bunches of plastic flowers and roughly scratched names and dates are the only clues to the tragedies that lie beneath the dry red Andalucian soil.

When I first came to Spain the civil war was barely mentioned in the media, in conversation or even academic research. When I raised the subject in graduate classes that I taught my students were delighted to have the space to talk about a subject that everyone knew and everyone ignored.

My curiousity led me to explore my city, Malaga, and a silent history still marking its presence in street names, in rituals, in politics and social hierarchies.  One day it led me to San Rafael and an invitation from its guardians to see inside.

Francisco Espinoza showed me round: “it was here they killed Malagueñan youth, they killed so many.”

He gestured to one side: “ this area is exactly where the lorries arrived loaded with Republican prisoners in the early hours of the morning and they would put them on this side of the wall and execute them.”

“Later, they took to filling mass graves by lining prisoners alongside so that they fell directly into them ”.

So far the remains of three thousand people have been painstakingly exhumed by student volunteers from Malaga University’s Department of Archaeology, military records testify to 4,500, while locals say there could be thousands more.

Of these, the forensic archaeologists have identified more then 600 women including one who was in the later stages of pregnancy.

According to Sebastián Fernández, the co-ordinator of the exhumations, the number of female remains is illustrative of their importance during the Civil War.

“In some cases they would shoot both partners, but we also know that sometimes they would go and look for the father or son and if they had already fled, the Nationalists would just take the sister” he said.

The exhumation in Malaga is unusual not just for its scale but also because it is the only one to go ahead without a court order.

Confronting the ghosts of the Civil War and the ensuing Franco dictatorship is highly contentious.

The remains of Franco’s supporters in Malaga were gathered up and buried in a crypt in the City’s cathedral while the violent retribution towards the Republican losers continued for many years after.

Their bodies were left to rot by roadsides, in mass graves in the countryside unmarked except in local memory, or in silent places like San Rafael.

Malaga, as a Republican stronghold that survived for nine months after the beginning of Franco’s coup d’etat, was made to pay a terrible and enduring price.

Shadows of the past

Right beneath the unseeing eyes of the tourists, the memories echo through the streets, alleyways and plazas of the city like the deep afternoon shadows cast by siesta-shuttered buildings.

Here the geography of terror is inscribed in names, symbols and local rituals now so commonplace that most of the younger generation fail to see it.

The February Carnival, a riot of music, lights and partying, is also the anniversary of the conquest of Malaga by Italian fascists and Spanish militias led by Queipo de Llano, one of Franco’s original conspirators.

In Seville’s Basilica the Virgin Macarena is still adorned with the military sash that he wore. For the 9 months of Malaga’s resistance, Queipo de Llano, from his base in Seville, broadcast obscenities, lies and threats to Malaga in terrifying daily radio transmissions.

The spectacular centre piece of Malaga’s Semana Santa or Easter Holy Week is a re-enactment of Franco’s Legion troops crossing the sea from Morocco although it is not promoted as such and most are unaware of the association.

Wearing spartan Civil War uniforms they disembark from a ship in the port and in dramatic displays of gun spinning masculine strength, march through the centre of the city at a jog bearing a huge bloodied crucifix high above their heads.

They, like soldiers all over the world, proudly display the flags of past battles won but only in Malaga have I ever seen a national army carry the flag of a victory against their own people.

On the road to Almeria

During those early February days in 1937 the Franquistas surrounded Malaga from three sides while bombing them from the air. In a mass move that later became known as the ‘Caravan of Death’ 100,000 refugees fled along the only way out: the road that twists between the mountains and sea towards the deserts of Almeria.

Francisco Jimenez, now 78, has the wizened sun baked skin and sliding Andalu dialect of Malaga, he remembers the panic:

“there was no more room in the olive factory bus, it was overloaded so we climbed on the roof on top of all the bags. Then it had a blow out so I said we can’t stay here come on, let’s go, we can walk, eat sugar cane and so on”.

Caught in a trap that was merciless in its calculation, they were bombarded from land, sea and air. Francisco was 8 years old.

“That day there was bombing, artillery and machine gun fire. And we were loads of kids together piled on top of each other,” remembers Angeles Vasquez Leon.

“We would flatten ourselves on the ground so the bombs didn’t get us. But at night it was different, we lost our families in the dark and there were so many people.”

When the sun came up I didn’t know what had happened and I realised I was alone”. Her voice quivers with the memory and her eyes shine momentarily with the hint of tears.

Alongside the road on the edge of the city, a promenade follows the outline of the Mediterranean shore.

Recently named in honour of the Canadian, Norman Bethune, El Paseo de los Canadienses has also caused controversy.

Norman Bethune, a doctor with the International Brigades, came to Spain in solidarity with the Republicans and witnessed first hand the massacre of the refugees as he tended the injured. Photographs taken by his assistant Hazen Sise were published in a book by Bethune shortly after.

Yet only now, 70 years later, can Malaga finally confront the dark spectres of its history on the road to Almeria.

Unfortunately, in the naming ceremony, the Partido Popular mayor unveiled a plaque that referred to the victims not as refugees but fugitives.

The Politics of Memory

The Partido Popular was founded by Manuel Fraga a former minister of the dictatorship and is vociferous in its opposition to the Historical Memory Associations that have been the impetus for the mapping and exhumation of sites all over Spain.

They say it goes against the agreement made during the transition to democracy after Franco’s death which was a ‘pact of forgetting’.

In 2002 the PP Government of Jose Maria Aznar recognised officially that the Civil War was an ‘undemocratic act’ but this recognition was not unanimous and only came about after a deal with the Left to drop the subject.

At the same time the Spanish Historical Memory Association submitted a petition to the United Nations’ ‘Working Group on Enforced Disappearance’ which was originally set up to find the ‘disappeared’ of dictatorships in South America.

There was a certain irony in the Spanish judge Baltazar Garzon’s pursuit of Pinochet while Spain ignored its own ‘disappeared’.

The Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Luis Zapatero, declared 2006 the ‘Year of Historical Memory’ and put forward a Bill to recognise this but when it was finally passed critics complained of its weakness, its refusal to fund exhumations and its retreat from earlier promises to grant full posthumous pardons to those executed in the postwar period.

Meanwhile, although the finalised law recognised that there were victims on both sides of the Civil War, the PP’s Juan Costa accused the PSOE of being “willing to shatter the consensus that has given us democratic stability for 30 years.”

Even the former PSOE Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez supported the policy of El Olvido – The Oblivion.

Now this policy of consigning the past to oblivion is being literally challenged on the ground as the Spanish public echo their leaders disjuncture by publishing highly charged obituaries that refer to the Civil War deaths as either at the hands of ‘Marxist hordes’ or ‘Fascist insurgents’ depending on which side of the political divide they originate.

Documentaries, books and online forums of all persuasions reveal and question what was once denied visibility

On a bright spring Andalusian day, Francisco Espinoza invites me to a memorial event at San Rafael. Exhumations in Malaga and elsewhere, are often accompanied by relatives and members of the Historical Memory Association.

I listen as they denounce the crimes, plant Republican tricolour flags and softly sing The International.

Participation in this politicisation of memory is uneven but amongst the crowd in San Rafael I see a few fists defiantly elevated and dotted amongst the mostly elderly attendees I spot hats and bandanas of the Communist and Anarchist groups that formed part of the chaotic Republican alliance during the Civil War.

Noticeable by its absence is any sensation of revenge or retribution. Instead like the shrouds that belatedly encase the bones of the past there is a deep pall of sadness as the remains of a generation of tragedy are brought to light and finally mourned.