A NEW look at the lives of the prisoners who built the Valley of Fallen aims to give it a more acceptable spin, writes Heather Galloway in El Escorial.
The huge basilica carved out of the living rock on a hillside north of Madrid which until two years ago served as a mausoleum for the dictator General Francisco Franco, is on the brink of an image makeover with the families of the prisoners who built it moving centre stage.
Spain’s most controversial monument topped by a 150-metre granite cross was constructed by 20,000 political prisoners and ordinary labourers between 1940 and 1959, and the families of those in forced labour settled on the premises in order to survive the post-war period.
Now, according to archaeologist Alfredo González-Ruibal, the area where the families’ shacks stood in the Cuelgamuros valley 57 kilometres from Madrid is to be excavated mid-April in a bid to reconstruct their lives.
“After I paid my first visit to the Valley of the Fallen in 2007, I realised that putting the focus on the shacks instead of the monument itself would be a way of changing the Francoist narrative,” González-Ruibal tells The Olive Press, explaining that as the prisoners’ families would often come from afar to visit, they started to camp close by.
Even the families visiting from Madrid began to make a home in the Valley of the Fallen as the trip back and forth from the capital during the 1940s and 1950s was hard to complete by public transport in one day.
“They started building huts, which turned into shacks measuring around 4 m2,” says the archaeologist who works for the Spanish National Research Council and will head up a team of 10. “They used rubble for the walls and branches for the roofs and probably knew how to build well enough to stop the rain coming in, as they would have been used to building shepherds’ huts. But they would have been freezing in winter.”
The curious shanty town that emerged over the years was obliquely accepted by the authorities as the presence of the prisoners’ families provided psychological support, meaning they worked better, were more disciplined and less likely to escape.
According to González-Ruibal, the prisoners eventually received a food allowance for their families that could be spent at the canteen while their children would likely have joined the local one-teacher school set up for the “free” labourers’ families.
Enduring this tough, no-frills existence without electricity or running water and little light within the shack, was not done solely through choice. “You have to take into account that this was Spain in the 1940s and 1950s when many women depended entirely on men to survive,” he says. “But there would also have been a desire to be together.”
Lying a stone’s throw from the four settlements or poblados that accommodated the prisoners’ barracks and labourer’s cottages, this community of women and children has often been used by far-right revisionists to depict the Valley of the Fallen as something akin to a holiday camp, González-Ruibal explains.
“It is true that many of the prisoners considered their time in the Valley of the Fallen as a good period in their lives,” he says. “But these were people who had lived through a civil war and spent time in concentration camps where they were on the verge of dying from hunger. It would have been like going from hell to purgatory.”
The fact the significance of Europe’s last monument to fascism has taken so long to dismantle has inevitably had repercussions.
“The Valley of the Fallen and the general integration of Francoism into Spanish society has contributed to the fact that extreme right-wing views are now presented to the public as a reasonable option,” says González-Ruibal.
As if to illustrate his point, far-right Vox politician, Alejandro Vélez, has just stood up in Extremadura’s regional parliament to ask for a new statue of Franco to be erected on a roundabout in Badajoz.
But now it looks as though this enclave at least is to be stripped of its original purpose as the dig extends to the exhumation of Falangist leader José Antonio Primo de Rivera and the remains of Franco’s victims.
It is estimated that the 150-metre cross crowns a graveyard for 33,838 bodies, 12,410 of which were carted there from 1959 until as late as 1983, many without the knowledge or permission of the families.
Packed into wooden boxes according to their region of origin, they were stored within the hollow walls of the Basilica where Franco lay across from Primo de Rivera until his controversial exhumation in 2019.
“Imagine an archive, but instead of books, its boxes of human remains,” says González-Ruibal.
Among those to be exhumed this month is José Antonio Marco (pictured above), a forward-thinking Republican and mason shot for his beliefs at the age of 30.
His execution took place against the wall of the cemetery in Calatayud, Aragon, in 1936, after which he was buried in an unmarked mass grave nearby before being stealthily trucked in April 1959 to the Valley of the Fallen.
“On social media, someone said he was probably a thief and a murderer,” his great-niece, Silvia Navarro, 50, president of the Association of Families for the Exhumation of Republicans Buried in the Valley of the Fallen, tells The Olive Press.
“But he was a pacifist; a good man. He introduced the eight-hour day to his factory and healthcare for his workers.”
What was left of his corpse more than 23 years later would have been “dug up carelessly as if it were a field of potatoes,” says González-Ruibal who explains that Franco urgently needed Republican corpses to fulfil his revised vision for his magnum opus as a place of reconciliation between the two sides of the Spanish Civil War.
The battle to get Marco and other Republicans out of the Valley started in 2009, taking 60 families through the entire Spanish judicial system to the Human Rights Court in Strasbourg. Of the 60, the Lapeña family was the first to win the right to have the remains of brothers, Manuel and Antonio Lapeña, returned to them.
But five years later, they are still waiting, as are the rest of the families who finally achieved a breakthrough three months ago.
“It’s a basic human right, no? To honour your dead?” says Navarro (pictured below), who explains that there are still six of the victims’ children living – now in their late 80s and 90s and losing their memories.
For a memorial that has embodied Spain’s hangover from the Civil War and the withdrawal of basic human rights, “purgatory” seems to sum it up.
- Spain set to exhume Franco victims from controversial Valley of the Fallen and return them to relatives for burial
- Historical memory: Barcelona university enlisted to document Spain’s Valley of the Fallen victims