I would like to dedicate these last couple of blog posts to sharing the stories of two incredible and courageous women that I had the privilege of meeting during our last 5 days in Spain.
The first is María Louisa “Libertad” Fernandez a dear friend of Professor Cate-Arries. María Louisa is a Spanish woman (a native asturiana [woman from Asturias]) that grew up in exile following the civil war. She was born on January 17, 1939, as Barcelona was falling to encroaching Francoist troops, and spent the first 4 years of her life (starting February 7, 1939) with her mother in various refugee concentration camps in France (her father was put in a separate camp where he was forced to work). Once out of the concentration camps, she spent different parts of her life in France, Mexico, and Spain.
We met with María Louisa 3 out of the 5 days we were in Madrid. She invited us into her house, fed us well, introduced us to her friends, and took us to the many places she spends her time. She included us in her life in a kind and intimate way, almost as if we were her close friends, or even granddaughters. ––By the way, this is something that I really want to emphasize about our research process and the nature of the research we were doing. As we traveled about Spain gathering testimony, we weren’t giving people surveys or asking them a short series of scripted questions. The distance that one might expect (or be familiar with) between the researcher and the research subjects did not exist in the traditional way. It was all supremely personal. We usually asked the person being interviewed to meet us for a relaxed cup of coffee or a meal—and sometimes they even insisted we come to their homes for all the above. Then, the interviews could go on as long or as short as the interviewee wanted. Professor Cate-Arries had a few guiding questions if necessary, but mostly the person being interviewed held the reins and could voluntarily share whatever he/she pleased. And the amazing thing is that these people did. They deeply opened up to us about their lives during the represión franquista, and about things that are not at all easy to open up about. It was incredible to be a part of that, to witness it all with my own eyes and ears.
Anyway, in such a short time, Maria Louisa left a really lasting impact on me. The first thing that one notes about her is that she speaks Spanish with a French accent. For me, this small detail is really quite essential because it very obvious evidence of her time in the concentration camps and years of exile in France. As soon as you hear her voice, you know she has a story… and she most certainly does.
The most unforgettable of Maria Louisa’s stories is so poetic that it almost seems as if it were made up in some historical fiction novel. At birth, María Louisa’s anarchist parents named her Libertad, which means liberty. She kept this name until she was sixteen years old, at which point the repressive franquistas renamed her María Louisa. This in itself is a real violation of one’s personal freedoms, but the way in which they did it is extremely symbolic. They retrieved her original birth certificate, eliminated her given name, and wrote in the margins that they were taking away Libertad and obligating her to take the name María Louisa (they used the word imponer, which means to impose upon). Through this act, they took away her name, her identity, her libertad (her freedom!). This is the epitome of what the Franco regime did while in power for 40 years.
Maria Louisa told us many other stories of her times in the French concentration camps. Of the things that make up facets of her own memory, she remembers getting her first toy ever at 3 years old, which, even though just a simple hoop, was very special to her. Her godmother sent it to her in the mail, in addition to dried bananas which she still remembers the smell and taste of. She also remembers begging her mom for a little brother or sister, and her mother always replying that babies come from Paris and they weren’t able to buy another one because they didn’t have enough money. Another memory she has is of a song the women used to sing in the camps about wishing to get out of France and go to Mexico, which, at the time, was the preferred place to spend time in exile. She sang the song for us, remembering the melody and every word perfectly (which is especially impressive since she was no older than four years old at the time!). It is clearly something that has remained engraved in her memory.
Some of the other stories she told us are part of a larger “collective” memory that he mother passed on to her. One such story is that her mother, a seamstress, made jackets for the 7 children of a woman who was being taken back to Spain in the dead of winter. Due to the lack of heating in the trains, Maria Louisa’s mother wanted to protect them from the terrible cold during the long journey ahead. She finished the coats in time for their departure, but because the franquistas did not want anyone to have any “excesses,” the coats were confiscated. Another very moving story is that during their time in the camp, both María Louisa and her mother became terribly sick with Typhus. María Louisa was on the verge of death and the doctors told her mother that it was a lost cause. However, her mother would not back down and insisted that they give Maria Louisa a blood transfusion using her own blood. This ended up saving her life. As Maria Louisa said, “Mama me salvó la vida. Me dio la vida dos veces.” [[Mama saved my life. She gave me life two times.]]
Finally, María Louisa showed us a few photos that were taken of her and her mother while at the concentration camps in the late 30s and early 40s. Two show her with her little toy hoop, another shows her in a field with this adorable white bow in her hair, and the last is her with her mother next to the barbed wire fences. Looking at this woman in her eighties in 2013 and seeing the pictures from the very, very beginning of her life was truly powerful. Her life began behind barbed wire fences, and that is something that still makes up a strong part of who she is many decades later. Through María Louisa, I saw yet another example of how each and every person from that time period has some sort of a story, and you never know what that might be. Every one alive during the dictatorship was affected in some way or another at that time, and I have had the privilege of hearing some of their stories.