New, Old, and Absent Objects

I need to start with a little background information. Our first interview was with a man named José, whom we learned about from his daughter, who is a professor working with the students on the W&M Summer Abroad Cádiz program. He came and spoke with us about his family’s story. Being the incredibly kind person he is, his help did not stop with allowing us to film and photograph him. He offered to pick us up from the bus station in his town to drive us to a little town nearby that would be difficult to get to by public transportation: Jimena de la Frontera. It was there that we were to meet an interviewee and guide on Wednesday the 12th.

Andrés is really an extraordinary human being. That’s one of the many great things about working on this project: meeting so many remarkable people. Andrés runs two side-by-side organizations in Jimena. The first is Casa Verde (green house), home of AGADEN—an organization for environmental justice. But he is also the head of the memoria histórica project for the area and has participated in a number of mass grave recoveries and the collection of testimonies. Not enough yet? He works in South America providing relief efforts to locals and it was there he met his wife. He just has an amazing energy and dedication to helping others.

When we met Andrés, it was to talk with him about his work on some of the largest fosas comunes in the province of Cádiz. He started in the Casa Verde by showing us pictures of the archeologists and students who worked on one of the digs, including photos of the objects found therein. Some remains were identified as female because they still had combs in their hair when they were uncovered. Those combs were really interesting to me.

At the mausoleum where the remains from that site were laid to rest, Andrés explained some more. Each body and its associated objects were kept in unnamed boxes. They were not returned to families, because by and large the bodies could not be identified. The family members of those who had disappeared in the area of Jimena and El Bosque decided to allow their possessions to rest with them. Andrés himself said that, though his grandfather’s name is on the mausoleum, he cannot actually be certain he lies within. But, he says, those who were found represent all those who disappeared in the region.

We then went on an odyssey to the site of several fosas at El Cortijo de El Marrufo where we learned about some very unique objects of memory. We rode up in José’s van to what looks like a Spanish plantation house on the side of the road and a whole gang of dogs immediately start barking at us and defending their home. Passing the dogs, Andrés mentions offhandedly that the two large storage building we are passing were used to “store” Republicans before they were taken down the hill and shot.

We walked up some steps surrounded by colorful wildflowers, through a field, among some trees, and down a rocky incline to find ourselves in a field at the edge of a mountain with one large shade tree standing near a large pile of rocks. That pile, Andrés told us, is where all the bodies from the more than 6 graves in the clearing were reburied. With their possessions. And with a few extra objects of memory.

On the last day, when they were closing up the site, Andrés and the other workers decided to leave behind their own objects with the bodies of those they’d been so close to during the previous months. He told us they left newspapers from the day as well as poems they wrote about their experience and in honor of those who’d been killed. These new objects of memory really interested me. Not only did that grave contain 70+ year-old objects that were miraculously not stolen by the “red” men and women’s murderers…objects that would likely not be seen again for a long time, but it also contained objects that were mere months old, objects placed there by the caring hands of those who had tried to give their ancestors a more dignified place to rest.

As a final note for the day, the location itself was striking to me. We weren’t in some grim and sorry hole in the woods. We were standing on a mountain with an amazing panoramic view, surrounded by wild thistle and receiving a refreshing breeze from the valley. That such a place could have been host to so many horrific deaths is really hard to reconcile, even while standing there looking at the various fosas around you. For me, I guess, the best way to think of it is that the victims got to experience that beauty before they died.