My Study Abroad Experience: Learning about Franco’s Dictatorship in Seville, Spain.

1In the fall of 2011, I lived for 4 months with the Rodriguez family in Seville, Spain. Although many of the other students on my program arrived at school each day with a new slew of complaints about their host families, I was having that experience that the study abroad office catalogues celebrate. Unlike the others, I could not complain about the food—I was eating world class meals of tortilla española, jamón ibérico, and gazpacho on a daily basis. I did not feel home sick—how could I when Rosa was becoming my second mother and Gloria the sister I never had? The things that drove my classmates crazy became constant joys for me, from the slow pace of life in Southern Spain that turned “grabbing a quick bite” into an all-night adventure, to the bluntness in conversation that led to many an American girl crying over a senora’s sharp comment about a wrinkled dress. With my “family,” the Spanish customs just seemed to make sense.

As I grew more comfortable with the Rodriguez family, I began asking them about the dictatorship of Generalissimo Francisco Franco I had been studying in my Spanish politics class. As a History Major with a focus in Human Rights, I knew of Franco, but my knowledge was quite basic, and largely negative. My professor clearly was no Franco lover and this only reinforced my perceptions of him as the “bad guy” of Spanish history. One night I asked my host father, Luis, some general question about the dictatorship. As a diehard Republican (anti-Franco), Luis began regaling me of tales of his college experience, the oppression of media censorship and the growing protests against Franco in the early 1970s. He also told me about the years following the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) during which the Spanish people faced starvation and extreme violence at the hands of Franco’s men. Now, my mind was made up that Francisco Franco was a violent and oppressive ruler who felt pleasure in watching his people suffer.

At this point, my host mom, Rosa had to interject. Rosa’s family was conservative and she had always seen Franco quite differently. While she did not agree with all of Franco’s choices, her family did well under Franco. She emphasized that, during the Civil War, the Republican side had behaved no better than Franco’s Nationalists. The Republicans murdered priests to protest the control of the Catholic Church and killed during the war, just as Nationalists did. Although Rosa experienced some food scarcity, she lived on a large orange plantation and everything her family needed to survive grew on their land. The biggest shortage she remembers was of fish, not very surprising as she lived outside of Cordoba, a town located far from the sea.

During my conversation, Rosa described how it was common practice for families to send their young daughters away to work on large plantations to work as servants. Rosa’s own family took in a few girls in this type of situation. Such girls did not receive payment, only food to eat and a place to sleep. This arrangement benefitted hungry families who found themselves desperate to get rid of extra mouths when there was not enough to go around. Rosa said that the girls who worked in her house, helping with daily chores and even certain chores in the field, always were treated well and found the situation quite comfortable. Rumors swirled, however, about other girls who faced terrible conditions and even sexual violence. Because their families could not feed them, these girls had no freedom of movement. Even if plantation owners allowed them to leave, they could be leaving a hard life for a life of starvation.  As I listened to Rosa’s story, I could not help but think of one word: slavery. This situation was a form of slavery passed off as helping out children who would otherwise starve. The economic conditions were hard, certainly, but so was the inescapable life of the children of this generation. It is hard to say how often this occurred—there is no documented evidence of it—but after hearing Rosa mention it and Luis’ nods of agreement about the horrid conditions faced by these girls,  I knew there was more to the Franco era than a censored press and a depressed economy.

Although Rosa was by no means a huge supporter of Generalissimo Franco, I was still surprised to learn that anyone was supportive of him. My surprise continued as a talked over the matter with a group of 20-something Spaniards. Maybe I expected young people to be more inclined towards ideas of “limitless freedom” and liberal social beliefs, but I was certainly surprised when one of my friends started preaching on the evils of the Republicans during the Civil War. He scoffed at my misinformed view that everyone had just come to accept Franco as an evil dictator. I knew that something was going on here and I had a lot more questions than answers. My class at the Universidad de Sevilla covered the major political issues of the Franco period and treated the introduction of democracy in the 1970’s as a breath of life being given to Spain. In the political world, there seemed to be an agreement that Franco was the past and democracy was the future. On an individual basis, however, many would have had me believe that the economic crisis of the 1980’s and the crisis occurring today have a much darker cloud surrounding them than the dictatorship of Franco.

At this point I decided I needed to know more. Why did some speak of the dictatorship with a shiver or even refuse to speak of it at all, while others tried to blame the horror stories on exaggeration and bitterness? I was determined to talk to people about their personal experiences. After returning back to school in California in January, I immediately began looking for any opportunity to return to Spain and find out more. The Claremont McKenna History Department and the CMC Center for Human Rights Leadership came to my aid and awarded me a grant to return to southern Spain for the summer in order to conduct my research. I owe both a huge amount of gratitude as I had no previous interviewing skills and my only direction was my passionate belief that there was an ignored story out there and I wanted to find out what was missing from the accounts of the postwar I had read.

A short 5 months later, my train pulled up to Santa Justa station in Seville and I moved back into my homestay apartment, sleeping in the same room I had lived in months earlier. My plans went off without a hitch: I spent the month of June in Seville’s oppressive heat conducting as many interviews as possible and brushing up on my Spanish. In July, I followed my host family to Sanlúcar de Barrameda, a quaint and historic beach town a bit over an hour’s drive from Seville. Here I could talk to people with a different perspective. In Seville I talked to mostly people who had lived in the city all their lives. In Sanlúcar, the presence of agricultural laborers and fishermen presented a very different perspective on the postwar period. When I arrived in Spain, I thought I was going to focus on the story of the servant girls that Rosa had shared with me. Yet I realized that the people I was talking to had extremely interesting stories to tell about the more common experiences of life under Franco. Whereas the story of girls working for nothing in questionable conditions appeared to be a sad but relatively rare occurrence, talking to the residents of Sanlúcar made me realize that the residents of this small town experienced horrid displays of violence, faced starvation due to government rationing, and became extremely isolated from Seville and other cities even though the distance today seems so short.

Many of my interviews became extremely emotional. The image of the strong veterinarian, Eusebio, breaking down in tears will stay with me forever. Halfway through my interview with homemaker, Loli, she began talking about her family and how she now felt that they had abandoned her by sending her to a nursing home. Although this aspect of her life did not relate to my project, I saw her openness with me as a sign of trust. As she cried about how lonely she was living in such a sterile and restricted environment, my heart sank and I realized the full significance of my project. I was giving people a chance to share stories from their lives that a lot of them had never been asked about. When I talked to Juan Romero, he began by telling me he had never been taught to read or write. He eventually taught himself how to read, but even as an elderly man he had not yet learned to write. He told me how grateful he was to have a chance to record his story as he had no other means of communicating with a wider audience. I asked him about his huge collection of books as I interviewed him in his living room that doubled as a library. In his old age, he became a collector of books, especially history books. He had always dreamed of writing about his life, especially about the atrocities of Franco’s dictatorship that he witnessed in his teens and early twenties, but he was held back by the fact that the postwar had restricted his access to education. I asked him a total of two questions: when were you born and what was your profession during the dictatorship. He proceeded to speak for more than 90 minutes.

With the people I interviewed, the fact that I lived with a family of Spaniards probably helped give me some credibility, as did my clear love for the Spanish way of life. As an American girl in her early twenties, I was impressed with how many people were so quick to share such personal stories without taking much time to build rapport. In many cases, I felt like the dynamic became one of student and lecturer. There was often the feeling that the person I was interviewing wanted me, as a foreigner, to truly understand the environment and all of the different aspects of life during the dictatorship. Sometimes I only asked half of my questions because my interviewee was so interested in covering all the bases of life in Francoist Spain.

My research shares some of the stories of the Spaniards I met during the summer of 2012. The interviews yielded a clear pattern, especially a difference between the lives of Seville residents and the people of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. They also  revealed a definite class distinction between the two groups, but also a difference in the impact of the dictatorship on the lives of individuals.

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