This past week, I was fortunate enough to join the Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica at an exhumation site. While working alongside this inspirational team, I have recognized just how versatile their skill sets are because of all of the work that is presented when considering historical memory in a country that nationally has not recognized the need for this type of effort. Therefore, this small handful of people serve as researchers, anthropologists, emotional supporters, laborers, and friends to families who continue searching for their lost loved ones. I am continually amazed by their compassion and sympathy day in and day out as they deal with the grueling task of fighting for the preservation of memory without much outside support.
Arriving in the “town” (really, it is one street long and consists of under 150 people) of Castroncelos in Galicia, we drove immediately to the site at which we were planning to exhume two brothers who were executed in 1936. The team had already made three trips to this site – one to survey the land, another to originally attempt to exhume these two brothers but instead exhumed two other bodies of other victims of Franquismo, and a third to re-survey the land to try and excavate the original victims. This case presented to be difficult in that the available records indicted that the bodies were buried four meters from the Northeast wall of the church on this plot of land. As I learned, it is tradition to have all churches in Spain oriented East to West, front door to back door, but in the 1960s, this church was unconventionally reoriented to face North and South. Because of this, there was confusion and controversy regarding where exactly the Northeast wall was in 1936 when the two brothers were murdered. I had the opportunity to meet the grandchildren of one of the victims we sought to return to his family, and they continually spoke of the esperanza y fe (hope and faith) of preserving this memory. I was moved all day by their courage and strength to pursue the memory of a family member they had never had the chance to meet.
We spent the morning portion of the exhumation digging up what ended being the Southeast side of the old church, meaning no results were produced. Throughout the morning, we were lucky enough to secure a donated bulldozer and certified operator to quicken the pace of the dig, but it also took much physical labor of the volunteers to search for remnants of bones and other human parts. Along with a few volunteers to help with the physical portions of the day, two major press companies came to cover the story for upcoming documentaries. One, La sexta, is a popular Spanish television station running a series entitled Dónde estabas entonces, asking Spaniards where they were in prior years of important events happening in Spain. The other, HBO Vice, is working on a documentary on Spanish historical memory because of the current Valle de los Caídos controversy (see my take in my prior post). It was a frustrating morning filled with much disappointment, but we broke for lunch to refocus ourselves for the afternoon portion of the dig.
In the afternoon, we regained our strength to continuing trying to return the remains of these victims to their loved ones. The sun was blazing as we continued to dig four meters out and around two meters deep from the predicted walls of the old church. When we dug deeply enough, we uncovered some ancient foundation of what we assumed to be the corner of the old church, making our work in locating the victims much easier. We felt a sense of renewed hope when we found the dental framework of one of the victims followed by a large number of bones scattered throughout the unburied portion. Sadly, however, we reached the walls of the current, reoriented church at about three meters from the foundation of the old church that we have found. We attempted to dig a bit into the current church to see if we could find any burial structure, but because of the unsecure material used to build the new church, we were not authorized to continue this project.
It was certainly an emotional day for the family who came but also for everyone who dedicated their time and effort to preserving the memory of these brothers. We can say with almost certainty that the graves of the brothers lay somewhere under the foundations of the new church, but at this current moment, we cannot do more to remove the remains of the brothers from their current situation of an improper burial. The grandchildren of these victims were extremely grateful at the work of all involved to attempt to place these remains at peace once and for all. As this summer research experience comes to an end, I, too, realized how grateful I was for the chance to witness this impactful project. I look forward to carrying this experience and all of the experiences I was fortunate enough to have with me as I continue to dedicate my efforts to preserving memory at all costs.