I was born in a women’s prison, and both my mother and grandmother were imprisoned for political agitation against the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. My father was also a resistance fighter, but he was killed in battle early in the war. My mother told me that when first placed on a prison blanket, I cried, and she found out why – there were 40 bedbugs underneath me. It’s probably fortunate that I don’t remember it. My mother was falsely imprisoned; she had no desire to be a clandestine agent after my father’s death, but she was still under surveillance by the fascists. She was a fisherwoman in our small village of Santana and had four children to feed with her work. So, she went out fishing every night with my brother. One night, however, she stayed home because two of my sisters were sick. Since she therefore had no fish to sell on the Santana village market the following day, the fascists assumed that she had given her catch to a charismatic guerrilla leader named Cardoso, who was known to have fighters in the area.
She was immediately imprisoned at Santander, and her children were given to my aunt and uncle. Born later, I stayed in prison with her until I was no longer nursing, so I was a part of this much Spanish Civil War history without remembering a single event. I do remember when my mother was released and came for us, however. She told me so many stories about women prisoners like the ones we’ve heard already – the women who were tortured, the terrible conditions of the prisons, the sympathetic bonding between women and their unselfishness. She was particularly struck by the powerful mountain women from Asturia, who were some of the most courageous.
She also told me other stories about the women she had known, and some of these were unforgettable. There were women who went mad because of the arbitrary nature of their imprisonment and the poor living conditions. She described a woman named Rosa who was imprisoned for the sole reason that her son was a resistance fighter. When she and her husband had no information about his whereabouts, the fascists beat her husband to death in front of her and she was dragged away to the nearest prison, which was Santander. A year later, she received a postcard from her son, who had left the country after the war effort failed; but still, the fascists would not release Rosa. My mother was her closest friend, and one day she began to hallucinate and grabbed my mother by the throat in a powerful grip. When her sanity returned and she realized what she had done, she tried to hang herself. All the prisoners begged to have Rosa transferred to a mental hospital where a doctor could treat her, but this was never done. She ended up muttering in a corner, with no sense of the outside world. This was her fate, all for a son who was no longer a soldier or even living in Spain, Yes, I will always remember Rosa.
My mother also told me about a woman lawyer named Elena who came to the prisons in an attempt to free innocent women and get better living conditions for all. She was from a wealthy doctor’s family and had a very sharp intellect as well as great self-confidence. The men running the prison were afraid of her for many reasons, according to my mother. Her criticisms were valid; because, in fact, the prison decisions and procedures were capricious, illegal, and probably had the status of war crimes. In addition, Elena was a class above them, clearly more intelligent and truly fearless. For a time, they didn’t interfere with her work, though it was apparently difficult for them to tolerate a woman so obviously superior to them. My mother was always fascinated with her forceful voice and manner.
One day, the prisoners were told that she had committed suicide in the warden’s office by leaping out the open window and falling six stories below onto a concrete surface. No one believed it, of course, but everyone wanted to know what really happened to her. Eventually, they pieced together these facts: She was in the director’s office presenting her arguments against illegal detention and poor living conditions, and a shouting match occurred. Her body then landed on its back on the concrete, so it was obvious that she had been thrust out the window by the warden and whoever else might have been there. If she had actually tried to kill herself, her body would at least have been found face down.
It was an incredible situation, my mother and the other prisoners all thought. The fascists could apparently not tolerate the simple presence of a woman so superior to them. At any time, they could easily have imprisoned her falsely and stopped her activities. But, they were overwhelmed by the very fact of her presence there. It was ultimately, in other words, a crime of passion, but one engendered by hate, guilt and inferiority rather than love. We are very fortunate that we no longer live in such a world. Today, this woman would be a great lawyer or judge, possibly a powerful force in politics or even a Prime Minister, with a family following in her footsteps. Yet, for all her courage and brilliance, the fascists gave her a fate worse than that of the prisoners. I was most struck by this story and this woman of all I heard from my mother. Oh yes, I will always remember Elena; and as terrible as her story is, it belongs here, a truth to be told to other women. Even now, no man has ever been punished for her death.
As you can imagine, my mother, my siblings and I had enough of the resistance after what we had seen and heard. This was never the case with my grandparents and particularly my grandmother, Tomasita, who was very short and often called Pequena, though she was small only in body. In spirit and courage, they didn’t come any bigger than Pequena. Since she remained in the resistance until Franco’s death, I met her for the first time when we were both relatively old. I always knew her story, however, and it is inseparable from my mother’s story and my own, so I must tell you about her, too
Tomasita was born in Guadalajara as the middle child of six. Her family was as poor as they come. Her father had been disabled by a fall from a horse, and her mother was constantly ill from stomach and intestinal problems. Grandma virtually supported the whole family single-handedly as a child, so you can see that I do not exaggerate her stamina. As a young child, she was briefly put into a school run by nuns but, when she had to work full-time in a knitting factory as well as care for her own mother, she could not attend every day, and the nuns refused to let her continue her education.
At the knitting factory, she quickly learned the price at which the goods were sold, which was substantial, and asked for a higher wage. Immediately, she was fired and threatened by the factory owners. They said they would see to it that she never got another job, but that never stopped her. She then worked full-time in a pasta factory and mended clothing for people at night. There was only one light in her tiny house, and it was too high up to illuminate Pequena’s night work. So, she put a chair on top of the tallest table below this light and worked a good part of the night. She faced another crisis when her mother was told that she must drink milk every two hours or die from hemorrhaging of the stomach. The cost was far beyond what the family could pay, so my Grandma just took a full-time job at a dairy and provided her mother with all the free milk needed.
Grandma Tomasita could not be defeated, in other words, yet her family was so poor that she never knew toys existed and only was given candy once. The lack of a childhood, the harshness of her life and the injustice of the nuns and factory owners made her ardently wish for a better future for all mankind, and she joined the Communist Party at the age of eleven. She was arrested one night when she stopped a policeman who was beating a child by threatening to curse his mother. When her father came to the police station to get her, the officers told him that she was deeply involved in radical politics that would hurt her and that he must beat it out of her. But, he had always been very close to her; and, after they had returned home, he only asked, “Pequena, is it true?” She said it was and showed him her card. When he half-heartedly picked up a belt to beat her, she said that she would never stop her political activities. If he forbade them, she would live elsewhere and support herself alone, as they knew very well she could. “‘I love you and mother,” she said, “but I must do this for my ideals and a better world. This life is not worth living.” He said to her, “OK, Pequena, stand up for your self and for all of us. It’s true that I’ve never been able to do it myself.”
She was arrested and imprisoned when she was only fourteen years old and faced torture and its resulting damage to the spine and the kidneys. Her father died when he heard the length of her sentence, thirty-five years. She escaped at one point, however, and lived in the mountains with the guerrilla fighters. She married my grandfather and had my mother as her only child. My grandparents could not live safely outside the mountains until the death of Franco.
When I went to university, I had a long spirited talk with her, though she was on her deathbed. I told her that I wanted only to heal the sick and would prepare myself for a long career in healthcare. She said to me, “I’ve fought all my life for a cause, and only now do I see that I was fighting for you, though I didn’t know whether you would ever exist or not. Your mother and I were poor and illiterate, and now here you are, going to university to live in a world without fascism, where Spain is free, and you can choose to heal with medicine rather than firearms and resistance. My nickname has always been Pequena, the Little One, so I want you to give yourself a nickname. Call yourself Big One. Be whatever you want – a doctor, a nurse, a lawyer, a matador for all I care. Whatever you become, always remember that if I were still alive (and I won’t be), I would welcome you home with a big, big hug and call you my Big One, for all the pride I felt because of you. You are worth what the fascists did to my spine and kidneys in torture when I was so much younger than you, just a child, and that is a very big thing, remember!” She was right, and how could I ever forget it? I want you to remember, too, because her story belongs to all women. We are the lucky ones.
“Rosa, Elena, and Pequena” is an excerpt from Bev Jafek’s novel, The Sacred Beasts.