Here’s the thing: a choir of children still sings every morning at eleven inside the basilica where Franco is buried. Spain’s former dictator is buried inside inside a cathedral built into a mountain by thousands of Republican prisoners after the war. A five hundred foot cross tops this monument.
During a summer study abroad course I was teaching, Spain’s Civil War in Literature and Film, I visited the Franco’s tomb, the Valley of the Fallen, for the first time. I stood on his tomb, six to eight of my students around me. The guide, a Spaniard and close friend of mine, spoke of forgiveness and closing this chapter from the past. I spoke of remembering the past in order to never forget. A priest who was not part of our group listened. Then the guide told us that a choir of children – there is a choir arts boarding school for boys located in an underground monastery below the basilica itself – sings daily as part of the worship service. Chills shot down my spine.
Without touching on the history of the ideological shaping of youth through intense educational propaganda under Franco’s totalitarian regime, the lives of youth were forever terminated or changed by war and this damage continued as Franco waged a war against his own civilians after 1939. The historian, Helen Graham, makes this point well. The displacement and death of minors was massive during Franco’s thirty-six year rule especially in the decade following Spain’s Civil War. Graham, estimates that 120,000 civilians were executed after 1939. According to Graham up to a million men, women and children spent time in a jail, reformatory or concentration camp. Mass imprisonment and executions included minors (see the film, Thirteen Roses); the children and teens that survived lived in orphanages or in traumatized, fragmented families.
Juveniles had already suffered the war itself: Verónica Sierra Blass estimates that 400,000 children were killed during the conflict, and that by 193, 50,000 minors lived in refugee centers across the country and 30,000 children had been sent as refugees to foreign countries.
So here’s the thing: children’s voices should not tell the official story. Children should not protagonize a sanitized version of history in which the winners still tell the past.
Remarkably, boy and girl characters do populate quite a few movies about Spain’s Civil War and its aftermath. Many of these films belong to the horror genre. Why?
Silence about what was really happening or what happened marked the dictatorship; silence persisted under the 1977 Law of Amnesty which barred prosecution of war criminals. Spaniards call this amnesty the pact of forgetting. I would not call it amnesia, precisely, but Spanish society did not break the silence until around 2000.
In roughly twelve films juvenile protagonists elude silence to tell the truth of their own story. This humane vision of the past events is possible because children do not cling to ideological divisions. They present the truth of their experience without ideological bias. Yes, these movies are fictional accounts of the past but they are just as worthy of consideration as the official story in my view.
The 2007 Law of Historical Memory bans political exaltation of any kind at the Valley of the Fallen; instead, the law calls for exaltation of peace. But the children are still singing. Is this not a daily retelling of the official story?