Spain: Searching for Garcia Lorca

Will finding controversial poet’s final resting place help Spain reconcile with its tragic past?

A statue tribute to Federico Garcia Lorca at Plaza de Santa Ana square in Madrid [Getty]
A statue in tribute to Federico Garcia Lorca at Plaza de Santa Ana square in Madrid [Getty]

On Tuesday, King Felipe VI of Spain addressed the United Nations General Assembly. The young monarch referred to the political deadlock and economic situation in Spain, and called on Spanish politicians to “protect and improve the welfare state”, and assist those “affected” by the recession.

He even managed to call for a negotiated handover of Gibraltar to Spain. Not mentioned in his address, however, was the political conflict surrounding the memory of the Spanish civil war, the renewed efforts to find the remains of poet Federico Garcia Lorca, one of Franco’s most famous victims, and the role of the UN in the process.

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On August 18, 1936, the Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, was executed by forces loyal to General Francisco Franco, at the start of a three-year civil war that left 200,000 dead.

The Granada-born poet had gained notoriety for his 1928 book of poems, Romancero Gitano (Gypsy Ballads), and his 1933 play Bodas de Sangre (Blood Wedding), but was also known for his leftist and anti-fascist views.

Taboo subject

He was shot dead by a death squad at the age of 38, and buried in an unmarked grave at the edge of an olive grove. Where he was buried has long been a mystery, if not a taboo subject.

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Under Franco’s rule (1939-1975), Lorca’s ideas and death were not publicly discussed, and only redacted versions of his books were available. As Spain moved to democracy, Lorca rose to the fore again, his writings finding a new generation of readers.

Workers at the place were Federico Garcia Lorca's remains are believed to be as the search of his body starts in Granada, Spain [EPA]
Workers at the place were Federico Garcia Lorca’s remains are believed to be as the search of his body starts in Granada, Spain [EPA]

During the past seven years, several attempts have been made to locate the poet’s grave. Earlier this week archaelogists began excavating at a site just outside the town of Alfacar, on a hilltop facing Granada, hoping to find Lorca’s resting place. The archeologists have been following leads provided by historians.

In 2009, Ian Gibson, Lorca’s biographer, had identified a spot in Alfacar after interviewing a man who claimed to have buried the poet. The excavation ended unsuccessfully.

In 2012, it was historian Miguel Caballero who after consulting local police archives, suggested that the burial place was about half a kilometre away from the first site. This latest excavation is based on Caballero’s belief that Lorca’s body was thrown into a now-sealed well a few metres away.

The logistical difficulties are compounded by the political situation in Spain.

In 1977, two years after Franco’s death, Spain’s main political parties negotiated an amnesty law called the Pacto del Olvido (the Pact of Forgetting), with parliament passing an amnesty law making it almost impossible to prosecute the human rights abuses of the old regime.

The Granada-born poet had gained notoriety for his 1928 book of poems, Romancero Gitano (Gypsy Ballads), and his 1933 play Bodas de Sangre (Blood Wedding), but was also known for his leftist and anti-fascist views.


Historical memory

The pact also included a provision of “desmemoria” (disremembering), meaning the government would not stir up memories of the civil war, whether through a truth and reconciliation commission or through commemorative events. 

In the past decade, however, a number of “historical memory” groups have appeared, led by the descendants of Republicans and leftists who were murdered, and calling for an exhumation of mass graves and a public discussion of the civil war.

Jose Maria Aznar, of the Popular Party, who was prime minister from 1996 to 2004 was opposed to these demands – both his father and grandfather had served under Franco.

His socialist successor Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero passed the Law of Historical Memory in 2007 that required the removal of Francoist symbols from public places, and called for state funding for the exhumation of mass graves.

The historical memory law provided four years of state support, helping organisations such as the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory locate 5,400 bodies and undertake DNA testing of remains.

Yet lots of mass graves and tens of thousands of bodies remain unexhumed, and that is because when the conservative Mariano Rajoy came to power in 2011 following a landslide victory, the funding was stopped.

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In his campaign, Rajoy had made clear his opposition to the memory law, saying it simply polarised Spain further, and promised that if elected: “I would eliminate all the articles in the historical memory law that mention using public funds to recover the past. I wouldn’t give even a single euro of public funds for that.” 


Relatives of the disappeared

To fund excavations, the memory groups began appealing for assistance from regional institutions and via crowd-sourcing on the internet.

In September 2014, Spanish memory activists received an unexpected boost from the United Nations, when a UN working group on forced disappearances visited Spain, and issued a report with 42 recommendations – among them the abrogation of 1977 amnesty law – and demanded that the Spanish government take action to ensure that relatives of the disappeared receive state support in locating the remains of the individuals murdered during the civil war or during the dictatorship.

Yet the process has remained stalled, a reflection of Spain’s political deadlock. Since January, Spain has had an interim government led by Rajoy, with party leaders unable to form a majority in parliament.

The memory activists have received some support in Catalonia, the Basque Country and Andalusia, especially in cities where socialists and the left-wing movement Podemos are in power. In the Navarre capital, Pamplona, for instance, the city council run by a coalition of Podemos and Basque Independents recently decided to remove the remains of two Francoist generals from the city’s Monument to the Fallen, in accordance with the Law of Historical Memory.

This third attempt to find Lorca, say activists, is supported by a recent anonymous donation. And much rests on this undertaking. Many believe that finding the final resting place of Lorca, a voice of pluralism and tolerance, can help reconcile Spain with its tragic past.

“If [Lorca] is there, we will find him,” declared Javier Navarro, the archaeologist leading the excavation in Alfacar.

Hisham Aidi is a Harlem-based writer. He teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.