Monday, September 20, 2010

The Death of Lorca

Lorca, Solo la Muerte.

When Lorca arrived home to the Huerta on 17 July 1936, he was already distressed by the assassinations and political demonstrations that were already taking place in Madrid as the country headed for Civil War. Lorca came home not only to escape the turmoil, but also to celebrate Saint Frederick’s Day, for whom he and his father are named. But this important family holiday was overshadowed by the distressing news that his brother-in-law Montesinos had been arrested while in his office at the Civil Government and imprisoned. Over the next few days, the family huddled in terror during air raids beneath the grand piano while Lorca badgered the nanny, Angelina, about whether she would cry if he were to die. The Nationalist Movement had seized Granada.

The personal threats towards Lorca began when two strange men were seen lurking in the garden one day. Soon after, Lorca receives an anonymous letter insulting “his demagogy, his political friends, his irreligion, and his private life” and threatening him with death (83). Shortly after, strange men arrived again, this time ransacking the home and searching for the caretaker, although Lorca was also abused by these men and it is clear that they recognized him. Terrified, Lorca decided to go to stay with his friend Luis Rosales, another prominent poet and son of an important Falangist official. On August 9th, Lorca was already gone when this time men arrive asking specifically for him.

Though Lorca was by no means safe at the Rosales’ home, he kept his spirits up by telling stories and talked of writing an elegy for the dead of Spain with his friend. When weapons appeared in the house, he would ask that they were removed from the room, so distressed was he by the sight of violence. It was on the afternoon of August 16th that Ruiz Alonso, a fascist MP working for the new Civil Government arrived at the Rosales home to arrest the poet. He was shocked that a Falangist official was hiding this man who “did more damage with his pen than others with their guns,” but asserted in an interview that he knew nothing of what Valdés planned to do with Lorca, only that he wanted him alive (99). Supposedly, Lorca thanked Alonso for his kindness when he assured Lorca that he would make it safely to the Civil Government as he went “trembling with fear to the car” (100). It is still unclear whether Alonso acted alone, whether or not he carried a warrant, and how Lorca made it to the Civil Government building. Either way, he was detained there for three more days while Valdès decided what to do.

By the 16th of August when Lorca was arrested, already at least 236 people had been murdered by the firing squads that awaited prisoners at the cemetery on the edge of town. It was here that more than two thousand people were executed and buried by the Movement in Granada. Every night at the jail, a list was read of the names to be executed the next morning, when men and women were roped and wired together like animals and taken in crowded trucks to the cemetery at dawn. In the Catholic tradition, the prisoners for forced to take a last confessional, though all other niceties were dispensed with. While Spanish law requires that prisoners be blindfolded and facing the firing squad when executed, at the cemetery men were made to kneel or stand against a wall to be shot in the back. Lorca no doubt would have heard the sounds of the firing squads and the dying victims as the sun came up on Granada.

The cemetary wall where the firing sqauds made their executions.

While being held at the Civil Government, Lorca was visited each morning by Angelina who brought him food. She remembered that he sat in a room by himself with pen and paper, though he did not write. On the morning of August 19th, she discovered that Lorca was no longer there. He had already been driven that night to the Barranco mass graves outside of town towards a beautiful mountain range to a place called Fuente Grande, or "the fountain of tears" to the ancient Arabic poets. He was kept until dawn in a small bungalo with three other prisoners, where it is rumored that he kept the men’s spirits up with his talking and asked to see a priest. While it is unclear whether he was tortured or not, we do know that in the morning he was lead to the foot of the sierra where the prisoners were shot and then buried on top of each other in a shallow grave beneath an olive tree. In his death certificate, which appeared in 1940, his cause of death was listed as “war wounds” (123).

A map showing the place where Lorca was executed at the Fuente Grande outside Granada.

La Colonia, the house where Lorca was kept the night before he was killed.

It would be weeks before accurate news that the poet was dead reached the public, and still years before the Nationalists would openly accept responsibility for his murder. For the rest of Franco’s rule, Lorca’s work was censored and even as this book was written by Gibson Granada remained under heavy oppression of basic freedoms of speech. To this day there remains a “collective evasiveness and unease” surrounding the death of Lorca, for which the Nationalists have never completely faced their guilt (163).

Why was Lorca killed in this gruesome way? Why did the Movement perceive him as a threat in the first place? Firmly in favor of liberalism, democracy, and the interests of the working class, Lorca was naturally in danger when the Movement began. Not only was Lorca associated with other liberal intellectuals in Granada early in his career as a member of the “Rinconcillo” that met at the Café Almeda and had faced issues of censorship under Primo de Rivera's dictatorship, but the celebrity of his work at this point meant that his leftist politics were very well-known. Lorca’s Gypsy Ballads, published in 1928, for example, were the most widely read book in Spain at the time and clearly illustrated Lorca’s sympathies with the oppressed, persecuted peoples of Spain who suffered at the hands of the Catholic state and the dominant traditionalist classes. When Yerma appeared in Madrid, it received criticism from conservatives who said that it was “immoral” and “anti-catholic” (22). Lorca’s association with La Barraca, a state-sponsored traveling theatre, also illustrated his Socialist tendencies and interest in the theatre as a political and social tool. One of Lorca’s more explicit connections with the Left includes an interview with Lorca was published in Granada’s Leftist paper El Defensor in 1934 in which he declared that he was on the “side of those who have nothing” and felt responsibility to make sacrifices as a member of the wealthy, educated middle-class (21). By 1936 and the outbreak of the Civil War, Lorca was also participating in many anti-fascist and Republican meetings and social gatherings, making himself a conspicuous Leftist artist. He even signed multiple anti-fascist manifestos about this time. Moreover, in his last interview he described the fall of Granada to the Catholics as a “disastrous event” and nationalism as a sort of “blindfold” (43). In Granada and indeed throughout Spain there was no question of to which side of the political divide Lorca stood.

While many different explanations for why exactly Lorca was singled out and executed were proposed at the time in the press, especially rumors that the deed was retaliation for atrocities on the part of the “Reds,” Gibson asserts that the most valid explanation lies in the political agenda of Valdés and other traditionalists in power. Like the other executions carried out at the time, Lorca’s was also part of establishing a “system of terror set up for the express purpose of crushing all possible resistance…to the Movement” (125). However, it is clear that Lorca was also specifically detested by the “group of ultra-Catholic and like-minded members of the Accíon Popular” because of his politics and his sexuality and for these reasons was targeted by Alonso, Valdés, and other members of this group (127). Gibson asserts that Lorca’s homosexuality was not a secret in Granada, gleaned from his friends and the “sexual malaise” expressed in his early poems, and that he was persecuted in 1936 for this deviant sexuality that undermined conventional Spanish masculinity and morality (10). A newspaper article published after his death confirms this theory, suggesting that part of his enemy lay in his “doubtful sexuality” (138). As a very famous and popular author with liberal sympathies, Lorca was potentially a “dangerous agitator” and had to be silenced by the Movement seeking to secure its power (134).

Lorca's death certificate.

Works Cited:

Gibson, Ian. The Death of Lorca. Chicago, IL: J. Philip O’Hara, Inc. 1973. Print.

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