Tales of Extremadura is a collection of Extremaduran tales which, although I have written them myself, are based on existing stories and legends. I was inspired to take on this project by a recent visit to Granada and Washington Irving's Tales of the Alhambra.
I've been living in Extremadura for 17 years now, 13 in Badajoz. I like Extremadura and I like Badajoz. It's very different from so many other parts of Spain in so many ways. This morning is the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Badajoz and subsequent massacre of 4000 people at the hands of the “Army of Africa” (Franco's Moors), Legionnaires and Nationalist phalanxist rebels, yet there's no indication of this anniversary anywhere…
In any other city throughout Spain there'd be plaques, the occasional monument, streets named “14 de agosto” or something like that, they'd even have their own legends about the ghost of a militiaman or the story the merciful fascist who took pity on a republican and helped him escape somewhere…
But Extremadura is different; they keep themselves to themselves. They say that Extremadura is “the great unknown” and that they “don't know how to sell” their rich heritage and history. Maybe that's what I like about Extremadurans; their unwillingness to turn anything historic or cultural into a tourist attraction, to give it any unnecessary, albeit deserved, attention… or maybe they just don't give a damn.
I went out for a walk this morning. Starting at my appartment in Santa Ana square my first stop was the headquarters of UGT (Union General de Trabajadores- General Union of Workers, a major Spanish trade union historically affiliated with the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party). It's closed. So is the republican headquarters of Izquierda Unida, although it still boasts a republican flag which limply hangs from the front façade.
I make my way to San Francisco square. Many acts take place here; concerts, activities, meetings and speeches. There are several dozen people here, but they just seem to be out for a sunday morning stroll. I anxiously approach an old lady (maybe 60 years old) sitting on a bench talking to whom I assume is her mother. They must know something:
“Son ustedes de aquí?”
“Me estaba preguntando si saben si hay algún acto… por el aniversario…”
Suddenly I get the feeling that I'm prying; sticking my nose in something that does not concern me. Maybe this woman is the daughter of some fascist pig, maybe they're all that's left of some left-wing communist family that was wiped out 75 years ago.
“No, no lo sé”
I get the feeling I am not wanted. Like I'm opening old wounds… that's what the right wing people's party says to justify not talking about the past… not talking about their past. I thank the lady for attending me, and continue. I walk in front of the theatre that was bombed to the ground 75 years ago supposedly because a group of “commies” had sought refuge there. It's really pretty now, fronted by a lovely pedestrian area with benches and flowers and fountains… the Town Hall had been working on the area all the way up to the recent municipal elections. Very convenient.
I continue through “Ronda del Pilar” and over to the Palacio de Congresos de Manuel Rojas… the “pièce de resistance” of my morning stroll, which is a terrible hyperbole considering how this whole adventure is spanning out. The Palacio de Congresos is a magnificent work of architecture. It was built over the old bullring, which is where most of the killings took place. And it's probably the only homage Badajoz has ever paid to the victims of the massacre within the city without actually saying so out loud.
It's a pity that everyone's attention was centred on the petty arguing between the socialists and the people's party over the palace's name1).
Nobody's here. People stride by from time to time and take a quick glance at the building only to carry on as if they had a purpose… as if they had something more important to do on a Sunday morning. A few venture to cross the road to get a better look at it, but nobody stays long.
From there I adventurously decide to move on to the Plaza de España and to the cathedral. As I walk up the calle Zurbarán, known as the “calle de la sangre” because the blood from the shootings was said to trickle down the street, I hear the far off notes of a solitary trumpet… was that the himno de riego? As I get closer I hear a drum accompanying it… a band maybe?
No. It's some wierd samba-flamenco fusion music coming from the bar La Ria… God I'm so naive!!! Two kids are playing soccer in the square, kicking the ball against the wall of the cathedral as if they were playing that old “rebound against the wall” game. I used to play that game a lot when I was a kid… of course, I never played it against the wall of a cathedral (great, now I sound like an old fuddy-duddy).
I pass the cathedral and the Town Hall. British Pathé has video footage of soldiers of the rebel nationalist army celebrating their victory in this same square. From here I go straight for the calle San Juan. Once Badajoz was taken the surviving republican soldiers fled through this street with the intention of making it to the old Alcazaba where they could form a barricade and maybe hold out for a while longer. They were cut off by Moors who entered Badajoz through the Trinidad Gate and were executed. Some of them made it to the Torre Espantaperros (I love that name: “the dog scarer”) but they were smoked out.
“Do you know if there are any celebrations to commemorate the anniversary?”
“Not that I know of, no”
“What about tomorrow's ceremony at the cemetery?”
“Not that I know of, no”
UGT and PSOE have been organising this ceremony every year since 1977. And yet in the tourist information office they know nothing. That's the authentic Extremadura… at least they didn't ask me “what anniversary?”. I ask him about a flamenco show organised by the Town Hall. It's programmed to take place on the first Friday of February, April, May, October and November. So the next show is not for another 7 weeks.
“Yes, but that's on Thursdays” comes the answer.
Once I'm in the plaza Alta the tour is pretty much over. I take a long look around the square, so beautifully restored. The 9th century walls of the Alcazaba, the arabic arches of the Casas Consistoriales… but none of this has anything to do with the civil war or the massacre of Badajoz, I trudge back home not without looking up to the Giraldilla, an exact replica of the Giralda in Seville. It was built in 1935… I wonder how the hell it survived the Battle of Badajoz.
I know about the homage paid to the victims of the massacre of Badajoz because they've been doing it every year since 1977. The press doesn't usually give the ceremony much more publicity than a few hundred words in the daily newspaper.
As I approach the cemetery I'm welcomed by the phrase “MURO DE LA DES-MEMORIA” (wall of dis-memory) painted in enormous letters on the exterior wall. A lot of republicans were executed here too, but the bullet-scarred wall was recently restored and any sign that history had been made at this place has been erased.
As I walk through the cemetery to the monument built in memory of the victims I recognise the characteristic niches from old photographs. It's beautiful; the tombs are not as magnificent as those you can see in the cemetery of Mérida, and there are quite a lot of graves without names, just a lump of whitewashed cement… no name, in some cases not even a reference number.
The notes of a violin duet ('El cant dels Ocells', by Pau Casals) indicate the direction to take. When I arrive nobody pays any attention to me, and that's not usual because I'm big, strapping and blond, I kind of stand out in a crowd. The ceremony itself is simple and short. There are maybe no more than 200 people there, most huddling in small groups under the shade of the trees. Only a dozen people are brave enough to bear the brunt of the scorching sun; four men who hold the republican flag, the representatives of the regional political parties (all left wing, and most notably the socialist party- PSOE) which are organizing the event, and an entourage of journalists.
When the speech begins, the ceremony becomes excessively politicised. Names are bounced around, historians quoted… the denial of the massacre made by “certain groups” (no names are mentioned) is rebuked, and suddenly the whole thing is over; a timid applause is followed by a “VIVA LA REPÚBLICA!” which only a few people answer to, and the crowd disperses.