Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Prison Food, Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Spanish Stories

Back in the day, we had big hair and Bûche de Noël, not AP European History.
I would describe my formal education about European History as scattered. My formal education about Spanish history, in particular, as non-existent.


In middle school, we studied the feudal system in Mr. Taylor's class.  I remember dressing up as a trades-person for our staging of a medieval European marketplace.   Lessons about US history inevitably included some discussion of the Europeans, mostly about the big wins in 1776 and 1945. Friday in French class was "culture" day.  Madame Gabel would put masking tape on the TV screen to block out the subtitles on a French film.  We baked  Bûche de Noël and learned about Paris' arrondissements.  That's about it.  I believe I would have actually had a whole trimester in European history during my junior year if my parents hadn't decided to move us out to California that fall.  Oops.


The latest addition to my spotty knowledge of Spanish history comes from reading, "Prison of Women:  Testimonies of War and Resistance in Spain, 1939-1975."  The book is a collection of oral histories, gathered by Tomas Cuevas, who was herself a member of the Communist party during and after the Civil War and was incarcerated for many years for this resistance to Facism.  The stories were translated into English by Mary E. Giles who was, at the time, a Professor of Humanities at Cal State Sacramento.


I originally picked up the book because of my interest in women's experience of incarceration.  The conditions for these political prisoners were, as you might expect, dismal.  For food, they relied primarily on packages from family and friends on the outside. There was a lot of hunger and actual starvation.(N.B. Today, US prisoners are prohibited from receiving any food packages from the outside, for fear of contraband, but this system of BYOF is typical in most developing nations.)  


"When someone was about to eat an orange, seven or eight women would keep the rind to eat later; other times she gave it away.  If she secretly threw it away, someone was always there to retrieve it form the garbage." (p. 88)


Women recount the measly portions of stale bread and hot water that they received from the prison and their hunger before and after incarceration, as their political histories made it hard for them to find work upon release.  However, the problems of poor nutrition pale in comparison to their stories of torture.  Beaten beyond recognition, electrocuted, teeth kicked out - food was often the least of their worries. Many political prisoners were executed.


As usual, I started looking for women's stories about prison foodways and ended up learning a whole lot more.  The central word to these stories is, indeed, resistance.  After the war, folks who had supported the defeated Republican forces were rounded up, incarcerated, tortured, killed. When these women were released after years of prison, you'd think they might just stick to their housekeeping jobs and call it a day.  But no. The pull to the party was strong.  In a matter of months, they were transporting suitcases full of arms, running food and supplies up to guerrillas in the mountains, taking letters back and forth from France.  Eventually, they would be spotted by the Guardia Civil or reported by a neighbor and go back for another round of orange rinds and torture.


Having never studied Spanish history, it might make sense that these stories are all new to me.  But what about the fact that I have been married to Spaniard for 20 years, lived in the country for three years and traveled extensively around the penisula?  Everywhere you look in Spain, there are stories of medieval times and colonial adventures. But memory and discussion of the Civil War and the years of Facism that followed seem muffled. How and where are these stories being told? Surely there are monuments to fallen heroes on both sides, but I have not seen them. Talking about the Franco years still seems dangerous and impolite. Are the stories still too fresh and too painful to tell?  


The Germans are famous for their diligent and thorough efforts to bring their WWII stories to light. Their commitment to Never Again is realized through monuments, museums and other forms of public storytelling. On the surface, public monuments, reconciliation and remembrance of modern Spanish history seem scarce in Madrid, and even Barcelona.  However, reading this book made me realize how alive this story continues to be.  It's not for nothing that every single sign in Barcelona is printed in both Castellano and Catalan.  The rivalry between soccer teams Real Madrid and Barcelona is so fierce that fans from the opposing teams are provided police protection during away games.  Distrust for government runs deep.  There may not be a lot of statues, but in many ways the entire Spanish State and civil society is built around the memory of women getting their teeth kicked out in the Ventas prison.  Still, it seems a plaque or two wouldn't hurt...


A final note to my reflections:  walking Javier to the bus stop today, I noticed a new wall of graffiti.  To see this message here, in Galicia, in 2011, is remarkable.  What does it mean? An unhealed wound, a story still under construction, a bored teenager looking for a fight?