Displaced Children and Stolen Babies in Contemporary Spain

This post was contributed by Dr Diana Marre, visiting research fellow at the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research (BISR). Here, Dr Marre gives an insight into her BISR Event on 29 June 2016: “Displaced Children and Stolen Babies in Contemporary Spain”

ConcentracionOn 16 June, ten days before the forthcoming Spanish presidential election, several organisations that represent children and babies who were victims of enforced disappearances in Spain between the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the 1990s, called for a public protest in Madrid using the slogan ‘Stop Francoist impunity’.

This call for public action is one of many that have followed the presentation of two reports to the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2014. The reports focussed on enforced or involuntary child disappearances during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), Franco’s dictatorship (1939-1975), and the transition to the restoration of democracy (1976-1990). They argued that the only efforts to investigate these enforced disappearances were by victims’ families or non-governmental organisations, and noted that not only was the state not contributing to such efforts they had in fact systematically blocked or ignored research into the disappearances. Consequently the total number who have fallen victim to these enforced disappearances remains unknown.

Both reports referred to three groups of victims. Firstly, those who are still in mass graves awaiting exhumation, which consists of around 120,000 unidentified bodies in more than 400 mass graves. Secondly, there are the ‘war children’, who were the sons and daughters of the dead, imprisoned and vanquished during the Civil War and who were either adopted or placed in orphanages or similar institutions. Due to the lack of research, there is no clear data on how many children were victims of this practice. Thirdly, the reports referred to the so-called ‘stolen babies’ of Spain. Most of these babies were born using the practice of ‘twilight birth’ between 1950 and 1990, and were declared to be stillborn or to have died immediately after birth. They were then removed from their families and adopted. These victims were the children of single, poor or illiterate women or young couples with multiple children. Again, it is difficult to know the precise number of ‘stolen babies’, but current estimates suggest there were between 200,000 and 300,000 victims.

About the event

This event will ask why, in Spain, the enforced displacement of children in the ways described above still remains unrecognized and unpunished. We will examine what is considered to be one of the biggest, long-lasting and most wide-spread abductions of underage people, loss of custody by biological families and loss of

Sign up for the FREE event here

Sign up for the FREE event here

identity in the West. As an ex judge of the Spanish National High Court has noted, these enforced disappearances were a result of a ‘peculiar Spanish form of ‘legal’ disappearance of people during the Civil War and post-war period through a pseudo-juridical system that gave ‘legal’ coverage to the systematic abduction system of children’ (Garzón 2008).

This event will examine the role of fear and public secrets – the “unknown knowns” (Simmel 1906) – to achieve the aim of “remembering to forget” (Mookherjee 2006), the objective of the post-Franco dictatorship amnesty laws (1976, 1977), often referred to as the “laws of oblivion”.

Find out more

Works Cited

  • Garzón, B. (2008), Auto, vol. 53 de 2008 E, Madrid, Administración de Justicia, Juzgado Central de Instrucción n.º 5 Audiencia Nacional.
  • Mookherjee, N. (2006), ‘Remembering to forget’: public secrecy and memory of sexual violence in the Bangladesh war of 1971, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 12, 433-450.
  • Simmel, G. (1906), The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies, American Journal of Sociology, 11(4):441-498.
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Routes and roots: a talk by Claudia Roden

This post was contributed by Rebecca Heald, a student on Birkbeck’s MSc Social and Political Theory.

I remember as a child my mother making us falafel as a treat. Whenever she did so, she would tell us the story of a couple in Cairo and how they would order falafel from the place below where they lived and hoist them up to their balcony using a pulley. At the beginning of their time living there they were young and lithe; but slowly, with the falafel and the convenience of obtaining them, they became round. I know now this story came from Claudia Roden’s legendary 1968 A Book of Middle Eastern Food.

Roden is one of Britain’s most revered cookery writers. She was born in Egypt in 1936 into the extensive Sephardic Jewish community living there until the 1956 Suez Crisis. Once propelled into exile, she began to miss the food she grew up with and set about gathering recipes. Subsequently she explored and documented a number of cuisines and she has just published her eleventh book, The Food of Spain.

As in Roden’s other work, recipes become a vehicle for history and emotion. This book, like the others, is an extremely personal offering. Experiences over the five years she spent researching the book triggered memories she didn’t know she had. Roden’s family was descended from Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492; her grandmother spoke an old Judeo-Spanish language called Ladino, and once immersed in Spain, traces of the old Muslim presence reminded her of the Arab and Jewish world she grew up in.

The starting point for her research was to ask everyone she met for their favourite recipes, what their parents and grandparents cooked, how they lived and what region they were from. Almost without exception the recipes confirmed that Spain is a country of carnivores. They also belonged to what Roden calls the “rural world”, going against the fact that now 80% of Spain’s population live in cities, not on the land, and seemingly in contrast to Spain’s now fashionable culinary avant-garde. The Catalan writer Josep Pla wrote that cooking is “the landscape in a saucepan”. For Roden, in recipes, there are also ghosts: she sees who was there before.

In the case of Spain, those who were there before include Jews, Muslims, Romans, Visigoths, French, Italians, Belgians, and Germans. In previous books Roden has used recipes to explore the differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews: history, joys and hostilities. Here in Spain, Roden finds that much of the food tells the story of population movements from north to south, coast to mountain to centre, and also, importantly for Spain, the Spanish Inquisition. Pork is shown to be a tool of the Inquisition. Putting it in everything was proof of being Christian. One never knew when the Inquisition was coming, but it seems it often came at lunchtime.

Now many regions are proudly rediscovering their past, many of those Roden meets declare they are descended from conversos. Every dish has a story, and often this is something to celebrate. Upon eating Santiago cake, made of almonds, sugar, eggs and oranges, Roden declares, that none of the ingredients are local to Galicia and it tastes like a Jewish Passover cake. Her hosts are delighted and push her onto local television to share her observation. The area has been celebrating its Jewish history for tourists and on a local farm they have been reenacting weddings complete with ceremonies under a hoopa. Roden’s culinary analysis was welcome confirmation of the fact that in Galicia there were many Jews who converted rather than leaving.

Roden herself has summarized ‘Spain’s regional dishes are memories and people want to hold on to them,’ a sentiment to which The Food of Spain bears rich and delicious testament.

This event was organised by the Birkbeck Food Group, part of the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research.

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The Food of Spain

This post was contributed by Evie, who also blogs at Saffron Strands.

It took Claudia Roden five years to research her most recent book The Food of Spain.  Sixty minutes was never going to be enough for this whistle-stop tour of the country and its cuisine.

Each visit Claudia made to Spain unearthed more food memories than she could have hoped for.  Each contact led to yet another person to meet.  She would talk food favourites, festivals and folk history in kitchens as “people open up in the kitchen, not in the living room”.  Most, be they workers or nobility, spoke of peasant cuisine being central to their food memories.

Claudia’s thesis is that Spain’s history of conquering armies meant a population on the move and tastes were, by necessity, unsophisticated. The aristocrats despised vegetables and ate meats, mostly game, though rabbits were left to the lower orders. In Bourbon and Habsburg times the Spanish nobility ate French cuisine. They followed the lead of King Philip V who employed cooks trained in the French court at Versailles. The current haute cuisine in Spain, she was assured, was a cuisine of “today”, though chefs claim to look to the roots of Spanish food for inspiration.

A quote from the Catalan writer Josep Pia “A country’s cuisine is its landscape in a cooking pot” was apt.  The diversity of the landscape of Spain has led to three styles of cooking: the sea; the plain; and, the mountains.  Claudia pointed out that, unlike Italy, dishes are not contained within regional borders.

The food of the wet, mountainous north was influenced by early French pilgrims walking the pathways of St. James, and by the maize, potatoes, beans and peppers brought back from South America by returning priests. The Visigoths introduced cider apples and pigs leading to dishes such as the Asturian roast pork with apples and cider.  The ebb and flow of religious intolerance can be seen in the foods of Jews who arrived in northern Spain to escape the rule of the Berbers in the 12-13th centuries.  To Claudia’s mind, the famous Tarta di Santiago is a good example.  In this sweet dish of almonds, eggs, sugar, butter and citrus she can see the Jewish Passover cake.

The hot, interior Plain was perfect for ranching and pastoral farming, feeding the rich on roast meats and the poor on “spoon” dishes.  After 1492, the Moriscos (Muslims forced to convert to Christianity) remained in the region until the 17th century leaving a legacy of Moorish dishes which we learnt exceeded that of Andalucia.  The fried breadcrumb dish ‘migas’, now widespread in Spain, came about when the Moors were banned from eating couscous.

The coast and Balearic Islands shared the mild climate and cuisine of other Mediterranean countries.  In Cordoba, on the Ruta de Caliphate, Claudia had enjoyed aubergine soaked in milk, floured, fried and drizzled with honey.  Having eaten a very similar dish in Morocco, it was difficult to argue its origins did not lie in Moorish rule. Later, Catalans re-populated these Arab-taken areas and brought their cuisine to the mix.

In all regions the clergy exerted a powerful influence over food.  The Catholic decree that fish be eaten on Fridays resulted in salt cod being named as the preferred fish of many Spanish people today, even those living near the sea.  Pork was a tool of the inquisition.  This can be seen in some areas of the country where the sheer number of dishes containing a little pork is a clear sign that the Inquisition was active. On Saturdays the clergy would check for smoke from the chimneys of homes to prove both Muslims and Jews were compliant in their conversions.

As in many European countries, the monasteries were famous for the quality of their cooking and in the convents pastries were baked for benefactors.  Attempting to extract recipes, Claudia was frustrated to find the convent visited was that of a ‘closed order’, with only Sister Immaculata having dispensation to speak.  This significant problem was later resolved by an unintended invitation to the Sisters to become Friends on Facebook where they happily ‘conversed’.

Claudia Roden’s talk was enjoyable if a little disjointed.  The time limit left speaker and audience a little breathless.  A bit more time and we could have benefitted much more from her learned yet engaging approach to her subject.

Talk based on The Food of Spain by Claudia Roden
Pubished by Michael Joseph

This event was organised by the Birkbeck Food Group, part of the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research.

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HOLD THE FRONT PAGE! Spanish media representations of violence against women

This post was contributed by Barbara Grut, a research student in Birkbeck’s Department of Iberian and Latin American Studies.

On Friday 2 November 2012, I attended a Centre for Iberian and Latin American Visual Studies (CILAVS) lecture given by Visiting Professor Dolors Comas d’Argemir, from the University of Tarragona, on a subject that is close to my heart: the media representation of violence against women in Spanish society.

Violence against women (and its representation in Spanish films) had been my chosen subject for my MA dissertation with Birkbeck’s Department of Iberian and Latin American Studies in 2011, and whilst I have chosen a different (and less harrowing) subject for my MPhil this year, listening to Professor Comas’ lecture in some ways felt like coming home. She made me realise how strongly I still felt about the issue – and indeed, it is difficult to remain dispassionate about the issue of gender-based violence.

I was particularly impressed not only by Professor Comas’ academic research into this field, but also by her political commitment to the issue. As a member of Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds, Dolors Comas has been both a City Councillor and a Member of the Parliament of Catalonia, and in that capacity, she has worked on various pieces of legislation to advance women’s rights. She is living proof that the old clichés about academics sitting in their ivory tower and politicians having lost touch with reality need not always be true – at least not in Catalonia!

From impunity to retribution: a long journey

In her lecture, Professor Comas gave an overview of how violence against women has been perceived by Spanish society over the course of history. For a long time, it was considered just a private issue: isolated domestic incidents between a man and his wife, behind closed doors. The male perpetrators went unpunished, and the female victims were to some extent “blamed” (she must have done something to deserve this?).

As women began to occupy positions of authority and responsibility in Spain’s post-dictatorship Transición, they started raising awareness about what were clearly not just isolated private incidents, but rather a fairly widespread societal phenomenon: the concept of “battered women” was born. Shelters were put in place. Women were identified as the victims of this phenomenon, but the perpetrators remained a nebulous entity.

However, a sea change took place around 1997, with the spine-chilling case of Ana Orantes, an ordinary housewife who appeared on television to talk about her experience of domestic violence, and who was beaten and burned alive by her husband a few days later. The brutality of the case rocked the nation, arguably because Spanish society could relate the phenomenon of violence against women to a real human being, with a name, a face, and an articulate voice – not just to a statistical figure.

In 2004, the statute books finally recognised that this was a form of violence overwhelmingly perpetrated by men against their female partners. Female victims could henceforth seek protective measures (such as restraining orders) and male perpetrators were brought to justice.

The media’s role: an ambivalent position

Having established that violence against women had become “an affair of state”, Professor Comas then went on to examine media representations of the phenomenon. She noted, first of all, an increase in the amount of reporting (all fatal incidents are now reported in the news), as well as a more informed way of representing the problem (looking not only at individual cases, but also investigating the root causes behind this societal phenomenon).

However, Professor Comas also drew the audience’s attention to some decidedly unhelpful media tactics, such as bringing victims and violent perpetrators together “for a reconciliation” on day-time chat shows (one such case in 2007 led to a young woman, Svetlana Orlova, having her throat slit by her jilted boyfriend, whose wedding ring she had refused on live television), or newspaper columnists who on occasion showed “understanding” for the formerly-humiliated-now-turned-violent boyfriend (Salvador Sostres “Un chico normal” article for El Mundo in 2011 had to be pulled, following public outrage).

With her recent experience as a member of the Audiovisual Media Council of Catalonia, Professor Comas concluded that media self-regulation had its pitfalls – an argument her audience could but agree with.

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