by Andy Cacho
My grandmother lives in the Philippines. She does not come to the United States often, so I never got to hear some of the great stories all of my cousins and my mom talk about. So when I asked my mom if she knew any witnesses to a war or genocide, I was surprised to hear that my grandma had gone through such an atrocity. She was a teenager during the war. My mom told me, “She has told me this story before. If I remember correctly, the food she had to eat was so rotten, there were maggots crawling inside of it. You will have to ask her when we call her.”
Some background about the Spanish Civil war: The two main groups who were fighting were the Republicans and the Nationalists. The Republicans were composed of left leaning, moderate capitalist people to anarchists who hated the other left leaning people, but fought against the other group anyway. The Nationalists were Fascists. The fighting went on with minimal support for the Republicans, but lots of support from countries like Germany for the Nationalists. In fact, many countries like the US and Great Britain signed treaties that stopped them from intervening. In the end, due to more resources and help, the Fascists won, putting in place one of the most oppressive governments ever. It was so bad that if a soldier heard someone speaking in Catalan (the other main language of Spain), that person would be enslaved or killed. The new government wanted complete unity and order in the country, and did anything they could to achieve this.
My grandmother speaks English, but my mom and I felt that it would be better to have her talk in Spanish because she could get her ideas across more clearly. My mom translated what she said to me so I could type it up. My mom was there the whole time helping me with this. My grandmother and I usually have phone conversations every couple weeks or so, so after we were done chatting like usual, I asked her if I could interview her. I was in my parents’ bedroom with my mom, my brother, and my dog. During the whole interview, my brother and my dog were playing around on the bed. My mom had to “Shhh!” them a couple of times so we could understand my grandma. My grandma was excited and told her story in great detail. I call her Abu which is short for Abuela (grandmother in Spanish).
I first asked her, “Abu, can you describe your day to day routine during the Civil War?”
She paused for a moment and explained, “So there was a shortage of food so we had to go to distribution centers where you had to form lines and stand for hours on end.”
In the background, I could hear her sister, Quina, yelling at my grandma about more information to tell me. After listening to her sister, Abu said, “Ah, yes, Quina. Sometimes, after waiting so long, food would run out right before your turn came up, and we would have to rush to another food line and start the wait all over again. The people in line would usually patiently wait until someone would inevitably try to cut it and fights would ensue. We did this day after day. You have to realize that in 1936 at the start of the war, I was only fourteen years old, and your Aunt was thirteen.” I thought it was crazy about how young they were going through such a horrible situation. I couldn’t imagine having to go through this when I am 30 let alone 14.
Compared to what she had to do when she was fourteen, I am thankful that I only had to worry about my little league baseball the next day.
She continued, “We were so malnourished your Aunt Quina developed a terrible condition in her mouth that gave her painful sores, and she was issued a certificate to get two litres of milk to help alleviate her problem. Our diet consisted of potato and vegetable skins and garbanzo beans infested with larvae that would turn the beans black. If you tried to remove the bugs, the garbanzos would fall apart, so we would have to eat them as is. It was awful.” I shuddered when I heard her say that. I looked at my mom who was next to me and her eyes said it all. I could tell that her skin was crawling, and even though she had heard this story before, she was absolutely disgusted.
Abu explained, “There was no hot water, only cold water. We would have to bathe and brush our teeth with laundry soap. We had ulcers in our legs from the cold as we had no heat or warm winter clothes. Our father would take our coats and exchange them in the villages for rice, oil, and beans. He had a wife and two daughters to take care of, so he did what he could to get necessities.”
“Did you have to relocate?” I asked.
“Yes, we did. There was no shooting in the streets, but certain areas would be targeted by the Nationalists. Eventually we had to be evacuated from our home at a certain point as the fighting got worse and moved to a safe zone where bombing was not allowed. My family moved in with another family upon the recommendation of family friends we had in common,” she told me.
“What did you take with you?” I inquired.
“We had to leave our house quickly. We were only able to take the clothes on our back and not much else. From our apartment, we were able to save our mattresses, dining set and an armoire, which were stored in a separate place. Our home was eventually hit by a rocket and destroyed. Everything was gone,” she said. I could hear the emotion in her voice when she was recounting the story to me, how one day they’re living in their house, the next day it gets hit by a rocket, everything is gone. I can’t imagine that pain of losing everything, but also the relief they felt that they were not in the house.
I next asked, “What do you remember most from your experience?”
“The most vivid thing I remember: the pit in my stomach from being hungry all the time and the cold, the terrible cold we had to endure in the winter. There was also an element of fear. Neighbors would turn you in for no reason and accuse people of being rebels. Men would literally be taken away at night to a place known as ‘La Checa del Cine Europa’ never to return.” She paused for a moment because I could hear her becoming emotional. She continued, “One day my father was captured and taken to that place. As luck would have it, a man of influence must have recognized my father from the neighborhood grocery store that he owned and knew he did not belong there, whisked him away from the line, effectively saving his life. Don’t know how we would have survived without our father. We thank God every day for that man and what he did. He must have been an angel, as we never could figure out who he was to this day.” I couldn’t imagine the thought of possibly losing my father forever, especially if he is the one keeping me alive. In her situation, if her father got taken away forever, her family would have no way of getting the essentials they needed.
My follow up question was, “How did what you witnessed affect or change you?”
She took a minute to ponder and told me, “We did what we had to do to survive. We were young and hopeful and made the best of a bad situation. We had many friends our age and made a game out of running from one line to another. We were out of school for three years, and we had nothing except each other, so we made do and kept ourselves busy surviving. We may have lost everything, but we were alive and full of hope. Perhaps being young was an asset as we were oblivious to many things happening around us and were just happy to be alive.
“It scarred us physically and psychologically. Being hungry was so tough. When you are starving anything tastes better than nothing and could spell the difference between life and death. My sister and I find it hard to leave food on our plate to this day. We polish our food and never leave a morsel. We serve ourselves a little at a time and prefer to go back for seconds rather than have leftovers. It is not in us to waste as we know what it feels like to be hungry.
“When school once again resumed, we poured ourselves into our books and were eager to learn after so many years of disruption to our education. We are both into our nineties, but we never stop learning and we still read a lot. I guess we are still making up for lost time.”
I was amazed at her positive outlook to such a horrible situation. Even up until now, she remembers the good things that happened during the war. Usually, the good things blur away and only the painful ones stay behind.
My last question was, “What do you hope people learn from your story?”
“People should learn to be grateful for what they have and learn to appreciate life and all it has to offer, i.e. family, health, friends, freedom. When what you have is taken away, be adaptable and learn to live with less. We did it. We are stronger, resilient, and are truly survivors….Look, I’m still alive at 93!” she said, laughing.
I am very happy I got to interview my grandma about this tough topic. There were many scars left over from the war, but she found a way to make it somewhat positive. This story is so important to tell because there are not many people left in this world who went through the Spanish Civil War. It happened almost 80 years ago. Even though she didn’t see any actual combat, there were still hardships that she had to face ,especially being a bystander to such a gruesome war. People don’t realize that the lives of the civilians in nations that are going through war feel it as much as the soldiers do. My grandmother learned things that she will never give up, and this experience that she went through changed her life forever.