Last Wednesday, after almost a year of procedural hold-ups, Spain’s government began to exhume six mass graves near the Andalusian town of Alfacar. The graves hold the bodies of Spaniards killed by the dictator Gen. Francisco Franco between 1936 and 1939, during the Spanish Civil War. Two years after Franco’s death in 1977, the Spanish parliament passed an amnesty law that became known as the pacto de olvido, or pact of forgetting: a potent sign of the country’s unwillingness to confront the atrocities in its past. This official silence and failure to condemn Franco continued until late 2008, when Baltasar Garzón, a Spanish judge, ordered that nineteen mass graves be exhumed. (Historians estimate that about 125 graves exist in total, containing some 12,000 victims.)
Garzón’s ruling sparked massive public debate about Spain’s ability to reconcile its modern, democratic state with the Franco years; Conservatives oppose the opening of the graves, arguing that dredging up the past will only serve to divide Spain further. From the start, though, the issue has been complicated by the identity of one of the graves’ bodies: Federico García Lorca, the most important Spanish poet and dramatist of the 20th century.
At the age of 38, Lorca was shot outside of Alfacar, having been targeted for his open homosexuality and Republican, anti-fascist sympathies. His body was quickly and secretly buried with three other men; the location of his remains was not determined until 1966, 30 years after the fact. His family members have opposed the exhumations, fearing that it will become a “media spectacle,” prompting criticism at their willingness to leave such a significant body buried.
Garzón, in specifically naming Lorca’s grave to be excavated, capitalized on the writer’s popularity and iconic nature, spurring support for the opening of his grave. Still, it seems that this effort to turn Lorca into a symbol counteracts the larger goals of the exhumations: the focus of public discourse has shifted from whether and how Spain should confront its history to whether or not a single man should be dug up. While Lorca’s literary influence and significance are unquestionable, he cannot possibly serve as a representation for the 114,000 Spaniards killed or disappeared during the Civil War. Though his remains will soon be recovered, Lorca’s bones alone will not reconcile Spain with its past.