Luis Pando Rivero 1935
My Grandfather’s Story by Natalia O’Sullivan
I used to have a recurring dream when I was young. I was wearing a blindfold and walking towards a door. All I could see were men’s shoes when I strained to look under the blindfold. I remember feeling frustrated that their shoes were the only way I could identify them. I could also see the light under the door, and I knew I had to walk through it. Then I would wake up. In my late teens the dream returned, and I casually told my mother that I had had the ‘blindfold dream’ again. She confessed to me that she used to have the same dream.
It wasn’t until I visited my relatives in Spain when I was pregnant with my first child, that I made the connection between this dream and my late grandfather. I went to his grave with my husband, Terry, and together we stood beside it for a long time. I felt a palpable connection with this man who had died long before I was born. For perhaps the first time I felt linked to him and to our family’s traumatic past. For the first time I felt my Spanish blood rushing through my heart. When we returned to have dinner with my aunt and cousins, we heard his story once more with different ears. Now it was personal. As I listened, I felt a mixture of sadness, anger, and pride.
During the 1930s just before the Spanish Civil War, my grandfather Luis Pando Rivero was a judge in the Galician port town of Villagarcia de Arousa. From a wealthy family in the neighbouring region of Asturias, he was related to royalty. He was known for his fairness and honesty, and, like his father, he was a great philanthropist. He was educated in law at the university in Santiago, where he met my grandmother, Purita, who was studying to be a teacher. His parents had 18 children and he was one of nine boys. His family were well known socialists and supported the Republicans. My grandfather became the president of the local socialist party the Frente Nacional.
On the 17th of July 1936, General Francisco Franco marched into Spain from Morocco and one of the most brutal eras in Spanish history began. Atrocities were committed on both sides, but the Nationalists under Franco began a bloody purge that would take out teachers, trade union leaders, and intellectuals. According to family legend, many people warned my grandfather to take his wife and three young daughters, Patucas, 9, Theresa, 4, and my mother, Purita, who was not yet two and leave the country. Many prominent Galicians had left for Argentina, but he refused to go, believing his steady voice and compassionate justice would help sanity prevail.
I don’t think he thought he was in any danger. He believed that if you lived your life to the letter of the law, you would be safe. In a way he lived his life too close to the letter of the law. By August he had been arrested and falsely accused of supporting a Republican rebellion by the members of the Frente National. By December he had been executed along with several other men, close by to the prison where he had been held.
After his death my grandmother never spoke about what had happened. For years nobody said a word. It was like it had never taken place. You could not trust anyone, so she had to be very careful. This was the consensus of opinion in Spain at that time and even today it is very difficult to get the older generation to talk about the Civil War and the effect that it had on so many families. Many lost everything.
I often wonder if my grandfather regretted his decision to stay in Galicia, thereby putting his life and the safety of his family in jeopardy. There must have been moments leading up to his death when he was racked with guilt and loss. Certainly, his wife and daughters suffered because of his decision. But the light of his heroism shines from the past on his descendants. Removed from the immediate pain of his loss, my generation has benefited from the memory of his courage and determination to stand on the side of truth and justice.
But his children’s generation have all suffered in their own way. My mother also does not like to talk about what happened. She has told me that they were well cared for in the boarding school and that she did not recognise her mother when she finally came back. My grandmother kept her relationship and the memory of what happened to my grandfather very much to herself, she never talked about the war or what happened at that time. She was a closed book on the subject. My mother too has told me very little about her early childhood.
The Spanish Civil War lasted for four terrible years. In that time some 500,000 people died and over half were civilians. Prisoners were forced to dig their own graves before being shot and thousands disappeared. The Franco dictatorship that followed for 37 years was like a military occupation. Trade unions and newspapers unsympathetic to the regime were shut down. Thousands went into exile and those who stayed lay low, trying to make a living although jobs were scarce and difficult to come by without connections. The living wage sunk to half the levels it had been before the war.
While the rest of Europe defeated Fascism in World War Two and went on to experience unprecedented prosperity and freedom, rock and roll and the sexual revolution, the Spanish had to endure a cultural time warp until Franco’s death in 1976. Five years later the socialists were returned to power. It has taken decades for Spain to be able to confront the horrors of the past. In 2008 the Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzon finally opened an investigation into the executions and disappearances of 114,266 people between 17th July 1936 and December 1951.
Plaques are beginning to go up in town squares around the country to honour those who died. During this period, they placed a remembrance memorial for the Republicans who had died during and just after the Civil War in Villagarcia.
In 2006, as I had just begun to write this book, my cousin Maite told me of a campaign by the “La Memoria Historica,” group. A local archivist who had been working for them had collated numerous letters and information about those who had served time in prison for their political views during and just after the war. The archivist had found a series of letters that my grandfather had written in prison to my grandmother.
Maite gave me the file and I spent most of the night reading and rereading his letters, letter after letter asking my grandmother to visit friends and colleagues who could support his release. I wept as I read his final letter. His writing now had moved from a strong forward slant to a reversed weakened scribble – he had resigned himself to the fact that he was being executed the following day. In this letter he wrote to his wife and children personal feelings addressing each one with a loving memory.
I imagined him in a dark dank cell. I felt the sorrow and heaviness of his mood, the fear of what may happen to his family without his protection as a husband and father. The following day I asked Maite about the letters. She then told me stories she had heard about what happened to his siblings. As stanch Republicans some were murdered, or incarcerated in work camps, starved, and beaten. His mother and two of his sisters had fled to France. As I discovered more about my grandfather’s life and death, I was overwhelmed with a powerful desire to tell his story, to give him a voice. Nicola and I then, interviewed and researched many similar stories of political violence, war, racism, and slavery.
I reflected back to my own parents’ lives and what brought them together in London. My mother met my father, a Hungarian with a similar tale of ancestral loss. They were both isolated and brought to England from war torn circumstances. My father was exiled from Hungary after his escape from the 1956 uprising, his family had lost all their land in Hungary to the Soviets. His family had suffered poverty and loss whilst the Soviets sent my grandfather and his brother and cousins to labour camps. My mother emigrated during Franco’s regime.
My mother often says she didn’t know why they married, as they didn’t even speak the same language! So, I was born in London to parents who had both escaped their homelands to seek a better life. As a first-generation English woman, it is interesting to see how it has affected me. Both my parents spoke English as a second language, and both had left their homelands during traumatic circumstances.
As English was their second language, I am not sure if they ever entirely assimilated into British culture. Both came from large, gregarious families in contrast to the infamous Anglo reserve. They had both broken away, but I am not sure if they ever really found their roots in their adopted culture.
I think it made me quite precocious as a child. At eleven years old, I made my own choice about which school I wanted to attend, and I was the one filling out all the forms for everything. Being brought up away from the rest of our families in Spain and Hungary also gave us a freedom of spirit. My brother and I made up our own rules and had quite a wild time when we were teenagers which our Spanish and Hungarian cousins, living in their ancestral towns, could never have gotten away with.
It also gave me an entrepreneurial spirit: In my early twenties I set up my own freelance PR business as well as running my own successful art gallery. I carry the hard work ethic common to many first- generation immigrants who witness at first hand their parents’ struggle to make it and give them a better life.
Since having children I have felt pulled to take them to both Spain and Hungary to connect with each side of the family tree. From the first time when I stood by my grandfather’s grave during my first pregnancy with Sequoia, it has felt important to me to honour the lands of their ancestors.
When we went to Hungary recently it was my middle child, Ossian, who felt the most connected. We had gone to finally spread my father’s ashes in his homeland. Ossian thrived in the luxuriant countryside of his grandfather’s parents. Even though my father only went back rarely after moving to Britain in 1956, his family welcomed us with great love and hospitality, although they had lost a great deal during the Soviet occupation. Family is family and when it is linked to the land of origins it feels particularly powerful.
My Hungarian relatives still live on the farm that at least five ancestral generations had inherited and lived on, assiduously working the land. My cousin Tibi and his family will continue to do so and so will their children. They have an innate knowledge of where they were born and where their family history is rooted. This gives them a confidence in that where they live is also who they are –
culturally and ancestrally. There is a deep sense of connection to the land in my Hungarian family, compared to my own childhood and that of my children, who have moved around from London to Scotland to Somerset with no real sense of where we belong as we have no family roots in the country of our birth.
I love being ‘from London’ and, with bloodlines from both Spain and Hungary, I have developed my own characteristics from this mix match of cultures, some of which I have inherited and others I developed from the environment of my childhood. This has produced a creative mind with a passion for good food and wine, and a fearless attitude to travel and trying new things. I have inspired my own children to believe in their differences and acknowledge that sometimes we must connect with our family roots, but we too can create our own family from the place where we have been born, rather than the place where our family comes from.
The history of humanity has, for the past few hundred years, been filled with stories of war and invasion and every generation has suffered a loss, death, or traumatic event due to the effects of war on a nation, and civil wars that force families apart and create atmospheres of guilt, secrets and deception in all towns, cities even villages within a war-torn country.
How do the stories of our ancestors affect us today?
The blindfold dream where I used to experience my grandfather’s last walk to his death has stopped happening since I heard his story and honoured his memory; Phil battled with his inner sense of injustice and still visits battlefields around the world where he is reminded again of the power of sacrifice and heroism.
Individuals, families, and countries are all deeply affected by history. Entire countries carry the legacy of war in different ways. Pain and loss or victory and pride lie just beneath our skin and penetrate the earth where the blood has been shed.
From The Ancestral Continuum by Natalia O’Sullivan & Nicola Graydon published by Simon & Schuster.