The silence of others

The Silence of Others: Stories that Need to Be Told

The documentary The Silence of Others, which I just saw last week, brings to the forefront an important story. A story that has been buried in Spain for four decades.

In 1977, as we were leaving behind the Franco dictatorship, which had lasted almost forty years, the transition government enacted an Amnesty Law. This law was intended to liberate political prisoners who had been jailed for opposing the dictatorship. Unfortunately, it has been used since to sweep under the rug the crimes committed by Franco’s law enforcement and civil servants.

These crimes include, among others:

  • executing many who were on the losing side of the civil war and throwing them in mass graves —never mind that the victors had ousted a democratically elected government.
  • imprisoning hundreds of thousands of people just for their ideology;
  • using prisoners as slave labor;
  • jailing and torturing anyone who protested against the dictatorship in the decades that followed the war, many of them young students;
  • stealing tens of thousands of babies from young single mothers, or women from the “wrong side” of the political spectrum. They told them the babies were dead, and gave them away to families who were Franco supporters.

The transitional government officials that passed the Amnesty Law in 1977 touted the need to forget the past. Only by forgetting, they said, could we heal the pain of our history. In effect, they created a pact of silence to protect criminals who had personally tortured or ordered the execution of thousands of victims.

Why this push to “forget”? Because many of the people who sat in Congress representing the new democracy, had also been part of the Franco government. They had to shield their own.

Almost forty years after Franco’s death, a movement to claim for justice is gaining traction. Since the Spanish judiciary and political parties in power are still invoking the 1977 Amnesty to push back, the lawsuit could only be filed outside of Spain. An Argentinian lawyer, María Servini, is representing over 300 plaintiffs suing a handful of the worst criminals of the dictatorship.

The gripping documentary The Silence of Others, directed by Almudena Carraceno and Robert Bahar, follows the stories of some of these plaintiffs as they struggle to be heard. (See screening dates in the US in The Silence of Others website.)

We meet the elder María Martín, who ties flowers every week to a highway metal guardrail. Her mother was executed and thrown in a mass grave in 1936. A few years into the democratic transition a highway was built over the burial yard.

We follow Ascensión Mendieta, who at 88 travels to Argentina to testify in front of lawyer María Servini. She wants to exhume the remains of her father, executed after the end of the war and thrown in another mass grave. She dreams with seeing him once more, even if it’s just a smattering of bones.

We see women in their fifties still grieving the loss of their babies. They were part of the more than 40,000 children stolen right after birth.

We hear the horrific details of the torture young men and women endured for participating in demonstrations against the dictatorship.

Seeing this documentary I realized that the culture of silence in Spain permeated not just the dictatorship but also the democracy that grew from it. And all these decades of avoiding the truth bubbling under the surface afflicted not only our politics but also our families.

Silence — and my repressed voice — is one of the main topics in my upcoming memoir. My story is the story of a generation. A generation that grew with a Catholicism that repressed our bodies; a macho culture that denied women equal standing; and a code of conduct that equated power with righteousness and repressed any dissenting voices.

At home, even after we had transitioned to adulthood as the country transitioned to democracy, problems were not openly discussed and many topics were taboo. Perhaps our parents were trying to protect us. Instead, the message I got is that secrets are better than solutions.

Overtime, I have learned that addressing trauma and conflict is important. There are stories that need to be told, no matter the consequences.

That’s why The Silence of Others is such an important film: it gives a voice to those that for decades went unheard. As one of the plaintiffs says, it’s not about revenge, it’s about justice.