University News

Students dig up Spanish past while abroad

By
Contributing Writer

Rafael Gonzalez ’11 MD’15 spent his summer after junior year uncovering mass graves filled with the remains of victims from the Spanish Civil War. Alongside a team of forensic scientists, archeologists, anthropologists, medical doctors and dentists, Gonzalez said he spent a week working at a grave site in La Pedraja de Portillo, Spain to identify bodies with the intent of returning remains to families for a long-awaited proper burial.

Students who study abroad through the Consortium for Advanced Studies in Barcelona – a Brown in Spain program – had the option to participate in the excavation project starting in 2010. This excavation was part of the Recovery of Historical Memory project, which aims to uncover the ruins of thousands of murdered victims who were buried in mass graves during the Spanish Civil War, said Matthew Gutmann P’14, the University’s vice president for international affairs. 

Thousands of Republicanos, the war’s eventual losing party, were murdered and hauled into unidentified graves in the 1930s. The Spanish government passed a law in 2007 allowing the loved ones of fallen victims to petition the government for subsidies to have the graves opened and their remains recovered. 

A new political party opposed to the excavation project recently took power, discontinuing the program, said Juanjo Romero, the resident director of the consortium in Barcelona. Families will now need to independently finance excavations in order to continue body recovery, and the consortium will no longer be able to assist in the excavation projects. But Romero said he was hopeful that the program will restart following the next elections in three years. 

The project was run by Aranzadi, an organization providing the equipment to recover war remains in Latin America. Prior to this excavation project, Aranzadi helped recover bodies of victims from the Dirty War of Argentina and from a Chilean coup.

“I knew I was a part of something that was really big. The significance of this to the Spaniards is tremendous,” Gonzalez said. “The Civil War is still a very emotionally sensitive issue.” 

During the dig, families would congregate around the site, trying to remain hopeful despite their tears that their loved ones would be identified, Gonzales said. The identification of the bodies would bring a sense of closure to the families who have been grieving for more than 70 years. 

Gutmann emphasized the impact and relevancy of the excavations. 

“It is a fantastic opportunity for Brown students to be a part of this social issue which has so much to do with history,” Gutmann said. “American newspapers run articles about this occasionally, but it is in Spanish news almost every day.”

At La Pedraja, about 70 to 100 bodies were recovered, but they were too deteriorated to be identified. 

Teams of students and professionals participated in the excavation at dozens of sites all around Spain,  Romero said. They have extracted over 2,000 cadavers, and their identification success rate has been about 90 percent. 

While Romero said he believes this project was a victory for post-civil war emotional recovery, it is also a source of controversy in Spain. Many Spaniards feel that uncovering these graves “re-open(s) the wounds of the past,” he said. For many, the tragedy is still a present-day reality.

“Whenever you talk about Spain, people can’t help but bring up the Civil War,” said Karri DiPetrillo ’13, who studied abroad in Barcelona last spring through the consortium, though she did not participate in the excavations. She said the effects of the Civil War seem omnipresent in Spanish culture, appearing in paintings and street signs. 

Consortium students are required to take a program class about Spanish culture, and DiPetrillo took a class entitled “Memories of the Spanish Civil War.” 

Extracurricular programs like this excavation are perfect ways to enrich students’ studies both culturally and academically, said Kendall Brostuen, director of international programs at Brown. While students have the ability to pursue internships in schools or hospitals while in Barcelona, this project was set apart, he said, adding that the students are not only immersed in history, but are actively writing it. 

Correction: Originally, the article incorrectly stated that Matthew Gutmann P’14 is vice president of international affairs at the Watson Institute for International Studies.