January 11th, 1933. Spanish Civil War is still 3 years to burst, but the social climate in the country is far from quite. One winter morning armed anarchists peasants take control of Casas Viejas, a little town in the province of Cádiz. During the skirmish two Guardia Civil from the local garrison die (a Spanish military force charged with police duties since 1844). A few hours later a large force of Guardia Civil and Assault Guards (an urban police force specially created during the Second Republic) storm the town. There are more shootings. Most of the revolutionaries hide in their houses, but one neighbour dies while opposing the police forces. A local anarchist known as “Seisdedos“ (six fingers) entrenches himself together with his family in his humble hut. Inside there are men, women and children. A group of guards try to force the entrance, there are more shootings, and one of them dies and another is seriously wounded. A kind of siege to the obstinate rebel and his family begins. More and more Assault Guards arrive during the night. On the morning of the 12th the hut is finally assaulted, and six members of the anarchist’s family, including the rebel himself, die, riddled by machine gun bullets or burnt inside the hut on fire. Only a young lady survives. After all these incidents, and despite of not finding any further resistance at all, government troops shot an unarmed group of twelve neighbours, kill two more during the following searching, and keep detaining and often torturing dozens more during the following days.
(Casas Viejas incident real pictures)
These events, popularly known as the “Incidents of Casas Viejas” are just one among so many crashes provoked by the revolution anarchist organizations CNT and FAI unsuccessfully unleashed around almost the whole Spain in early 1933. However, Casas Viejas soon became the most notorious and important of those crashes, both because of its tragic outcome and, above all, because of the vain attempts made by current President Manuel Azaña’s government to hide it from the public, which eventually caused a wave of outrage and a government crisis which finally led to the president himself resigning his charge just a few months later.
If the government’s attempts of concealing the “incidents” failed and they finally reached public opinion was because the Spanish press publicly denounced it. And who was the journalist who had the scoop of that carnage? Traditionally it has been considered revealed by Eduardo Guzmán and Ramón J. Sender, the latter a brilliant novelist, essayist and journalist who 30 years later wrote a book called Requiem por un Campesino Español (Requiem for a Spanish Peasant) telling a quite similar story.
However, recently we knew that the first journalist who echoed the bloody repression was Miguel Pérez Cordón in an article published on January 18th 1933 on the anarchist newspaper CNT and entitled En el agro andaluz. ¡Casas Viejas!!! Continúa la Represión. Rasgos. (In the Andalusian Agro. Casas Viejas!! Repression keeps going. Characteristics.)
The identity of the real author of the “scoop” was first claimed by José Luis Gutiérrez Molina in a book published in 2008 called Casas Viejas, del Crimen a la Esperanza (Casas Viejas, from crime to hope). The controversy lies on the fact that it was always said that Eduardo Guzmán and Ramón J. Sender, already prestigious journalist when the tragedy happened, were the main informers of the facts even when they did not publish anything related with the carnage until January 19th and 24th respectively, which means one and two weeks later. Even some other great journalists of the time kept silent or took so long to report, as for example Julio Romano and the photographer José de María Vazquez, sent both of them to Casas Viejas by Crónica magazine on December 14th (two days after) in order to make a stunning graphic report that finally was not published for fear of censorship. In other surprising case the star journalist of the exemplary newspaper El Sol, Valentín Gutiérrez de Miguel, having reached the town on 12th (same day of the “incidents”) could not have, for some reason, a clear idea of what was exactly going on.
Though he was by then a mere collaborator, and without ever being able to physically access the village, at the time taken by the police, Miguel Pérez Cordón, a local himself, kept moving around the area for days, reporting new scoops for CNT and other libertarian publications like La Tierra (The earth), El Luchador (The Fighter) and Tierra y Libertad (Land and Freedom), thanks in part to the contacts he had as an affiliated anarchist.
Surprisingly, neither he nor his newspaper were never denounced or censored (there was a law specifically created for this at that time called “Law for the Defense of the Republic”) which, according to José Luis Gutiérrez Molina, proves that Azaña’s government was aware of the murders: “by omission that same day the authorities acknowledged that the killings had taken place, although they continued to deny it in public.” Finally, Miguel Pérez Cordón was arrested and sent to prison in Medina Sidonia on January 25th. Once there, however, he continued writing, and what is more, he met another prisoner, María Silva, none other than the only survivor of the massacre in “Seisdedos” hut, and who shortly after became his wife.
(Casas Viejas incident real pictures)
On the anarchist´s trail
However, Casas Viejas, del Crimen a la Esperanza (Casas Viejas, from crime to hope), is not a story about the violent facts that occurred at the time of the Spanish Second Republic in an Andalusian little town today renamed as Benalup-Casas Viejas. It is more the biography of both María Silva and, very specially, the prominent anarchist Miguel Pérez Cordón (1909 Algar, Cádiz; 1939 Cartagena) who, despite his influence as a libertarian activist and journalist, and his crucial role in denouncing the bloody events of Casas Viejas, has been historically overshadowed by his wife, Maria Silva, who became for many years, after surviving her family’s tragedy, a living symbol for the Spanish leftist propaganda.
The book, published by Almuzara, is the work of the historian José Luis Gutiérrez Molina, he too a local from Cádiz, who followed the faded track of the anarchist and journalist Cordón for nearly 6 years through the numerous articles he published in various libertarian newspapers, tracking files and documents now scattered over Salamanca, Cartagena, Cádiz, Madrid and even Amsterdam, and helped by local historians, acquaintances and even relatives and descendants of the protagonists.
This is how we can know now about Cordón, his beginnings as an anarchist in Paterna, the Cádiz town where he grew up, his short stay in Seville, his journalistic reputation acquired when denouncing the killing of Casas Viejas, his marriage with María Silva, his stay in Madrid, his return to Cadiz, the death of his widely famous wife (executed by Franco’s rebel troops at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in August 1936), his flight to Cartagena, his brief stint in the front, his life in Murcia as editor and director of the anarchist newspaper Cartagena Nueva and his assassination during the confusing pro-Franco uprising that took place in that city on March 1939, just a few months before the war was completely over.
The episode of Casas Viejas, therefore, serves mainly as a binding element for the story, the turning point in tits two protagonists´ lives, who met in the wake of those events: “The part of Casas Viejas is not crucial by itself,” said Molina Gutiérrez, its author. “On one hand it serves to highlight the contribution of Miguel Pérez Cordón as the very first journalist to disclose the facts; on the other hand it shows how, by omission or negligence of the censorship, the government recognized what happened; and finally it is an event that makes Miguel and María be together also.”
In fact, the book delves more into the political, social and economic situation of the moment, especially in the town of Paterna, where Miguel first grew up and where he after lived with his wife María until the outbreak of the war in 1936. Along with this it also talks about the evolution of current anarchist postulates, the gestation of Franco’s uprising and the subsequent repression in the southern towns of Cádiz (and especially in Paterna), the development of war, and the life in the Republican rearguard, all this while keeping track of Cordón and while analyzing the evolution of his ideology through his numerous articles.
Tracking Cordón, however, “was not always easy” according to the author of the book, especially when he moved to Cartagena: “Miguel was a perfect stranger in Cartagena, there is not that much documentation about him, and that allowed me to track more his ideological evolution than his personal life.” Despite his investigations, Molina Gutiérrez could not avoid leaving some blank spaces in his story, as for example the place where María Silva´s body still lies, one of the most painful gaps in his book. “The historical puzzles are not perfect, can never be completed” said the author about it, “historian professionalism comes from honesty when handling the material he has. If the job is well done this must be taken into consideration, regardless any possible gaps. In this type of work comes a time when we need to reflect and cut, although research never ends, because things keep coming even after.”
(Spanish Civil War real pictures)
The origin of the book and its sources
Cordón’s leading role inside the story, although formally shared with his wife María Silva, is explained by the way the book was first conceived: “The antecedents of this book lie in a project I started in the 80’s consisting in a compilation of biographies about three Cádiz anarchists linked in terms of generation to the different phases of Cadiz and Spanish anarchism” he explained. “Here I knew about Miguel Pérez Cordón, among them the youngest and the only one who reached the revolutionary process.”
Besides this, however, is the fruitful relationship established in real life between the author and Miguel and María’s son, Juan Pérez Silva, whom Gutiérrez Molina knew in 2001. The author describes him as “the mourning catalyst of many Spanish families, since he grew up ignoring the real story of his missing parents, he emigrated to Germany, came back later, even conceded a series of interviews after the death of dictator Franco but, still, always afraid and shy.”
Because of this acquaintance, and according to the author, the original project grew until encompassing too the life of María Silva and the attempt to discover the places where her body and the one of her husband lie, something Gutiérrez Molina achieved only in the case of the latter, which has led him, in his own words, “one of the greatest satisfactions the book has ever brought to me” alongside being able to collect the writings of the anarchist, including many publications from the period 1936-1939 published on the anarchist newspaper Cartagena Nueva, completely dispersed until now.
Besides that, the author counted with María Silva´s sister too, named Catalina Silva, who as many of her compatriots was residing in France since the Spanish Civil War was over and, according to the author, “a discovery, as there are many in every research work, completely caused by luck, considering that Catalina had never spoken to anyone about it, not even with her daughters.”
Hence Molina Gutiérrez emphasised the importance of oral sources, one of the “most grateful” work for historians, and highlighted the need of considering them “not as a disposable handkerchief, but as a person with his own interests, with whom personal contact is as important as respect and make clear everybody´s interest. Oral sources” he added “depend heavily on the researcher, his behaviour, his social relationships and his personal agenda.”
Not in all cases was he so lucky, however, considering that several testimonies collected in the vicinity of Cádiz and in the towns of Paterna and Casas Viejas were given on anonymity, which he claimed “shows that still nowadays there is fear of talking about some certain things.”
Besides the importance of oral sources, Gutiérrez Molina did not neglect archival research, which he called ‘an uncut diamond’ to be polished in any investigation: “Enjoying archival work and finding a good vein is, for historians of my generation, usually quite individualistic, very satisfactory.”
Writing history for a social purpose
“Every job has an intention and I work history not only for learning but also with a social projection in mind” said José Luis Gutiérrez Molina when talking about a very demanding book that aims to do justice to Miguel Pérez Cordón, point out the responsibility of that government in the massacre, dive in the vicissitudes of the anarchist movement in times of the Spanish Second Republic and Civil War, and denounce that, to date, the bodies of its two main characters were still missing.
“There is a lack of political, individual and collective will for dealing with a muddy problem both form a legal and electoral point of view,” said the author about the hundreds of thousands of reprisals Franco’s regime killed and buried in unknown common graves all across Spain, sharing the same fate as his protagonists. Gutiérrez Molina and Cordón’s son spent years trying to get for his main character the ‘victim’ legal status in a “very difficult” process where they invested not only time but thousands of euros too.
Regarding the anarchism, the backbone of the book, Molina Gutiérrez said that “simply nowadays nobody talks about it,” something evident in the fact that his book “mainly interested some local people from Cádiz countryside. Casas Viejas” he continued “is a well known episode from a political, historical and cultural point of view, but the anarchist subject is quite more complicated because it is a piece of a puzzle where there is no consensus, and it is related to issues such as commitment to historical memory, which is often used as a weapon by our present politicians.”
Both keeping alive the debate on anarchism and preserving historical memory would achieve the social purpose the author said he always intended in all his works. “Spanish society is a bit uneducated, and lacks the will of being cultivated and able to give an enlightened opinion about such important issues” said Molina Gutiérrez. “After 30 years of democracy we are still like this, within a society that knows nothing about its past.”
(read this article in Spanish here)