Making the Connection

Documents of the Archive

I think that everyone in this research group has had or will have a moment when what we are studying changes from a classroom and textbook experience to a real-life endeavor with visible results. In a trip to Alcalá de Henares, initially exciting for both a highly anticipated hour of shopping as well as for our historical memory research, I experienced this moment when I realized the connection between our studies at William and Mary and our first hand experience here in Madrid. In the “Archive of Popular Culture & Oral History” at the University of Alcalá de Henares, Professor Antonio Castillo, researcher Verónica Sierra, and archive librarian Carmen Serrano showed us documents from their amazing collection.

As Ms. Sierra and Ms. Serrano began pulling out personal letters, school notebooks, old books and more, a rush of excitement filled me and my mind started moving at a mile a minute as I began to pore over these incredible documents.The children’s school notebooks from the beginning of Franco’s era fascinated me as they brought to life what I had only read before about the insane ideology this dictator was forcing into Spain’s school curriculum. Two intimate letters from a prisoner in a concentration camp were touching to read and also intriguing to study. These letters, clearly written by someone on the wrong side of Franco’s regime, began their 1939 letters with the phrase “Año de la victoria” (“year of victory”) and ended their letters with “¡Saludo a Franco!” This seems contradictory until we see the prisoner’s mention of the necessity to avoid the censorship which quickly explains the discord.

As our visit began winding down, Victoria Sierra happened to mention that the archive held materials related to “La Sección Femenina,” the women’s association during Franco’s era that taught female citizens how to become the “perfect Spanish woman.” Since I spent the end of last semester studying this group and their ideology, I was speechless as our host pulled out a 1949 appointment book published by La Sección Femenina. As Ms. Sierra described more about the book and gave us some background information on this organization, all I could think was, “Let me hold it! Let me read it! I want to leaf through those pages!”

Being able to read through this book really brought this trip full circle for me. I connected what we studied in class, what I’ve studied myself, what I have learned here and our unique primary sources here.One might wonder: why couldn’t we do this research through emails and books at William and Mary? This is the reason. We had to come to Madrid to meet these people, leaf through these documents and personally visit these sites of historical memory in order to truly reach our goal and study historical memory in this city.

2 responses to “Making the Connection”

  1. nphoba says:

    I also really enjoyed this visit, especially because this is an archive compiled by the pueblo and for the pueblo, as Veronica Sierra mentioned. Those who submit letters, notebooks, etc. can actually keep the items; the archivists are perfectly satisfied with copies of the items, since part of their mission is the study of this history in popular writing. Owners of family documents can even put conditions on how their item is viewed. For example, they can say that their contribution can only be viewed after their death or per their permission.

    The thing that I loved the most, however insignificant it may be, was a little advertisement for a movie tucked in the pages of the agenda of a member of the Seccion Femenina. The movie is How to Marry a Millionaire, starring Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, and Lauren Bacall. I haven’t seen the movie, but from what I understand, it represents a lifestyle completely on the opposite side of the spectrum from that of a member of the Seccion Femenina. It may be that the person just grabbed this advertisement as a quick bookmark. Or it may be that they saw the movie and kept it as a memento of the life they didn’t have, showing that members of Seccion Femenina didn’t always believe in the ideology they were fed.

  2. mcschrack says:

    The word ¨”archive” does not bring to mind incredibly exciting mental images. Dusty old books, torn pages, faded writing with uninteresting, long surpassed subject matter. This was most certainly not the case for the Archive of Popular Culture and Oral History. I was amazed when Victoria Sierra began pulling out old love letters written from concentration camps. My eyes scanned over the still-dark ink, taking in the poetic language, with the realization dawning on me that this letter was only written 70 years ago. Looking at the letter, I could almost picture the hand that put the pen to paper. She also passed out diaries which I didn’t want to put down. To read the daily events of soldiers in the war is better than watching a movie about it: This is real. This is recent. This is in danger of being forgotten, if not for the people working to keep this archive alive.

    The most outstanding thing for us as Americans and students studying the memory of the Spanish Civil War is a connection we helped make. Marcos Burgos, the son of a Republican captain shot while imprisoned in Madrid just after the war, spent a lot of time with us that week. He still holds on to his father’s papers to keep some shred of him alive; he doesn’t remember his father, so these official war documents and his father´s letters written from prison are the only way Marcos knows him. We put him in contact with the archivists. Now, these important documents will not be in danger of being lost with time; the archive can keep copies of them, or the original ones if Marcos allows it, to ensure that they are never lost, that the memory of Marcos’ father will live on with the archive. If we had not come to Madrid, this connection would perhaps never have been made.