June 20, 2021

The buried lives of the workers who made the Valley of the Fallen


The Valley of the Fallen is an anomaly in democratic Europe. It was and continues to be a monument of exaltation of victory and of the political and religious ideology of those who won the war. It was not until the exhumation of the dictator who generated the Cuelgamuros symbol, in October 2019, that the slow and delicate intervention in the place began. Unobtrusively, without helicopters, mobile units, flags or marble slabs, a group of archaeologists is unearthing something that could be more powerful than Franco’s mummy: the dignity of the workers who built that site.

“Until now the focus was on the monument, which is what Franco, the architects and engineers of the regime wanted us to see and is what we continue to see. What we propose is to see other things,” explains archaeologist Alfredo González Ruibal right there, sheltered from the wind and drizzle that soak up the steep terrain at the start of the Guadarrama mountain range, surrounded by streams and discreet and subtle tracks that lead to what was hidden until now.

The focus shifts. It moves a few kilometers. The background is out of focus, presided over by a 150-meter-high cross shrouded in mist. “We stopped seeing the heroes and the martyrs and the Caudillo and Primo de Rivera.” And we look at what once wanted to be erased and appears, under the pickets, in the foreground. “And we see the workers, both prisoners and free, the foremen, the families, the children, the women who lived here for twenty years. I think they should be the protagonists of the Valley of the Fallen and their history should be the most important, “says González Ruibal. If the future project of redefinition of the Valley comes out as this CSIC archaeologist imagines, future visitors to this place would begin their itinerary passing through the criminal detachments; in a certain way, “beginning the story where the story began, which is in 1943 with the battalions of workers, the prisoners who come to redeem sentences to build the road, build the viaduct or open the crypt.”



To get to the excavation site, you have to go through narrow roads marked by no-entry signs. The first of them reaches a town of houses of the particular Escurialense style of the area, with slate roofs finished in points, where currently National Heritage workers live with their families. You have to go through it and keep driving on roads that seem to go nowhere. But between the mountain a clearing opens and next to the minimally paved road appear, among the undergrowth, the foundations of a ruined building. It is what remains of a barracks of workers, both prisoners and free, from one of the three detachments that worked here: one in the monument, another in the monastery (which would eventually be the inn) and another, this one where we are, in the five kilometers of road that cross the valley to the Risco de la Nava. But the interesting archaeological remains lie even further inside the guts of this pine and rock forest.

It was not difficult for the archaeologists to find various piles of rubble dotting the ground, not far from each other, always sheltered, each one of them, from a large rock. They are the remains of the shacks built by the workers and their families to be able to live close to them, to recreate something similar to a dignified life in a context of deprivation of liberty, forced labor, dictatorship, and defeat. At this point in the excavation work, five of those houses have been cleared of rubble, to call them in a way that may be too big for some rudimentary structures that seem Neolithic, but homes after all, and the lower part of the foundation. They are square in plan, just over two meters on each side. A black stain tells us where the fireplace was to cook and heat the room. We can go through the doorway, always looking south, towards the stream, turning our backs to the path that leads to the official barracks. In one of them we find a higher part along the entire length, attached to the wall, which seems to have served as a bed. In another, each corner has a bench to sit on. The location of each one is marked by the shelter from the sharp winds of Guadarrama that provides a granite bowl. Some projection is used, surely, to support the roof of the house, which was not very high, a meter and a half or two meters in total, and rigged with vegetation, because if it had been made of a non-organic material, the archaeologists They would have found it among the debris from the demolition.



Because these houses were not demolished by time, but by man. When the road works were finished, this detachment was abandoned and the barracks and shacks were demolished, mainly so as not to spoil the environment. These ruins are sealed, allowing intact remains to emerge after seventy years. To finish off, to eliminate the bald spots produced by the footprints of these people erased from the history of the Valley, at the end of the 60s a replanting of pines was carried out. Only the scars remain, as says Xurxo Ayllón, an archaeologist at the Institute of Contemporary History of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, and a member of the team.

Fernando Olmedo collects in his book The Valley of the Fallen. A memory of Spain, the testimony of various prisoners who escape taking advantage of the medical leave due to intense toothache. Precisely, archaeologists have just found a molar with a tremendous cavity, which appeared on the floor of one of the houses and which was uprooted, with the roots broken by extraction, “to get an idea of ​​what it was like to be here without adequate medical services “, emphasizes González Ruibal. Objects do not stop coming out of the ground. Missile remains, since the area was previously a war front. A stonemason team. Tokens from the commissary where the prisoners bought. Footwear remains. Reused rubber tire soles, made right here because a large piece of rubber cut out with a silhouette has appeared. “These people were very isolated and the possibility of acquiring clothes from outside was very limited, they also had no money, so they continually reused objects,” Alfredo clarifies, holding a rusty metal pot that has been patched in several places. They find cans turned into saucepans for water. Traces of the presence of children: soles of girl’s shoes, remains of what were toy pots. Coins from the 40s. Everything that appears can be dated as before the year 50, which is when the detachments that were formed in the year 43 were dissolved, which means, in technical language, that “there is no intrusion “, that there has been no life after this life in this very place. But so far, the most impressive find, Xurxo found.

Hidden all these years under half a meter of rubble, preserved in the same place where they were abandoned, a cold store inside a shack, two green glass bottles still contain the liquid inside. “What impresses me the most is the clear intention to create a home, to dignify living conditions and that shack is spectacular because you can identify all those home conditions, such as the bed where they slept, the paved and cemented floor, a The stove, the fridge and even the soles of the shoes of the person who lived there, abandoned by the door, “explains Xurxo. “It is a trip back in time to the 40s. You can imagine the woman and the girl who receives the husband who has spent eight hours chopping stone to make gravel for the road, trapped, or with signs of silicosis”, imagines the archaeologist . “What is in these cabins is a will to resilience and to survive,” he adds.



It is unknown how many convicted workers passed through here, also how many imprisoned workers and in what percentage both forces were combined. But the monthly average is known. In this detachment of the highway, known as Banús because this was the company that had this contract, in 1943 125 worked (515 was the total average). In 1946, it was 190. In 1949, the last year before the detachments were dissolved, 175 worked on the highway (272, the total average). The files show that the workers sleep in wooden barracks that are spacious warehouses with windows without fences and open crevices, through which the cold creeps in. There are 24 groups of bunk beds of three heights for the convicts and 20 more for the free workers’ pavilion. Another member of the team, the historian Luis Antonio Ruiz, consulted the archives for the first documentation phase of the project and found that there was little to find: “The monumental question abounds, there is some information about the criminal detachments but there is a rather striking void on these structures that we are intervening, the most subaltern architecture within the subaltern that were already the workers’ houses “.

All these material remains that are being recovered speak to us of the “doubly forgotten of the Valley”, as González Ruibal says, both the workers and their families. For now, there is no planned destination for all these objects, but according to archaeologists, they would be an essential contribution to a museum project that would contribute to the reinterpretation of the Valley of the Fallen.



The Exhumations of the crypts requested by relatives, still pending a building permit from the El Escorial City Council. And the exhumation of the remains of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, buried in a prominent place in the basilica, something that will happen when the new Democratic Memory Law is approved. But above all what is urgent is a new story. “What we are doing is part of a broader program of resignification directed by the Secretary of State for Democratic Memory —Explains Alfredo González Ruibal— because in 2021 the story of the Valley of the Fallen continues to be that of the late Francoism and it is unjustifiable that a democracy inherits that story and cannot change it. “The researcher shows that the way of understanding this place does not it has changed when he sees that “every time someone tries to do something in it, a tremendous controversy is created and everything possible is done to prevent it, from certain political parties to certain groups and individuals,” he adds.

In a democracy, school boys and girls were taken on excursions to the Valley of the Fallen. It has been inscribed in our daily life with a folkloric component that has almost made us forget its true meaning. “We have all been cultivated in this bucolic landscape that actually hides an absent landscape,” says Xurxo, walking between the rocks to reach the last of the cabins, which they jokingly call the chalet with a view, further away from the rest, absolutely camouflaged and on the edge of a slope. They have just found in it a chain to close the door and remains of corrugated iron on the ground, with which a roof was probably built. The missing landscape is being revealed.

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