In the summer of 1939, my great-grandparents, Margarita and Pedro, found themselves in Paris.
They had fled Spain a few months earlier, as the country’s civil war was coming to an end. They had planned to go to Argentina but had just learned their visas were denied. So, with nowhere to go, they sat on a bench by the Seine River and started to cry. The story goes that at that moment a newsboy walked by yelling: Extra! Extra! Mexico opens its doors to all Spanish Civil War refugees!
Mexico is not often thought of as a country of immigrants, but 75 years ago around 25,000 Spanish Civil War refugees arrived at its shores. Were it not for President Lázaro Cárdenas, who welcomed them to live and work in Mexico, many of them would have almost certainly died like countless others who defended Spain against fascism did: facing a firing squad under Spain’s new military dictatorship, on the battlefields of World War II, or in Nazi extermination camps.
The Spanish Civil War began on July 18, 1936, when a group of military generals led a coup against the democratically elected government of the Second Spanish Republic, at the time under the leadership of Manuel Azaña.
The Republic had been established five years earlier when King Alfonso XIII went into exile after his monarchical candidates lost in municipal elections throughout the country. According to the documentary Morir en Madrid, half the population of Spain at the time was illiterate, and around eight million people lived in poverty. Massive extensions of land, known as latifundios, were owned by a privileged few who, along with the crown, the Catholic Church and the military, made up the old order.
The Republic ushered in a series of progressive changes regarding education, the role of religion and the military, and the rights of workers and peasants. Huge literacy campaigns took place throughout the country. Also, for the first time in Spain’s history, women had the right to vote, to own property and to divorce. These progressive ideas were perceived as a threat by the old order, which longed for a return to the days of the monarchy.
“Over night they began bombing our neighborhood of La Fina,” said Eladia Losano, who was a teenager in Madrid when the war began. “Our home was completely destroyed.” Now 92 and living in Mexico City, Losano lucidly recounted how her family fled to Barcelona, where the effects of the war were not as deeply felt at the outset. “Food was already being rationed,” she said. “But the lights were still on at night.”
Spain was almost evenly divided between those in support of the Republic, known as the Republicans, and those against it, led by General Francisco Franco, known as the Nationalists.
Franco had the advantage of counting on the help of Hitler and Mussolini, who provided everything from airplanes to troops in support of his cause. Spain, most notably the cities of Guernica and Barcelona, became a testing ground for the merciless bombing campaigns against civilians and blitzkrieg strategy adopted by the Nazis in World War II. “Towards the end [of the war] the planes would bomb us every two hours,” said Losano. “Everyone was hysterical.”
While the bombs were falling on Barcelona, my great-grandfather, Pedro, was fighting with the Republicans on the Catalonian front. He fell gravely ill with salmonella and Margarita, who was living in France with their one-year-old son, Pierre, returned to Spain to look after him. He slowly recovered but little Pierre started developing a fever. Food and medicine were scarce in war-torn Spain and Pierre grew sicker and sicker. In 1939, just months before the end of the war, he died of typhoid fever. My great-grandparents didn’t have money for a proper burial, so he was buried in an old boot box.
On January 26, 1939, Barcelona fell to the Nationalists and their victory in the war became imminent. It was around this time that my great-grandparents, as well as Eladia Losano and her family — and more than 500,000 Republicans — crossed the Pyrenees, most of them by foot, into France.
“Half a million people arrived overnight into France and there was nowhere to put them,” said Paul Preston, an eminent historian of modern Spain. The result was that the men were put in makeshift concentration camps by the beach and the women and children in shelters in abandoned homes and stables throughout the South of France.
The conditions in the camps were dire—they were frigid, ridden with lice and dysentery, and food was scarce. “On the first week people were dying on a major scale,” said Preston. It was “a colossal humanitarian disaster; it’s the kind of thing we see on the TV now because of the wars in Africa.”
It was possible to be let out of the camps by proving you would leave France upon release. Margarita wrote to relatives of hers in Argentina, whom she’d never met, and explained the terrible situation she and her husband were in. They sent her money for two boat tickets to Argentina, which she bought, and she and Pedro headed to Paris to process their visas at the embassy.
In Paris, they learned Argentina was no longer giving visas to Republicans. Devastated, they left the embassy and sat on a bench by the Seine River; that’s when the newsboy walked by announcing Mexico had opened its doors to all Spanish Civil War refugees. Without a second thought, they set sail on the first boat they could board to Mexico.
“Meanwhile in Mexico, beginning in the 1920s, there was an increase in political, economic, and social development,” writes the Mexican historian Enriqueta Tuñón Pablos in her book, Varias voces, una historia. “The government of President Lázaro Cárdenas, elected in 1934, strengthened the state and brought political stability in line with the principles of the Constitution of 1917.”
The Constitution of 1917 was the product of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), which aimed to overthrow Mexico’s longstanding oligarchy and redistribute land to the peasantry. The Constitution introduced major labor reforms, equal pay rights for women, banned the hacienda system, and allowed for government expropriation of land and mineral reserves. Cárdenas expropriated and redistributed more land than any of his predecessors in an attempt to strengthen Mexico’s agricultural sector and he famously nationalized the Mexican oil industry. He was also a staunch supporter of improving access to education and workers’ rights.
The Mexican government supported the Republicans from the start of the war. Mexico was one of the few countries to speak out about the Spanish Civil War at the League of Nations in 1936, and while most of the world embraced a non-interventionist policy, Mexico sent weapons to the Republican army and began setting the legal framework for a potential Republican exile in Mexico.
(The Republicans also had the support of the USSR and thousands of volunteers from around the world that traveled to Spain and fought in the International Brigades—almost 3,000 Americans fought in a regiment known as the Lincoln Brigade. Famous writers who supported the republic, like Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, also went to Spain to report on it.)
“I always thought that the case of Cárdenas was twofold,” said Preston. “It was humanitarian, it was idealistic, but also he realized that Mexico could actually benefit. And, of course, it did.”
According to the book Del Exilio en México, by Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez, a Republican refugee and university professor, almost half of Spain’s university professors arrived in Mexico as a result of the war, including some of Spain’s finest academics. Many of them joined the faculty of La Casa de España, which later became El Colegio de México — today one of Mexico’s top universities — and many others joined Mexico’s National University (UNAM). They also revitalized Mexico’s Fondo de Cultura Económica, which became one of the most important publishing houses in Latin America.
Along with the academics arrived professionals from a wide-array of fields and social classes — from doctors and architects to mechanics, electricians, and carpenters. Losano found a job at a bookstore and my great-grandparents, who were school teachers in their home town, took jobs writing letters and selling jewelry. Years later, they started their own business. “The diversity of professions makes this exile unprecedented,” writes Vásquez. “It is a mirror of the ample spectrum of social forces that fought the war against franquism.”
Most Republicans arrived in Mexico with the hope of returning home one day. Not long after her arrival, Margarita sent a vinyl recording of her voice to her family in Spain: “Things are going well,” she says, according to my relatives who have heard it. “I just hope that when we see each other again we are all still young, like we were when we last were together.” She wouldn’t see her parents and siblings for almost 20 years after that.
The hope of returning to Spain was exacerbated by the triumph of the allied forces in World War II. But as Cold War tensions grew, Franco presented himself to the international community as a bastion against communism, and the United States was quick to recognize him as a strategic ally. (Mexico never had diplomatic relations with his regime.)
The end of franquism would have to wait until the dictator’s death in 1975, by which point the exiled Republicans in Mexico had rebuilt their lives. Most of them were old men and women by then, who had children and grandchildren that called Mexico home. The vast majority of Spanish Civil War refugees in Mexico never returned to live in Spain and, like my great-grandparents, are buried in Mexico.
My mom likes to say that there are many sides to Mexico: there’s the stereotypical Mexico of mariachis, tacos, and tequila; the prehispanic Mexico of ancient pyramids and mystical traditions; the spring break Mexico of beach resorts and night clubs; and, sadly, the bloody Mexico of ruthless drug cartels and corrupt government officials.
Lesser known, perhaps, is the compassionate and welcoming Mexico, which was on the right side of history at a time when almost no other country was. In line with a historic tradition of solidarity, and true to its noblest ideological aspirations, that Mexico was a refuge for thousands of people who fought in a war in which, in the words of the Mexican journalist Francisco Martínez de la Vega, “victory and honor did not coincide.”