Justice for Franco’s Victims: ALBA/Puffin Prize Supports Exhumations

June 11, 2015
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Emilio Silva, founding president of Spain’s Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, was in New York to receive the fifth ALBA/Puffin Award for Human Rights Activism. Spain’s transition to democracy, he said, failed to address the country’s moral debt to the thousands of victims of violence during the Spanish Civil War and the Franco regime.

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Emilio Silva gives his acceptance speech. Photo Len Tsou

“By exhuming the mass graves we are not ripping open old wounds, as some have claimed. Rather, the graves are an opened mouth, allowing the past to speak with us,” Emilio Silva said during an animated, informative and at times emotional conversation with Emma Daly of Human Rights Watch, and CUNY’s Stephanie Golob, at the annual ALBA reunion in New York City on May 9.

Emma Daly, Emilio Silva, Stephanie Golob, and Marina Garde. Photo Len Tsou.

Emma Daly, Emilio Silva, Stephanie Golob, and Marina Garde. Photo Len Tsou.

Silva is the founding president of Spain’s Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (La Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica, ARMH). He was in New York to receive the fifth ALBA/Puffin Award for Human Rights Activism. Since its founding in 2000, the ARMH has exhumed more than 150 mass graves, allowing victims of Francoist violence to rebury the remains of their loved ones. After government subsidies were cut off in 2012, the Association was almost forced to close shop.  The $100,000 award will allow the ARMH to continue its important work.

Silva was sharply critical of Spain’s transition to democracy, which he said failed to address the country’s moral debt to the thousands of victims of violence during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1939-1975). The Franco regime exhumed and honored those who died fighting the Spanish Republic, leaving those who defended it strewn across the country in thousands of unmarked mass graves.

Professor Golob outlined the legal intricacies facing those who have taken to the courts to seek redress. In 2008, judge Baltasar Garzón—the winner of the first ALBA/Puffin Award—undertook an attempt to investigate the thousands of Spanish disappeared. After Garzón’s disbarment, the Argentine courts have taken on the case under the umbrella of universal jurisdiction. “It is true that Spain declared an amnesty in 1977,” Golob said. “But the Argentine judge argues that the acts of violence that occurred during the Civil War and the dictatorship constitute crimes against humanity, which cannot be amnestied—according to international law that Spain has ratified. Moreover, a forced disappearance is a crime that is ongoing until the body is found.”


The acts of violence that occurred during the Civil War and the dictatorship are crimes against humanity.


At the award ceremony, Alyce Barr, founding principal of the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies and the daughter of Lincoln Brigade veteran Reuben Barr, read a letter from the New York City Chancellor of Education, Carmen Fariña. The Chancellor congratulated the award winners and gave a ringing endorsement of ALBA’s work. “My parents were refugees of the Spanish Civil War,” she said, “and sought to keep alive the memory of the fight for a democratic Spain. As a first generation American, I grew up listening to my father’s stories about his life in Spain and the politics and history of his home country. He believed, as I do, that remembering the past is critical to paving a brighter and more just future for all of us.” (See pages 12-13 for the complete letter.) Other speakers included ALBA’s executive director, Marina Garde, and outgoing chair, Sebastiaan Faber.


Chancellor Fariña gave a ringing endorsement of ALBA’s work.


As always, there was music. The young Spanish folk artist Pedro Pastor sang two songs, and the event—held this year at the Japan Society—closed with an energetic performance of Spanish Civil War songs by Brooklyn-based Barbez (Dan Kaufman, Peter Lettre, Danny Tunick, John Bollinger, and Peter Hess) and featured the San Francisco vocalist Velina Brown. Pastor and Faber joined as well.

Designed to sustain the legacy of the experiences, aspirations and idealism of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the ALBA/Puffin Award for Human Rights Activism supports current international activists and human rights causes. The Award was created by philanthropist and visionary Perry Rosenstein, President of the Puffin Foundation, which in 2010 established an endowed fund for the ALBA/Puffin Award for Human Rights Activism.

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