Today we are proud to excerpt the introduction form the newest memoir from Concha Alborg My Mother, That Stranger. Letters from the Spanish Civil War.
Over eight-hundred letters were written between the author’s newly-engaged parents during the time that her father was on the Republican war front fighting against Franco’s forces, and her mother awaiting the end of the war. Her father, Professor Juan Luis Alborg, would live to become a well-known literary historian and critic. Her mother’s life, on the other hand, was overshadowed by her husband’s academic celebrity. The letters were discovered whilst preparing for a symposium marking the centenary of her father’s birth, celebrated at the University of Malaga in 2014.
This unique memoir is a microhistory of the Spanish Civil War at an individual level; it illuminates the ‘official story’ as told in history books at multiple levels. Her mother’s personal narrative adds to the understanding of this significant time because she shows how a family lived in the midst of war. A primary relevance is that she lived in Valencia, which in November 1936 become the official capital of the Republican government. Working in a government co-op gave her an insider’s view of the ongoing political and military situation. She describes the contrasting burdens between family life in Valencia, and the life of her fiancé soldier on the southern frontlines. The author’s mother is exemplary of the women who were formed under the liberal Second Spanish Republic (1931–39) only to be silenced during Franco’s repressive dictatorship (1939–75). The long-lost letters made Concha Alborg realize how little she understood her mother’s passion to set down complex feelings in the most difficult of circumstances. My Mother, That Stranger will be of interest to Hispanists, historians and literary critics for its uniqueness on the epistolary genre and gender studies, and to the general public as a heartfelt family memoir.
INTRODUCTION, FINDING THE LETTERS
In preparation for a symposium commemorating the centenary of my father’s birth, the books from his libraries in Spain as well as in the United States, had been catalogued, packed, and shipped to the University of Málaga. In the summer of 2013, I went with two Spanish colleagues to my father’s summer home in El Escorial, near Madrid, to make sure that all the documents and books had been properly picked up. At one point the doorman interrupted our visit, reminding us that there was a storage unit in the attic and that he had the key. I remembered storing my children’s crib and toys there. On that day, there were small household items in the attic, together with a few large cardboard boxes and an imposing picture of Cervantes that eventually ended up in Málaga as well. The boxes seemed to contain miscellaneous documents.
José Polo, one of my accompanying sleuths who is a serious bibliophile, was wearing a blue librarian’s smock and white gloves in order to protect our findings. In the very last box to be opened, under some class notes, Ángeles Encinar alerted us about some unusual documents. There they were, obviously hidden; more than 800 letters carefully separated into small bundles and in perfect condition, thanks to the dry climate and high altitude in that region of Spain. I recognized my father’s energetic handwriting immediately, but the ones signed by Conchita were not written in my mother’s typical cursive handwriting. They were written in traditional calligraphy, similar to what I had been taught by the French Ursuline nuns at Our Lady of Loreto School in Madrid. At first, I thought I had found letters between my dad and an aunt, also named Conchita, with whom my father had an affair before my mother’s death, a liaison that caused no end of turmoil within my entire family. I recreated those letters in my novel, American in Translation: A Novel in Three Novellas (2011), and this book also caused all kinds of grief.
No, this Conchita was my mother, writing in a different script for a reason I could not yet fathom. Finding these letters was a very emotional, pivotal moment for me. I knew immediately I had to bring them home to Philadelphia, where I still live, rather than ship them to Málaga with the rest of my father’s documents. I purchased a carry-on suitcase and I have not been separated from this evocative treasure-trove since. All of the 822 letters are sitting on my dining room table, arranged in chronological order in two neat files. My father’s letters, although they are practically the same in number as my mother’s, occupy almost double the space; my mother always let her husband have the last word — and then some.
My mother was born in Valencia on June 21, 1916. She was named Concepción after her mother, a name that traditionally becomes Conchita and Concha, just as I started my life as Conchín to become Conchita during my school days in Madrid and, later, Concha throughout my life in the United States. Naming children after their parents and using a diminutive form was commonplace in Spain and, despite their liberal political leanings, my family was traditional in that respect. Whenever anyone asked my mother about her family, she always started by saying that she was the oldest of seven with four brothers and two sisters who came after her in short succession. She was equally fond of each of them and often remarked proudly how handsome her brothers were, with full heads of wavy hair until well into their advanced age. She was, however, the most striking of them all; small in stature, with auburn hair and beautiful green, smiling eyes.
Her parents lived in Valencia, close to the Ruzafa Market, in a modest flat similar to the one I remember visiting often as a young girl. José Carles, my grandfather, was a loving man who doted on his children, my mother in particular. He worked as an accountant at a bakery near the city harbor, easily reachable by trolley from their home. Despite being the third largest city in Spain, Valencia, with its 380,000 inhabitants in 1936 was, and still is, very much a provincial city, walkable and easy to navigate. When my mother finished secretarial school, she started working for the telephone company to supplement the family income and her siblings followed suit as soon as they were old enough to work.
The Spanish Civil War, which started with General Francisco Franco´s coup on July 18, 1936, broke the routine of my mother´s family as well as that of the entire city. By November 1936 Valencia became the capital of the Republic with the established legal government of President Manuel Azaña. The battle lines were mainly drawn geographically: Valencia, Barcelona and Madrid staying on the Republican, Loyalist side (also called “Red”) of the Socialist Government, while the South, Castile and the North, with the exception of the Basque region, were allied with the Nationalist, fascist Falange movement (with their blue shirts) under General Francisco Franco. Some families found themselves in the deplorable situation of having relatives, even siblings, fighting against each other just because they lived in different regions of the country.
My mother had just turned twenty years old when the war broke out. At first, everyone thought that it would be a matter of months before the conflict was settled and for a person like her, life still seemed normal enough. She was gregarious, had many friends and loved to go to the beach. She did not have a formal boyfriend at that time, but I have seen pictures of her at parties, wearing costumes, laughing gaily as if she did not have a care in the world. On New Year’s Day 1937 she went to a party with her theater group and was introduced to a lanky, reserved, serious university student with thick, black-framed glasses. Juan Luis Alborg could not have been more different than Conchita Carles.
At that time, the man who would become my father was completing his studies in the humanities at the University of Valencia. He lived a few blocks from my mother´s family with his uncle, Miguel Alborg, who never married and ran the family cheese import business, his sister Teresa Alborg (who would become my godmother) and his stepmother, Teresa Monserrat. After his mother passed away, my grandfather soon remarried and had a daughter from his second marriage. As the son of a widow and a university student, there was a question as to whether my father could be drafted to fight in the war, but he was called just a few months after he met my mother. My parents wrote to each other almost every day between July 1937 and the end of March 1939; no one in my family, including me, had any idea that their letters had survived and still existed.
There are scores of histories and memoirs that have been written about the Spanish Civil War, from the all-time classic Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) to one of my favorites, Doves of War: Four Women of Spain by Paul Preston (2016). But this memoir is unique because it is based on the complete, intimate letters between my parents and focuses on my mother rather than my well-known father. My mother’s life was exemplary of the women who were formed under the liberal Spanish Republic only to be silenced during Franco’s repressive dictatorship (1939-1975). This book differs from other works presenting a women’s perspective. Women’s Voices from the Spanish Civil War edited by Jim Fyrth and Sally Alexander (1991), for example, focuses on the narratives of foreign women who were deemed to be more objective. Memories of Resistance. Women’s Voices from the Spanish Civil War by Shirley Mangini (1995), emphasizes the narratives of political and literary figures because of their prominence or accomplishments. In several respects my book is a microhistory of the Spanish Civil War as seen by individuals who illuminate the official story told in history books. My mother’s personal narrative adds to the understanding of this significant time because she showed us how a family lived in the midst of war. Accounts such as these are generally relegated to footnotes in traditional history books. According to Mangini, “The Spanish memory texts of war and its consequences are women-woven texts, fused together to form a historical quilt” (56). I would like to add my mother’s story to this memorial quilt, since she “has provided us with such insights into the lives of Spanish women and the impact of the Spanish Civil War” (65).
Reading my parents’ letters, I realized that I did not know my mother well, thus the “Stranger” in my title. Writing about her has truly been a journey of discovery. The mother I grew up with was not the same woman portrayed in my parents’ letters. After marrying my father, under his tutelage and living in Francoist Spain, she changed from a liberal young woman to a watchful mother. The patriarchal society overwhelmed her Republican upbringing by far.
In addition to discovering my mother, as Phillip Lopate expresses in his epigraph, the process of writing this memoir became a journey of self-discovery as well. I realized the degree to which I am like my mother and how I differ from her in other ways. Immigrating to the United States, for example, was something that she did not fully accomplish, emphasizing the differences between us. Nevertheless, the impact of my mother’s legacy is significant, not only on myself but on others members of my family. As part of my mother’s rich legacy, I have included some of her favorite recipes in an appendix. Her cooking is a way in which she expressed herself and her Spanish culture.
The 2014 symposium turned out to be fortuitous for me, since I found my parents’ letters were concerned, but I shall always wonder why my father hid these letters and, even more puzzling, why he never mentioned them to me. He followed my writing career and knew of my interest in his stories about the Spanish Civil War, which I included in my first work of fiction, Una noche en casa (A Night at Home, 1995). There is not a chance that he had forgotten about these letters that were so carefully kept; he had a sharp mind until the very end. It is very possible that he hid them during his second marriage to keep them safe from his wife, who was jealous of my mother and had removed all of her pictures from the house. Another explanation as to why he did not tell me about the letters could be that he did not really want me to write about this part of his life, although he encouraged me to write about him as a Don Juan character. He often told me of his adventures after my mother died, urging me to take notes; his only request was that I not call him José Luis as I did in some of my works, but Juan, appropriately, his real name.
It is very ironic that I would be the one to find these letters, and not only because I am a writer. When I arrived at his apartment, several of my dad´s students and some of his paramours had been through the entire place, cataloguing and taking inventory. My brother lives only a few kilometers from El Escorial and he was always good at keeping an eye on our parents´ possessions. Also, my father´s third wife had made this place her home and still spends vacations there. In fact, the attic was full of her belongings. What is truly coincidental is that in 2006, right after my second husband died, I also found correspondence with his lovers, which proved that, unbeknownst to me, he had a hidden life too. I wrote about this dramatic event in my memoir, Divorce After Death: A Widow’s Memoir (2014). Granted, that separated by some seventy years, my parents’ letters were in an attic in Spain, while my late husband’s letters were on a laptop in the United States. But poetic justice does, indeed, seem to exist and I was meant to write about my family´s past, proving that sometimes one can find out more about people post mortem than when they were alive.
At first, I was going to write a memoir that focused on my father´s long, peripatetic life and illustrious career but, upon reflection, I decided to write about my mother´s quieter and shorter life, albeit an equally fascinating and meaningful one. I trust that there will be other works written about my eminent father, but probably none about my not-so-well-known mother. Had I rushed to finish this project, I would have written the wrong book. Like my mother, I was married first to a man who also fought in a war and, later, to a wandering husband. As her daughter and as a mother myself, I am the ideal reader of her letters. I trust that, given my academic expertise on contemporary Spain – history, culture, literature and language –, I will also be the ideal writer to interpret the letters and put them in the appropriate context for English-speaking readers. I have translated direct quotes from the letters into English and used parenthesis with the exact dates given, even though I did not write about them chronologically. Although this family memoir is not intended to be strictly an academic study, I have included textual notes and a bibliography to elucidate historical facts alluded to in my parents’ letters and to clarify historical points.