THE GRAVE PROJECT
This chapter explores queer historical figures that lived or worked, or died in Spain— people who tell a diverse story of queer lives in twentieth-century Spain. There are four distinct contrasting periods that these stories take place in, starting in the Second Republic in the early to mid-1930s which led to a slightly more open period before the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, which led to chaos, exile, and death. This was followed by the oppressive Franco Fascism period that lasted until 1975. The transition to the democracy period brought social change but conceded with the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic.
The ten pilgrimages we made in December 2019 were Carmen de Burgos, who became the first professional female journalist in Spain and campaigned vigorously for the legalisation of divorce in Spain. Carmen Valencia, a modernist dancer and performer who was jailed after the civil war for her feminist views. Federico Garcia Lorca, an acclaimed poet and playwright who Nationalist soldiers murdered during the civil war. Margarita Xirgu, an actress and director, a friend of Garcia Lorca, who helped spread his plays' popularity, and was forced to live in exile after the civil war. Lucía Sánchez Saornil, a writer and activist who fought for rights for women and the working class. Carmen Conde, a writer and poet, the first female academic to be admitted into the Royal Spanish Academy. Lili Álvarez, a well-known tennis player and the first female athlete to represent Spain in the Olympics, who later became active in the feminist movement in Spain. Ocana, an artist who used his practice to challenge the repression of the state and church. Alberto Cardin, an academic and writer, who was diagnosed with aids in the early 1980s and became one of the few people with a public profile to speak out about the unfolding tragedy.
A century covers all these people's stories, and many individual differences separate them. Still, several common themes connect them, including living in an overwhelmingly patriarchal society and a dominating religious structure. Many of their stories revolve around oppression, but all chose to fight the limitations placed on them by using their unique talent to create a space for themselves and others through different means like art, education, sport, and activism. Their stories also share a pursuit for love and finding one's place in the world.
Carmen Tórtola Valencia
Born in the artisan quarter of Seville, your parents emigrated to England when you were three. At age seven, they moved to Mexico to make their fortune, leaving you behind in Britain entrusted to a wealthy family where you learned six languages and the ways of performing and the arts. Rejecting marriage, you instead forged a life as an independent women artist. Hitting the stage for the first time in London in 1908, your life was changed forever when you first witnessed expat American dancers and fellow queers Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller perform in Paris.
Exploiting your Spanish origins along with borrowing movements from far away lands, your exotic choreography shocked and titillated the intelligentsia of Europe. You were the muse of a generation of Spanish poets; Rubén Darío dubbed you the ‘ballerina with bare feet’. Considered one of the most beautiful women in Europe, rumours of dalliances with Princes and Kings followed you around. A short engagement to your friend and fellow queer writer Antonio de Hoyos briefly paused the societal vice. In 1928 you met Magret Angeles-Vila, 14 years your junior, she would become the love of your life, and you would eventually legally adopt her. After temporarily being jailed at the end of the Spanish Civil War for your feminist leftist views, you lived out your days in Barcelona painting and adoring Magret.
Cementiri de Poblenou, Barcelona, Spain, 2019
Born into a life of affluence on Long Island, you limped your way into the vanguard scene of Greenwich Village, charming everyone you met. Meeting ‘fellow traveller’ Paul Bowles in 1937 was initially prickly as you would refer to him as your enemy. Still, you would eventually form a passionate love for each other and marry, although the marriage would be strictly platonic. Living a bohemian life around the world you opened up the marriage to new people and experiences. While in Mexico, you met your long-term on-again-off-again lover, Helvetia Perkins.
Your only published novel, Two Serious Ladies, didn’t match the success of your husband’s career but was celebrated by your peers. On advice from Gertrude Stein, you and Paul moved to Tangier, Morocco where you hosted and mingled with the artistic elite. While living there, you became entwined with a local grain seller, Cherifa, who always carried a switchblade to threaten castration to any male who got too close to you. A life of overindulging led to a stroke at forty, marking the rest of your life with pain and unfulfilled talent but never taking your predicaments too seriously, often referring to yourself as ‘Crippie, the Kike Dyke’. Going to Spain for rehabilitation failed after dancing too wildly at a birthday party ended it all.
Cementerio de San Miguel, Malaga, Spain, 2019
Federico Garcia Lorca
Born into the security of your parent’s wealth, your early childhood was comfortable but not easy; rumours were you couldn’t walk until age four. Moving to Granada at age ten - not excelling academically, you wanted to be a musician - it wasn’t until you were eighteen when your music mentor Antonio died that your attention switched to writing. Moving to Madrid, you met Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel, the latter would end up despising you because of his homophobia and think of you as an Andalusian dog. Your first play was a failure, but you came to the attention of famed actress Margarita Xirgu who produced your second play, Mariana Pineda. With stage designs done by Dali, it became a success; a year later your poetry collection, Gypsy Ballads, would bring national fame. Your intense relationship with Dali helped you acknowledge your own queerness, but the relationship would eventually end because of Dali’s terror of real physical intimacy.
With the sudden rise in fame, the demise of your friendship with Dali, and a love affair with sculptor Emilio Aladrén Perojo ending, depression took over. Travelling to New York for a new beginning, the witnessing of America’s social divides brought themes of justice to the front in your work. At the outbreak of the civil war in 1936, you planned to travel to Mexico with your 19-year-old lover Juan. Before you could leave, Nationalist militia abducted and executed you, with them telling people later they “fired two bullets into his arse for being a queer”. Your body was never found, but your legacy grew as the symbol of the tragedy of the war, summarised on your memorial stone ‘they were all Lorca’.
Parque Federico García Lorca, Alfacar, Spain, 2019
Born in a small Andalusian town, you grew up surrounded by the dominant religious and ultra-masculine local culture. Under the oppressive Franco regime, you moved to the creative hub of Barcelona in the early seventies. You lived in an artist collective with other socially and economically precious queers, including cartoonist Nazario Luque. Performing in drag down La Rambla, shouting and singing, with Camilo in arm, the cafes emptied for your communal pageantry, while Ventura Pons immortalised you intermittently. You used your body and nudity along with religious iconography in performative disobedience works as a way of resisting against a repressive society.
Rejecting all labels your primary fight was against the bourgeois society that persecuted the outsiders. Interested in your mortality, you often painted images of your own funeral and performed in cemeteries where you would steal vases and flowers that you adorned your bedroom with. Returning to Cantillana for a festival performance dressed as the sun, a flare ignited your costume, severely burning you. With your body already weakened with hepatitis, you died just weeks later, buried in a grave that resembled your bed with your stolen vases adorning your altar.
Cementerio Municipal Ntra. Sra. De La Soledad, Cantillana, Spain, 2019
Born with an artistic flair, you spent your childhood dreaming of being an actor, and despite battling a serious lung disease, you debuted on stage in your teens. Specialising in playing tragic characters like Salome and Joan of Arc foreshadowed your dramatic future. Overcoming the misogyny of the theatre world along with the relentless attacks from the conservative press, you reached the top of your profession, becoming one of the most revered actors and directors of your time. Not afraid of expressing your opinion about class and the monarchy, you were dubbed ‘Margarita the Red’. Meeting the aspirant writer Federico Garcia Lorca in 1926, you developed a strong friendship and took a chance by producing his play, Mariana Pineda, which brought national attention to Lorca.
You were touring the works of Lorca in Latin America when the civil war at home erupted. Weeks later, your friend Federico was murdered by the Fascists. After Franco seized power, you were forced into permanent exile. Marrying at a young age for practical and financial reasons, your husband's early death gave you the chance to become lovers with the leftist journalist Irene Polo. She accompanied you while you continued to tour in exile, but the somewhat one-sided relationship ended in tragedy when Irene killed herself by jumping out of a window in 1942. Despite always longing to return to Spain, you became an Uruguayan citizen and died in Montevideo. Decades later, the dream of returning home was finally realised when your remains were repatriated back to Catalunya.
Cementeri de Molins de Rei, Molins de Rei, Spain, 2019
Born into an aspirational family you moved from Spain to Mexico as a toddler for the prosperity of your father's shirt factory, returning at age nine to start your education, eventually studying medieval and contemporary art history. Moving to Barcelona in 1973, you mixed with both the intellectual left and the avant-garde crowd of Ocana and became part of a group of writers and creatives that were an important voice of the gay liberation movement in the transitional period. The posse that included your film director cousin, Jesus Garay, was dubbed ‘The Northern Boys.’
A prolific writer for various left-wing publications, you founded Diwan magazine with Jiménez Losantos, who would later betray the cause by converting to the far right. Your critics accused you of being ego-driven and ignorant about differing cultural ideas. Many wouldn’t forgive you for signing a petition to stop the ‘normalisation’ of the Catalan language. You were diagnosed with HIV in 1984 and publicly announced your status a year later, becoming one of the few brave voices in Spain to speak up about the unfolding tragedy. You maintained a strong critique of the government's passive response. You passed away from AIDS complications in 1992. Searching for hours through the thousands of tombs high in the hills of the Collserola cemetery we could not detect you.
Cementiri de Collserola, Barcelona, Spain, 2019
Lucia Sanchez Saornil
Born into poverty and raised by your father, you turned to writing poems from an early age to express the frustration of your lived experiences. While at art school, you started to use a male pen name to let you secretly convey your desire for female companionship. Despite having your work published in many prestigious literary journals, you had to work for fifteen years as an underpaid telephone operator to survive. In 1931 a union strike against the phone company ignited your passion for social justice and led you to dedicate the rest of your life to social revolution.
Joining the anarchist organisation, Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, as editor of their journal, you wrote fervently about gender roles in Spain, rejecting motherhood and subserviency as the foundation of female identity. Disappointed by the chauvinistic attitudes of your fellow Republicans, you co-founded Mujeres Libres (Free Women) to aid and empower working-class women to overthrow their oppressors. During the chaos of the civil war, you met your lifelong partner, America Barroso, and lived openly around your fellow ‘free women’. As the Republic ended, you fled to Paris together. With fascism spreading across Europe you returned to Spain defeated. Despite your fear of retribution for your politics and lifestyle, you lived out your days quietly with America. Illustrating what Spain had become, your epitaph reads, “But is it true that hope had died?”
Cementeri General de València, Valencia, Spain, 2019
Born in Italy while your wealthy parents were on holiday, you were raised in Switzerland, where you excelled at a wide range of sports from a young age. Mastering many traditionally feminine sports, you also took on the challenge of the male-dominated world of motor racing - winning your first race at age 19. But ice skating was your first love until an injury caused you to switch focus to playing tennis. At the 1924 Olympics, you became the first female Spanish athlete to compete at the Olympic games. By the end of the decade, you had become one of the best tennis players in the world, making three consecutive appearances at the Wimbledon final. Shocking the establishment with your court attire by wearing shorts instead of a skirt. In 1934 you married the French Count of Valdene, a World War One flying ace, but you had little in common, and after losing your only child, you separated.
Becoming active in the feminist movement, you published several books during the restrictive Franco era. Shocked by the lack of freedom women had in Spain, you tried to advance the participation in sports as a way to encourage them to get out of the house and meet new ‘friends’. In 1951 you met the well-known author Carmen Laforet who was a married mother of four children, both of you falling for each other instantly. Maintaining an intimate and intense correspondence for the next seven years until Carmen fell pregnant again, leaving you feeling betrayed. You broke off the relationship off with a simple note saying, “You won’t see me anymore, goodbye.” You continued to fight for the advancement of women until your dying days in Madrid, aged 93.
Cementerio de la Almudena, Madrid, Spain, 2019
Born in Cartagena growing up in the Spanish-Moroccan enclave of Melilla, you eagerly consumed every book that rejected typical gender stereotypes and promoted independence. You were raised by contrasting parents, your goldsmith father encouraged your writing talents from an early age, but your devout Catholic mother had little faith in your ability. In 1927 you met Antonio Oliver Belmás, your future husband and Generation of ‘27 poet. Motivated by the lack of educational opportunities for people from a less privileged background, you founded with Antonio the first Popular University of Cartagena.
In 1936 you met Amanda Junquera, a writer and the wife of a history professor, and formed an instant connection with her. With the outbreak of war, Antonio volunteered for the Republicans and was captured and imprisoned. When the Fascists were looking to arrest you, Amanda hid you away at her sister’s home for over a year. After a decade of imprisonment, your husband came back, and you agreed to keep up the appearances of the marriage, but Amanda had your heart. After both of your husbands passed away, you and Amanda could finally cohabit permanently. When the war ended, you were suffering ‘internal exile’, unable to obtain work at educational institutions, but you kept up your prolific writing and continued to publish. As the years passed, you integrated slowly back into the academic world, and in 1978 you became the first female to be elected to the Royal Spanish Academy. To your horror, the 250-year-old institution didn’t even have a female toilet. In the decade after Amanda’s death, your memories slowly ebbed, but your work ethic stayed strong.
Cementerio de San Justo, Madrid, Spain, 2019
Carmen de Burgos
Born in Almería into a bourgeois family, you were the first of ten siblings. Your mother was fifteen when she married your much older father, who owned a gold mine. Under constant pressure from your parents to marry well, you eventually said yes to Arturo Asterz Bustos, son of a publishing magnate, who was fourteen years older than you; a poet, journalist, and an alcoholic. The marriage allowed you to gain inside knowledge into the world of journalism, but life with Arturo was unbearable, and following your young son’s death, you enrolled in college to obtain a teaching certificate to try and gain financial independence.
After achieving your qualifications, you left your husband, and with your surviving daughter, you moved to Madrid. You gained employment at the newspaper, El Globo, becoming the first woman to be considered a professional journalist in Spain. Your column, Notes for Women, covered the women’s suffrage movement and other controversial topics like women’s self-determination, homosexuality, the death penalty, war, and class. You tirelessly campaigned for divorce to be legalised; publishing the leaflet Divorce in Spain in 1904 causing outrage in the deeply religious country. While living in Portugal, you met Ana de Castro Osorio, one of the leading Portuguese feminist writers, you formed a strong bond that would last the rest of your life. After decades of campaigning, the Second Republic legalised divorce a year before you died. You experienced a second death after the civil war when your work was banned and your legacy erased.
Cementerio Civil, Madrid, Spain, 2019