Miguel Hernández archive: a victim of politics or economics?

Family of Civil War poet accuses Popular Party-controlled Elche City Hall of reneging on a deal and moving the legacy

Miguel Hernández, as drawn by Antonio Buero Vallejo in the prison at Ocaña.
Miguel Hernández, as drawn by Antonio Buero Vallejo in the prison at Ocaña.

The archives of Civil War-era poet Miguel Hernández are to be removed from Elche, the city close to where he was born, in Alicante, and will now be stored in the Andalusian city of Quesada. Such a move could at first glance seem like a bizarre development, but it is just the latest in a series of threats and reprisals between local authorities and the writer’s living relatives, who have been dissatisfied at the way his legacy has been utilized.

Hernández’s relatives say that following a dispute with the Popular Party-run Elche City Hall over the costs involved in storing the more than 5,000 documents contained in the archive and making them available to researchers and the public, they have reached an agreement with Quesada, Jaén province, the birthplace of Hernández’s wife, Josefina Manresa, and which is run by the Socialist Party.

Often compared to the better known and more prolific Federico García Lorca, Hernández also fell foul of the Franco regime following the military uprising in 1936 due to his support for the Republican cause. Hernández died aged 32 in jail in 1942 from tuberculosis, after a death sentence for his leftwing sympathies had been commuted to 30 years’ imprisonment.

The poet rose from a humble childhood as a goatherd in the Valencia region to the literary circles of Pablo Neruda in Madrid. Influenced by both Golden-Age writers such as Quevedo and the surrealists, he joined a generation of socially conscious Spanish authors concerned with workers’ rights. In 1936, he volunteered to help the Republican army fight the fascist military uprising that led to 40 years of dictatorship. He also gave rousing addresses to troops on the losing Republican side of the war.

Hernández was arrested in 1940, when his family says he refused on principle to sign a confession and apology in return for permission to go into exile.

Two years later, as he was dying in his cell, Hernández still stubbornly refused to sign a confession that might have led to the commutation of the remainder of his 30-year prison sentence and perhaps even the right to leave Spain. To the end, he maintained that he had not committed any crime against his country and he steadfastly refused to bow to the new regime.

As long as it is well maintained and accessible to researchers, I don’t really care where it is"

He was condemned to death as “an extremely dangerous and despicable element to all good Spaniards.” Franco later reduced his sentence so that he would not become an international martyr, as Lorca had done. As Hernández was shuttled between jails, he completed one of his best-known works, Songs and Ballads of Absence, about his wife’s poverty and the death of his infant son.

His family accuses Elche City Hall’s new Popular Party (PP) mayor, Mercedes Alonso, who ended 33 years of Socialist rule in the city in last year’s elections, of reneging on a deal which goes back 27 years, and that the former mayor had renewed for another 20 years, committing City Hall to paying the poet’s relatives three million euros over that time.

When Alonso took office, she introduced immediate spending cuts, among them the 84,000 euros paid to the family each year for the rights to the documents. Attempts by the provincial government of Alicante to broker a deal, and at one point to take over the custody of the archive, came to nothing.

Pablo Ruz, the arts director of Elche City Hall, plays down the importance of the location of Hernández’s archives. “The scale and dimension of his work transcends the physical, and his legacy is universal. We can’t afford to pay to keep it here, so if another municipality wants to do so, that is fine by us.”

Lucia Izquierdo, Hernández’s grand-daughter, says that she and other family members do not make any money out of the maintenance of the archive: “If at any point publishing parts of the archive generate any royalties, then we would be entitled to what corresponds to us.”

She blames Elche City Hall for the failure to reach agreement that would have kept Hernández’s archive in Alicante. “They have refused to talk to us, or to make any attempt to negotiate this; by talking this through we could have found a way.”

The decision reflects the PP’s ideological dislike for this poet"

Santiago Grisolía, the head of the PP-controlled regional government’s arts and culture department, says that the archive “should, in theory, remain where it was established.” But José Luis Ferris, Hernández’s biographer, plays down the issue of the archive’s location: “As long as it is well maintained and accessible to researchers, I don’t really care whether it is in Madrid, Salamanca, or Jaén.”

Not everyone takes such a moderate line, however. José Carlos Rovira, a professor of literature at the University of Alicante, accuses the PP of wanting to get rid of the work of a poet lionized by the left, and a powerful symbol of the Franco regime’s harsh repression.

“The decision reflects the PP’s ideological dislike for this poet. They have allowed this to happen, and now they are trying to blame others,” says Rovira. “I understand entirely why the family wants to move the archive, particularly in light of the interest of the authorities in Andalusia to work harder to increase awareness of Hernández’s work.

Hernández, like the thousands of other men and women executed or sentenced to lengthy prison sentences by Franco for their opposition to the military uprising, was tried by a military court without proper legal representation. In 2010, after many years of campaigning, his supposed crime was wiped from the records. But the Supreme Court last year rejected the family’s petition to void the summary judgment by Franco-era military court on the grounds that it followed the law of the times. The Zapatero government’s Historical Memory Law allows for pardons but does not declare pre-democratic court rulings void.

Hernández’s work was treasured by a battered and disoriented post-war generation. One of his best-known poems, written in prison after his son died, is the Onion Lullaby: “My little boy was in hunger’s cradle,” it reads. “He was nursed on onion blood. But your blood is frosted with sugar, onion and hunger.” He was still in prison, away from his family and friends, when he died on March 28, 1942 at just 31 years of age. Just before his death, he was able to write one more short poem, said to be written on the wall beside his bed in prison: “Farewell, brothers, comrades, friends: Give my goodbyes to the sun and the wheat fields.”

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