On May 9, 1954, General Francisco Franco and his wife were on a tour of Salamanca and Badajoz. It was a routine journey: inaugurating tenant farmer colonies, visiting priests at war against the “moral and physical defects” of the peasantry, and christening reservoirs.
At around midday, the procession left Ciudad Rodrigo, Salamanca province. Some six kilometers away awaited “the mass of peasantry, grouped in the brand new square of the brand new village of Águeda del Caudillo,” ready to receive “from the hands of the Generalísimo the first titles of settlement that will deliver them from the servitude of dry earth.” In return for the villagers’ gratitude, the dictator delivered a speech about rural values and Russian gold.
The foundation of Águeda was recorded in various newspapers of the time — Ofensiva, Abc and La Voz de Miróbriga — which note the presence of fascist insignia and how the local bishop sang the Salve Regina upon seeing the Caudillo. Almost 60 years later Águeda, along with other nearby hamlets, such as San Sebastián, Conejera, Ivanrey and Sanjuanejo, are still referred to as “the villages that Franco built.”
Tomás Domínguez Cid, the local registrar, secretary to the mayor and an amateur historian, remembers how his grandfather came to be one of the first colonists: “He was from Ciudad Rodrigo. He worked a small orchard and rented out donkeys there. Imagine the difference when he and his 10 children were given land, cows and a huge house at a very advantageous price.” They were the halcyon days of plenty in the Francoist paradise, far from the deprivations of city life. “I understand why there’s resistance to a referendum on changing Águeda’s name: the opposition of its inhabitants is total,” says Domínguez. “The weight of history is strong.”
It is in the gratefulness of these villagers that the reluctance to extinguish the dictator from their place names resides. Eight villages (the majority are not large enough to be municipalities), including Águeda, still pay homage to Franco: Llanos del Caudillo, Ciudad Real; Bembézar del Caudillo, Córdoba; Alberche del Caudillo, Toledo; Bárdena del Caudillo, Zaragoza; Guadiana del Caudillo and Villafranco del Guadiana in Badajoz; and Villafranco del Guadalhorce, Málaga. Almost all are former colonies.
Although Article 15 of the Historical Memory Law is unequivocal about the obligation to remove references to Franco from street names and plaques, place names remain ambiguous. After the end of the dictatorship, the changes came slowly. Most of the alterations — from El Ferrol del Caudillo in 1982, to Gévora del Caudillo, the latest, in 2011 — were made following local council votes. Others preferred to hold a referendum first. On occasion, the vote goes against those defending the law, as was the case with Guadiana del Caudillo, which in March rejected a motion to change its name. In the case of Bembézar simple logistics come into play. The village reinstated its Del Caudillo suffix because of postal confusion with the nearby Bembézar reservoir.
In Águeda, opposition to name change is abundant. As soon as I get out the car, an elderly man approaches to cast an eye over the outsider. When I voice the purpose of the visit, he shuts up. Asked for his name, he refuses to give it: “I’m the man you met under a tree.”
“I have been here since before the colony was created,” he says. “I lived on a farm around here and when we were kids we came to see the building works. We don’t have anything bad to say and we don’t like it when people come to bother us with nonsense about changing the name. Franco gave us cheap land, Swiss cattle, there was plenty of work,” he says, screwing up his eyes in rage as he rounds off: “Life was good when people still wanted to work. Then came the idea of getting rich, the brick trade, and now look. Whoever comes to bother us about this matter is not welcome.”
Officially, the population of Águeda is 112, but the man under the tree says it is really just 30, with the other residents seasonal visitors. There is no school and no town hall and the village seems utterly abandoned. A couple of old ladies scurry inside their homes when they see the old man talking to the stranger. When walking up one of the 12 streets of Águeda, shutters crash down. One of the streets is called Generalísimo; another, José Antonio [after Primo de Rivera, founder of the Falange]. The village is clean and the soft gurgle of irrigation can be heard in the air. The National Colonization Institute created some 300 of these communities across Spain for tenant farmers with large families. Its mission was to cultivate crops to feed rural provinces, but it also served the needs of the state by fostering rural devotees, self-sufficiency and a healthy mistrust of cities and laborers.
The debate over paying tribute to Franco continues even today. Last week, a court ruling obliged Valencia to revoke the title of honorary mayor bestowed upon the dictator. In Castellón, the opposition Socialists have tabled a motion to strip Franco of the city’s gold medal.
In 1954, Franco ended his speech in Águeda with a resounding “¡Arriba España!” Ofensiva reported that the assembled listeners responded with a “a strenuous salvo of applause that lasted a good while.” Almost 60 years later, the echo of that ovation continues to resonate.