Marina Ginestà, 94, the defiant militia girl with the gun

The star of the iconic 1936 photograph passes away in Paris

Marina Ginestà on the rooftop of the Colón hotel in Barcelona.
Marina Ginestà on the rooftop of the Colón hotel in Barcelona. JUAN GUZMÁN (EFE)

Some pictures are touched by fortune, ready to become icons of an era as soon as they are developed. One such image is a photograph taken at the onset of the Spanish Civil War, depicting a disheveled, attractive young woman with a rifle slung over her shoulder who stares at the camera with a combination of joy and defiance as she stands on the rooftop of a building affording views across Barcelona. The girl, a magnificent symbol of the proletariat's revolutionary epic and the hopes of a people who had taken up arms, was named Marina Ginestà, and she died in Paris on Sunday at the age of 94.

The picture was taken by the German photographer Hans Gutmann, better known in Spain as Juan Guzmán, on the top of the old Hotel Colón on Plaça de Catalunya. This building would later become a branch of the Banesto bank and now houses an Apple Store. During the Civil War (1936-1939), the hotel became the headquarters of the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC), which plastered the façade with posters of Lenin and Stalin. It was one of the sites of the 1937 confrontations between the Communists and the Marxist Unification Workers' Party (POUM), at a time when the city's rooftops served a ballistic purpose: POUM members, George Orwell included, used to shoot their rifles from the top of the Poliorama Theater, then occupied by the anarcho-syndicalists of CNT-FAI. Meanwhile, the hole in one of the "O"s of the Colón rooftop sign cradled the barrel of a machine gun that swept the square with its rapid fire.

When Gutmann photographed the 17-year-old Ginestà, then a member of the Unified Socialist Youth Group, the fratricidal confrontation had not yet begun. It was July 21, 1936 and the girl's gaze reflected republican confidence following the quelling of the uprising in Barcelona.

There is a curious story to the photograph. It remained forgotten in the archives of the Efe news agency until 2002, but it was only in 2006, thanks to the determination of Julio García Bilbao, an Efe worker who wanted to know who the girl was, that Ginestà learned about the photograph's existence. In fact, it had been circulating for quite some time, and had made the cover of a book and become the poster of an exhibition in Germany.

The photograph remained forgotten in the archives of the Efe news agency until 2002

And so at the age of 89 Ginestà, by then a resident of Paris, was interviewed by Spanish state broadcaster TVE to explain how the photo came to be. She said the hotel customers, mostly foreigners, had all left and that its occupiers lived there for a few days "in a bourgeois manner" until provisions ran out. She was given a rifle and told to go up on the roof with the photographer for a photo shoot, but that she had to return the weapon afterward. "At 17, I was not in a condition to fight in the war," she noted.

As for her own defiant gaze, Ginestà mused that it was influenced by the revolutionary mystique and by movies she had watched, citing Gary Cooper and Greta Garbo.

Marina Ginestà was born in Toulouse on January 29, 1919 to a working-class family that was politically very active. Her father was secretary for the liaison committee of CNT-UGT in Catalonia and her mother, Empar Coloma, was an active member of the Female Section for Cooperativist Propaganda. Before the picture was taken, Marina was involved in the Popular Olympics, and later worked as a journalist and the translator for Pravda correspondent Mikhaíl Koltsov when he interviewed the prominent anarchist Buenaventura Durruti in August 1936. Later still she worked in the Republican rearguard.

Following the Republican defeat in the war, she moved to France, where the Nazi occupation pushed her on to Mexico. Ginestà eventually settled in Paris, where she had been living for 40 years before the interview took place.

She said her worst memory of the war was visiting a Barcelona hospital to identify the dead. She also remembered the euphoria at the time that her famous picture was taken. "It's a good photo," she said with a smile that seemed to take her right back to that moment when she still trusted that Franco would be executed any day...

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