The man tracking down relatives of victims found in Franco-era grave

David Coronado is racing to return the bodies of people who were shot and buried in Paterna, in eastern Spain, before they are returned to the mass burial site

Left to right: Jacqueline and Cristina Fortea, José and Consuelo Morell, and David Coronado with photographs of executed relatives in Paterna (Valencia).

Left to right: Jacqueline and Cristina Fortea, José and Consuelo Morell, and David Coronado with photographs of executed relatives in Paterna (Valencia). .Mònica Torres
María Fabra

– Hi. I’m David Coronado. They are exhuming the grave where your grandfather is buried. I think you can come collect his remains and say a proper goodbye to him.

This is how Coronado starts his conversations with relatives of people who were executed by Franco’s regime in Paterna, in Spain’s eastern Valencia region, in 1940, and whose remains have lain in grave 114 ever since. He doesn’t always know what kind of response he will get. “I’m the typical freak who volunteers to be president of the building homeowners association,” he says jokingly. “You have to devote some time to helping others. Make a few calls, ask around, and maybe give them the joy of knowing they can recover the remains of a murdered ancestor.”

Grave 114, located inside the local cemetery in Paterna, holds the corpses of almost 200 people shot between May 9 and June 28, 1940, after the Civil War was already over. The association of relatives of these victims has only 70 members, all of whom will hopefully be able to claim the remains of their loved ones after a DNA match. But all the unclaimed corpses will be placed in boxed and go back to the grave. David Coronado’s goal is to make sure there are as few of these as possible.

The historian Vicent Gavarda, who specializes in historical memory issues, drew up a list with the names of those who, according to documents, were shot against the wall in Paterna and buried in what became known as the “culture grave” as it was filled not only with farmers but also with the bodies of publishers, illustrators and journalists, as well as magistrates and politicians.

My mother always talked about exhuming him. It was her wish. She died in love. She loved him more than her own life
Consuelo Morell, daughter of José Morell

Coronado used the list as a guide and found five victims from the Valencian town of Cheste, which has 8,000 inhabitants. “I know the town; its people are decent and hard-working,” he says. “It is small and it is quite possible that the families stayed here all this time.”

He began by checking surnames via social media and search engines and enlisted the help of the city council. “I had a hunch,” he says. “One of the last names matched someone I knew. It was exciting when I discovered that one of the unclaimed bodies was a relative of a friend of mine.”

Cristina Fortea is the great-niece of José Fortea – her aunt Fina’s father, who was shot on June 18, 1940. As in so many other cases, the family rarely spoke about it. “We knew he was in Paterna [where 2,238 executions have been recorded], but we did not know which grave he was in,” she says. “Nor that the exhumation had begun.” Although Coronado and Fortea have been friends for years, they had not talked about it either.

“It was a taboo subject,” adds another great-niece of José Fortea, Jacqueline. The only part of the story they had heard from their aunt Fina concerned the visits to the Modelo prison in Valencia. At 88, their aunt still remembers the details. “I would go with my mother every week to bring him food,” she says. “She didn’t want to go alone. We would stand at the gate of the prison feeling cold or hot or whatever the weather was. My father would ask about my brother and me, but we couldn’t go in.” With an emotional yet serene voice she recalls the day she was almost able to hug her father again. “We were at the gate,” she says. “I must have been six years old. A very fat lady, wearing a black shawl, told me to get under her skirts. She hid me and I went in, but a guard saw my feet in the courtyard, grabbed me by the shoulder and threw me out.” José Fortea was shot at the age of 34. “I don’t remember his face,” says his daughter, who never went to the cemetery. When asked how she feels about being able to bury her father’s remains next to those of her mother, she says, “I will be very happy.”

Promises to reclaim bodies

Not all the relatives from the town of Cheste responded in the same way. The wife of Emilio Tarín, a farmer who was murdered on June 18, 1940, asked her grandchildren to recover her husband’s remains if they could. They promised they would do so but as they are not the direct family but descendants from a later relationship, there is less emotion involved. “Not everyone reacts the same way,” says Coronado.

Consuelo and José, the children of José Morell, who was shot on June 18, 1940, stamped the photo of their parents’ wedding on their mother’s tombstone when they buried her. They never thought they would eventually be able to bury both parents together. “It was like he was there with her, but he wasn’t,” says Consuelo. “Now he will be.” His great-niece Silvia was the one who got the call from Coronado. “It was a great surprise,” she says. “We knew he had been shot in Paterna, but we didn’t know they were exhuming the grave.”

José Morell’s children were two and three-and-a-half years old when he was shot; their mother was 22. When they recall how she struggled to bring them up alone and what they had to go without, they feel angry. “Dinner was juice every night,” says Consuelo. Her father was locked up for more than a year in the Modelo prison, with a death sentence hanging over his head. His pardon came through eight days after he was shot. “I can’t forget,” says Consuelo. They say he was picked up by Franco’s men when he went to get a soda to drink to someone’s death. “My mother always talked about exhuming him,” she says. “It was her wish. She died in love. She loved him more than her own life.”

David Coronado plays down his role in finding the relatives of the dead. “It is a human rights issue,” he says. “I look for them to tell them that they can recover the remains, sit with the body, say goodbye and do the ritual they were deprived of 80 years ago. It is important to say goodbye.”

While searching for the relatives, he has managed to get city officials in Cheste to commit to undertaking a ceremony once the bodies are delivered. There’s a house he keeps passing that looks abandoned, but which is in the name of someone who could be a relative of Miguel Morell Ibáñez, shot on May 20, 1940. “I am following clues, but I still have not located a relative,” he says. “The neighbors don’t know anything, either.” But maybe he will find someone before the exhumation and DNA matching is over, which will be in several months’ time. “It would be hugely satisfying,” he says, though his tone suggests it may not happen; that all too many bodies will have to be returned to the grave.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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