Unearthing the truth about Spain's mass graves

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Villapedre cemetery. Navia, Asturias. (Paula Sierra/Getty Images)
Villapedre cemetery. Navia, Asturias. (Paula Sierra/Getty Images)

Spain has one of the highest number of forced disappearances in the world, second only to Cambodia. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and General Francisco Franco's dictatorship, fascist troops killed tens of thousands of people and threw them into mass graves.

For decades, few people knew this — and no one in Spain talked about it. But in the year 2000, a man in the middle of an identity crisis began digging into his family's past, searching for a grandfather who had gone missing in the war.

What Emilio Silva discovered not only changed his own life - it inspired a social movement to recover Memoria Histórica, or historical memory, throughout Spain.

In episode 6, audio producer and writer Isabel Cadenas Cañón (De eso no se habla) reveals the cultural transformation of a country through the personal transformation of one man.

Show notes: 

Many thanks to the De eso no se habla team: Laura Casielles, Vanessa Rousselot, Paula Morais, and Marcos Salso.

Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text. 

[Excavation sounds]

Nora Saks: A group of men and women are digging into the soil. They’ve been at it for days. At first, they used picks and shovels.

Isabel Cadenas Cañón: And now in what we're hearing, they're using smaller and more precise tools. And of course, you cannot hear this, but around them, there are a few people who are looking in silence at what they're unearthing.

Nora: This is Isabel Cadenas Cañón, an audio producer and writer based in Madrid, Spain.

Nora: And what are they digging for? 

Isabel: Well, this is a mass grave from the Spanish Civil War.  

Nora: These people are exhuming the corpses of loved ones who were disappeared and executed at the beginning of the war - back in 1936. Exhumation. Mass graves. Disappeared person. Isabel says those words are very common in Spain today. But that was not always the case.

Isabel: Until probably 20 years ago, people didn't talk about the war too much. And of course, even less we talked about exhumations or mass graves. Some people didn't even know that mass graves existed. So in Spain, silence, I would say, has a historical weight, you know? 

Nora: The protagonist of this story wanted to find - and correctly identify - a family member who had gone missing in the war. And at first, he didn’t use words like “disappeared” or “mass grave” either.


Isabel: His name is Emilio Silva, and he's quite a well-known person here in Spain. He's on the media. He publishes articles. And he was first known because he was the first person in Spain to exhume the body of a disappeared person publicly using scientific methods. And he kind of changed the way we have of talking about our past in Spain. 

Nora: But this is not the story of Emilio, the public figure.

Isabel: I'd like to think it's a story of a man who decided to change his life. And then by chance, he found the place where all his silences were born. 

Nora: A story about how one man broke his own silence.

Isabel: And the story of how a whole country actually broke its silence.

Nora: Welcome to Last Seen. A show about people, places and things that have gone missing - and whether or not they can, or even should, be found. From WBUR - Boston’s NPR Station. I’m Nora Saks.

Today, an English translation of a beautiful story Isabel produced in 2020 for her podcast, De eso no se habla, which means - we don’t talk about that. This is Episode 6: A hole in the silence.

[Intercom buzzing

Emilio Silva: ¿Sí?

Isabel: ¡Silvi!

Emilio: ¿Ya estás aquí? 

Isabel: Sí.]

Isabel: I’ve known Emilio for seven years, but it feels like more. That’s why he teases me when I go to his home to record.

Emilio: Uy, sin PCR ni nada hecha

Isabel: Emilio is one of my best friends. And I know that when I get to his house he will have already been up for several hours, he will have finished listening to the radio and he will be in front of his computer. Writing an ever-unfinished novel.

Isabel: ¿Qué haces?

Emilio: Escribir

Isabel: ¿Qué estás escribiendo?

Emilio: Un párrafo de una cosa.

Isabel: ¿De una novela?

Emilio: Bueno, puede ser, sí. De un reloj.

Isabel: And I also know that, by this time -it’s almost noon- he’ll be drinking a coke. His mornings are always like this: first, he drinks chocolate milk, then a coffee, and after that a glass of coke. Sweet caffeine.

Emilio: Por ese orden, si. Me voy metiendo primero dulce, luego un poco de cafeína y luego un poco más de cafeína. 

Isabel: Emilio is definitely a man of habits. Every day he wakes up to the radio, every day he reads the BOE - a newsletter from the Spanish government that details all the laws that were passed the previous day. And every day he spends some time alone. And he always dresses the same way: a pair of jeans, a polo shirt and a crew-neck sweater whenever it gets cold. Those sweaters, I’ve seen them light blue, dark blue and black. Rumor has it that he used to wear button shirts instead of polos before, but that’s the only innovation Emilio has made in his wardrobe. Even in the eighties, when all his friends wore fashionable clothes, he was, as he says, “just normal”.

Emilio: Yo, normal. O sea, no me tengo que definir por la ropa. 

Isabel: “If something defines me, that’s normal”, he says. And his friends often laugh about this, that he’s always dressed the same, that he always looks “just normal”. But we also know that this normalcy is a trace from a childhood marked by being told not to stand out, not draw attention to himself, to just blend in. He says it’s a strategy he learned in the family. And he also says that the most radical thing he’s done is to let his hair grow a little long when he was 17.

Emilio: Y eso sí entiendo que es una estrategia aprendida familiarmente. Que nadie me mire porque lleve algo raro, porque… 

Isabel: Emilio was born in 1965 in Pamplona, in the North, during the era of Franco-ist Spain. That era began in 1936. Rebel Forces, led by General Francisco Franco, overthrew the democratically-elected leftist government - that’s when the Spanish Civil War started. It ended three years later, in 1939, when Franco’s fascist forces seized power. And then, a four-decade-long dictatorship ensued. Emilio’s father was a child when the war ended. And he had to stop studying in order to start working. His father always talked about it as if it was the usual thing.

Emilio: bueno, como si en aquella época pues aquello fuera lo normal, ¿no? 

Isabel: Emilio’s father grew up under Franco’s authoritarian rule. But as an adult, he managed to study and got a job on a U.S. military base, guarding a radar. That’s why the family had to move to different bases until they ended up in Pamplona, where Emilio spent most of his childhood.

Emilio always says he was a misfit. He changed schools many times, and he didn’t have a very good time in any of them. He got very bad grades and he was often punished for no reason. When he was 10, for instance, a teacher tied his left hand so that he would stop being left-handed.

Emilio: todo ese discurso ¿no? De la mano izquierda, como la mano del diablo,

Isabel: This punishment was very common then, in 1975: that’s the year the dictator of Spain, Francisco Franco, died. And it had an effect on him: that day, Emilio started to stutter. It happened often this way: Emilio’s distress was expressed by his voice, or rather, by his lack of voice. His parents changed his school again, and they took him to a very catholic school.

Emilio: Y entonces me llevaron a uno del Opus.

Isabel: But his wasn’t a religious family: he had never seen his parents at mass.

Emilio: Jamás he visto a mis padres en misa.  

Isabel: That’s why he thinks they sent him there as a kind of camouflage, a normalization, a way of showing that they were good Catholics, as the dictatorship forced them to be.

Emilio: No voy a dar en herencia estas cosas conflictivas que forman parte de mí.

Isabel: One day, in Pamplona, he was talking about his grandfather with a friend and his father just stopped him. Emilio was then 13, and that’s when he learned that there were things in his family that he shouldn’t talk about.

Emilio: y ahí mi padre me paró. Fue el primer frenazo de mi padre de «no puedes hablar de eso»

Isabel: Emilio knew very little about his dad’s father. He knew barely two things: something about a mountain and something about an attic. And those things appeared every summer when the family traveled to Pereje, a small town with stone houses and slate roofs, where his father was born. The attic was in his grandmother’s house. That’s where she stored her husband’s objects after he died. And even though Emilio was a child, Emilio knew that his grandmother didn’t like him going up there.

Emilio: Había algunos objetos de la tienda de mi abuelo. 

Isabel: And then, there was a mountain, Montearenas. Every summer, they passed near that mountain on the way back home. And every time, Emilio’s father said that maybe his father’s body was buried somewhere around there.

Emilio: y mi padre a las idas y vueltas decir que igual el abuelo, el cuerpo del abuelo estaba por ahí.

Isabel: During those summers he spent in his father’s hometown, little Emilio understood that he wasn’t the only one who was forbidden to talk about certain things. Anytime his grandmother heard her sons talking about the past, whenever she sensed that at some point they could talk about their late father, she’d hit the table.

Emilio: pegaba un golpe en la mesa. 

Isabel: And then, there would be a silence in the kitchen, and it would take a few seconds to change topics. Nobody could talk about that.

Emilio: Porque ahí había un territorio del que no se podía hablar.

Isabel: That’s why, when he received the order from his father to be silent, it was not difficult for him to accept: after all, it was like a family tradition.

Emilio: Y yo tampoco sabía muchas cosas de… Sabía que había un abuelo muerto en la guerra, ya está.

Isabel: Emilio says that that’s when his shame was born. That he somehow thought they were guilty, that his grandfather had done some evil. But all he knew was that his grandfather died in the war.

And with that shame, little Emilio grew up, the family continued to move and that stutter from school took on other forms. In Aranjuez, a town near Madrid where he started high school, Emilio began to feel panic about speaking in public. If he had to do an oral presentation in class, he’d skip class altogether. He just couldn’t make it. Instead, he wrote poetry. Bucolic, tacky poetry, he says.

Emilio: ¿Qué hacía yo? Pues la escritura era un refugio. 

Isabel: That’s why, when he had to choose what to study in college, Emilio knew: he wanted to be a journalist so he could make a living from writing. But his grades were so bad, he couldn’t get into journalism, and he decided to study sociology instead. And so, in 1986 - Emilio arrived at the Complutense University in Madrid. Those were times of political uproar at the university. Emilio went to rallies and attended hours-long assemblies, but he never, ever, opened his mouth in public.

Emilio: A mí me interesaba, pero yo nunca abría la boca en público

Isabel: His fear went well beyond speaking: speaking meant defining oneself, saying who you were in front of strangers. It meant to stand out. And what Emilio wanted, above all, was to remain “undefined”.

Emilio: Indefinido.

Isabel: This silence and insecurity and lack of definition can be somewhat surprising for anyone who knows the public Emilio. When he talks, Emilio tends to lower his eyes as a sign of shyness, but nobody would say he’s quiet, nor someone with few friends. I’d say he’s the opposite: I don’t know anyone who talks to more people during the day. During one of our talks for this story, we take a break and when he turns on his cell phone notifications come in non-stop.

[Isabel and Emilio chatting:

Isabel: ¿Cuántos mensajes tienes?]

Isabel: I ask him how many messages he’s gotten in the hour and a half we’ve been talking,

[Clip of Emilio counting]

Isabel: And he’s got messages from about 20 WhatsApp groups, and many more on Telegram, Twitter, and email notifications. When I point out this paradox to him - his ingrained silence, and him being such a communicative person- he utters a well-thought sentence: “One can talk a lot while keeping silent about things that need to be silenced”.

Emilio: Bueno, uno puede hablar mucho y callarse lo que hay que callarse. Pues yo por lo que fuera en la cabeza tenía un enorme conflicto.

Isabel: Emilio thinks this paradox created a huge conflict in his head.

Emilio: Una especie de esquizofrenia, ¿no?

Isabel: He doesn’t say “schizophrenia” as an exaggeration. Emilio had witnessed mental health issues in his father’s family. His uncle Manolo, his father’s brother, was schizophrenic. And Emilio’s grandmother, Modesta, started having anxiety attacks after her husband died. What you’re going to hear is an old recording of Emilio’s, where he asks his father about those attacks. “What where those attacks like”, he asks.

[Emilio’s Father: ¿Eh? 

Emilio: Cuidado. ¿Cómo eran los ataques esos? 

Emilio’s Father: Los ataques esos eran unas crisis, ¿entiendes? 

Emilio: De nervios? 

Emilio’s Father: De nervios, completamente. Se quedaba incluso sin sentido.]

Isabel: She would even lose consciousness, his father says. Those attacks were the consequence of grandpa’s death, he says.

Emilio Silva Faba, Emilio’s grandfather, was 44 years old when the Civil War began. He and Modesta had six children then - between the ages of six months and nine years. When the war started, their town instantly fell under fascist rule. Emilio’s grandfather belonged to a leftist party, and, for that reason, the new fascist rulers made him pay fines very often. This was pretty common in the areas ruled by the fascist factions.

One day in October, he went to the town hall to pay another fine. He was accompanied by his son Ramón. But they wouldn’t let him leave: as soon as he arrived, they put him in jail and his son had to return home alone. He was seven years old. When Ramon told his mother, Modesta went to the town hall with another of her sons, to try to see her husband. They let the boy in for only a few minuters and forced him to say goodbye to his father. He was six years old and was the last one to see his father alive.

The next day, Modesta sent another of her sons to jail: that other son was Emilio’s father. He was then nine years old and he was the oldest. And he recalls that day in that same recording we heard before. He says that his mother woke him up almost at daybreak and asked him to bring lunch to his father.

[Father: «llévale el almuerzo a tu padre».]

Isabel: When he got to the town hall he asked for his father.

[Father: Y yo le dije «Soy el hijo de Emilio Silva, de La Preferida», que así se llamaba la tienda…]

Isabel: But they told him he was no longer there. That someone had come looking for him in a car and they took him away.

[Father: «¿Y dónde está?». «Ah, eso no lo sé. Lo vinieron a buscar en un coche y lo sacaron, lo llevaron».]

Isabel: When he got home and told his mother, she started crying. She knew they had “taken him out for a walk”, the sentence used during the war to talk about people being executed.

There was no body. No confirmation that he had been killed. Just an absence, and a stigma and a rumor in the village whenever they passed by, and the need to pretend that nothing had happened, and a life that was never going to be the same again. Emilio’s father had to stop studying and started working to feed the rest of his siblings. And they all learned to never again mention their father outside the home.

But Emilio didn’t know anything about all this when he finished his degree and started working at whatever he could. He did market research on anything he was asked...

Emilio: sobre pellets.

Isabel: He wrote catalogs for obscure camping gear,

Emilio: Brújulas, cantimploras, kits anti serpientes 

Isabel: And little by little he began to get closer to his dream of writing for a living. He started to sell articles to various magazines, and he eventually got a contract. Even though he wasn’t really writing about the topics he was interested in…

Emilio: relatos de… De amor, de misterio, 

Isabel: He was writing gossip stories, or “whatever they asked him to write,” he says. Nonetheless, he felt, for the first time, that he could call himself a “journalist.”

Emilio: ¡Por fin tengo una nómina y no soy un desheredado del periodismo!»

Isabel: Right at that time, Emilio and his partner had a daughter. And suddenly his life seemed to be on track.

Emilio: Yo digo «estoy en el momento más feliz de mi vida».

Isabel: And then what he least expected happened.

Emilio: ¿También tengo que contarlo? 

Isabel: Si no quieres, no. 

Isabel: Emilio is reluctant to tell this part of the story. I say he doesn’t have to.

Isabel: But then he does decide to tell it.

Emilio: lo pasé en un pueblo cerca de Madrid,

Isabel: The story goes like this. He and his family rented a house near Madrid that summer.

Emilio: mi hija se está durmiendo, agarrándome un dedo, 

Isabel: And one day, he was in his bedroom, putting his daughter to sleep.

Emilio: y de repente se me aceleró la cabeza, 

Isabel: and suddenly his head started racing.

Emilio: no sabía qué me pasaba. 

Isabel: He didn’t know what was going on

Emilio: Me levanté, 

Isabel: He stood up

Emilio: no fijaba el pensamiento. 

Isabel: He couldn’t focus.

Emilio: De repente perdí el control, 

Isabel: Suddenly he’d lost control

Emilio: me costaba casi respirar. 

Isabel: He couldn’t even breathe

Emilio: Llamé a mi hermana, 

Isabel: He called his sister

Emilio: hablé con mi chica, 

Isabel: Talked to his partner

Emilio: bajé a la calle… 

Isabel: Went out to the street

Emilio: Yo tenía ahí un acelere… 

Isabel: He was really on the edge

Emilio: Y entonces bueno, pues me di cuenta de que estaba sufriendo una crisis de ansiedad.

Isabel: And then he realized he was having an anxiety attack.

This had never happened to Emilio before. And he didn’t understand why it happened then, when he felt he was in the best moment of his life. But the anxiety attack touched on two of his greatest fears:

Emilio: Uno a la enfermedad mental 

Isabel: One was fear of mental illness

Emilio: y otro a tener una vida que no tuviera nada que ver conmigo. 

Isabel: And the other one was having a life that had nothing to do with who he really was.

Emilio: Jo, yo siempre he querido vivir de la escritura, desde que era pequeñito.

Isabel: That’s when he realized he’d always wanted to be a writer. And he made a decision: he quit his job and he gave himself a year’s time to write a novel and see if he could make a living from writing.

Emilio: a ver si puedo vivir de la escritura, escribir esa novela que quiero escribir.

Isabel: And yes, that decision did change his life, but not because he managed to finish the novel. He’s still writing it. It’s actually the novel that he was writing when I got to his house, at the beginning of this story.

Emilio: Pero dejé de ser «normal», entre comillas. 

Isabel: But, as he says, he stopped being “normal”, with quotation marks. What happened was this. The novel was to be called “Memory and Stone.” It was about two militiamen - who, after the Civil War, went into exile in Argentina and, after 40 years, decided to return to Spain. And even if it’s hard to believe, Emilio didn’t connect this story to his family history.

Emilio: Yo creo que conscientemente no. Lo relacioné con mi interés por ese periodo de la historia.

Isabel: But Emilio wanted the novel to be set in his father’s region, and so he began to travel there a lot, to his father’s village, Pereje, to do interviews with locals and learn real stories of militiamen from the area.

[Local Woman: …Sí. Había una allí que se llamaba… No recuerdo. Que vivía ahí abajo. Y había…]

Isabel: He went to the interviews with Arsenio, a friend of his father’s who knew the area very well and who still lived there. One day, they were going to meet one of the last militiamen still alive in the area. It was Sunday and Arsenio and Emilio were having lunch before the meeting.

Emilio: llama este hombre con el que habíamos quedado por la tarde para decir que tenía un problema

Isabel: While they were eating, the man canceled on them. And, since now they had time, Emilio and Arsenio continued talking all afternoon. They went from commenting on the news to telling each other about their lives and then they started talking about the Civil War.

Emilio: Y en un momento dado salió el tema de mi abuelo. 

Isabel: And at one point, Arsenio started talking about Emilio’s grandfather.

Emilio: Y yo le dije «pero tú sabes dónde es?» 

Isabel: “But do you know where he is buried”, Emilio asked.

Emilio: «Hombre, creo que es la salida de un pueblo…» 

Isabel: Arsenio replied he thought it was at the exit of a village

Emilio: Digo «¿Está muy lejos?». 

Isabel: Is it very far?

Emilio: Dice «No, no, aquí, a nueve kilómetros». 

Isabel: No, about 9 kms away

Emilio: Y digo «¿Te importa que vayamos?».

Isabel: “Do you mind if we go”, Emilio asked.

Nora: More on that… after the break.


Isabel: In the summer of 2020, twenty years after Arsenio told Emilio that he thought he knew where his grandfather was buried, I traveled there with Emilio.

We stopped here, at the entrance to Priaranza del Bierzo. It’s at a crossroads between a highway and a smaller road. There’s a bench and, next to it, there are two rosemary plants.

Emilio: No sé si es el mismo. Había aquí dos plantitas…

Isabel: And there was a lot of noise, which I tried to avoid at all costs. Until I realized that the noise was actually part of this story: we were in front of a ditch, one of those ditches alongside the road where the fascist faction threw their enemies’ dead bodies after shooting at them. 20 years ago, there wasn’t even a sidewalk, Emilio tells me. 

Emilio: Pero antes era una cuneta pelada, o sea, no había ninguna acera y era la carretera y tierra. 

Isabel: Here is where Arsenio and him arrived that afternoon of the year 2000. Emilio was anxious.

Emilio: Entonces yo venía así un poco ansioso y justo al llegar a este cruce de aquí había un hombre de aquí, del pueblo, que estaba dando un paseo y entonces yo le dije «Buenas tardes», «Buenas tardes», «Me tiene usted que ayudar».

Isabel: He saw a man from the village and asked him for help. “You need to help me”, Emilio said.

Emilio: Y me dijo «¿a qué?»,

Isabel:  “For what?” the man answered.

Emilio: «Pues mire, estoy buscando una fosa de gente que mataron en la guerra». 

Isabel: “Well, you see, I’m looking for a mass grave of people who were killed in the war.”

Emilio: «Debajo de esa nogal». Aquí les llaman en femenino a los nogales, les llaman las nogales, y me señaló esta zona. 

Isabel: The man uncrossed his arms, stretched out one arm and said “There, under the walnut tree.” Emilio called his father. He was serious, tense. Emilio recalls it wasn’t a long conversation.

Emilio: Y tampoco fue una larga conversación. «Estoy aquí y me dicen que tal». 

Isabel: Just something like “I’m here, and they’ve just told me this”. He also recalls the ride back home: 4 hours full of one question: what can we do?

Emilio: Qué se podía hacer. ¿Qué se podía hacer? ¿Que se podía hacer? 

Isabel: What do you do when you discover the place that has marked all of your father’s life, and also yours? How do a son and father decide what to do with the body of a grandfather, of a father, who had been missing for 70 years? Maybe today, in Spain, exhuming his corpse seems like a logical decision. Not a common one, but definitely a possibility. But at that time, 20 years ago, it wasn’t.

Tens of thousands of civilians were executed by fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship that ensued. The dead were piled in mass graves. And during Franco's regime, no one dared claim their bodies. So, the past remained buried for decades.

After Franco died in 1975, there's evidence that some families exhumed the remains of their loved ones. This happened during a process known as “La Transicion”. This transition to democracy was based on a pact to forget the past and look forward. It was called “el pacto de silencio”, the pact of silence. And those exhumations were done in private. In secret.

By the time Emilio found his grandfather's grave in the year 2000, few people knew about the mass graves at all. In fact, few people seemed to remember that mass graves ever existed. It was just not part of the conversation.

But it seemed obvious to Emilio and his family what they had to do: they knew that his grandmother’s greatest wish was to have her husband buried next to her. Even though she never said so. She had died 3 years before they found the body.

Emilio: Y eso era un deseo yo creo que natural, ¿no?

Isabel: Emilio and his family got down to business: they knew that there could be up to 12 men in the grave besides his grandfather, and they started looking for the relatives of those 12 people. At the same time, Emilio wrote letters to several public institutions.

Emilio: Yo escribí a la Guardia Civil, hablamos con el Juzgado de Ponferrada, fuimos a la Junta de Castilla y León.

Isabel: He also wrote to the village where the mass grave was located asking for help with the exhumation.

Emilio: A ver. ¿La leo? 

Isabel: Although he doesn’t actually use the word “exhumation”.

Emilio: facilitar los trámites imprescindibles para llevar a cabo el levantamiento». Levantamiento.

Isabel: What he wrote translates roughly as “removal of the bodies”. Emilio may not have used the word “exhumation” yet, but he understood that there was another word that perfectly described his grandfather’s situation, and that was not used to speak of Franco’s victims yet: it was the word desaparecido - or “disappeared.” At that time, that word was only used in Spain to speak of people who had disappeared in Argentina, or Chile, or Cambodia or, in other words, far away. But, Emilio wonders, what do you call someone who’s been illegally arrested, then tortured, then killed and then thrown into a mass grave?

Emilio: le torturas, le asesinas y escondes su cadáver y su  familia no sabe dónde está… ¿Entonces aquí cómo se llama eso, no? Que era la palabra paseados… 

Isabel: Today, the use of the word “desaparecido” to refer to disappeared people from the Spanish civil war is no longer disputed. This wasn’t just symbolic: calling these people disappeared means giving them legal recognition, it means applying a category of international law that obligates the facts and the perpetrators to be investigated and to have reparation for the victims. It implies making them real, and making them visible. It implies that the state has an obligation to make them appear.

But this didn’t happen in Spain. And so Emilio and his family continued with the procedures: in a very short time they had obtained all the permits and even had set the date to do the exhumation.

Emilio: y no sabíamos cómo lo íbamos a hacer (ríe). O sea, si íbamos a contratar una empresa, si… 

Isabel: They didn’t know how they were going to achieve it, but I think deep down they knew they were going to do it.

I know this because, at that moment, Emilio did something he had never done before: he wrote and published an article written in first person. And this is no small thing: Emilio never writes in the first person – this is something we fight about a lot. He says he always writes in 3rd person because it hurts him to utter “I”.

Emilio: Porque no, me duele. No sé, es una cosa que no me… 

Isabel: The title of that article was: “My Grandfather was also a Disappeared Person.” And I actually asked Emilio to read the ending for me in English.

Emilio “I knew there was a story to tell and that is what I’ve done. But my story is a small part of that story. Nameless men. There are many people who survive the fear. There are many people who cannot bear to remember and that does not mean they have forgotten. That is why it is necessary to make noise, so that memory wakes up after so many years of being asleep.” This article was published in a local newspaper, La crónica de León on October 8, 2000. 

Isabel: Emilio added his phone number at the bottom of the article, hoping some relatives of the other 12 men would call. And the fact is that he got a call, but it wasn’t exactly from a relative.

Julio Vidal: Creo recordar que que fue un domingo por la tarde. Pues vi el reportaje, que creo que se titulaba algo así como «Mi abuelo también fue un desaparecido» o algo similar, ¿no?

Isabel: This is Julio Vidal. He’s an archeologist. As soon as he saw the article in the newspaper, he talked to his wife, who’s an anthropologist expert in human remains, and they both decided to call Emilio and help him out.

Julio: «Oye, ¿qué te parece si le llamamos y le echamos una mano para intentar recuperar a su abuelo?»

Isabel: Julio knew the town where the mass grave was located, very well. His mother was from that town. Over the phone, he told Emilio that he actually knew the place where the mass grave was:

Julio: «corre, corre, corre, que hay muertos ahí, hay personas enterradas ahí, corre, corre».

Isabel: Julio told Emilio that every kid in town was scared of that place back then. And that he remembered his sister holding his hand and telling him to run, run, run, because there were people buried there.

Julio: «Por nuestra parte encantados si tú quieres esta ayuda», pues…

Isabel: Julio also told him they’d love to help him out in any way they could. He only asked for one thing: that the exhumation happened privately, without the press.

Julio: Que no salga esto en el periódico, porque si sale en el periódico es que nos van a volver, nos van a volver tarumba».

Isabel: Julio remembers that Emilio explained that what they wanted to do was exactly the opposite. Emilio wanted the exhumation to be public, and for everyone to know there were mass graves in Spain. And that, him and his family, it was actually very important that the press was there: they wanted to shed light on the silence.

Julio: y… claro, para nosotros es importante que haya transmisión de la información.

Isabel: Three weeks after that call, the exhumation began. It was October 21, 2000. It was a cloudy day.

Emilio: Julio Vidal salió del trabajo en León y se fue por la tarde allí, como a las cuatro y media.

Isabel: Julio and his wife, an anthropologist, had called several friends who could help out - archaeologists, anthropologists and forensic scientists- Together, they established a method to do something that hadn’t been done before in our country: they set up a laboratory to analyze the remains they found.

But first, Julio and the excavator operator began to test the soil: they opened holes about a meter and a half deep to try to locate the exact place where the bodies were. They were afraid they wouldn’t appear: since 1936, the road had widened and the mass grave might have been covered by the asphalt.

Emilio: Entonces ese día no apareció. Al día siguiente tampoco aparecieron. Ya parecía que no iban a aparecer, o sea…

Isabel: The grave didn’t show up on the first day, or the second. And it seemed that it wasn’t going to happen. Emilio started to look for other people in the village who might have seen the mass grave 70 years ago...

Emilio: Tanto dudé yo que me fui a ver otro, buscar otro testigo. 

Isabel: Emilio didn’t find another witness. But when he came back from the village, while he was in the car, someone called him and told him to run towards the place where the excavator was. The operator had noticed that the bucket entered the ground more easily in one certain place.

Emilio: Entonces el operador de la excavadora, él notó que en el cazo donde lo había metido, justo en ese momento entraba con más facilidad.

Isabel: This is when Emilio learned then that soil, after it’s been removed, takes about 150 years to become as compact as it was. So the fact that the soil was looser was a sign that something was there.

They found a boot. With all the foot bones inside. It was proof that the bodies were there. The mood was a mixture of joy, sorrow, everything. “After all, we were there looking for a grandfather in a ditch”, Emilio says.

Emilio: No sabíamos cuántos ni cómo, pero… Justo en ese recuadrito estaban ahí esperando, ¿no? 

Isabel: The bodies of those men would take a few more days to appear completely. There were 13 men in total. Thirteen men who other men from a fascist group had shot in the back of the head because they belonged to left-wing parties.

Emilio: 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 y 12. Pues sería hasta por aquí. 

Isabel: A friend of Emilio’s recorded what happened during those days. At one point in the video, when all the bodies are uncovered, Emilio’s father, his brother Ramón and his brother Manolo go down to the grave, to the level where the bodies are. The son who accompanied his father to jail, the last son who saw him alive, and the son who went to look for him the next day are now three old men who squat down, almost at the same time and try to identify their father’s body, after 76 years.

[Men: Pues alguno de estos tiene que ser pero la verdad que de momento no sabemos cuál. Los arrimaban y tal como caían.

Pues yo casi… Diría por esa zona.

¿Tú te inclinas más por aquella parte?


De todos modos, como además del tiro en el centro de la escopeta ha debido de recibir el tiro de gracia es posible que la parte posterior de la cabeza…]

Isabel: Emilio says that at one point during the exhumation, his uncle Manolo took a piece of paper out of his pocket, he unfolded it and he showed a drawing that he had made in 1976. The drawing corresponded exactly with the place of the grave: he had drawn the mileage point, this road and a square that was practically identical to the one where the grave appeared. Under the drawing he’d written two words: “pending problem.”

Emilio: Y cuando comprobó que el sitio de la fosa se correspondía con su plano sacó el plano y dijo «donde yo decía» y digo «no, si no se lo has dicho a nadie». 

Isabel: Thirty years before Emilio, his uncle had gone to ask around and someone pointed out that place. It seems like his uncle wasn’t the only one: Emilio learned that his father had also been asking, back in the 1950s. And also his uncle Ramón. The three brothers had been looking for their father on their own and had never told each other. Emilio says this an example of what happened during the dictatorship: conversations that should be normal in a family just never took place.

Emilio: De una conversación que debe ser normal en una familia y cómo luego cada uno por su lado estaba buscando ¿no?

Isabel: Many conversations were re-established around that mass grave. Neighbors from the town started coming around. There were also people who had relatives in other mass graves and had never talked about it. The video shows another of Emilio’s aunts talking to some of those relatives. They talk about the immense sorrow they suffered, they talk about how other people didn’t believe they were killed just like that, they say that as kids they had to walk barefoot because after the death of their father, they were left with nothing, they say they’ve always wondered “Where could they be? Where had they been thrown?”.

[Women: Yo me quedé con mis abuelos y… La pena fue tremenda.

Es que no quieren creer cuando se les dice que los mataron así porque sí. 

Entonces no se hablaba de nada, no sabíamos nada. 

Yo con seis meses, mis hermanos andar todos descalzos y desnudos porque no teníamos nada, ni que comer…

Siempre fue una duda, toda la vida. ¿Dónde estarán, dónde los habrán echado? 

Mi madre los quiso sacar pero le dije «mamá, ¿dónde vas a ir tú por los restos de mi padre si no sabemos ni dónde está?»]

Isabel: And at one point in that video, Emilio, wearing jeans and a dark blue shirt, stands in front of the camera and says this:

Emilio: Se están abriendo agujeros en el silencio, ¿no? Que es un poco de lo que se trata. Que este agujero que se ha hecho aquí empiece a agujerear ese silencio 

Isabel: “Holes are being opened in the silence. May this hole begin to pierce that silence and may sounds of what happened during those years arise”. I don’t know if you can notice from the video, but his voice is not trembling at all.

This was the first time Emilio spoke in public. We watched the video together. He thinks that maybe he’d spent his whole life preparing for that moment. That it was like everything he'd kept silent...was just waiting to come out. Because that hole in the silence had been piercing him too.

Emilio: Ese agujero en el silencio también es un agujero que a mí me taladra, ¿no? Y que precisamente me está haciendo hablar. Y de pronto, bueno, pues ahí empezó una conversación, ¿no?

Isabel: And suddenly, a conversation with the past started.

Two and a half years later, a DNA test confirmed that the second body in that mass grave was that of Emilio Silva Faba, Emilio’s grandfather. For his grandson Emilio, that test was an essential part of the process. He wanted to show that, after so many years, the identity of the disappeared people could be returned. And this was essential for another reason: Emilio wanted to bury his grandfather next to his grandmother, and he wanted to make sure that it was him.

In the Summer of 2020, after visiting the grave, Emilio took me to see his gravesite in the cemetery of Pereje, his father’s village.

Emilio: ​​A ver, ¿las llaves dónde las he puesto? Sí, sí, sí. Es esta. Compró este panteón de aquí que pone «Propiedad Silva Faba», que son los apellidos de mi abuelo, «Santín Iglesias», que eran los suyos.

Isabel: We stood there in silence for a long time. And as we were leaving the cemetery, I told him that this was a great ending for the story.

Isabel: Pues muchas gracias, Silvi.

Emilio: Pues muchas de nadas. Pues vamos a cerrar. 

Isabel: No está mal, ¿no? Terminar aquí tu historia. 

Emilio: Bueno, no termina aquí nada. 

Isabel: But Emilo didn’t agree.

Isabel: Digo, si yo quisiera terminar tu historia en algún sitio… 

Emilio: Bueno, puede ser un lugar… Hombre, aquí no. No me parece… No, porque precisamente de esa historia han surgido detrás un montón de historias, entonces… No es un final, ¿es un medio?

Isabel: He told me that many things were born out of this story and that this cemetery was, if anything, a middle, not an ending at all.

Emilio Silva Faba was the first disappeared person from the Spanish Civil War to be publicly exhumed using scientific methods and identified via a DNA test. After his exhumation, more and more people contacted Emilio to ask for help in digging up their own relatives.

Emilio knew there were some graves in Spain, but he didn’t know that there were so many. In late 2000, he and three other people founded the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory. Since then, hundreds of organizations that try to recover historical memory have emerged in Spain. More than 9,000 people thrown into mass graves have been exhumed. The method used in all these exhumations remains the same as the one established in Emilio’s grandfather’s mass grave.

[Hombre: A mi abuelo lo sacaron de la fosa número 1.

Mujer: Estaba mi abuelo, mi bisabuelo y otros parientes.

Mujer: Exhumamos a mi madre, a mi hermano…

Mujer: Y siempre quiso saber dónde estaba su padre.

Mujer: Y no lloraba de pena, lloraba de alegría de haberla encontrado.

Hombre: Y cambió la historia del pueblo.

Mujer: El cambio para nuestra familia fue algo que no se puede describir.

Hombre: De cierta manera se perdió el miedo a hablar.]

Isabel: By drilling into the earth for his grandfather's remains, by talking about it publicly, Emilio sparked a movement. One that pierced a hole in the idyllic story of Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. One that pierced a hole in the collective silence that has been passed down through generations.

That inherited and forced silence left many bodies behind. 114,226 to exact. That's the number of people still lying in mass graves in Spain.

In the year 2010, on the tenth anniversary of the exhumation of his grandfather’s mass grave, Emilio stood up, put himself in front of a microphone, in front of his relatives, in front of strangers, in front of TV cameras, and said this: “Until ten years ago, in this very place, I had never before in my life spoken in public.”

[Emilio speaking in Spanish]

Isabel: “Here silence was born and here silence died.”

He was wearing jeans, a jacket and a crew neck sweater. All black.


Nora: This week’s episode of Last Seen is an English translation of a story Isabel Cadenas Cañón originally told on her Spanish language podcast, De eso no se habla.

Our episode was reported and written by Isabel. And produced by Isabel and myself, Nora Saks, your host and curator of this season.

Story editing by Nick White and Maureen McMurray.

Mix, sound design and original music by Matt Reed and Marcos Salso.

Production help from my WBUR Podcasts teammates: Amory Sivertson, Dean Russell, Paul Vaitkus, Quincy Walters, and Kristen Torres.

Fact checking by Meera Raman.

Ben Brock Johnson is our executive producer.

Many thanks to the De eso no se habla team: Laura Casielles, Vanessa Rousselot, Paula Morais, and Marcos Salso.

To learn more about Isabel’s work and her podcast, check out

If you want to know more about this episode and see show notes, go to our website: and follow us on Twitter: @LastSeenPodcast

Pitch us your story ideas about people, places, and things that have gone missing. Drop us a line at

Up next, a story about a serious postal service blunder involving some artwork that never arrived at its final destination - and the unexpected item delivered instead.

Roger Tracy: Holy crap. Well when did you get this? We've been looking for this for years!

Thanks so much for listening. We’ll be back next week.


Headshot of Nora Saks

Nora Saks Producer
Nora Saks was a producer with WBUR's podcast team. 



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