Retracing the steps of Spanish Republican exiles
In July 2023 I travelled to Spain to conduct the final bits of research for my PhD project on ‘Aquí como allá: Colombian national identities, the Spanish civil war and its legacies’. I had already covered what will be the first part of my thesis during a trip to Colombia in 2022, during which I was able to gain a comprehensive view of how various Colombians interacted with the Spanish conflict. However, and given that my work aims to provide a more transnational account of Colombia’s early 20th century history, I cannot complete my PhD without considering the many Spaniards who travelled to the South American nation as political exiles during and, for the most part, after the civil war.
Thanks to the Society for Latin American Studies (SLAS) PG & PD Research Grant, I was able to spend three weeks in Spain travelling across the country and visiting multiple archives in order to uncover the stories of some of these individuals forced to leave their homes and travel to, in many cases, unknown lands. During this trip, I came to realise that I was physically, as well as archivally, retracing their footsteps.
I started in Barcelona, part of the Catalonian region through which many Republican refugees fled across the Pyrenees and into France particularly after the city fell in January 1939. From there I travelled to Bilbao, location of the port from which nearly 4,000 Basque children were evacuated to Britain in 1937. Three of these children – Judith, Paulino and Eduardo Gómez – would end up in Colombia five years later. I then headed to Salamanca and Alcalá de Henares, both important university cities and thus representative of the many Spanish academics who lent their support to the Republican cause and so were forced into exile following its defeat in 1939. Finally, I spent time in Madrid, the last site of Republican resistance and whose defeat drove many of those who had not already left, including members of the Republican government, to finally abandon their country.
This experience encouraged me to think about the tangibility of historical research. As an international historian I am concerned with events, ideas and people that moved across borders yet the great majority of my work is carried out from my desk at home. This feeling of stasis can be compounded by the (in many ways fantastic) advances in archive digitalisation. But by physically making myself some of the journeys that my historical subjects undertook, I can perhaps better understand part of their experiences (even if it is only realising how long it takes to travel around Spain!). That is why research grants such as those offered by SLAS are so important. Though they are not limited to international travel, for me the chance to visit one of my main sites of study provided not only the documentation I needed to write my next chapters but the accompanying experience also yielded a new perspective on my research.
Charlotte Eaton (LSE)