Alejandro Serrano looked up from the desk in the railway office as Juan Gonzales walked in. It had been a busy morning. Telegraph cables and phone calls spoke of the insurrection by the Spanish Army against the Republic. Reports and orders flew over the wires. He looked at his calendar. July 18th, 1936. He will remember this day he thought.
“Hello Juan,” he said wearily. “What news from the city officials?”
“You know how those bureaucrats are. They are debating whether or not to arm the workers. Wonder who they are really scared of — us or the fascists,” he grumbled.
The phone rang again.
Alejandro answered, “Valladolid Station. Union president Serrano here.” Alejandro paused as a question was put to him at the other end of the line. “Yes, I am in charge. The station manager has fled.” He looked up at Juan. “Yes, we will do that. And when will they be delivered? Gracias. Long live the Republic!” With that, he hung up.
“Juan, don’t worry about the bureaucrats. The union is sending a lorry with rifles, pistols, and ammunition.” Alejandro pointed down the track. “We need to pull that train and its cars further back into the yard. And get the crews busy setting up barricades around the station. This line has to be defended. We can’t let the rebels capture it or Madrid will be threatened.”
Juan left the railway office. Alejandro could hear him shouting orders to the men gathered around the station.
It has finally come to this, he thought.
He knew it would happen sooner or later. Since the elections of 1931 and the forming of the Spanish republic, the wealthy landowners, the Army, and the Catholic Church had been itching to stomp out the unions and the left-wing organizations. The subsequent election of February of 1936, which reinforced the republic and the peoples’ movement, was too much for them to accept and the plotting began. In many cases, families were divided in loyalties. That was the politics of Spain in 1936. Alejandro’s brother Jorge was an officer in the Spanish Army. He knew his politics and what side he would be on.
Alejandro had heard the radio reports of the revolt that began with a rising of the Army in the Canary Islands, Spanish Morocco and in areas throughout Spain. Rebel nationalist generals and army officers arrested and shot fellow officers loyal to the government.
While the nationalists moved, the government hesitated, not believing reports of a widespread conspiracy and rising. Much like the politicians in the city.
By late afternoon the barricades had been set up around the station and the lorry from their union, the UGT, had arrived with enough rifles to arm the 400 station workers and volunteers from the city.
Alejandro asked the lorry driver where he got the rifles and for the latest news.
“We liberated them from some army garrisons with the help of some loyal soldiers,” he said smiling broadly. “The fighting has been heavy in Barcelona and other cities. Some garrisons have sided with the revolt, others have stayed with the republic. Many villages have been overrun because there was no one to protect them and they weren’t armed. The army is shooting all those loyal to the republic, especially trade unionists. But so far the republic is holding. The railways need to be protected comrade or all is lost.”
“We will hold it here.” They gave each other the clench fist salute and the driver headed to his next drop off.
It was a sleepless night. The men talked amongst the barricades about the rising, politics and their families. A small fire glowed as a big cauldron of soup simmered. The smell, mixed with the odor of sweat and fear wafted over them.
Juan came over to Alejandro who was walking among the barricades. “None of these men, including me, ever shot at another man before,” he whispered.
“I know. I haven’t either. I think if we don’t defend ourselves and win we will be in bad shape. We need to hold this station. Agreed?”
“Yes, Alejandro. Maybe you should tell them that.”
Alejandro had made many speeches in his life. He had come from a landowner family and was educated but when he saw how the peasants were treated he chose a different path. He became involved in politics and trade union activities, eventually becoming a union official. When he chose that path he was disowned by his father.
He walked among the men. He talked to groups and he talked to individuals. The message was the same… after years of oppression and denial of basic liberties, they now had a republic that valued them and allowed them to participate. A republic that freed them from the confines of feudalism and the domination of the church in education and all aspects of their lives. A republic that gave women the freedom to chart their own lives. Not all the men agreed with that but he told them we are all in this together– we do not deny anyone, men or women, freedom. The fascists want to send as backward. We cannot allow that we must fight to live our own lives. If we lose they will slaughter us all.
Dawn broke and the people at the barricade began to stir. Down the street, a group of men and women loyal to the republic came marching down singing and holding their banners high.
A cheer rose up from the barricade and clenched fists were held high.
Alejandro rose from his cot in the office when he heard the noise. He walked out to greet them.
“Salud,” he yelled.
They all waved and the delegation came up to him with baskets of bread, fruit, and sausages.
‘How goes it in the city,” he said to the first people he saw.
“Valladolid is as always a city of the conservatives and reactionaries, but we are many,” said an old man in a tattered black coat, beret and red armband wrapped around his upper arm. “I have been fighting their kind for decades. I will make my last stand here if need be.”
Another said, “Brother, we will not let them conquer us. We know what is in store for us if that happens.”
“We not only bring bread, but we also bring fighters.”
Alejandro looked over them. Men, women and even some soldiers from the local garrison who are loyal to the republic. They have tasted the future, they have tasted freedom. They will not be pushed back in time.
“You are welcome here. Join us at the barricades. You soldiers, teach others how to work those rifles.”
“Juan,” he yelled. “Give them some rifles and position them at the barricade.”
“Alejandro, we don’t have enough rifles for everyone.”
“There will be. Some will fall, Juan. When that happens make sure others get their rifles.”
“Yes, Alejandro.” Juan dipped his head. The gravity of the situation was sinking in.
Alejandro watched him go. He walked around the station inspecting the barricades. Old furniture and large canvas bags filled with Spanish dirt. Soon that dirt will be mixed with Spanish blood, he thought.
The sun rose higher and it got hotter. All those at the barricade were tense waiting for something to happen, they knew not what. While some kept watch others crouched down sharing bread and food with their neighbor. Small talk to keep the fear away. Bandanas wiped brows soaked with sweat, shirts clinging to wet bodies. Bodies tense with anticipation. The soldiers from the garrison talked with workers from the metalworkers union and carpenters talked with women from the anarchist federation. All knew they were in this together.
It wasn’t long before a train came down the tracks from the north, its whistle shrieking, shattering the still air and silencing the talk at the barricades.
Alejandro looked at it through the binoculars that hung from around his neck. He saw the old flag of the Spanish monarchy flying from the locomotive engine. The rebels were here.
He ran to the first barricade on the tracks.
“They are here. Get ready.” He went over to Juan. “You must keep them pinned down here. I am going to the other barricades.”
At each barricade, he found people that were natural leaders. One was a miner from Asturias who fought in the rebellion of 1934.
“Be watchful. They will try to flank us,” Alejandro said.
“I have fought these fascists before. They bleed like everyone else,” he said. “What happens when they get into the city?”
“We have people armed and mobilized there.”
“So do the fascists.”
Alejandro knew this was true. Valladolid was in the heart of conservative Spain. That the unions and other groups lasted this long was a miracle. Yesterday the mayor locked up those suspected of sympathy with the rising. But how long will that last? He knew the republican forces were vastly outnumbered and hated by the allies of the rising.
Alejandro rushed back to Juan’s barricade when he heard the first shots,
Juan was yelling, “Hold your fire. Don’t waste ammunition.”
“Here is your rifle, Alejandro,” a rail worker said to him.
Alejandro grabbed the bolt action Mauser and loaded it. He shot rabbits before but now men were in front of him.
The soldiers of the rising poured out of the cars of the train and fanned out to the left and right. Their discipline was apparent. They swept into the city center and made short work of the defenders. They charged into the Mayors’ office, shot him on the spot, went to the city jail and released the rising’s sympathizers who they promptly armed.
Cannon rolled off the train and were positioned around the station. The barricades were now encircled. The army of the rising moved forward between buildings and around the station firing at will. The defenders on the barricades fired back. Amateurs hitting more walls then soldiers. Soldiers hitting defenders who raised their heads for a shot. The sandbags of Spanish dirt erupted like volcanos as cannon shells and bullets struck them. A cacophony of rifle fire, screams and blasts bounced off the building walls. And the blood seeped into the dirt.
All around him Alejandro could see the carnage this day had brought forth. Bodies were everywhere. They were quickly being defeated. The smell of cordite and the sickly smell of blood almost overwhelmed him. He looked for Juan and found him, crumpled at the bottom of the barricade, now at peace.
The rebel soldiers were overrunning the barricades. Alejandro could hear orders being shouted and curses from both sides yelled. He was still firing as a group of soldiers came around the barricade. He struggled to reload. They rushed him. One of them raised his rifle and the butt end crashed onto Alejandro’s head and all was black.
The light of early morning barely shone through the gaps of the boarded-up windows of the railway passenger car. Alejandro had only been here overnight, but sleeping on the wooden floor had made his whole body ache. The bruise from the rifle butt to his head added to his misery.
Alejandro pulled his small frame up off the floor, brushed off the dust and dirt on his dungaree mono and wiped the sweat and grit from his face with his red neckerchief. He ran his hands through his dark hair and tried to stand. He grimaced as pain riveted through his body and he quickly sat down. How many brought here with him were still alive he thought? He had heard the volley of shots at dawn and tried not to think of what lay in store for him.
The door at one end of the car opened. An armed guard and a captain of the Army strode through.
“Prisoner Serrano, I am the new Captain of the local barracks. I am here to inform you that you have been sentenced to death by the military tribunal. Because of a special situation, you have not been shot right away with the other red scum in your union.”
With that said the captain and the guard abruptly walked out. Alejandro spits at the door as they left.
Special situation? What could that mean, thought Alejandro?
On the railway platform, a loudspeaker hooked into a radio was broadcasting a speech by one of the rebel leaders General Quipo de Llano.
“Spaniards! The Government, which was the wretched bastard of liberal and socialist concubinage is dead, killed by our valiant army. Spain, the true Spain has laid the dragon low, and now it lies writhing on its belly and biting the dust! I am now going to take up my position at the head of the troops and it will not be long before two banners—the sacred emblem of the cross and our own glorious flag—are waving together in Madrid!”
Alejandro, held his pounding head in his hands thinking… could we have been defeated so quickly? What is going on in the rest of Spain?
Those thoughts still lingered in his brain as the door once again opened. The guard walked in and behind him another Army officer, his brother Jorge.
“Hello brother,” Alejandro said with a tired and surprised voice. “Have you come to set me free or witness the execution?”
It had been two years since they had seen each other. Jorge, the oldest son of the family, joined the Army. Alejandro thought he made the perfect officer, cold and autocratic. Alejandro, on the other hand, was a young idealist who shunned tradition and the family estate. Alejandro was considered a traitor to his class. Their parting had ended badly.
Jorge in the uniform of an army colonel and wearing a holstered Astra 400 pistol stared coldly at his brother. “Alejandro, anyone with a union card on them is automatically executed. I knew you would be at the barricade. I saw you and had my men arrest you instead of shooting you until I met with you.”
“You are my special situation?” a disbelieving Alejandro exclaimed. “So what is the fate for those of us supporting the republic?”
Jorge glared at his brother. “Alejandro, we are cleaning up Spain of the liberals, the unions, your so-called writers, the reds and those who want to destroy the Catholic Church. Our Army and militia have rounded up and shot over 300 supporters of your vile republic here in Valladolid. And you Alejandro, once again have betrayed your country and your family. You should be with them right now. I told mother and father that I would come here and try to convince you to leave the reds and come to your senses.”
“Come to my senses? I am surer of which side I am on than ever before,” yelled Alejandro. “You remember when I left our estate? It was right after you and your army slaughtered the mineworkers striking in Asturias. Father applauded you. I knew then that I didn’t belong with you and father. I am sorry for mother. She knew how I felt my whole life,” Alejandro stared at Jorge. “But I didn’t think that you would rise up against your own people.”
Jorge looked aghast at Alejandro and said, “Are you not listening? They are not my people. They are an abomination to Spain. You have defiled our women by taking them from their rightful place in the home serving their husbands and dared to tell them they can work and become educated. No Alejandro, the New Spain that is rising will not allow that. Your intellectuals are poisoning the minds of Spaniards. They will share the grave with your unions, the reds and the rabble that has corrupted Spain,” said Jorge.
“Jorge, you will never understand the idea that is the republic,” said Alejandro defiantly. “The idea that we are free to think as we want without the church telling us what to think. The idea that the peasant and the worker are equal to the landowner and the boss. The idea that democracy and social justice will win out over feudalism. You can never kill all of us.”
Jorge shook his head. “Your republic will be wiped out Alejandro. Look to Germany and Italy. That is the future. There is no room for republics and democracy. But you will not be around to see that future,” said Jorge with weariness in his voice. “I knew when I said I would meet you it would be of no avail. I will tell mother and father of your fate. They will mourn but father will understand the necessity. The idea of a workers’ republic must and will be crushed throughout Spain…and individually. We may have come out of the same womb, but we are not brothers. Goodbye Alejandro.”
With that, Jorge turned, called to the guard and walked out of the railway car.
Alejandro stunned, slumped onto the wooden passenger bench.
Feeling thirsty and hungry he called to the guard at the end of the car.
“Hey comrade, how about some water and food,” he said.
“I am not your comrade and we will not waste any water or food on red scum that won’t live long enough to digest it,” the guard said with menace.
That night Alejandro didn’t sleep. Why waste time he thought. He found a pencil on the floor of the railway car and proceeded to write on the wall as he slouched down between two benches.
Here are the last words of a fighter for the republic and for the railway workers’ union. I leave this earth a free man. I am a free man in thought and belief. I am a free man because I resisted.
Alejandro Serrano. Long Live the Railway Workers Union! July 21st, 1936.
The morning started to break when Alejandro heard movement and orders being given outside the railway car.
The door at the end opened and the guard entered with the officer he saw his first day of imprisonment.
“Prisoner Serrano, stand and come with us,” said the officer.
The guard encouraged a sore and weary Alejandro to his feet with a kick and a prod with the bayonet at the end of his rifle.
Alejandro walked out the car door and breathed in the air of a Spanish dawn.
Outside the railway car a squad of fascist militia and soldiers milled about. Others walked around the station painting fascist slogans on the walls.
They pushed him through the exit to the back of the station towards the outside brick wall of the building. It was pockmarked with bullet holes. The dirt was soaked with pools of blood.
The officer shoved Alejandro against the wall. He walked away, turned to the firing squad and shouted.
“Long live the republic!” shouted Alejandro.
Alejandro collapsed. Death quickly consumed him.
Holding the union card that was confiscated from Alejandro when he was captured, the officer walked over and pinned it to the dead man’s chest.
He called over to two of the members of the firing squad and said, “Take the body to the front of the station for all to see what happens to those that resist the New Spain.”
In front of the station, an Army officer yelled at passengers embarking and disembarking that they must shout “Arriba Espana” to prove their loyalty to the new Spain. Those not shouting are arrested.
A young couple exited the train and doing what they were told to keep from getting arrested, yelled out “Arriba Espana”. They walked down the platform and saw the body of Alejandro with his union card pinned to his chest. As they passed by, the young couple whispered to a no longer hearing Alejandro, “Long live the Republic, long live the idea.”
With trepidation, they walked on. The beast was loose.