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Portrait of Federico García Lorca (June 5, 1989 – August 18, 1936)

Federico García Lorca, the famed Spanish poet and playwright from a small town outside of Granada, came to New York City in 1929 and briefly studied at Columbia University. During that time, it is rumored he focused more on writing than on his studies, and in the following year he completed Poeta en Nueva York, a book of poems published a decade later in 1940.

The book was published posthumously, since Lorca was assassinated sometime around the 18th of August, 1936, by militiamen supporting Francisco Franco’s fascist military coupe. Official reports from the time proffered by the Franco regime claim that Lorca was arrested and executed after confessing to the crimes of “homosexuality” and “socialism.”

In a hauntingly prophetic passage appearing in the poem “Fábula y rueda de los tres amigos” (Fable and round of the three friends) in Poeta en Nueva York, Lorca predicts his own death by assassination:

Cuando se hundieron las formas puras / bajo el cri cri de las margaritas, / comprendí que me habían asesinado. / Recorrieron los cafés y los cementerios y las iglesias, / abrieron los toneles y los armarios, / destrozaron tres esqueletos para arrancar sus dientes de oro. / Ya no me encontraron. / ¿No me encontraron? / No. No me encontraron. / Pero se supo que la sexta luna huyó torrente arriba, / y que el mar recordó ¡de pronto! / los nombres de todos sus ahogados.

When the pure forms sank / in the cri-cri of daisies, / I knew they had assassinated me. / They combed the cafes, cemeteries and churches, / they opened the wine-casks and closets, / destroyed three skeletons to take their gold teeth. / But they couldn’t find me. / They did not find me? / No. They did not find me. / But it was known the sixth moon fled above the torrent, / and the sea— suddenly!— remembered / the names of all it had drowned.

These lines are the opening to Bones of Contention, a new documentary by City College professor and filmmaker Andrea Weiss. The film examines the controversy surrounding Spain’s Ley de Memoria Histórica (Law of Historical Memory) passed in 2007, which provides official recognition for the victims of the Spanish Civil War, removal of Francoist monuments and symbols from public spaces, and state funding for efforts to exhume bodies of political prisoners from the Franco regime buried in mass graves throughout the country.

For members of the Spanish Left, Federico García Lorca became a symbol par excellence for the fight against right-wing fascism. With the fall of the Franco dictatorship in 1975 and the ensuing transición democrática, groups who had been oppressed for decades by the joint institutions of the State and the Catholic Church–such as women, the LGBT community, and ethnic and linguistic minorities–finally began to come out of the shadows and demand civil rights. This social and political environment paved the way for the first Manifestación del Orgullo (Pride Demonstration) in Barcelona in 1977 and the subsequent cultural revolution known as la movida madrileña in the 1980s.

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Protesters in the Historical Memory movement hold pictures of missing people who were “disappeared” by the Franco regime.

Lorca’s contested bones have been the subject of intense debate since the passage of the Historical Memory Law. On the one hand, Lorca’s surviving family members–represented by his grand-niece and President of the family’s foundation, Laura García Lorca–want his body left alone and have called for an end to archeological excavations to identify his skeleton using DNA testing. In an interview in the film, Laura calls the effort to exhume Lorca’s body a “fetishistic” need to fulfill political desires that have nothing to do with his legacy.

On the other hand, proponents of the Historical Memory movement claim that recovering his remains will serve to vindicate all of the lives lost and tossed aside in unmarked mass graves at the hands of a ruthless dictatorship. Given Lorca’s preeminent status as an internationally renowned literary figure, his body serves the larger purpose of documenting and memorializing Spain’s past atrocities. Furthermore, some question who can truly claim ownership of Lorca’s bones–and, by extension, his historical legacy.

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View from City College campus after a screening of Bones of Contention.

As most queer people know, we have our biological families we are born into and our chosen families we create later in life. It is not uncommon for our chosen families to fill in as vital social and emotional support networks in the face of biological families who, too often, shun our identities or refuse to recognize our existence outright. This was certainly the case for Lorca, which makes the question of ownership beyond his grave even murkier.

Andrea Weiss expertly captures the tensions and complexity of Lorca’s legacy–and of the larger political debate over the Historical Memory Law–in this carefully crafted film, interviewing a range of Spaniards with differing perspectives on the matter. That she is able to access such a wide array of native informants speaks to her skills as a clever archival researcher and social documentarian. More impressive, perhaps, is that she is able to represent each side without passing judgment of any kind–speaking to her deeper sense of humanity towards the subject matter.

The contentious bones of Spain’s past will not stay buried so easily, and with this timely and important film, Weiss helps us understand their multiple, contested meanings. In doing so, we begin to connect the historical memory of a particular time and place to more universal questions about identity and culture. In other words, this is documentary filmmaking at its best.

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