When she first heard about a project to exhume and identify the remains of hundreds of Civil War victims – her grandfather possibly among them – Ángela Raya Fernández said she was “full of hope, a lot of hope.”
Ever since she was a girl, she had heard stories of how her father’s father, José Raya Hurtado, was executed during the Spanish Civil War, his body dishonorably dumped in a ravine by forces loyal to General Francisco Franco. She knew him only from black-and-white photographs: round glasses, receding hairline and resolute gaze.
“We hoped for a long time that someone could find him and give him a dignified burial,” said Ms. Raya, a soft-spoken, 62-year-old librarian.
But with general elections Sunday and ballots predicting a right-wing victory, Ms Raya and her family, along with thousands of others, fear years of efforts to find their loved ones may come to an abrupt end.
The conservative People’s Party, which grew partly from Francoist roots, promised to cancel a memorial law passed last autumn under the current socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, aiming to speed up the excavations. A possible alliance between the conservatives and the far-right Vox party, which has long opposed attempts to address the crimes of the past, has only heightened those fears.
“It would be a disaster,” Ms Raya said, “a big step backwards.”
The back and forth over the memorial law reflects how the traumas of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War and Franco’s subsequent dictatorship, which ended with his death in 1975, continue to divide the country today.
To some, Franco, a nationalist, consolidated Spain’s post-war economic growth and served as an anti-communist bulwark. To many others, his reign was one of repression, marked by mass executions, exile for thousands and the abduction of children.
An estimated 100,000 people were executed by Franco’s supporters during and after the Civil War, and buried in more than 2,000 mass graves scattered across the country.
No one dared disturb these sites in a country where Franco’s legacy has long been left unexamined. Conservatives, in particular, argued that excavations would only reopen old wounds.
For the left, the silence was anything but therapeutic, even enraged. During the dictatorship, Spaniards were forbidden to talk about the killings. An amnesty law, approved in 1977, hoped to draw a line under the crimes of the past, but actually made the forgetting a crucial part of the effort to heal a divided nation in transition to democracy.
“It was a culture of silence,” said Agustín Gómez Jiménez, 49, a health worker, who recounted how his father had long refused to even show a picture of his own father, executed in 1936.
Mr. Gómez said his sister searched through their father’s belongings to finally find some pictures, five years ago. One of them shows his grandfather on a beach, holding hands with his small, soon-to-be-orphaned son. “I get goosebumps just thinking that my father hid the photos. He was so traumatized,” he said.
The first efforts to address the mass graves began in 2007, when center-left Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero passed a “law of historical memory” that lent government support to excavations.
But the legislation was slow to take effect and when the conservative People’s Party took power in 2011, the conservatives promptly defunded the law.
It took another decade, the commitment of Spanish leftist regions and last year’s law – which created census and a national DNA bank to help locate and identify the remains – so that the excavations can finally gain momentum.
Such efforts are evident in Viznar, a small, whitewashed village perched in the mountains overlooking Granada. For three years, a team of archaeologists has been digging in the ravine where the grandfather of Ms. Raya and Mr. Gómez were buried along with about 280 other victims, including possibly the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca.
On a recent morning, the researchers were bent over a 3-by-13-foot pit, using brushes and small blades to delicately remove the earth covering eight skeletons. Their spines and femurs were intertwined, a sign that bodies had been dumped on top of each other. Several skulls were pierced with round holes, evidence that the victims had been shot in the head.
“It is a page of our history that was empty and that we are writing today,” said Francisco Carrión Méndez, the archaeologist coordinating the project, standing next to the tomb. Many relatives, he explained, want to find their loved ones and rebury them because “their dignity was stolen.”
Mr. Carrión pointed to photos of the victims that families had hung from nearby pine trees: a university president with slicked-back hair; an impressive looking barmaid. “They should not be forgotten,” he said.
Not everyone agrees. At the entrance to the ravine, a sign paying tribute to the victims was defaced with graffiti reading “¡Viva Franco!” To which someone replied: “Fascism must not be discussed, it must be destroyed.”
“In Spain,” García Lorca once wrote, “the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country in the world.”
So far, the remains of 75 people have been recovered in Viznar. The passage of time and lack of records of the killings make identification difficult, so researchers use bone samples to conduct DNA tests in a Granada laboratory. The first results are expected this fall.
But many relatives worry it will be too late.
“Who is responsible for the samples? World Health Organization?” Francisca Pleguezuelos Aguilar, 73, anxiously asked a perplexed forensics expert during a recent visit to the lab.
Pointing to a window behind which two lab assistants in white overalls demonstrated the DNA testing process to families, Ms Pleguezuelos said she was worried the Tories would block the study of the samples if they won this week’s general election.
She wasn’t the only one who was afraid. “They will paralyze all the projects,” said María José Sánchez, great-niece of the barmaid who was killed, her eyes swollen with tears. “The curtain is about to fall again.”
A spokesman for the People’s Party suggested that exhumations could continue after the elections, saying that “relatives have the right to claim the bodies of their loved ones.”
But many relatives said they remember how Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s former conservative prime minister, boasted of having cut public funding for the 2007 memorial law to zero.
The possibility of a national alliance between the conservative People’s Party and the left-wing Vox party — which ballots suggestion will be the only way for the right to ensure a majority in Parliament – only exacerbated the fears of the victims’ families.
In recent weeks, they have looked anxiously at local ruling coalitions forged between the two parties after regional elections in May: they almost always included plans to slow down memorial projects.
“The central government is our last bastion, our Alamo fortress,” said Matías Alonso Blasco, who represents families in the Valencia region, where the right recently took political control. “If it falls, it’s over.”
Several Vox representatives declined to comment for this article.
In the Valencia region, the new right-wing coalition said, “the norms that attack reconciliation in historical matters will be abolished.” Many took it as a reference to the local memorial law of 2017, which helped dig up about two-thirds of the area’s 600 mass graves.
Many of the bodies were recovered from the cemetery of Paterna, a suburb of Valencia. There, some 2,200 people were shot by Franco’s firing squads against a wall that is still pockmarked with bullet holes. So many are the mass graves that they have been given numbers.
Standing between two wooden markers marked 100 and 101, Marilyn Ortíz Bono said her grandfather’s body has not yet been identified because the remains found in the grave where he was believed to be buried had decayed too much.
Mrs. Ortíz said that shortly after Vox gained power in the Valencia region, she sent a sample of her DNA to a state-funded laboratory, hoping to complete the identification process before the general elections.
“I haven’t heard back from them,” she said. “I’m afraid I never will.”