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Katie Mullaley '12 helps uncover missing pieces of Spain's history

Katie Mullaley '12 works at an excavation in Joarilla de las Matas.
Katie Mullaley '12 works at an excavation in Joarilla de las Matas.

On her first grave exhumation in Ponferrada, Spain, senior Katie Mullaley ran into a bit of bad luck. "The gravesite we were looking for was supposed to be on the edge of this graveyard, but the grounds had expanded and now there was something built on top of it."

Three subsequent exhumations were more successful for Mullaley, a scholar in the College's Toor Cummings Center for International Studies and the Liberal Arts (CISLA). She spent the summer after her junior year in Ponferrada, interning with the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, an organization dedicated to shedding light on the lives lost and hidden during Spain's tumultuous path toward a stable democracy. The internship was part of the CISLA certificate program, which allows students to internationalize their majors through intensive language study, a funded international internship and a senior integrative research project.

Through the program, Mullaley, a history major and Hispanic studies and government double minor, is helping to uncover a shocking history that many in Spain would rather forget. From 1939-1975, the country was under the rule of Francisco Franco, a ruthless dictator who used extreme measures to quell any opposition. Entire families could be executed in the middle of the night, Mullaley said, and the death toll may be as high as 50,000.

"If you talked about it or criticized the regime in any way whatsoever you were killed," she said. "He systematically repressed Republican memory through propaganda, fear and censorship."

Mullaley's interest in the Franco regime stems from her first visit to Spain through study abroad during her junior year at Connecticut College. Her host family in Granada took her to a historical museum, where she noticed there was nothing about Franco. Mullaley said she asked her host family about it, "but they were reluctant to give any sort of clear answer." Mullaley soon learned that this reluctance is common in Spain. Through independent research, she learned that once Franco died, Spain set out to create a stable democracy. However, there was so much controversy over what had happened during the regime that the country essentially fell into a "pact of silence," erasing an entire era from the minds of its citizens and sweeping decades of atrocities under the rug.

"Amnesty was given to everyone involved with the atrocities, and there was no talk of the Franco regime, not even in the history books," explained Mullaley.

Mullaley's interest was piqued and, after a bit of research, she discovered the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, which is leading the charge in a relatively new movement to remember. "The primary objective of the association is to locate mass gravesites, find remains and return those remains to the families for burial. They want to shed light on the Franco regime," she said.

During her internship with the association, Mullaley worked in the lab processing paper work and digitizing files. But the most exhilarating part of the experience was participating in those four exhumations, each of which was charged with history and emotion.

"When you find a gravesite, it's a very weird mix of emotions. You're so happy you've finally found it and can finally give closure to some of these families, but it's heart-wrenching at the same time, because these sites are places of mass murder," Mullaley said, recalling some of the more powerful scenes, such as the well-preserved skulls, each with its own visible bullet hole. "When you see these bodies it changes you in a way I can't explain."

Mullaley also had the chance to speak with some of the locals who were hoping to find their murdered relatives at these exhumations. "They were cheery," she said, "which sounds strange, but they were hopeful to find the remains. They hadn't been able to tell their story for so long that they were excited to finally be able to speak."

The entire experience had a profound effect on Mullaley, who now plans to go to law school to become a human rights lawyer. "Seeing these blatant violations of human rights made me want to make sure that nothing like that happens in the U.S. or anywhere else," she said.

Mullaley is currently working on a senior integrative research project, "Confronting Franco's Legacy: Changing Public Perception of Franco in Spain." In addition to her internship, she received a CISLA student research grant to study the Spanish Civil War archives in the special collections of the University of San Diego.

Along with the amazing opportunities to experience travel, culture and the passionate study of a personally-designed project, the entire CISLA experience gave Mullaley something more permanent: perspective.

"It let me see what a liberal arts education is really like. It was life changing," she said.

- By Sam Norcross '14

March 26, 2012