The Ghosts of Spain’s Past: A Philippine Connection

The perfect Halloween story: A dictator's tomb and an unexpected Filipino connection.

( As we Filipinos argue about the ultimate fate of the mortal remains of Ferdinand Marcos, the example of Spain and its former dictator, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, inevitably comes up. Here, in this Spanish newsreel, you can see Franco at the height of his power as Head of the Spanish State, receiving President Elpidio Quirino in 1951.


Franco had come to power as a rebel general during the Spanish Civil War. To this day, his admirers believe he saved Spain and the Catholic religion from Communism. The Church, for example, has proclaimed members of the clergy who were executed during the Spanish Civil War, as martyrs to the faith. A cousin who was in Spain when Franco died, recalled priests barrickading their convents, fearful that the Caudillo’s death would usher in a new era of persecution for the Church.

Valle de los Caidos near Madrid, Spain
PHOTO BY Neticola 
Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

In 1986, during our visit to Spain, my father took me to visit the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen). It was a few months after the EDSA Revolution, and Marcos was still fresh in everyone’s minds. It was a somber experience, from the moment we caught sight of the imposing complex. My father immediately pointed out how unfortunate it was that Marcos had modeled the Dambana ng Kagitingan on Mount Samat in Bataan, on Franco’s memorial to himself and his Fascist state. 

Dambana ng Kagitingan in Bataan
PHOTO BY Warkyum
Wikimedia Commons
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Inside, as we toured the imposing but gloomy Basilica (located near Philip II’s El Escorial, and so, pointedly situated as a companion in grandeur and prestige to Philip II’s vast monastery-palace-monument to Spain and its monarchy), my father kept telling me how the place had been built with forced labor: the captured soldiers and supporters of the defeated Spanish Republic. Though Franco justified the complex as a monument to “reconciliation,” my father kept reminding me it was an effort to perpetuate Franco’s victory.

We looked down at Franco’s ostentatiously simple tomb. And here, as we looked at his tombstone, my father paused to remind me that there were—are—two Spains. The Spain of Franco and the Spain of the Republic; that as Filipinos, our sympathies ought to be, always, with the Spain of the Republic, and the Spaniards who’d fought to defend that Republic; and how it was that Spain that had resumed after the death of Franco, and which had just a few months earlier, been among the first nations to recognize the Philippines as a newly restored democracy. This, the new, and not the old Spain, was the Spain that deserved fraternal affection, he said.


Later on, reading on my own, I encountered an interesting account of how, after World War II, Franco, having survived World War II, his power intact, had to send a ship to Manila to repatriate Spaniards. Scholar Benito Legarda Jr. clarified in an e-mail to me that "They [the Spaniards] were homeless because the areas where they lived, Ermita and Malate, were razed. The Spanish government protested to the Jap[anese] government about killing Spaniards, and the Jap government paid indemnity to the victims." It also seems Franco had recognized the Spanish-sponsored government in the Philippines as part of a vague but ultimately thwarted scheme, to try to regain the Philippines for Spain. A more recent and thorough exploration of Franco, the Philippines, and Japan can be found in Franco's Spain and the Japanese Empire (1937-1945) by Florentino Rodao.

After the death of Franco, his designated heir was Prince Juan Carlos de Borbón, son of the Count of Barcelonawho renounced his claim to the throne so his son could become Franco’s heir: King Juan Carlos I. Juan Carlos very cleverly maneuvered to transition Spain to becoming a constitutional monarchy, and a functioning democracy. In 1981, an attempted coup d’etat by military officers who wanted to return Spain to the Franco era collapsed because of the King’s refusal to support them, and used his prestige to make a TV broadcast calling on all Spaniards to support their democratic government. Incidentally, it was also Juan Carlos who, by laying a wreath on Rizal’s tomb, symbolically closed the chapter on the Philippine Revolution against Spain, in 1998.


Part of Spain’s becoming democratic and turning its back on dictatorship involved the fate of Franco’s remains. After long court cases and much argument, on October 23, the tomb of Franco was opened, and his remains removed from the Valle de los Caidos, for reburial in a private cemetery.


As I watched online coverage of the exhumation and removal from the Valle de los Caidos, of the remains of Franco, I remembered a white-haired Spanish gentleman named Rafael Antón and tweeted about it. The few times I met him, he was acting as the food-and-beverage manager of Club Filipino. Every time he and my father would see each other, they would stand at attention, and raise their fists, and then warmly embrace. This, it turns out, was the greeting of the Republicans of Spain.

My father told me that Antón had come to the Philippines before the war, as a refugee: a Republican now deprived of a country, fleeing Franco’s persecution. That is all I knew of him, but the memoryparticularly of their broad smiles as he and my father would greet each other with clenched fistsof meeting an authentic Spanish Republican, and the subsequent story of Spain’s restoration of democracy, including Juan Carlos’ facing down a coup attempt by the Spanish military, stuck. And I’ve been interested in the story of the Spanish Civil War ever since. 


And so, that night, seeing Franco essentially expelled from his own monument, I thought to myself, how Antón (and my dad) would have been delighted to see the Generalissimo’s removal from the Valle de los Caidos. 

After remembering Antón, I became curious to find out more about him and there is actually  quite a bit to be found. And that there’s more to the Valle de los Caidos and Antón: it now seems to me that he would only have been partially pleased, because someone else remains enshrined in the Valle de los Caidos.

Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera Wikimedia Commons

This brings us to Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera. His tomb, more than Franco’s, is the central focus of the Valle de los Caidos. His tombstone is even plainer than Franco’s, bearing only his given names: Jose Antonio

A brief Philippine connection is in order: de Rivera, the Marquis of Estella, was the son of Miguel Primo de Rivera, who had been dictator of Spain under King Alfonso XIII (the last Spanish monarch to rule over the Philippines). 

And he was grandson of Fernando Primo de Rivera, one of the last Spanish governors-general, from 1880-1883. De Rivera was enshrined in the Valle de los Caidos as the official founder of the Spanish Falange, the Fascist party of Spain. The opening episode of the marvelous BBC documentary, The Spanish Civil War, includes an introduction to the life and career of de Rivera. 

Which brings us back to Antón:  he was a refugee-exile of some prominence because of the role he played in the death of de Rivera. Writing in The Spanish Community in the Philippines, 1935-1939, Rodao pointed out that Antón was a lawyer who’d taken part in the tribunal that condemned de Rivera, the Falangist leader, to death on November 20, 1936. Aware of the anger of the supporters of Franco, Antón wrote articles under a pen name. 


Long after it occurred, it seems Antón had a conversation with a compatriota fellow Spaniard, but one fully devoted to the Fascist side, about the execution of de Rivera. On a Falangist website, writing on May 4, 2008, Javier Pérez Pellón recounted a series of conversations with Antón (here in a lightly edited, and so wobbly, automatic translation): 

Covering the goings-on for the TVE about an important meeting of the International Monetary Fund, which was held in Manila, in September 1976, I had the opportunity to meet and treat Rafael Antón Carratalá, who was the youngest vocal magistrate of the Popular Tribunal which, in November 1936, José Antonio Primo de Rivera ended up tried and sentenced to death. Rafael Antón lived, I would say opulently, in a golden exile in the Philippines, where he had founded a merchant company that worked, in turn, for large American companies in that area of the Pacific.


He invited me several times to eat in the most luxurious and delicious restaurants, including those of Chinese cuisine, of Manila and during these convivial days he told me many things about that judicial process. Although he did not hesitate to sign the death sentence of the founder of the Falange, he could not but recognize and admire the extraordinary magnetism and the enthusiastic and generous patriotism that Primo de Rivera exhibited in his personal relations. Admiration that, as is known, was also shared by Indalecio Prieto and Manuel Azaña, who did everything possible to prevent the execution of the sentence. Rafael Antón recognized that the execution of José Antonio had been a huge mistake that had done a very weak service to the republican cause because, above all, “it was a stupid and barbaric lynching of a Great Man that Felipe González and his cheerful wartime companion, Serra Solana would like so much,”  to the point of making him erect a bronze statue on the Paseo de la Castellana in Madrid! See to believe! 


The interview with Rafael Antón was lost in that immense trunk of memories where so many pieces of censored film have been lost, because, at that time, as it still is on TVE, this was not a time for joking. 

The Falangists never forgot what Antón had helped make possible. During World War II, Elmer Ordoñez, in an extremely interesting article, added that Antón was among the Spaniards that the Franco government asked the Japanese to put in jail. 

Writing in Espías vascos (“Basque spies”), Mikel Rodriguez mentioned that this was because the Spanish Falangists in Manila considered people like Antón to be “active red elements.” In Spanish Falange in the Philippines, 1936-1945, Rodao added that at first the Spanish Republicans were interned in Villamor Hall of the University of the Philippines, but that “after some weeks” most were freed; but that “a group of them who were charged with more serious offenses were transferred to the military prison in Fort Santiago.” According to Radao, this included Antón, who was detained until “the autumn of 1942” and considered to be “guilty of crimes against Spanish civil law,” requiring maximum security until he could be extradited back to Spain, as demanded by the government in Madrid.


If the Falangists never forgot Primo de Rivera, then Antón surely never did; as seen above, he told a Spanish Fascist he didn’t hesitate to sign de Rivera’s death sentence. But while Franco has been exhumed, de Rivera remains at the Valle de los Caidos, and according to this article, will remain enshrined in that place.

So it seems to me, this state of affairs would have limited any delight over Franco’s exhumation.

An aside on the Spanish Civil War: there were at least 16 Filipinos who fought for the Republic too, with at least one death and four injured; Elmer Ordoñez, quoting a Spanish writer, identified the following: “Pedro Penino, who … [I]n a 1938 interview with the Spanish weekly Union… said that among the ‘pure Filipinos’ who fought in defense of the Spanish Republic were a certain Claro, a political commissar, in a Mixed Brigade; a Colonel Santiago (from Tondo) and someone surnamed Mendoza who both held high positions in the general staff of General Jose Miaja of the Republican Army; someone surnamed Manuel; and another militia man in Valencia who claimed to be related to Commonwealth President Quezon.” 


Through @unlawyer on Twitter, I found out about a German propaganda film from 1939, Im Kampf gegen den Weltfeind — Deutsche Freiwillige in Spanien, with a curious cameo: a Filipino prisoner asked by the German Condor Legion why he went to Spain to kill Germans. The answer, on camera at least, was evasive—as seen in an extract from the film Filipino in Spanish Civil War 1939. 

While what happened to them is obscure, more documented is what the Spanish Republicans managed to do: find refuge in the Philippines. A UNHCR feature details how the defeated Spanish Republicans came to find refuge in the Philippines. 

Returning to Antón, a postscript. Aside from the information above (that Antón eventually did well for himself by having an import-export business), an article by Danny Dolor in 2009 tells us that he was a co-founder of Lebran Pictures, one of the Big Four Philippine movie studios of the 1950s. A 2019 article by Alexa Villano adds that his partners were William Brandt, Manuel Valdes, Rita Valdes Araneta, and Carmen Valdes Nieto, and that “Lebran stopped producing films in 1956 due to poor return of investment. Its owners went on to concentrate in the real estate business.” Benito Legarda Jr. in an e-mail told me that Antón prospered by marrying his (Legarda’s), widowed aunt, Rosario Valdes de Stevens, and “was given management of the Valdes real estate holdings lodged in Rita Legarda, Inc. ” We know that he eventually became a Filipino citizen: a list of shareholders of the Manila Jockey Club includes Rafael Antón, and states he was a Filipino citizen. And I know he was associated with the Club Filipino in the 1970s. What a life he must have lived!


Follow Manuel L. Quezon III on Twitter @mlq3

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