A group of villagers were huddled at the side of the tracks leading into a mining town nestled between steep hills. A woman patted a young girl on the head and slipped the girl behind her skirts as the Guardia Civil ordered the group to line up. The girl scurried away and down into the arroyo behind. The woman raised her fist in the air as a distraction and a last gesture of defiance with a shout, “Viva la Revolucion!”
A man joined her with raised fist, as did the others in the group. “Viva la…”
The girl scurried away down into the arroyo before some of the bodies, neighbors she had known since she was born, fell after a loud volley of Mausers. Then came a horrible silence except for a restrained moan, a few pops and cracks of pistols. She watched from her hiding place under a boulder as the refrain from an old lullaby passed softly from her lips: “Los pollitos dicen los pollitos dicen pío, pío, pío cuando tienen hambre tienen frío.” Tears clouded her vision. It would be the last time she afforded tears to wash her face for over thirty years.
In English the whole verse is: “The little chicks say, ‘pio, pio, pio,’ when they are hungry... when they are cold. The hen looks for the corn... gives them food, and gives them shelter. Under her wings sleeping chicks huddle together to hasten another day!”
Sleeping… hung-over… soothed by the lullaby rhythm of steel wheels on steel tracks… chunk-cat-clack…chunk-cat-clack… chunk-chunk… Then noise: a whistle… awake… another town… steam hissed… exploded from pistons, escalated by the chatter and clamoring of another group of volunteers boarding. Alesandro peered through half-shut lids to watch the eager new ones standing in the aisle, falling against each other whenever the train jerked to a start. He’d been crammed into a seat on the wooden bench of the car, shoulder to shoulder, with young men… young or younger than he. Their voices were, from the start in Madrid, loud and boisterous… songs of the revolution… “A Las Barricades!” Bravado smothered fear and anticipation, driven by the cheers of crowds alongside the tracks. Red and black flags on “la locomotora del destino” chugged their cars away from the station and from the safety of homes and chalkboards of classrooms. After this disruption of not-thought, his attention turned to the changing Castilian landscape that passed his window… images flashed by. The train wound its way towards Asturias; another country on the far side of Spain. Some aboard were CNT labor unionists, veterans of street fighting, but most were volunteers: metropolitan boys with pink hands. The propaganda posters depict men; masculine men with chiseled chins and muscled forearms, fists thrust skyward over the barricades... men, not boys… boys who hoped to be greeted with cheers and welcomed by the calloused hands of miners holding firm at the barricades of Gijón and Oviedo, they would be heroes; heroes alright, dead heroes.
The train that left Madrid was loaded up with untrained young and eager faces armed by little more than the enthusiasm and the naivety of youth. Only a few had seen blood from more than a scratch before and were unprepared for what awaited them in the mining towns in and above Oviedo or Gijón on the Biscay coast. From Madrid they crossed north through the heartland of Castile-Leon and into a region of rugged mountains. Towns and stations that prominently posted the red and black flags of the Revolucion flashed by Alesandro’s window like in a dream. The rails were controlled by the anarchist labor union, the CNT, most sympathetic to the cause. But, this was an irony of a civil war full of ironies that, in cooperation with the new Republic in Madrid, the same union trains, controlled by the same union, would fill its cars with experienced and hardened Moroccan troops. Regular Army troops of Colonel Yague and General Ochoa, steamed towards Basque Country under orders of the Generals of the Republic in Madrid, Francisco Franco and Manuel Goded. Sent to quell the miners’ general strike that had crippled most of the country.
Next to Alesandro snored the fledgling journalist; his brother by adoption and Euskara blood. Euskara blood knows no nation but the Basque Country of the coastline and mountains along the Bay of Biscay and the Pyrenees Range of Southern France and Northern Spain. Their bond, however, was stronger than the fraternity of blood. Alesandro Otxoa was orphaned at five years of age by the pistoleros of the Guardia Civil. Alesandro Otxoa had been embraced and given a home near Biarritz by Marcel’s half-Basque father out of loyalty to the Otxoa family. It happened during the general strikes at La Canadiense in 1919. One of his earliest memory was that of a door being kicked in… of his father’s shouting… his mother’s cursing… screams… both taken out the door… the sound of clap-crack pistol retorts… their bodies lifeless on the street.
Alesandro took his secondary level education at the Lycée Militaire and thus had an inkling of military experience: little more experience than to know how to load and shoot a rifle, to march in drills, and to study rudimentary military history on his own in the school’s library. Therefore he felt responsible for, and protective of, Marcel, whose military ambitions were next to nil and who wasn’t supposed to be on this train in the first place.
The storm clouds forming in the atmosphere over the Second Republic of Spain were dark with foreboding: a civil war of which the life of Alesandro (Gotson) Otxoa would be entangled, from his first taste of combat in this one week in October of 1934, until his imprisonment in Carabanchel in the mid nineteen-fifties.
Alesandro was determined, and obligated by his heritage, to leave the comfort and safety of Bayonne at twenty years of age to join the CNT of the anarchist movement rising up in Barcelona. There in Madrid, as soon as he heard the news of the strike, he tried to bid farewell to Marcel over wine in a café alongside of other boys eager to become men.
“You aren’t going without me,” Marcel protested.
“There is too much going on here, Marcel. The people need your voice. Someone has to keep an eye on the political wrangling of Euro…” Alesandro rattled off his argument staccato knowing his words were falling on deaf ears.
“I won’t have it Alesandro, the hottest story in all of Spain is in Asturias.”
Taking a sip, holding the bottle to his lips without mocking, he said sincerely, “You’re an academic, Marcel. How well would you… would you be able to kill a man?”
“Ha, I can. Just as well as anyone. Hell, we are all amateurs!” he argued.
The brothers got drunk… so very drunk that Alesandro barely remembered agreeing to board the train singing what would be the anthem of the revolution, “La Rhumba La Carmella,” and chanting “¡Unidad, Proletaria Hermanos!” with the others. His stomach sick, he came to and swore to himself that he’d never get drunk again. It was an oath that he kept except for an occasional toast or to wash down stale bread. Alesandro knew from the time he awoke aboard that train he was going to keep his vigilance guardedly; for, one afternoon, his guard was down and his drunkenness nearly cost the life of his little brother.
The miners were waiting behind the barricades by the time Alesandro and Marcel had gotten through to the hills above Oviedo. An eagle’s aerie of a mining town nestled on the side of a precipice at the end of a snaking narrow track was fortified with makeshift catapults ready to launch crates loaded with sticks of dynamite from behind the barricades against the rails leading up to it. The steep slopes to the sides and behind left no room to be flanked or room for retreat. The engine stopped at the first barricade and backed down the three cars that were left of the train. The brothers reported for duty in an old barracks, an outpost of the Guardia Civil garrison from Oviedo. The miners had overrun it the day before with hardly a fight. The representative, from behind a desk that was made up of a plank over empty ammo boxes, wore a beret with red U.H.P. letters on the front.
Marcel stepped up first. The old gruff miner looked him over. “Ever fire a rifle?”
“I’m a journalist. I came to cover the story,” Marcel admitted.
“You’ll need to cover the story with one of these, kazetari... er, periodista.” The miner pointed to a stack of old Spanish Mausers for a second miner to pass over the desk.
Alesandro’s union papers he’d obtained before leaving Bayonne, and a certificate from a military prep school, wasn’t enough to impress the old union miner.
“A cadet from the école militaire,”
Those weren’t enough to impress the old miner. But he spied the pistol tucked in Alesandro’s belt.
“The Regulars use a Campo-Giro. How did you get that one?”
“My inheritance after…”
“Otxoa? I know of an Otxoa. An organizer, Eder Otxoa, from twenty years ago. Otxoa and Izar.”
“My father and mother.”
“Ah ha, 1919.” The miner’s face softened, “Yes, I was in Barcelona during the General Strike. You should be proud.”
Alesandro stood silent.
“Give this man a new rifle,” he called out to the second minor.
“You have command of the first rampart, comrade. They send bodies up here from
Oviedo with no experience and no ammo or guns,” he snarled. “All we have is what we seized from this outpost.”
“I haven’t seen combat either,” Alesandro confessed.
“Oh? Okay.” The miner shook his head and continued, “More than most. If you have your father’s cajones…”
“I didn’t see any artillery except for one field howitzer.” Alesandro returned to the subject.
“We do have plenty of dynamite. When that’s gone, we’re gone. When someone falls, take what you can… his rifle and ammo belt. Retreat to the second barricade, if you can, when it gets impossible to hold ‘em off. Light these sticks underneath yours first. Have you used dynamite before?”
“No, but is looks easy enough.”
“There are a lot of dead miners that thought so too. Get someone to brief you.”
By token of being given a command, issued this rifle, the dynamite, and blasting caps in his pack, Alesandro’s unofficial rank was that of an officer. He was no an officer, albeit, with little authority in the anarchist U.H.P. (the Union of the Brotherhood of the Proletariat). Despite the recognition granted his education, Alesandro knew his experience of warfare was little more than that of drilling on the quadrant… marching in ranks and carrying a rifle.
“It doesn’t look good.” Alesandro said to Marcel. He regretted more that he’d allowed his brother to tag along.
At the barricade, Alesandro and Marcel befriended a courier some simply called huérfana by the others. Or, it would be better said that she befriended them. She could see right away that Marcel would need instruction.
Marcel blushed, holding his antique pre-WWI Spanish Mauser. Embarrassment and confusion in his eyes betrayed his false machismo as he fumbled with the bolt of his rifle, having no idea how to even load or shoot it.
Unaware of her abilities and, thinking of her as only a child, Marcel made the mistake of showing patronizing pity for the orphan when first met her. She had brought him wine with stale bread and he warned her, “Be careful, Huérfana, don’t go poking your pretty little head over the ramparts.”
“You be careful!” she snapped. “You don’t even know how to handle that rifle…. Do you?”
“I know how well enough.” He lied.
“I can show you around in case you get scared and need to hide.” She parried.
“How old are you Huérfana?” Alesandro challenged.
“My name isn’t Huérfana,” she glowered, “It is Iniga and I’m thirteen.”
“Ten, really?” he countered, as she looked no older than that.
“Twelve and a half then.” She admitted, trying to stand taller.
Alesandro liked her attitude, “Iniga? That’s Euskara, eh?”
“Yes, it is Basque and it means desire!” before skittering away she stopped and turned, stomped her feet, threw back her head, snapped her fingers flamenco style, and proudly proclaimed, “I am Gitano too!”
They laughed at her Chaplinesque image in canvas trousers stomping her bare feet and making dust instead of the percussion of the clacking of heels.
The girl was always busy running back and forth with the latest news, sometimes extra food, and even ammo.
“I gave you my name,” she demanded, “What are yours?”
“My name is Alesandro, and this is my brother Marcel. I am also huérfano.” He looked over to Marcel to confirm the truth of what he said because her eyes gave them both the scrutiny of a prosecutor.
“Marcel? That’s French.” She sneered, still looking at them with suspicion, “and Alesandro, that isn’t Euskara,” she scowled impishly.
“Yes it is, Alesandro Otxoa…” and elbowing Marcel, he added, “Marcel Fournier is going to be a famous periodista from Bayonne.” He offered her a crusty piece of the bread she’d given him.
“A kazetari, eh. I’ve never heard of him, but, Otxoa? Ah, my father spoke of an Otxoa from Barcelona he knew when he was young.”
“Eder Otxoa?” asked Marcel.
“Yes, that’s the name. I think so.” Her expression was awestruck, her eyebrows pinched as she became serious, “But we are orphans… we have no name but one we choose.” Her expression changed from that serious tone to expectantly cheerful. “I am an orphan and my name is only one.”
“We are orphans not bastardos,” Alesandro pulled a crust of bread out of his coat pocket, “we have names to live up to. What is your family name, Iniga?”
“My family is gone, I will live up to my own name!”
Alesandro objected, “But it was your mother and father that gave you your fire.”
She countered, “But they tried to reason with murderers,” she set her face. “When I saw my mother and father fall to the ground, I knew I was alone.”
“Here, watch closely, periodista,” Iniga pulled the bolt back, put a spiral wire brush on the end of a cleaning rod in the barrel and handed it back to Marcel. He followed her instruction and proceeded to brush the rust from the barrel. She inspected it several times before she handed him a swab on the rod to oil it. Only then did she give him a few rudimentary lessons on aiming and pulling the trigger after which she took the gun back and loaded five cartridges from a scarf bulging from her belt filled with several rounds.
Iniga was a dynamo that never stopped running off on errands. She’d be away ten minutes or an hour and always came back with news of something useful like bread with sausages. Before scurrying off again she instructed, “Look, if you hear the buzzing de abejas near your ears, that isn’t the zumbido of bees… keep your head down ‘til you see others on the line firing. Whatever you do, don’t be the first to lift your head… even just to peek.”
A woman next to them had been enjoying the lesson. After Iniga left she lit a cigarette and waved her hand towards the track bed ahead, “Iniga was orphaned the day this strike began. Her father was a respected organizer of the miners and was shot there with his Romani wife as they were announcing the fall of the garrison at Oviedo to the miners there.”
“She witnessed this?” Marcel asked. He didn’t doubt Iniga’s word but his journalist instincts motivated him to draw facts from multiple sources.
The woman continued, “Iniga slipped away behind her mother into the arroyo. The whole town was forced to witness the execution.... The execution that began the uprising here.
“You were forced to watch?”
“We evicted the Guardia Civil,” proudly answered, “We took action from there. The Guardia Civil retreated to their barracks, afraid to face the people and hoping to be rescued by their Generals in Madrid.”
“How did you have weapons to oppose them?”
“Ha, we had nothing we didn’t take from them. We were armed with axes, shovels, a few hand guns and old rifles. Men arose from the mine shafts and the women who been widowed and children orphaned joined in too.”