Authors: Ruta Sepetys
They are calling the Hotel Castellana Hilton here “The Forty-ninth State” and with some justification, because only in America does there seem to be more Americanos. . . .
. . . There are diplomats and generals, admirals and hill jumpers, phony counts and real ones, movie actresses trying to look like movie actresses and non-actresses also trying to look like actresses. Some of the steadies have been here so long now that they have to cut them loose from the bar stools. And there is usually a magnificent assortment of weirdies.
. . . I have seen faces around here that haven’t emerged since the old contract-letting days of World War II. They crowd the bar and give cocktail parties and search endlessly for “contacts,” for Spain is opening up more and more to outside trade, and there is, of course, big dough to be made in the construction of the military bases here.
from “Call Hotel Hilton The 49th State”
Defiance Crescent News
, Defiance, Ohio
They know he’s a tourist.
It’s not the camera that draws their stare. It’s his clothing. The eyes of the locals pull first to Daniel’s mud-dulled boots. Their gaze crawls over his denims, pausing briefly at the belt buckle displaying the silhouette of Texas. A quick survey then continues north over his plaid shirt, but as soon as they see his camera, they quickly turn away.
People look at him, but no one speaks to him.
Two small boys walk by a newspaper stand. The front page of the paper features a picture of Spain’s leader. The boys stop and raise their right arms in salute to the photograph.
El Caudillo de España
Daniel snaps a picture.
The words and Franco’s photo, in various configurations, appear everywhere. On the country’s coins, postage stamps, trolley cars, and street signs. Daniel looks at the newspaper photograph. General Franco is short with a bland face and retreating hairline. His tiny mustache is perhaps his only distinguishable feature. Small in stature, his grip over the country looms tall, absolute.
“Dan’s six foot one now,” bragged his father recently. “Isn’t that right, big man?”
Wrong. Height doesn’t make a man big or powerful. He and his father look through different lenses.
As he exits Retiro Park, noise erupts like a clowder of screaming cats. Motor scooters blister down the scalding pavement, darting between wheezing buses and honking cars. A little girl in a ruffled dress sits on the handlebars of a motorcycle as her wild driver whips through traffic.
Daniel pauses on the sidewalk. Madrid roars with an exotic energy of deep colors. Cars and shoes are black, blending with street tapestries of charcoal, Goya brown, and dark currant. The churning scenes are accented by swirling exhaust and snaps of Spanish. His mother, born in Spain, is adamant he speak the language of her country. For the first five years of his life she spoke to him only in Spanish. Although the language is familiar, all else in Madrid is foreign.
On the corner near the entrance to the park, tired donkeys pull lumbering carts. Vendors hawk souvenirs. A pencil of a man stands behind an assortment of Spanish folding fans. He holds several at once, flicking them open to flutter like painted butterflies. The vendor motions to the badge hanging from Daniel’s camera strap, asking if he’s a journalist.
Daniel nods at the half-truth and continues walking. The camera was a high school graduation present from his mother. The badge is from a local paper back home in Dallas.
“I want to be a photojournalist,” he announced recently at the dinner table.
“Trust me, you’ll grow out of it,” said his father.
He won’t. Photographs are spontaneous and exciting, something that he creates, not inherits. They’re a story of his own making, instead of an ancestral narrative steeped in oil fortune. He thinks of the typewritten letter at home in his desk drawer.
Dear Mr. Matheson,
Congratulations, you have been selected as one of five finalists for the 1957 Magnum Photography Prize.
His portfolio is due in September.
His father doesn’t understand. Daniel won’t tire of photography, but he is tired of frugal listeners who are generous with opinion. And the opinions are many:
He should pursue football instead of boxing.
Photography’s a waste of time.
The family oil business will be his happily ever after.
Those who think they know him best don’t really know him at all.
Girls were no different. “Daniel Matheson. My, my, where have
been hiding?” joked the pretty debutantes crowding the jukebox at Nelson’s.
He hadn’t been hiding. He’d always been there but the girls had never noticed—until he returned as a senior, four inches taller and several yards stronger. His phone started ringing. They loved his truck, his photos, and hearing him speak Spanish with the waiters at El Fenix. Suddenly, he was “interesting.” And suddenly, he was foolish enough to believe them.
After three months of dating Laura Beth, “interesting” no longer interested her.
“What about penny loafers instead of boots?” she suggested. “Let’s take your father’s Cadillac instead of your truck.” And, “Oh, him? He’s just a good friend of the family.”
His school buddies at St. Mark’s laughed. “What did you expect?
She rides dressage. You ride rodeo. Everyone knows she’s fickle. She’s not worth the whiskey.” Thankfully, it was his Spanish heritage that ended the relationship with Laura Beth. He was “too ethnic.”
Daniel passes a café. The dry, windy air infuses with oil, garlic, and paprika. Heaps of prawns, eel, fried peppers, and spiced sausages fill the large glass window. He snaps a picture. The warm wind funnels through his hair. Madrid is as hot as Dallas. He turns a corner onto a narrow, cobbled street and tucks into a doorway. Daniel looks at his watch and then to the position of the sun. His parents are waiting at the hotel for lunch. His father will be annoyed with him. Again.
Approaching heels echo in the distance. Daniel raises the lens to his eye.
Her steps are quick. Purposeful. She carries a small bundle wrapped in cloth. She looks constantly over her shoulder, as if she’s being followed. Daniel remains in the doorway, unnoticed, waiting for the perfect shot. A breath of wind swirls the nun’s black robes. She reaches down with a hand to tame them. As she does, the breeze lifts the cloth, revealing the contents of her bundle.
A baby’s face, gray like smoke, stares at Daniel.
His breath hitches as he presses the shutter.
The child is dead.
The nun’s eyes, wide with panic, snap to his lens.
Hammering the shutter produces nothing but an empty clicking. He’s out of film.
His hand dives into his pocket for a new roll. He loads as fast as he can, but it’s no use. When he looks up the nun has disappeared, replaced by two men in capes and wing-shaped hats. They’re carrying rifles.
The Guardia Civil. The military force that serves Franco.
Daniel’s favorite poet, Federico García Lorca, described them:
Who could see you and not remember you?
Patent-leather men with patent-leather souls.
“Steer clear of them,” warned his father.
But their sinister appearance, like human crows, curls a beckoning finger toward Daniel’s lens. He slides farther into the doorway to conceal himself. It’s not illegal to photograph the Guardia Civil, is it?
Just one picture. For the contest.
Daniel presses the shutter. Did he get it?
A flap of wings. A silent bomb explodes.
The men are instantly upon him, slamming him against the door, yanking the badge hanging from his camera strap.
“Sí, señor. Americano,”
replies Daniel, fighting the urge to shove them away. He tries to remain polite.
“Yo hablo español.”
The guard sneers. “
Because you speak Spanish you think you have the right to photograph whatever you please? Hand over the film. Now!”
Daniel fumbles nervously to open the back of his camera and remove the roll. Are they going to arrest him?
The guard rips the film from his hand. “Your badge is worth nothing here. Where are you staying?” he demands.
“The Castellana Hilton.”
As soon as the words leave his mouth, Daniel wants to grab them, take them back, and hide them.
But it’s too
. . . The system was very rigid. It was Franco’s Spain. You did not want to fall under the hands of the Guardia Civil or the police. The jails were pretty bad and people were getting thrown in there all the time.
, U.S. consular officer, Madrid (1964–1966)
Oral History Interview Excerpt, September 1996
Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection
Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training
Puri holds a baby on her lap. She ties strings on the booties that match the pale rose of the child’s cheek. This tiny girl loves sounds, so Puri makes popping noises with her mouth. The infant giggles and smiles in delight, alive with joy and wonder.
A brass medallion hangs from the child’s neck by a white string. Puri turns the pendant over and runs her thumb across the engraving.
20 116 is unaware she’s an orphan. She doesn’t realize she’s been brought to the Inclusa, the orphanage in Madrid. She has no idea she is held by Purificación Torres Pérez, or that Puri wears a black apron bearing the red arrows of the Falange, the Spanish fascist movement.
“Your duty, your mission as a woman is to serve,” lectured her school instructors. Puri is grateful to serve through working with children.
“We’re going for photos. It will be fun,” coos Puri to the infant.
20 116 is dressed in beautiful clothes that don’t belong to her. Puri will take her to the small white room on the third floor. A man with a boxy black camera will come and hover in front of the orphan, capturing her portrait. Puri will soothe her after the spark of scary flashbulbs. She will make the popping noises.
20 116 will be returned to her ruffled bassinet in the nursery. The pretty clothes will be returned to the dark closet of Sister Hortensia.
One outfit for girls. One outfit for boys.
Sister Hortensia oversees each infant with sincere and devoted affection. Photos of the child will be shared with loving couples in
Spain. Puri smooths the baby’s downy wisps of hair, thankful there are so many families willing to adopt unfortunate children.
A large framed portrait of Franco hangs at the front of the room.
, he is watching,” Puri whispers to the baby. “He is taking care of us.” She lifts the infant’s tiny right arm in salute toward the picture. She bounces her in rhythm and sings the anthemic melody:
“He’s Franco, Franco, Franco. Our guide and captain.”
A nun from a local hospital sweeps frantically into the room, summoning Sister Hortensia. There are nods. Whispers.
“In the street. Yes, just now. And the Guardia Civil . . .”
Puri strains to hear.
20 116 begins to whimper. Puri makes the popping sound.
The two nuns look to Puri.
Puri turns her back.