12 August 2016

Juan Perales León, the Anarchist of Alcalá

This is the testimony of Juan Perales León (1914-2003), recorded in “Todos los Nombres”, an aural history project about people who suffered under the Franco dictatorship. It was set up by the CGT (a trade union) and the Andalusia Association for Historical Memory and Justice. Juan's life story was recorded and transcribed by his nephew, Carlos Perales, who has kindly given me permission to publish this translation. The original Spanish transcription is here:


I have translated verbatim the first and last sections, which relate to Juan's life in Alcalá, and summarised the parts relating to his military career and imprisonment in Jaén.

Alcalá early in the 20th Century

When I was five years old, my father died. There were three children – your father, a sister called Francisca, and me. Francisca died here in Calle Real, in the door of your father's shop. She died bleeding, I don't know where from. She was very young, maybe ten or twelve, perhaps more. My father was a muleteer. He had his donkeys, his mules, and we were financially well off. He died in a flu epidemic. He returned from a trip to Jerez, delivering charcoal, and he was already ill. I remember that when he started to remove the harnesses from the animals, some neighbours who were older than me helped him, so I climbed on a chair and started to try and help him too. He fell ill in the bed. I don't remember his features much. There were no photos of any kind. I remember the funeral. The funerals those days were basic, a box lined with cheap black cloth. One of his good friends, Don Pépede, was very strong and wanted to carry the box on his own. He didn't want anyone else to carry it. Years later, he was killed by a brother-in-law in C/ los Pozos. They dressed me in a black smock with shiny black buttons.

My mother sold the animals, and for a while we had a food shop in C/ Villabajo. Don Antonio Caballero's school was there. Later, years later, things got bad, we lost the shop and were destitute. My mother worked cleaning houses. We [children] went to the campo to work. I remember that in the mornings we had to watch the cows, the pigs or whatever there was. In winter when it was icy, my feet would besoaking wet. It was very cold and I'd wait for the sun to come out and warm me up. I went home every two or three days. I changed my clothes, I was given a hunk of bread, and I returned to the campo. I earned very little. As well as watching the livestock, one did whatever one was told; fetch water, gather firewood, all the things children had to do.

I got tired of the campo. I became an apprentice shoemaker. My first teacher was called Juan Ramón. Then I went to another shoemaker who was called “she of the cat”. I was about 12 or 14 then. At school I learned to write without knowing anything about spelling. I could write a little, and could add up, subtract and multiply, but I didn't learn division until later.

We had to move to Cádiz, my mother, your father and me. We lived first in C/ Arboli and then in La Viña. Life in Alcalá was very bad. As my mother was working, I was fed by another family. I had lunch with them and at night I went home and ate what my mother made. At that time almost all meals were based on bread, mainly crusts, and leftovers from the houses she worked in.

We returned to Alcalá. There were few possibilities in Cádiz either. I went to work as a waiter with an uncle of my mother's who was called Dominguito “El Conilato”. A very formal, serious man. He slept very little, almost always in a chair. He was always taking naps in that chair. It was a tavern where the rich people of the town went, those who had country houses and livestock. People who in the morning drank their glasses of brandy and then glasses of wine, the best there was. Later, after lunch, in the evening, they came back and drank coffee, which was very well made. Then more drinks. It was a select clientèle.

On 14 April 1931, young as I was, I had no knowledge of the Left or the Right. The Republic was proclaimed, and there was a demonstration which passed through the Alameda with the Republican flag. I came out of the café and joined in the spontaneous gathering. I started to shout "Long live the Republic", imitating the older ones.

Declaring the Second Republic in Madrid
I remember that when I was very small, we often used to go to the Quintana rubbish tip to play. Nearby lived an old man with a beard, and he was a Republican. They called him “Tio Valverde”. His whiskers frightened us. I remember this man's funeral. He died during the Republic. He must have been much loved, because many people were there.

After the demonstration, I didn't go back to the tavern. I didn't dare go past the Alameda. They were handing out lots of little Republican flags. The first mayor was José Sandoval and we children stuck close to him, the one in charge. We thought he would be the salvation of the poor. There was a meeting, and someone called Pizarro spoke. I remember him saying he had grown up with no education, and always had a pen and a book. I remember that part of the meeting.

A UGT [trade union] centre was opened. All the children used to go there for the novelty. I couldn't join, because I was still too young. Then another centre opened, which was the CNT [Confederación Nacional de Trabajo, the anarcho-syndicalists' union]. They let me join. There people met and talked. The most knowledgeable of them were the ones who organised everything. What I wanted to do was get a job, but perhaps because I wasn't old enough, they didn't give me work. Along with another youngster in the same situation, we wrote on the wall in the Calle Salá with bits of charcoal, in protest. We rebelled. It was my first act of rebellion.

Once inside the CNT, they formed us into groups Libertarian Youth groups so that we could develop awareness of what anarchism was. We managed to sign up those kids who were a bit special, who had a greater awareness, who were looking for something superior. Anyone who got drunk, treated their family or girlfriend badly, or was always putting their foot in it, couldn't get in. We would not admit them. When someone wanted to join, we consulted each other. They called us the "eagle chicks of the FAI" [Federación Anarquista Ibérica].

Here in Alcalá there were six or seven groups of Libertarian Youth and in each group there were eight young men, almost all of them working in the campo. Those who were better educated were the leaders, those who could read and write. Our mission was to prepare ourselves for the new society. We read many anarchist books and magazines. The CNT then was culturally very rich. The men were very well prepared. We had our library and went to the post office all the time to pick up books. Many books arrived. We educated and trained ourselves. To be a revolutionary was not just about firing shots and beating people up. We impregnated ourselves with pure anarchism. Although we couldn't put it into practice, it was what we wanted and we would fight for it. We thought we were the best, and the best ideas were ours. I still think that. The CNT had more members and we were younger, because in the UGT there were hardly any young people.

The Libertarian movement was very strong in Alcalá, Medina, Casas Viejas, Los Barrios, Jerez, Paterna, Jimena. We had contacts in all the towns. Sometimes there were strikes. They consisted in going out to the farms with sticks so that those who were working there would go on strike. When we came back, the Civil Guard would be waiting for us and sent us to jail. We were locked up many times, every time there was a strike. This happened during the Republic. Sometimes they beat us up. I remember one time when a civil guard, Molina, beat the shit out of your father on the Alameda.

The events at Casas Viejas were very close at hand. We had news that there was going to be an attempt at revolution. We thought we were sufficiently strong to win. We thought we could do it with the town and Casas Viejas would lead the movement. We waited to see the smoke signal from Medina, and there was smoke, but it wasn't the signal. They rose up. They were alone, isolated. We sent someone from Alcalá to make contact with them. A young lad, Joselillo Malacara, he ran like a greyhound and never got stitch or got tired. He was there, and when he came back he told us what had happened. They sent the Civil Guard and the Assault Forces. Directed by Captain Rojas, they started to throw stones wrapped in cotton soaked in petrol, and Seisdedos' shack caught fire. One of Seisdedos' daughters, who they called la Libertaria, escaped through one of the windows. I think there was a donkey there, and the donkey took the shots. Seisdedos died there in the shack. “Casas Viejas on one great day made a revolution, a few libertarians implanted anarchism” was a lovely song that was sung about it. The events became famous throughout the world.

Massacre at Casas Viejas(Benalup)

In Alcalá, something else happened that I remember well. They were working on the road to Paterna. There was little money for wages and they gave vouchers instead. These could be exchanged for food in a shop, which was like a private house. It belonged to Rodrigo Delgado, who became Mayor during the Republic. He was well known, a good person. The Mayor at that time was Antonio Gallego. People were tired of vouchers, because sometimes they needed things that weren't in the shop. As a protest, we met up in the Alameda to deliver a petition to the Mayor. The answer from the Republican Mayor was not as expected, and the people mutinied. There was a pile of cobblestones along the railing of the Alameda and they started throwing them at the town hall. The Civil Guard arrived to quell the protest, and the people ran off. I went into the inn. I ran upstairs and hid under the bed so they wouldn't see me. I didn't come out of there till two or three in the morning.

When the Movimiento [Nationalist Movement] came, I was about to complete my military service. I was conscripted in 1935 and served in the Victoria Regiment in Málaga. I came home around 18 or 20 June 1936. When I arrived in Cádiz I remember that I visited one of our companions who was in prison in El Puerto de Santa Maria. He worked in an ironmongers and had taken some money, but for the organisation, for the CNT. I went to El Puerto with his mother on the steamer. It was the first time I'd been on it. Back in Alcalá I went to work on the cork. I was out there a few days, on Monte Abajo. They gave me the sack. Then I went to work as a reaper at the Cortijo Puelles. We were still the Republic then.

I lived in Calle Cádiz, and from my house I heard people talking about a demonstration. I went down Calle Villabajo. My mother shouted at me not to go. I went, believing that it was my own people. When I reached the post office I could see that a demonstration was coming through the Plazuela, but they were right-wingers. They were shouting and carrying shotguns and rifles. It was a fascist demonstration. In your very house, they were guarding these weapons, rifles, bullets and pistols. One of those at the head of the demo was a doctor, Herrezuelo, who had treated me many times. I hadn't known that he was a right-winger. Seeing that the demo was not what I had expected I went down the Palomino alley. I was afraid they would catch me and arrest me. Messengers were sent to different places, warning those who were working on the cork that there had been a fascist uprising and that Alcalá had been taken over.

Days later, the bombing began. It was said that there had been a mistake by the fascist air force. They thought Alcalá was Ubrique or Jimena, and bombed it. Fear made many people flee to the campo. My mother, Kiko and I went to the olive grove at la Zúa. Your father had already left town. Many people left, but I didn't. I didn't know what to make of it all. One of the tactics of these people is to help themselves to everything left behind by those who fled. Later, as if nothing had happened, they would come back and kill them. They killed many people. They also killed the parents of young men who had fled, as a reprisal. That's what happened to Guillermo. His father and brother left, and they caught and killed the mother in reprisal. Another, known as Cabrero, was Manuel Delgado. He left as well. They killed his father. I was afraid they would kill my mother, so I didn't leave. I waited here to see what would happen.

I was hiding in the campo, and one day when my mother went home she found under the door an order for me to present myself to the army as a soldier. I didn't know whether to go off to the mountains or go into the army. Eventually I went into the town with the idea of taking flight, but I had a girlfriend and I wanted to say goodbye to her. She lived in C/ Real. I went to the bar of Montes de Oca. There were night-watchmen posted on the pavements and I sat down with some of my cousins who were there, with the idea of seeing the girl and saying my goodbyes.

I was sitting there in the yard by the bell tower when in came a Civil Guard and Corporal Linares, who was well-known. They touched me on the shoulder and I heard “Perales, the corporal wants to talk to you.” I stood up and moved away from the group. I was 21 or 22 years old. He took me by the ear and pulled it a few times, asking me where I had been. I explained that I had been with my mother, in Pedro Puerto's place in La Loma, we'd gone there because of the bombs. He insisted that I had been in Ubrique. The tugs on my ear were getting stronger and stronger. Ironically, he kept saying that I was a communist or an anarchist. He gave me a few blows with his stick, right there in the middle of the street. The people at the bar went inside, scared.

Then they told me to go. I asked whether I should go to the prison or to my house. To your house, he said. I thought he would apply the Ley de fugas [summary execution of runaways]. I took advantage of the arrival of a woman, dressed in black, walking beside her thinking that at least they wouldn't shoot me. I walked as lightly and as slowly as I could. I didn't want to run. I was terribly afraid. My life was at stake. When we arrived at the Palomino, I went down the alley again towards C/ Las Brozas. Then I went running up C/ Cádiz and instead of going home I went to the house of my aunt Ana Perales. I fell onto the bed and passed out. When I came to, I asked my cousins to see if anyone was keeping watch on the roads leading out of the town. I had decided to flee, but I couldn't. Those people had posted guards all over the town. I had to stay put.

The next morning, as I had the order to present myself to the army in Cádiz, I got up early to take El Correo, the post-bus. I arrived half an hour before it left. I went into Vicente's bar. I ordered a glass of anise. There was a man there called Pizarro, who was a shoemaker and who wanted to put a Falangist badge on me. I wouldn't let him. Then Corporal Linares turned up again, and greeted me with “how are things, good Spaniard?” I explained that I was waiting for the post-bus to take me to Cádiz so I could enlist. Fearfully, I answered the two or three questions he asked me, and he left. I couldn't drink the glass of anise. I was truly terrified.

I arrived in Cádiz and joined the “Company of Transients”, as it was called. I was there for quite a while. The fascist insurgency was already functioning in this area. One afternoon the whole battalion was mobilised and we started to climb into the lorries. It would be around August 1936. We went to take Alcalá del Valle. That was when I thought for the first time of changing sides. We were on our way to Alcalá del Valle when the Republican planes arrived and bombed us. We all jumped out of the lorries and took shelter wherever we could. Together with another man from Alcalá, Juan Diaz “Pichorto”, we made our way towards the Republican zone, but on the way we saw some Falangists already retreating, and we retreated too. They hadn't taken a single prisoner. Just one woman, who was in a lorry with the lieutenant. Everyone had gone off into the mountains, in the direction of Ronda, and according to what they said later, there wasn't a soul left in the town. Entire families had taken flight.

From Cádiz, they moved us to Algeciras. We were there for a few days. Then they took us to La Linea. The Moroccan troops had been there, and it was full of lice. Inside the barracks I found many anarchist books that had been requisitioned from houses. I chose one, I don't remember the title. I took advantage of my time on guard duty on the sands to read it. There were even the clothes of the Moroccan troops who had been shot for raping women there in La Linea, From there, we were moved to a customs guardhouse in La Atunara, behind the cemetery. And later to Guadiaro. That was a very quiet front. The enemy, who to me were friends, were a great distance away.


At this point, Juan and some of his colleagues broke away from the Nationalist army and went to join the Republican troops, brandishing a sock tied to a rifle as a white flag. He described it as one of his happiest moments during that period. He became a training sergeant for a battalion of Libertarian Youth and fought in many battles, including the fall of Málaga. In Alcaudete (Jaén), a few miles from the front, he met his future wife, Manuela.

In April 1938 he was shot in the face while retrieving some grenades and guns abandoned by the enemy. His jaw was badly damaged. Another battalion rescued him and took him to Castellón for treatment. He could not eat or speak. He was operated on by a surgeon in Valencia, and during his recovery he went for a walk and met someone from Alcalá, Fernando Monroe, and his wife. They were selling fruit from a cart. They took him to their house where he met many more refugees from Alcalá. He gave them the bread and oranges that the hospital had given him, because he was still unable to eat them himself.

When the Civil War ended, Juan wanted to leave the country, but because he couldn't eat properly he couldn't escape through the mountains. He was dependent on a civilian family to feed him, and he was putting their lives at risk by being there, so he turned himself in to the Nationalist army, saying that he had been injured in combat and taken prisoner by the Republicans. He was locked up in very unpleasant conditions but Manuela was able to visit him. She had had his child.

Juan was a political prisoner in Jaén for four years. He describes the solidarity amongst the prisoners, sharing their meagre and often putrid rations, though many died of hunger. Because of his condition he was given bread and 2 litres of milk a day, more nourishing than the standard prison mess. One day his mother sent him a food parcel from Alcalá; his family knew he had been injured but didn't realise that he couldn't eat properly. The parcel included turrón and hazelnuts. The guards were very suspicious, thinking he was exaggerating his condition to get the milk and bread diet, but he explained that he hadn't told his family how bad his injuries were.

Provincial jail, Jaén

The prisoners organised themselves according to their affiliations – communists, anarchists, Republicans - with their own committees. The prisoners attended classes in mathematics, drawing, accounting etc. The teachers were prisoners themselves. Juan went to all the classes, to help pass the time, and said that the little education he acquired he owes to that prison. 

Later, he and his colleagues were transferred to a convent. Conditions were as bad in the convent as in the provincial jail. There were no formal classes there so they organised their own, those who had had some education taught the others. Juan taught people how to read and write. Food was vary scarce, and those who suffered most were those from far away who didn't have families to bring supplies for them. The water supplies froze in winter, and everyone was riddled with lice There were many deaths.

One day a small group including Juan were returned to the provincial jail and tortured. They had no idea what they were being punished for; they only found out because a guard knew the family of one of the prisoners. It turned out that a prisoner at the convent had made a false accusation that they were plotting to escape, thinking he would get more food. Eventually he confessed.

When someone was sentenced to death, their names were read out and they were taken from the cells to the chapel for confession. There was often confusion with similar names. One night Juan heard his own name called. He thought his time way up, but it was just someone telling him to go and collect his milk ration.

Months passed and eventually the day of his hearing arrived. He had not been summoned to give a declaration before then, possibly because a comrade who worked at the court had managed to keep his document at the bottom of the pile. The later you were judged, the more lenient the sentence. However one of the judges turned out to be his grandmother's brother, Pedro Ruiz from Cádiz. They got talking about Alcalá and he did not have to make a declaration. Ruiz was sent to Cádiz but he recommended him to another judge, who heard his declaration and believed his (made-up) story. A few months later he was called into the office and told he was being offered his liberty conditional on a signed statement. He refused to sign, saying he had committed no crime. He was taken back to the yard where his comrades thought he was crazy. They convinced him to sign and he was set free in December 1942.

He lived with Manuela and their two children in Alcaudete (Jaén), selling pictures and enlarged photos. He was too weak to work in the fields. He kept up his connections with the CNT, helping distribute anti-fascist propaganda, and the military police continued to harass him. In July 1945 one of his colleagues denounced him under torture. He was arrested, beaten up and imprisoned for two years for subversion and distributing illegal propaganda. He was transferred to Guadalajara prison, which was even worse than Jaén. There was snow on the ground and they had to go out on work-camps. He only had espadrilles so he wrote to his cousins in Cádiz, who were shoemakers, asking them to send him some shoes. They didn't answer. Afterwards he always wondered why not, but didn't ask.

The food was so bad and scarce that a group of prisoners went on hunger strike for eight days. Finally the governor said that the food and the treatment would improve so they relented. But after a short time things returned to as they were.

The prisoners communicated with each other by writing messages on tiny rolls of paper passed through holes in the walls, made with bits of wire, from cell to cell. The holes were then filled in with breadcrumbs and chalk.

Juan was finally released in November 1947.  He made his way to Madrid and got a train to Cádiz.

Alcaudete, Jaén

I headed straight to where my wife was. I arrived in Cádiz and took the post bus to Alcalá. I didn't recognise anybody. It had been twelve years since I'd left. I think some people on the bus recognised me, but they avoided contact. I was just out of prison and I was a Red.

My wife and my mother were waiting for me. It was very emotional, with hugs and kisses. Some relatives came to the house to welcome me. Others, people I'd known before, even right-wingers, did not refuse to acknowledge me. Even Alberto, Chiquito the shoemaker, who was a Falangist and a good man, came to see me with his brother. However, the people of the Left, my friends, shunned me. I'm sure it was out of fear. The only one I went around with was your father.

My difficulty in chewing complicated what sort of work I could do. I had to work. I had to do something. I had nothing left. I kept in contact with the house where I'd stayed when I was selling pictures in Alcaudete. I wrote to them and told them what had happened, that I was a political prisoner, not a common felon. I had an enlargement of a photo taken when I was a soldier. I was thinking about taking up the sale of pictures again. La Moma, who went selling clothes in the surrounding countryside, was very knowledgeable and was well-known. For the first few days I accompanied her, I felt protected and she helped people to accept me without fear. I took little things that people needed, and then I went with my pictures. I offered to do enlargements and thus I was able to earn a living and set up what would later become “La Joya”.

This is my story.

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