Interview – Loreto Urraca
It’s not every day that someone discovers a family secret which turns their world upside down, but this is exactly what happened to Loreto Urraca when she discovered a dark secret in her family.
After a great deal of soul-searching, Loreto left her comfort zone and set out to write a book. Writing the book has taken her on a great adventure, and adventure in which she has learnt a great deal, not just about the family secret, but also about herself and what she is capable of.
Loreto has agreed to talk to us about the effect that her decision to write that book has had on her relationship with herself and with the past.
At the age of 44, Loreto learnt, through a newspaper article reviewing a historical thesis, that during WW2 her grandfather had been police attache at the Spanish Embassy in France under Nazi occupation and, in collaboration with the Gestapo and the Vichy police regime, he had been in charge of the persecution of Spanish republican exiles. After the war, he was sentenced to death in absentia for supplying intelligence to the enemy. This was in France as he had continued to work for the Spanish government in the same role in Belgium until his retirement.
Loreto hardly knew that part of her family. She has few childhood memories of them and grew up completely ignorant of and alien to them. She met her grandfather only very occasionally.
- How did this discovery affect you personally, Loreto?
I was in shock. I felt ashamed. I became enraged because I couldn’t understand why this article had been published, why someone had written a thesis on the topic, why anyone could have had an interest in my grandfather. I felt betrayed. Like the ripples in a lake when you throw in a stone, the effects of the discovery started to reveal themselves.
First it hurt me. I couldn’t accept this past but the fact was clear and simple, he was my grandfather. I was forced to assume my identity as his grand-daughter. But I rejected what he had allegedly done.
Little by little a feeling of being found out started to develop. The family name – Urraca – is very rare and it was almost impossible to hide the relationship. I sensed that sooner or later someone would question me about my grandfather. I needed to know more about him but, at the same time, I didn’t want to. I didn’t feel prepared to learn what he had done. I felt I had enough with the accusations that had already been confirmed. What else could I find?
More than a year later a journalist approached me. I felt caught. She wanted to paint a portrait of my grandfather as a human being. She asked me to tell her about my memories of him when I was a child, of him playing with me and what he had told me of his past.
I would have preferred to leave the secret buried but I couldn’t stop other people trying to disocver it for themselves, to unravel every one of his actions, trying to know what had happened to their relatives.
Nor did I want people to think he had participated in my upbringing. All this forced me to breach my comfort zone. There was no point in trying to hide or deny that I am his grand-daughter, but I needed to detach myself publicly from him and his past.
Then, I became curious about this period of history and his true role (if he was the subject of a thesis he must have some historic relevance) as I was also curious as to his personality (I wanted to know if I had inherited any of his characteristics)
I also thought that it would be good to pass the information on to my daughter. This is also a part of her.
So I began my own historical investigations but in reality it was a journey into myself in search of my origin.
- Why did you decide to write the book?
Searching through archive documents, I discovered facts about Spanish history that weren’t taught at school. It was a far worse image of Franco’s early regime than the official one. It needed to be made public. Only historians were starting to reveal these things (the impunity and freedom that the Francoists were allowed to capture refugees in France during the Nazi occupation).
- How did the initial idea of writing about your grandfather envolve into the book as it stands now?
First, I wanted to publish his working documents (the information memos he sent from Paris on the persecution of exiles) without editing (for me they were self-explanatory) but this would have been boring and hard to read and worse, there were documents missing, so it would not have been a complete work. Also it would need an introduction by a historian and I am not a historian.
Another set of documents that caught my attention was the judicial summary in which he was sentenced to death. I could really see my great grandmother (more or less my current age at the time) going to court, sitting there alone in front of the judges for crimes she most probably had not committed, enduring the process for her daughter and son-in-law’s crimes.
One day, while talking to one of my best friends about the bad feelings every new discovery brought me and how overwhelmed and tired I was, the idea of writing a novel came as if by magic.
A historical novel would reach the general public much better than the collection of memos. To solve this, I also decided to set up a web page to deliver publicly all the information about prosecuted refugees that I had gathered. It would be my small, humble contribution towards the refugees descendants. What happened was not my fault but giving some clues might help relatives.
All the bad feelings disappeared the moment I took the decision to share because then I had a real purpose, an objective, a goal. All the work I had already done would become useful.
I think I needed to download all the information I had in order to eradicate all the bad feelings I was storing inside and then become empty in order to be able of taking more on board.
- What effect did writing the book have on your everyday life?
Writing this book put into action all the recommendations I received from Eric Maisel’s creative writing course and his books and some other suggestions I found on the Daily Om web page.
I set an order, a daily plan to work first on the web page – setting it up (it would be quicker than the book), and thinking on the structure, argument, line of action, characters for the book. I also set about gathering information and new readings for the setting, the atmosphere. At the beginning it was too ambitious, so it needed some adaptations. It needed to be well done and unhurried.
Once I started the writing phase I stuck to a daily plan (hours of writing) quite strictly. I had to dedicate lots of time to searches, composing and writing.
All my readings only related to the historic context and testimonies from people. I also became alert to whatever happened around me that could contribute to my goal.
- Did you ever feel like giving up?
Yes, several times. It can be hard, sad, lonely and frustrating. Sometimes I felt like a fool complicating my life and abandoning my family life without no real certainty of reaching a wider public than my immediate circle of friends. But something kept pushing me.
When I felt like giving up I also thought about how much wasted effort it would be if I gave up. Other people also helped simply because they showed an interest in the story.
- What have you learnt about yourself as a result of writing this book?
I have discovered the 50% of my origin I had known very little about. More importantly I learnt the value of growing up with the security of being loved. It gives you the strength you will need when you are an adult.
When you have a goal you might encounter difficulties but you have to stick to your guns. You cannot give up. After four months of writing I felt it was no good. I didn’t even read it. I just started all over again.
I learnt the strength that we all have when we want to carry something out. We can always do more when we have a real meaningful purpose.
- What did you have to give up in order to write the book?
Almost everything except the work that paid the bills. Thankfully my daughter was old enough because it was as if I suddenly disappeared from sight.
- Has there been a therapeutic aspect to writing for you?
Yes, it was a catharsis, a long healing from my traumas but I am stronger now. It was a process of self-reaffirmation.
- Do you think that the way you feel about yourself is different now from when you started to write?
Yes, before I was more introspective. I lived in my restricted comfort zone and then I decided to breach the walls of the tower protecting me because I felt more self-confident, to speak, to stand on my own, independent of my grandfather’s influence and the past.
- What can you tell us about how you feel about your grandfather’s life now that you have completed the book?
Now I can see him as any other person from the past whose actions I don’t approve of.
Because of my writing, I turned him, and the rest of my family, into characters and this is a very strange feeling because in a way it is me who is giving life to my ancestors. They should be grateful to me. They are my creations.
Now I don’t see him as a member of my family. I feel relieved that he had not tainted my upbringing.
- How would you describe your relationship with your book now as you await publication?
I am proud of it – I did it. Now it is a new thing on its own. Perhaps it could be better if I continue searching and adding but ‘done is better than perfect.’ It is time to get it out there.
I am also thankful to it because it made me meet other people in new geographical areas and working in other disciplines, quite different from my own, people who I would never have had the opportunity to meet if I hadn’t started the research.
It was enriching. It has given me the possibility to have new life experiences and meet new friends.
- Do you have a message for anyone who feels they have a book inside them or a message that they would like to get across?
Talk, produce, deliver. Go without fear. We are what we do not what we think. In the end, to change something, your actions not your thoughts are what really matter.
Beginning are difficult. When you have an idea it is easy to see it immediately in its finished form, you think it will be easy to do and you start with much enthusiasm. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even if the subject is a pleasant one, you have to face inner and outer difficulties. You will need patience to endure outer obstacles (unwilling publishers and markets). You need strength to overcome your moment s of discouragement or laziness. Our worst enemy is ourselves.
Beginnings are also difficult if you are not used to the tools you’ll need to write creatively. In my work I write a lot, but with very specific language that becomes repetitive and easy. When I started a creative writing task I realised how difficult it is to produce something from nothing (and in my case it should have been easier as I had real facts to use and didn’t need to invent too much). It is only a question of time, practice, feedback and more practice. The first attempts are never good and inspiration if it really exists, will only meet you if you are at work. Picasso said it like this: La inspiracion existe, pere tiene que encontrarte trabajando. “Inspiration exists but it has to find you when you are working.
But if what you want to create is a book, try not to tell too many people. The process of writing could take you much longer that you originally expected. Then, after the writing is complete, the process of finding a publisher, correcting, editing and printing begins. Some people ask you about your progress once or twice until the moment that they don’t believe in your project any more. This can be harmful to you. It is better to tell them only when you have a date for publication.
Loreto’s book is awaiting publication and we will keep you posted so that you can go out and grab your copy of this fascinating story.