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Ojos abiertos

Elizabeth Challinor
p. 35-40

Texto integral

Bastions of Hope

Bastions of Hope

Source: Gwendolen Lynch

1Each photograph in the jigsaw is a member (and in one case a friend) of the association Sevilla Bebés Robados for whom I have written a poem in Spanish based on their story. It is estimated that more than 300.000 babies were taken from their mothers in Spain without their consent during and well after the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1975. The practice began following the end of the Spanish civil war in 1939, when imprisoned mothers were separated from their children and the babies of executed women were given up for adoption. The separation of mothers from their babies continued for decades in hospitals throughout the country. Doctors, nurses, and nuns told mothers that their new-born child had died and in most cases that the hospital would take care of the funeral. Some mothers believed what they had been told, others were suspicious but unable to access concrete proof to confirm their suspicions. All of them lived with the pain for decades. The work of a Spanish journalist, Paco Lobatón, who investigated the disappearance of loved ones in a popular TV show as far back as the 1990’s, opened the eyes of the Spanish public to the cause of the stolen babies of Spain. However, successive governments have done little to provide the necessary resources or legal framework for relatives to find their loved ones. Associations have emerged across Spain to support them and to put pressure on the state.

2My involvement in this cause sprang from my literary writing. Having completed a novel on women and children in prison at the end of the Spanish civil war, I intended to write a sequel about the stolen babies and contacted a few associations. Sevilla Bebés Robados replied and at the end of October 2021, making the most of a national holiday, I went for a long weekend to Sevilla and participated in one of their meetings during which I was able to interview a few mothers. They also brought forward their monthly gatherings in front of the local council to demand justice to coincide with my visit and posted photos of the demonstration on their Facebook page.

3Interviewing some of the members, witnessing their pain was a humbling experience and I soon realized that it made little sense for them or for me to write fiction. But neither did I have the means to undertake classical anthropological research on the topic or the capacity or skills to get involved in their political activism. I left Sevilla promising to reflect more upon how I could get involved in their cause.

4Since I also write poems, I happened to write one on the topic, based on a message sent to me by a mother in Madrid who had seen my photo on Facebook, and I shared it with the association secretary Alfonso. He asked me if I would also write one for the association president, Carmen Lorento and once it was written, Alfonso sent it to her as a surprise. I then wrote one for him, the only son in search of a mother in the association. And this was how I discovered that my personal contribution to their cause could be to tell their stories and express their emotions in poetic form.

5I created a separate page on my website called Ojos Abiertos (Open Eyes) and chose the peacock as a symbol to represent their struggle – each eye on its feathers representing the eye of a mother, father, brother, sister, daughter, son in search of a loved one, demanding justice (​project/​ojos-abiertos/​el-magnifico-pavo-real). I wrote the poems based on the interviews I had conducted and then on recorded testimonies and or newspaper articles sent to me via Whatsapp. Mothers, daughters and sisters sent me their stories via Alfonso and Carmen and together with their photographs I posted them on a page on my website where they could access and share their poems. Although those who recorded their stories knew I was writing a poem for them, they received the poem as a surprise together with their photos once it was posted on the website. Only in very few cases were requests made for alterations, usually for names misspelt or to include dedications for the poems.

6Many challenges emerged while writing the poems. Firstly, I tried to convey the sentiments expressed in each account such as pain and anger, resilience, and determination, hope and love in a way that acknowledged their experiences, capturing, whenever possible, the personality that shone through their words. Some accounts were pure outpours of grief which needed to be honoured. But how not to reduce my interlocutors to mere victims? In such cases, I ended the poems with references to love and hope since these sentiments, even if not expressed directly in every account, lie at the heart of grief. Another challenge was to give an account as accurate as possible of their stories, to include the contradictory details that illustrated just how unlikely it was that the mothers’ babies had died and, in some cases, to illustrate the ways in which they had also been medically maltreated. This also raised a challenge: to reconcile the giving of detailed description with the suggestive language of poetry. Trade-offs were inevitable and some poems became extremely long. Even so, it was impossible to address all the issues raised by each account in its corresponding poem. In addition to the personalized poems, I consequently began to write more poems that focused on specific issues that arose. Another challenge was to resist the suggestion to publicly identify a specific individual since the aim was not to accuse anybody but rather to bring to light the injustices and suffering caused by a nationwide practice, to give solace and to offer encouragement by producing poetic expressions of their experience. In this respect, some poems do express my interlocutors’ calls for justice.

7Another challenge was to know what personal details of the accounts could be safely included in the poems. In most cases I wrote the poems based on the stories I was given without establishing direct contact with those who shared their stories. I had suggested meeting the women online, but Carmen and Alfonso told me most of the women would be uncomfortable with this since they were not used to using digital platforms. When doubts arose regarding what details should be included, such as, for example, disappointments expressed at the lack of support from other family members, Carmen would let me know if it was appropriate or if they wanted me to include this. One way I found of getting around the problem, was to write a poem about an issue that had arisen without directly attributing it to an individual. But in another case, the person in question expressed a direct desire for the delicate issue she had raised to be addressed in the poem. Since I had interviewed her in Sevilla, I consulted the woman directly. In this and other cases, the challenge was to honour the decision and to write in a way that was not accusatory or divisive.

8In some instances, Alfonso and Carmen made suggestions to change the poems. This resulted in an ongoing dialogue; in some cases, I agreed and in other moments, I explained why, in terms of my poetic subjectivity I did not. As mentioned above, I had raised the possibility of having this dialogue directly with my interlocutors, but Carmen explained that some of the older women were illiterate and that the surprise of receiving the poem was far more moving and motivating for them. There was only one case where a mother contacted me directly to alter the contents of the poem. Having misunderstood a specific detail of her account, she corrected me explaining that she did not want to be accused of divulging different versions of her story. In other cases, I clarified my doubts with Alfonso and Carmen who knew all the women’s stories. Each case was different and by practising situational responsibility I was able to navigate the tensions that arose during the writing of the poems, between creativity and politics, between the private and the public, where aesthetics emerged from a process of collaboration and learning with my interlocutors. The fact that the poems were published online also gave us the freedom to make changes at any time.

9Is this ethnographic poetry? I confess not to be too concerned about labels since the project developed organically without any preconceived ideas. It falls short in terms of methods since, in my community engagement, I barely discussed any of the poetic transcripts with the women. Although I used as many of the women’s words as possible, I also gave myself artistic liberty to add my own words and images. The reason for this, beyond the creative pleasure it also gave me, was the hope that by embellishing their often-painful accounts with unexpected imaginings and expressions, they would come to claim their experiences and emotions in a slightly new way; imbued with poetic validity and above all with recognition which has been so lacking in the state’s response to their cause. The enthusiastic feedback I received from the women, suggests it could be seen as affective activism and poetry therapy, in which the element of surprise offered unexpected moments of therapeutic release and renewed energy for the recipients of the poems. I also benefitted immensely, refreshed, and freed from the oft-constrictive demands of academic writing and peer review. (I had no intention of referring to any literature but the serendipitous encounter with the following phrase simply cannot be ignored: “Seeing is soaked with affect… ultimately, seeing alters the [person who] is seen and transforms the seer. Seeing is metamorphosis, not mechanism”, Elkins, 1996, “The object stares back: on the nature of seeing,” 11-12). I would like to express my profound sense of gratitude towards each woman for the courage and trust in sharing her story.

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Título Bastions of Hope
Créditos Source: Gwendolen Lynch
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Referência do documento impresso

Elizabeth Challinor, «Ojos abiertos»Etnográfica, Número especial | -1, 35-40.

Referência eletrónica

Elizabeth Challinor, «Ojos abiertos»Etnográfica [Online], Número especial | 2022, posto online no dia 22 dezembro 2022, consultado o 29 janeiro 2023. URL:; DOI:

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Elizabeth Challinor

CRIA, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Portugal

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Creative Commons - Atribuição-NãoComercial 4.0 Internacional - CC BY-NC 4.0

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