Prof. David Divita Documents Untold Stories of Spain’s Dictatorship in New Book

Prof. David Divita holds his new book in his office

Ask people of a certain age about their life and you’ll likely hear a common response:

“I could write a book.”

David Divita, professor of Romance languages and literatures, heard it often while conversing with Spaniards at a senior center on the outskirts of Paris for his new book Untold Stories: Legacies of Authoritarianism among Spanish Labour Migrants in Later Life.

“There’s a poignant tension because the people I encountered couldn’t literally write a book given their limited literacy skills,” he says. “But nevertheless, there was a real appreciation among them for books themselves and what they represent. There was a point of pride for some of them in the authority that a book confers on a community and its experience.”

Published in March by University of Toronto Press, Untold Stories presents an ethnography of impoverished Spaniards who fled General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in the 1960s as part of a wave of labor migration to northern Europe.

In addition to documenting the personal testimonies of those who lived through the period, Divita analyzes the silence that underlies these seniors’ recollections and how this silence can generate a sense of belonging, authority and legitimacy.

“[The seniors’] memories were very rich and detailed and often moving,” Divita recalls. “It was clear early on that there were certain things, certain dimensions of these memories, that people could not talk about—silences that governed what it was they deemed appropriate to talk about in public.”

“For me,” he adds, “a question became, ‘Why is that?’”

We talked to Divita about Untold Stories. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

How do you weave so many unique stories into a cohesive, compelling narrative?

I start with representing the people themselves and their experience and their understanding of their experience as accurately and generously as I can. So that means allowing them to speak for themselves in many ways throughout the book.

I analyze conversational interactions that they have with one another and interactions that I had with them, including interviews. I analyze narratives and stories that they recounted. I analyze texts that they produced, poems that they circulated, songs that they sang and theater sketches that they performed.

All these artifacts or recordings are ways of allowing them to speak for themselves and let the book take shape around them.

How crucial is it to chronicle the personal testimonies of a certain generation?

It's absolutely vital. When you think about memory and the practice of remembering, you tend to think that it only concerns the past. But it was clear to me working with these older people that memory was also a way of projecting oneself into the future. It was a way of imagining the hereafter.

The untold stories of the title refers both to the things that aren't spoken about in everyday discourse, as well as to the very story of these labor migrants who left Spain after 1959. They have been eclipsed in certain ways by the figure of the political exile who, in histories of 20th-century Spain, gets a lot of attention.

The story of hundreds of thousands of labor migrants has not been told in official historiographies. I hope the book sheds some light on this population and their experience and asks for their inclusion in what we think of as 20th-century Spanish history.

After hearing such emotional stories, do you include any personal vulnerabilities in the book?

In any ethnographic project it's important for the ethnographer to account for their subject position. Where are they coming from? How does their own experience inform the way they make sense of what they encounter in the field? How might that experience influence how other people see the ethnographer? I begin that discussion in the introduction and try to maintain it throughout the book. But there are moments where it seemed important to reveal more of myself—maybe because my research participants were so open with me and revealing of themselves.

I don't know how well I succeed at this. For example, there's an afterword in which I recount the passing of Amalia, one of my main research participants. When I found out she was dying, I dropped everything and went to Paris to say goodbye. It felt important to include the end of her story, and I think part of that meant I wanted to assume some vulnerability myself, which academics are typically not inclined to do.

It’s a few personal pages at the end in which I write about Amalia’s death but also reveal some of my emotional investment in our friendship, along with the sadness that I felt.