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'It Wasn't a Very Happy Childhood': Rediscovering the Spanish Children of Morelia

Two years ago, we moved my grandmother. In the span of her lifetime, it was one migration among many.

As a child, she had been moved from Spain to Mexico, to flee the Spanish Civil War. In 1937, she was put on a boat, called the Mexique, along with 456 other children: the Niños de Morelia.

The Niños de Morelia: Spanish children on a train on their way to Morelia, Mexico, in flight from the Spanish Civil War, 1937. (Credit: Enrique Díaz courtesy of the Mexican General National Archive)

In 1937, the first move of my grandmother’s life was decided for her, for her safety, so that she would survive the nightmare that waged in her home country.

Nearly 80 years later, the last move of my grandmother's life was decided for her, for her safety, but this time so that she would survive the nightmare that waged inside her mind.

The Niños de Morelia arrive in Mexico with their government-issued blue suitcases, 1937. (Credit: Enrique Díaz courtesy of the Mexican General National Archive)

There had been a long steady decline. She would leave the stove on, the front door open, the bathtub running. She would leave the house and forget where she was going -- worse, she would forget how to get home. She would lose the thread of sentences, stories, ideas. She would search her mind for names.

And so we moved her across state lines, to Maine, to assisted living, to be kept safe, just a mile from my mother’s house.

When, as a child, she moved across the Atlantic, she thought it would only be for a few months, a year at most. Just until the war ends, her parents had told her.

She carried one small suitcase, blue, government-issued, the same suitcase carried by each of the children who fled the war onboard the Mexique.

In Valencia, Spain, she left behind her parents, a brother, and a small family farm.

When, nearly eighty years later, she moved across state lines into assisted living, she didn’t understand that she was moving, and so she left her living room and dining room and kitchen and bathroom exactly as they always were. Plates in cabinets, silverware in drawers. The bed made. Makeup brushes waiting on the bathroom sink.

In a senior living community called Valencia Lakes, she left behind a life’s worth of objects.

In her home, I found clothes and dolls and dish ware. I found pictures, plants, and pottery -- from Mexico and from Spain.

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And then I found this book, and her inscription inside.

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"This book was given to me by my sister Ely on the 10th of October, 1986. I read the first page and closed it immediately. At the end of January of 1995, nine years later, I tried to read it again and today, February 2, 1995, I finished it.   I was three years old when they put me on the boat The Mexique headed to France and then to Mexico.   I don’t remember our goodbyes or the long trip. My memory begins in Morelia, in the school. Many of the things that Emeterio [the author] describes I remember from having lived them.   Yes, it’s true, it wasn’t a very happy childhood."

It was in that moment, finding that book, reading my grandmother’s inscription, that this project began. This was a story that I had always known -- I knew that my grandmother was from both Spain and Mexico, that my mother was born in Mexico City even though her ancestors came from Valencia -- but that I had barely seen.

The family, 1935: Rosita (my grandmother, seated), Ely, Carmina and Fermín.

Now, as a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storyteller, I will dedicate the next nine months to trying to see it.

The project starts by recognizing the story that has always been in front of me, in the shape of my grandmother and the long, complicated life that she has lived. And then it takes new forms, through reading and talking, hunting through Mexico's National Archives, asking the right questions, and listening -- always listening.

Today, I grapple with the legacy of these departures: What it means to be moved, and then moved again, and then moved again -- in flight from war, removed from family, rendered refugee and exile. What it means not just for the generations of people, now elderly, who have lived it, but also for the generations that have followed them, that have grown up in newly native countries, different from their ancestors.

To do justice to this history, the first step is to see the story; the next step is to see all that I don’t know about it.

Destry Maria Sibley is a freelance writer, media producer, and educator. As a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow, she will develop a podcast to share the stories of the Niños de Morelia, a group of child refugees who fled the Spanish Civil War and settled in Mexico in 1937. You can follow her year in Mexico on Instagram or Twitter.

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