Michael Mullan - Manuel Zapico, "El Asturiano"

 

August 2004

 

Manuel Zapico, one of the last veterans of the guerrilla resistance that fought in the hills and forests of Spain after the formal end of the 1936-39 Civil War, has died in France at the age of 79. To the end of his days, he was a vigorous campaigner for the rights of those who had taken arms against the dictatorship, claiming rehabilitation and recognition as defenders of the Republic that Franco's rebellion overthrew.


Zapico, known by his nom de guerre "El Asturiano", spent two-thirds of his life in exile but clung to his Spanish nationality and his membership of the Spanish Communist Party. In recent years, revisiting his homeland, he was feted by the burgeoning movement for "the recovery of historical memory" that reproaches the democratic mainstream for its "pact of forgetfulness" with Franco's ideological heirs. His testimony in interviews, documentary films and history seminars told a story of the resistance "maquis" which had been systematically suppressed for decades.


Manuel Zapico Terente was born on 10 February 1926 in Sama de Langreo in the northern mining region of Asturias, to a poor rural family steeped in Republican politics. Franco's revolt in 1936 led to the fall of Asturias within a year, but armed resistance began well before April 1939, when Franco announced the war was over. It persisted for more than two decades: the last recognised activist in the guerrilla maquis, José Castro Veiga "El Piloto", was killed in 1965.


By the age of 15, Zapico was already working down the mines at Sama de Langreo, later at San Luis, and was a member of the Communist Party. By night, he used his skills to sabotage pits, rail tracks and supply lines.


Following the Nazi invasion of France, Manuel's father, Faustino, crossed the border to fight in the resistance and perished in combat. His mother had died several years earlier. In 1946, when his clandestine work was attracting police suspicions, Zapico fled Asturias and sought work in León. The net was closing on him when he opted to join the guerrilla resistance full-time, first in Galicia, with the Lugo group led by El Piloto, then in Ourense where he fought until the maquis suffered heavy losses in the 1949 battle of Chavaga.

Zapico made his way back to León where, since 1942, a new maquis command under Manuel Girón Bazán had united communist, socialist and anarchist ranks to harass Franco's forces around El Bierzo and La Cabrera. The "Girones", as they became known, were one of the most effective of all resistance units and Girón attained legendary status, leading his men into battle even after a Civil Guard officer had been decorated for supposedly killing him in action in February 1949. Girón's sister Emilia had bravely identified another guerrilla's corpse as that of her brother.


Two years later, Girón and a handful of his men were cornered in the village of Corporales by a 200-strong Civil Guard force. The maquis kept sniping for several hours from a house at the top end of a street, while digging holes through the party walls, house by house, until all could slip away through a back door at the far end of the block.


El Asturiano was one of Girón's closest lieutenants and became a well-known figure in the villages around El Bierzo, helping the families of persecuted Republicans, passing messages and collecting scarce supplies for "the men in the hills". Their luck ran out in May 1951, as Girón's unit was sheltering in a cave outside Molinaseca.


When El Asturiano and three comrades, Francisco Martínez "Quico", Silverio Yebra "El Atravesao" and Juan Pedro Méndez "Jalisco" left on a mission, an infiltrator shot Girón in the back. Since the anti-fascist resistance had also lost hope of an Allied intervention against Franco, the four survivors decided to make their way east and escape to France.


Soon after they completed their hazardous five-month trek, Zapico was arrested in southern France and was being deported back to Franco's custody when he leapt from a moving train and went into hiding. When he emerged, he found work in the construction industry in the Paris region, where he eventually ran his own small business.


Under Franco's dictatorship, news of resistance activity was rigorously censored. When mentioned at all, the maquis were portraited as "bandoleros" or brigands, rather than fighters for the Republican cause. Even when democracy was restored, mainstream parties preferred to draw a veil over aspects of the country's bitterly divided past.


The award-winning Peruvian film-maker Javier Corcuera interviewed El Asturiano, Quico, Emilia Girón and other maquis veterans for his 2002 documentary, La guerrilla de la memoria. For those who only met Zapico in later life, his warmth of character and gentle humour made it hard to imagine him as a young man oiling his rifle in some icy mountain ravine. He was a prominent member of the Asociación Archivo de Guerra y Exilio, a pressure group set up to rescue the story of the resistance from oblivion.


Zapico died on 28 August and was buried near Montrichard in the Loire region, where he had settled with his French wife, Yvonne, and their two children. Two of his old guerrilla comrades, Quico and Jalisco, were present. Quico Martínez told this newspaper: "Manolo was a noble character, totally intransigent in the face of injustice. We saw a lot of good men fall in a worthwhile struggle and he wanted us to fight on to see their memory honoured." He said the Zapico family had received messages of sympathy from the Spanish government and parties of the Left: "This has eased the sense of injustice that always accompanies a death in exile."

 

Michael Mullan - Obituaries...

Spanish translation by Juan Manuel Grijalvo (pending)...