The fate of a Republican school teacher
This photograph shows the booklet The Sea, as seen by some children who have never seen it created in 1936 by the students of the school in the village of Bañuelos de Bureba (Burgos) guarded like a treasure by the family of the teacher responsible for it. A native of Mont-roig del Camp in Tarragona, the 31-year-old Antonio Benaiges had arrived in the village of 198 people in 1934. He was a practitioner of the innovative Freinet method, a pedagogy of work in which students, working in groups, created useful products based on their own interests and experiences. Publishing booklets such as this one using a basic printing press was a key practice. For this project, Benaiges asked his students to imagine “what is the sea like?” and promised that in the summer he would take them to Catalonia to see it.
That trip would never take place. The day after the military uprising, Benaiges, whose novel teaching methods had generated suspicion and resentment, was arrested in Briviesca. The next day, a group of Falangistas went to Bañuelos where they ransacked the school and burned everything they found, including the students’ books. Benaiges was tortured and publicly humiliated before being killed on 25 July. Along with as many as 400 others, his body was put in a mass grave in La Pedraja, beside the main highway about 25 kilometres from Burgos.
Benaiges was one of many victims of Nationalist repression, but his case and the booklet his students created, illustrates the way in which the Republican education project was a particular target.
Article 48 of the Constitution of 1931 proclaimed that primary education was to be “free and obligatory”. It was also to be secular and “inspired by the ideals of human solidarity.” The first governments of the Republic acted energetically to realize these goals, creating new schools, hiring new teachers and raising their salaries, creating a new curriculum for teacher training, bringing in co-education, and creating Pedagogical Missions Misiones to reach into towns and villages across the country. There was no official Republican pedagogy, but an approach like the Freinet technique was an ideal fit with the goals of the new regime and Antonio Benaiges was a model of the new Republican teacher.
Education was also crucial to the Francoists, and teachers became a special target of the violence of the first months of the war. In Burgos alone, where Francoist repression was relatively mild, forty teachers were killed or reported as “disappeared”. Starting in November 1936, the profession as a whole was subjected to a bureaucratized purge. About one quarter of all teachers were punished in some way; ten per cent were permanently suspended from teaching. They were replaced by clergy, Nationalist veterans, and new teachers trained in the beliefs of the new regime. When the school in Bañuelos reopened, the classroom had a crucifix and the new bicolour flag.
The purge even reached into the grave: as a posthumous humiliation, in December 1939, the provincial Commission for Purifying Elementary Teachers punished Benaiges, who had been dead for more than three years, with a “permanent separation” from his teaching position.