I was about eight years old. It was the postwar era, those years of famine, the 1940s. Alcalá at that time had around 12,000 inhabitants. But many people died, especially children, and many young men never came back from the war. The ravages of hunger showed no mercy to the weak. The basic foodstuffs were in short supply. People made a fortune from contraband and the black market. Earnings from wild asparagus, tagarninas [edible thistles] and poached game were the salvation of many families. Others were forced to emigrate.
One day my father said to me: “ Father Manuel has asked me if you would like to be an altar-boy at La Victoria, with Manolo Mancilla”. “Of course!” I answered. “I would go anywhere with Manolo, and I'd like to be an altar-boy too.” Father Manuel knew what he was proposing. We would have to present ourselves, therefore, at the Victoria that afternoon at the Rosary Hour. La Victoria was just a stone's throw from the Calle la Amiga, where I lived, and from the Calle Real, where Manolo lived.
The priest was a good man and young, although he was overweight which made him look older. He managed the Church of La Victoria, the old monastery of the Padres Minimos, founded by San Francisco de Paula, a 15th-century Italian hermit. Father Manuel was very shy and people said that he wouldn't preach because he was afraid of getting it wrong. Once he was obliged to preach to the Brotherhood of the Nazarenes and the good priest, before getting up into the pulpit, trembled and perspired like a condemned man.
At the Rosary Hour we were there waiting. Father Manuel gave us a little book so we could learn the responses of the mass in Latin. Introibo ad alterem Dei / Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam. It was difficult for us, but we kept asking Father Manuel about the pronunciation, and after a week we almost knew it. A few days later, he told us that at 6 o'clock that afternoon there would be a funeral. It was a big event for us. We put on our red cassocks, white surplices and coloured capes, and Father Manuel wore a black cassock, white surplice, stole and black cape. Manolo carried the sprinkler and a bowl of holy water, and I the incense burner and boat. We waited in the doorway of La Victoria.
Soon we saw a procession coming down Calle Los Pozos. A man was carrying in his arms a white coffin, no more than a metre long, accompanied by a group of neighbours. He was weeping and sorrowfully calling out the child's name. The crowd accompanied him in complete silence. Women did not attend funerals, they stayed at home accompanied by female neighbours and prayed. It was a paradoxical image to see a man of the land, strong and tough, crying like a child, with a white coffin in his arms.
From that day on I noticed that children's funerals were very common. Just the opposite to what happens today. Some children died at birth; others of hunger; the rest from tuberculosis. Treatment with penicillin, discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1929, had not yet reached Spain. The children's funerals surprised me, because I couldn't work out how a child could die of hunger or TB or how a man could cry.
Father Manuel gave a blessing and led the procession with the cross and the altar-boys. From time to time I sang in my poor Latin, while we climbed up to the Church of San Jorge. In the Plaza Alta the clergy and the mourners departed. They took the path that led to the cemetery. It was a dirt track indicated by two rows of mulberry trees. The relatives attended the burial and the deceased was placed in a niche or in the ground, according to the means of the family. It was said that the coffin remained there but that the soul of the child went off to glory.
Translated by Claire Lloyd
1. A set of decrees in the 1830s that resulted in the expropriation of monasteries in Spain, promulgated by Prime Minister Juan Alvarez Mendizábal, in an attempt to redistribute under-used monastic lands to enterprising land-owners.