My great-grandmother Rosa Sancho de Nogués survived the Spanish Civil War, which raged between 1936 and 1939, as did her two sons. Her eldest, my grand-father Salvador, fought in the war and was sent to a concentration camp for Spanish prisoners of war in southern France.
The Argentinean government repatriated him along with other Argentinean nationals at the end of the war in 1939. It took my granddad a few years to save enough money for her mother’s passage from Spain. Rosa sailed across in 1946.
In a black and white photo of the family album, passengers crowd on the railings eager to get the first glimpse of their loved ones waiting on the pier. I can barely distinguish Rosa among them. She seems to be smiling but her expression, hardened by suffering and loss, does not show emotion.
There she is, in another photo, walking down the gangplank. Her salt and pepper hair is carefully done up in a waved pompadour. Rosa’s wearing a dark coat and a kerchief round her neck.
This is how I remember her: a little old lady dressed in black with short white hair. What is not included in my memory of her is her feisty character. Perhaps she could never shake off the survival mode that saw her through poverty and war.
Born in the Barcelona suburb of San Martin de Provensals in 1888, Rosa Sancho Querol had a tough life. I attended a private Catholic school, played field hockey and tennis and spent summer holidays at the beach. At the same age, Rosa had to trudge on snow in her espadrilles to get to her job at the factory.
A story that went down in family history has it that Rosa as a young woman was known as “la de las tijeras,” (she of the scissors). One man used to grope her on the crowded tram on their way to work. Tired of the abuse, one day she stabbed him in the shoulder with a pair of scissors, thus earning the respect of those around her. I never stabbed anyone but I punched a guy who groped me on the train on my way to work.
1946 was in fact the second time Rosa sailed across the Atlantic to start a new life. Her first crossing had been in 1917, when she came to Buenos Aires to marry Ramón Nogués Novell, my great grandfather. Ramón was a Catalonian salesman who had gone in search of greener pastures in the New World.
His first wife had died and left him with two young sons. Ramón wrote a letter to his in-laws in Spain asking for the hand of his wife’s younger sister María in marriage. He included the passage.
Rosa came instead. The unmarriageable daughter, the one with a temper, the untamable shrew. He decided to go ahead with the wedding anyway. He needed someone to take care of him and his sons. Thus, Rosa started a new life with a ready-made family in a foreign land. She’d never see her parents or her sisters again.
Living conditions in Buenos Aires were different from those in Barcelona. Rosa didn’t have to work outside the home, food was readily available and plentiful, the climate was temperate and she had a house with a garden. All of this was unthinkable and unattainable for Spanish working class people at that time.
When my grandfather was about ten, the family moved back to Spain to start again.
Like Rosa, I left my family behind and moved to a foreign country as a married woman. An overnight flight deposited me in my new home, Dallas. My parents took me to the airport on a cold August night. My husband picked me up in the sweltering heat of the Texan summer.
I burst into tears as the plane was taxiing. There was no going back. Life in my new home as a new wife started exactly ten hours later.
I’ll never know whether Rosa shed any tears as the liner set sail and the port of Barcelona gradually shrank and disappeared. I’ll never know whether she felt apprehensive going into the unknown. Unlike Rosa, I chose to marry my husband. However, adapting to a new country isn’t easy. Not for Rosa, not for me.
When I feel intensely homesick, I close my eyes and picture myself in my mother’s kitchen. It’s a very comforting thought. One that Rosa may have shared.