Is This the Body of a Woman Mayor Murdered During the Spanish Civil War?

Born into poverty, María Domínguez Remón overcame abuse to fight for women’s and workers’ rights

María Domínguez Remón
Domínguez, who was executed by General Francisco Franco's fascist forces in 1936, was a teacher, writer and political thinker. Latinapaterson / Revista Ahora 10-27-1932 via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Archaeologists have unearthed what may be the body of María Domínguez Remón, a poet, journalist and activist who served as the first woman mayor of the Spanish Second Republic (1931–39) prior to her murder by fascist forces at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.

As Rocío Durán Hermosilla reports for Spanish newspaper AraInfo, a team with the Association of Family and Friends of the Murdered and Buried in Magallón (AFAAEM) received support from the government of the Aragon region to survey the cemetery in the Spanish town of Fuendejalón, where Domínguez was shot on September 7, 1936.

At the cemetery, the researchers discovered the skeletal remains of a person who fit the Gallur mayor’s description: a tall woman between 50 and 60 years old, killed by a shot to the head. Per El Español newspaper’s David Barreira, the team also found a comb that Domínguez likely used to hold her hair in a bun. Authorities are now waiting for the results of DNA testing to confirm the body’s identity.

“I think it’s her because we’re a pretty tall family,” Juan José Espligares, the great-grandson of Domínguez’s sister, tells the Guardian’s Sam Jones. “She wore her hair in a bun and when they shot her in the back of the head, the comb must have flown off. They buried her face up and threw the comb in with her.”

Is This the Body of a Woman Mayor Murdered During the Spanish Civil War?
Archaeologists discovered a comb believed to be Domínguez's. Inde Marisancho

Domínguez was born into a family of poor farmworkers in 1882. Per the Guardian, she had to work in the fields from a young age but managed to teach herself to read and write.

“At the age of 18 her parents forced her to marry a man who beat her severely,” AFAAEM head Pilar Gimeno tells the Guardian.

Domínguez endured seven years of abusive treatment before escaping from her husband, according to El Español. She found work first as a servant and then as a seamstress, attending night school and writing in her spare time.

While Domínguez was finding her way to a better life, her country was in the midst of political upheaval. In 1923, General Miguel Primo de Rivera seized power in a military coup, establishing a dictatorial government with the monarchy’s support.

By this time, according to El Español, Domínguez was contributing articles to newspapers that supported the creation of a new Spanish Republic. Divorce was still illegal in Spain, but after her husband died in 1922, she was able to marry the socialist militant Arturo Segundo Romanos. The couple moved to Gallur, where Domínguez wrote and taught.

The Second Spanish Republic began in 1931, after Primo de Rivera and the Spanish king, Alfonso XIII, went into exile, turning power over to a provisional government.

When political upheaval forced the resignation of Gallur’s town council in 1932, the civil governor appointed Domínguez as the new mayor, making her the first female mayor of the new government. She spent less than a year in office, but during that time, fought for better conditions for farm workers, women’s rights, and co-educational schools for boys and girls.

“Women must work hard to improve the social condition of other women,” she told an interviewer in 1932, per El Español.

After leaving office, Domínguez went back to teaching and writing on political topics. She published a book collecting her writings, Opinions of Women, in 1933; the text was reissued in 2005.

In 1936, General Francisco Franco took power in another coupe, triggering the start of the Spanish Civil War. The Guardian reports that Domínguez chose to hide with her sister in Pozuelo de Aragón rather than fleeing to France with other prominent supporters of the republic.

“She thought they wouldn’t come looking for her in a small town of 400 people,” Espligares tells the Guardian. “But they did.”

Of the estimated 500,000 people who died during the civil war, about 200,000 were executed, mostly by Franco’s fascists, according to Omar G. Encarnación of the New York Review of Books. The troops buried many of their victims in mass graves.

After Franco’s rule ended with his death in 1975, Spain struggled with how to remember the events of the civil war. In the early 2000s, reported Alex W. Palmer for Smithsonian magazine in 2018, a movement of archaeologists, journalists and regular citizens began pushing to document the killings that occurred during the war. Archaeologists unearthed many mass graves, finding thousands of bodies and using new DNA testing techniques to identify them.

Along with the skeleton believed to be Domínguez’s, the archaeologists found other bones that may belong to the three men who were executed alongside her.

Espligares tells the Guardian that, assuming the remains are Domínguez’s, the family wants them to stay at the Fuendejalón cemetery.

“The important thing here is her legacy and the way that she was ahead of her time in the things she fought for,” says Espligares. “It’s all about her work and her articles and her speeches. I want people to read them.”