When Señora Lucia Michelena looks at you, she doesn’t blink. She knows what she sees. Ha sufrido mucho, I was told before I met her. She has suffered so much. But during our conversation, Lucia Michelena had me laughing, in between crying, for two hours straight
I am hard-pressed to imagine many people I have met who have suffered more than Señora Michelena, one of the few surviving Niños de Morelia. The Spanish children of Morelia, often called Los Niños de la Guerra (the Children of the War), fled the Spanish Civil War for Mexico in 1937. Most never returned. As I research their story in Mexico this year, I have gone about interviewing the remaining elderly members of this group. There aren’t many, but their stories are striking. Señora Michelena’s has especially stayed with me in a particular way. As a survivor of war, a refugee, an exile, and a widow, hers has been a life marked by loss and grief.
The ways she has suffered are unfathomable and unquantifiable. She was bombed out of her home as a child, rendered a refugee at age 10, and made responsible for the care of her two younger siblings: one disappeared, the other died. Her mother never forgave her. She never saw her again. Her father was an alcoholic and, from the sound of it, violently abusive. She was told that she could never have children, then had eight and buried four – their deaths followed closely by those of her husband and her closest friend.
For so many of us, this would be too much to bear. To withstand such grief is unthinkable. But throughout our conversation, Señora Michelena insisted: He tenido mucha suerte. I’ve been very lucky. In fact, in the course of two hours, she said this to me eight times. Te digo que tenía suerte. I’m telling you that I was lucky.
And so, at the very end of our interview, I asked her: Why do you say this, that you were lucky? And she answered, simply: Because I had good teachers. And because I had good friends.
That’s when Señora Michelena pulled out her photo album.
By this point, well into two months of my research in Mexico, I was already familiar with the archival photographs of the Niños de Morelia. Famous in their day, their images had appeared in newspapers and bulletins throughout all of Mexico. Their pictures had since been carefully preserved in the nation’s archives. I had already spent hours combing through folders, holding negatives to the light, squinting at black and white images through film slides and magnifying glasses.
I had seen photographs of the children’s worried faces, their fists raised in the rebellious salute of the Spanish Republic. Worse, I had seen photographs of children’s bodies, laid still by German bombers. By now, I knew what to expect.
And so when Señora Michelena pulled open her first album and flipped through picture after picture of teenagers, I was nothing short of stunned. For here were girls playing. They were smiling and laughing. In each photo they posed, goofing around. In many, they looked silly, even ridiculous. And they were having fun.
In each of the books that have been written about the Niños de Morelia, I inevitably come across the passage that describes their bad behavior. I have come to expect it. With varying degrees of hostility, they are described as wild. On the train that carried them out of Spain, in the hotels that lodged them in France, on the boat that took them to Mexico, and in the school that housed them in Morelia, they are depicted as uncontrollable. Only a few degrees short of Lord of the Flies.
The children had food fights. They yelled and ran about and sang revolutionary songs. The older children picked on the younger ones, stealing their money and food. They ignored the rules. Two months after their arrival in Mexico, the school’s principal called in the Mexican national guard in a desperate attempt to gain order.
In everyone’s opinion, the school’s eventual saving grace was the imposition of discipline: a military-style rigor that had them marching early in the morning, following the tightest possible schedule, completing difficult chores, respecting a long list of rules, and fearing corporal punishment. What they needed, the common thought went, was a tight ship.
In the books about the Niños de Morelia, the children’s poor behavior is explained away. A host of justifications are offered. They had grown up in war; war was what they knew; they behaved accordingly. They were influenced by what they had witnessed. They were traumatized. They lacked adult supervision.
In some cases, these explanations seem to make sense. Some of their behavior appears to have been influenced by the traumatic circumstances of their childhood. Some of it truly was problematic. But some seems not to warrant justification at all – needs not be explained away by the fact of their flight, exile, trauma, or upbringing. In justifying or explaining their actions, the subtle implication is that what these children were doing was still somehow wrong. But as I read about this group of 456 kids singing songs, running through trains, and having food fights, it occurs to me to ask: Is it not possible that they just needed to have a good time? To let off steam? To play? Were they not, after all, children?
In this month’s National Geographic magazine, there is an article about a group of child refugees of today, reported by Rania Abouzeid and photographed movingly by Muhammed Muheisen. The children come from Afghanistan, Syria, and Pakistan. They seek to cross from Serbia, a non-EU country, into Croatia, an EU member. The story is full of anecdotes that could easily disturb a reader; it is a disturbing story.
But there is one detail from the article in particular that has lodged in my mind. These children, nearly all adolescent boys or younger, make attempt after attempt to cross the border. It is a dangerous endeavor; with each attempt, they risk theft, beating, incarceration, and death. Many have made the run multiple times only to be turned back again and again. In a bitter irony, a true perversion of what it means to be a child, these boys call their dangerous, furtive attempts at border crossing “the game.”
Child psychology is consistent on one point: children need to play. “Playfulness in children is both an indication of mental well-being and is supported by it,” one study says. Games, play, unstructured fun: all of these activities serve to build a child’s capacity for resilience and to help them overcome past hardships. Of particular importance, the same study adds, is “the crucial role of playfulness in children’s formation and maintenance of friendships, which are, in turn, fundamentally important in supporting healthy social and emotional development.”
As children play, they make friends. As children make friends, they develop the skills they need to become emotionally healthy adults and, even, to overcome trauma.
As much as Señora Michelena told me stories of tragedy, she also told me stories of joy — especially when she spoke about her dear girlfriends. How they took over their school — and, later, their convent — with games, plays, practical jokes, and pranks. How they pretended that they were in a different time or a different place. How they assigned nicknames to everyone. How even, sometimes, they could convince a nun or two to get in on the joke.
Lucia Michelena is not the only Niño de Morelia to tell me that she was lucky. In fact, again and again I have heard these words: We are so grateful. Our experience was a good one. We were the lucky ones. We have nothing to complain about.
And she’s not the only Niño de Morelia to tell me stories of play. Others have similar memories: of soccer matches and friendly rivalries with los morelianos, the native Mexican kids in the city; of scary stories told before bed; of after-curfew escapes to explore their new hometown.
The lives of many of the Niños de Morelia have been long, their experiences vastly different. It is too complex a history to claim causation: to say that happened and so things are this way. But I have to believe that one reason these elderly survivors are able to say We were the lucky ones was because of this truth: that it wasn’t all bad. That at moments they had a good time. That they were children who were occasionally allowed to play. That nothing is completely as it seems, and no story holds only one truth. That, yes, they were refugees, but they were also children, and perhaps, for some, still allowed to be children first.
I am worried about the children in the world who are not allowed to play. I am worried about the children in the world who are not allowed to be children: the children for whom play is risky, dangerous, or even deadly.
My grandmother was one of these children. She is one of the surviving Niños de Morelia, but she is not one who says that her experience was positive. She does not describe herself as grateful. She was not one who could speak about the good teachers or good friends of her childhood. She has complaints.
My grandmother was one of the very youngest children to be brought over from Spain, and so she was still little when they eventually shut down the Spain-Mexico Industrial School in Morelia and dispersed the children to casas hogar, boarding houses, and foster homes around the country. My grandmother, still a young child, was left on her own, sent to an unkind foster family: severe, rigid, strict, and unloving. She had no friends. Her childhood was cut short.
But for now it’s not too late. And so this year, after talking to Lucia Michelena and seeing her photographs, I make an easy decision. I go shopping in the Mexican markets. I buy her a doll. I will give it to her this Christmas. If she likes it, maybe she will find it within herself to play.