I was born in 1929, so my earliest childhood memories are from the 1930s. I’ll start with what’s important for all children:
What we ate
We had garlic or tomato soup for breakfast with bread and bacon. In my house we also drank milk because we had cows, and there was usually some milk left over after we’d sold the rest.
At midday, we ate chickpeas. If you were working in the countryside, you ate some sausage, leaving the chickpeas for supper at home. In the summer in the countryside, people ate gazpacho (cold tomato soup), taking the basic ingredients in a horn, so later it could be diluted it with water from a well, and you could put some bread in it.
Our supper was bread, sausage or eggs, if they were available.
In my house we used to buy bread at the bakery. People who grew grain brought their flour from the mill in Oropesa and left it at the bakery where it was exchanged for bread. The loaves were all the same size because it was easier to make them that way, and to make it easier to establish the flour-bread equivalence. When the grain growers were given their quota of bread, they exchanged the loaves they received with other families who took their flour and received their bread on other days so that they could all eat fresh bread. They did this because each grain grower didn’t collect their bread every day, and if you collect it only once in a while, it goes stale. In the big bakeries (the Corredera, the Canos and others, they used a wooden stick with notches, and every time they picked up bread, the bakers recorded this on the stick. The small bakeries didn’t initially use the stick system, but later, they used it too.
As for vegetables, we ate boiled potatoes and cabbage. We used turnips to make black pudding, rather than pumpkins, which were more expensive to produce and had more waste. In summer, we ate tomato, cucumber, pepper and onion in gazpachos, and we had some lettuce.
The only fish we ate was salted cod and salted sardines in a tub, which were wrapped in paper, and crushed in a doorjamb to remove the scales. Sometimes people sold fresh fish caught in local rivers, but there were quite a few cases of food poisoning from eating that fish, so we didn’t buy it in my house.
Our diet was not very varied, so there were cases of malnutrition. My mother had lost two younger siblings, Nemesio and Concepción, before she was 12, and when she was 12, she also lost her mother. I have not been able to find out the cause, but I believe that malnutrition led to people being too weak to cope with illness. My mother was very worried about the effects of hunger. And when she saw how thin the few students from the Halls of Residence in Madrid were, she wouldn’t let me go to study there. Nor did she allow me to go to the Seminary of Avila, which was the Diocese to which Lagartera belonged at that time, as it was much stricter than the one in Toledo. The first year all the seminarians who had gone there returned home starving, except for Nemesio, who was the only one who managed to get his Baccalaureate. They had gone to study at the Seminary because it was free and they were supposed to be given something to eat.
Cooking and heating the house
In those days we cooked with wood fires. Very poor people cooked with straw. On farms, people cooked with straw, taking care not to let the flames go higher than the pots so that the stew didn’t taste of smoke. The farmers would take the stew pot with the chickpeas and fat bacon to the farm and simmer it using straw all morning. They said it tasted very good. In the 1930s nobody had butane gas cookers, as we do now.
We had a fire in the kitchen to heat the house, and the embers that they put in a brazier were also used for heating. People who could afford it (like my parents) bought holm oak or olive wood. Holm oak had greater calorific value and lasted longer; olive wood didn’t last as long in the fire. In the houses of rich people, they heated the beds with copper heaters with charcoal inside (warming pans). I’ve heard that sometimes they heated a brick in the fire and wrapped it in a cloth to warm the bed. There was no ‘gloria’ as they used to have in the houses in La Mancha. The ‘gloria’ is a heating system that goes through small tunnels under the floor of the house. It’s a heating system that dates back from the Romans.
Shoes and clothes
The girls’ and the boy’s school, c 1916. In those days, almost all the children went barefoot. In the 1933 school photo, further down, the children wore footwear, at least for the school photo. Photos: Legados de la Tierra
We had our first shoes for our First Communion. We wore them to mass and special events, but mostly to mass. Some children went barefoot; I wore canvas espadrilles with rubber or esparto soles, which fell apart easily. Other children wore rubber sandals. I didn’t wear shoes to school, only espadrilles, although I did wear shoes to church. They were black shoes with laces, and very uncomfortable. It was OK to wear espadrilles for church, in fact many people went to mass from work at their masters’ house and wore espadrilles, and children also wore them.
Some children (those from very poor families) went barefoot even in winter. Most of them, if they didn’t have money for socks, would wrap a cloth around each foot and then put on their espadrilles or sandals. Very young children, who went to “Tía Torrezna’s” kindergarten were most likely to go barefoot. Some of the older children who went to the schools in the square (the state schools for boys and girls) also went barefoot, but fewer older children went without footwear.
The boys did not usually wear underpants. Some of them made a slit in their trousers so they could shit directly when they bent down, and then they cleaned themselves with a stone.
How we washed clothes
People used to change their clothes once a week. Clothes were washed in enclosed places with a well, often shared by several families. They were washed with homemade soap. Washing wasn’t done at home because the water from the wells at home was for cooking, drinking and washing ourselves, and we couldn’t go without water for these purposes. Our wells at home didn’t have enough water for washing clothes, as well as for essentials.
We washed our hands before eating. ”Wash your hands, who knows where you’ve been” (playing with the children in the street), my mother used to say to me. Everyone who could made soap from leftover cooking oil or grease that they kept for that purpose. There were people who made particularly good soap and sold it.
We bathed in a basin in front of the fireplace in winter; the rest of the year in the courtyard. Very few houses had bathrooms in the 1930s, probably fewer than five. The houses didn’t have toilets because there was no sewage system. One place did: Tío León’s inn, on the corner in front of uncle Germán’s house, which had a toilet that was connected to a kind of septic tank in the street, which was emptied frequently. The contents were taken to uncle Vicente’s orchard.
In general, people went out to the fields to shit, and some used their stables. Human excrement was taken out from the stables with the animals’ excrement. None of the houses had running water or sewage. The sewage works began at the end of the war, around 1940, and the sewage system discharged at two points in the village: at Montinegra and at the electricity transformer in Santa Ana (Santana), before reaching Rubén’s hardware store.
In my house, in the yard where the stable was, which was behind the courtyard, my family made a square of 2 x 2 metres with a concrete floor to deposit the cows’ excrement there, before taking it to the Montinegra. They did this to prevent foul liquids from seeping into the well.
School and work
Before they were six years old, boys and girls went to school with “Tia Torrezna” (a kindergarten). They were taught to pray and to behave themselves (to be quiet and to be still when asked to do so).
When I was six years old, which was when the war began, in summer mornings I’d take the cows to graze from my parents’ house to the mulberry meadow (next to the Alucri warehouse); and when they were thirsty (around 11 a.m.), they’d go to the gate, and my father would take them home and give them something to drink.
School group, 1933. Many children had to work to help their families, so couldn’t go to school. Photo: Legados de la Tierra
When I was seven years old (November 1936), I went to the Public (state) School for Boys in the square with Don Luis López Zoilo, who began to teach us the alphabet so that we could learn to read. The girls went to the Public School for Girls. School carried on during the war. It wasn’t compulsory to attend classes. Don Luis had a six-year-old boy called Luis who died. He was carried by four pupils from his house to the church. I was seven years old at the time.
In the first years of the war the children learned instruction in the field; we paraded with wooden rifles. Then we did combat with clods of earth and green olives; we even played with ammunition parts found among the abandoned debris left by the armies.
If children got a job like guarding cattle, they left school and went to work. The wages they were paid were food and little else. It was the norm. If your family had a team of draught animals (oxen, mules, horses or donkeys) you went to work with them. I was taken out of school at the age of eleven because I had to work: I had to be with my father’s cattle. I went to private lessons at night until I was fourteen. First I studied with Don Luis López Zoilo, then with his wife and then with Don Victoriano Rincón Ramos, who was from Herreruela, and who taught me radiotelegraphy (Morse code) and typing.
Some people over fourteen combined work with the Adult School in the evenings, but they never studied during the summer.
The work I did consisted of sifting the straw (sieving it) for fodder or for cattle bedding. We fed them straw in the manger and after a quarter of an hour, when they had eaten it, we threw in ground grain. The grinding of the grain was done by two children between the ages of seven and nine with a rope to use the mill’s power more efficiently. We also mixed the olive pits from the olive oil mill, dried in the attic, with barley flour or with wheat bran, to feed to the pigs.
Farmers who had a vegetable garden with a little house went to live in the countryside from May to October to look after their vegetables. The adults would plant the vegetables and the children would then drip irrigate them. Water had to be monitored very carefully so as not to waste it. Families used to keep half a dozen chickens and two pigs to fatten up for slaughter.
When sons left for their military service, they usually stopped contributing labour to help their families, and started earning in order to contribute money to the family. When they’d finished their military service, some young men looked for a job in the places where they’d done their military service, or they went to other places where they’d heard there was work, while other young men came back to Lagartera to look for paid work.
The girls learned to sew and embroider at home. They usually went to school in the morning and sewed at home in the afternoon. They helped in the fields with skilled agricultural work such as drip-watering freshly planted vegetables or threshing. Some girls didn’t go to school because they had to take care of their younger siblings.
Before the war, children went to school as best they could. During the conflict, there were many absent or disabled parents. At the end of the conflict, all the children who were left fatherless (and there were a lot of them) had to go to work so stopped going to school. Some children who had lost their fathers did manage to go to school, but very few were able to do so.
After the war was over, in families where the father had died, the work in the fields was done by their young sons. If there were no sons, the family paid other men to do the most physically demanding tasks, and the women and girls did the additional work for part of the day. The rest of the day they worked sewing or embroidering, as that meant they earned money and, above all, they were safer together in the houses in the village, avoiding the risks of working alone in the countryside. You could say that, by embroidering, widows and daughters helped pay for work in the countryside that the husbands they had lost could no longer do.
The years 1940 and 1941 were the hardest, because there were few people to cultivate the fields and produce food, and also livestock and seeds had been lost because of the conflict.
Communion celebration, 1939. Photo: Legados de la Tierra
After the end of the war, working on Sundays was penalised. People were not allowed to work because it was a day of rest according to the Church calendar.
We should also remember that from 1939 to 1945, the Second World War disrupted international trade and made it difficult for Spaniards to find work abroad. In the 1920s, Lagarterans were already working in the French grape harvest, but from 1936 to 1945, this traditional migration was interrupted.
Embroideries helped Lagartera to recover
Eugenia Arroyo in Sevilla, 1933. Photo: Legados de la Tierra.
In the summer of 1938, my parents went to Burgos to sell embroideries, and I went with them. A client, who was from Vergara, wanted an embroidered tablecloth of a particular size. She told my mother that the best thing to do was to go and measure the table that the tablecloth was for. So she rang her place in Vergara so they’d open her house for us the next day. I remember that it was a very green place. When this lady came back to Burgos, she told us that we could sell tablecloths in Deba, because there were a lot of tourists and people with summer homes there, who went there to be beside the sea. And, in the summer of 1939, my parents went to Deba for the first time to sell embroideries. I stayed behind in Lagartera, looking after the livestock. After that, they went every summer, because embroideries sold well there. I joined them later, and carried on going there until I was 70, in about 1999. Then, after I retired, I went back there for a week or two’s holiday, because I’d made some good friends there.
There were more families who did the same thing elsewhere, and generally, we did well, because we brought home money to invest in our houses, or in the embroidery business, or in livestock. You had to leave the pueblo to make money.
Federico Garcia Ropero, Lagartera, Toledo, November 2023
The author in his olive grove
Thank you to Guadalupe Suela for the photos from Legados de la Tierra, and to José García Moreno, for help with editing and translating this.