Jade Angeles Fitton

Finding my family roots in Spain

A part of our history was nearly lost

  • From Spectator Life
The town of Cudillero in Asturias, Spain (iStock)

The sun had sunk behind the mountains that surrounded the harbour of Cudillero, a small fishing town in Asturias. My hair was still wet from the sea. Two old men were sitting next to us, chatting loudly in Spanish while my husband, father, and I ate bonito pate.

Despite being a shy child, my grandfather was keen to prove his masculinity as a shepherd

‘It’s full of English and Germans with their caravans,’ said the man with a baby-blue jumper slung over his shoulders. ‘Yes,’ replied the other, ‘always the same.’ My father turned to the men smiling and said in Spanish, ‘I live in Spain, in Extremadura, and my grandmother was Asturian.’ That’s why we were there. My father has lived in Spain for 14 years and often talked about visiting my great-grandmother’s village. Now we were on a road trip to our ancestral home. ‘And we don’t have a caravan,’ I added.

‘The Asturians are a good race,’ the second man said. My father suspiciously raised his beer. When the men left, they shouted, ‘Hasta luego, Asturianos!’ Perhaps some part of us belongs here after all.

I had always taken pride in my Spanish heritage. Growing up in rural Devon with a middle name like Angeles, I had to be. A weird name meant teasing, so I promoted my Spanish side. I studied Spanish. I learnt Spanish guitar. I (somewhat unwisely) used sunbeds to alleviate my psoriasis and claimed my comparatively brown skin was thanks to my ‘Spanish blood’. The name Angeles had been passed down through the few female members of this family since my great-grandmother, Angeles Martinez. My parents had wanted me to be proud of our Spanish roots because, for half of my father’s life, he hadn’t known of them.

My great-grandmother died in the Asturian mountains during childbirth when my grandfather was nine, and his sister, ‘Aunty Helen’, was five. Both of Angeles’s brothers also died before too long, in the civil war, fighting against Franco’s regime. An RAF pilot, and subsequently Air Commodore with a CBE, my grandfather felt he couldn’t reveal that he was half Spanish. Being considered a ‘dago’ might have harmed his career. He kept a whole childhood, a whole country secret – tricky when, unlike my fair grandfather and me, my father looked every inch the Spaniard. In the late 1950s, when my father returned to school, tanned after summer holidays, he would be scrubbed and told that he was so dark he looked dirty. My grandfather’s fears were not unfounded.

The day after Cudillero, we arrived at our family shrine, Corao. It is a small village in wolf country. Despite being a shy child, my grandfather was keen to prove his masculinity as a shepherd, so during the holidays he would walk these mountains wearing espadrilles and return with bleeding feet.

The village is full of chestnut trees with nuts that fell as we passed. At a small river, its banks lined with lemon balm, I put my feet in the water and listened to the goat bells. I thought of my great-grandmother in this village. How isolated. How easy to die here.

After her death, my grandfather returned to boarding school in England and slowly his life in Spain faded. But stood there, I realised this village was like every village my grandfather had lived in – a beautiful backwater – as if he brought a part of his Spanish childhood to England.

We wandered into a church guarded by a cat with a head injury and I imagined we were standing where our ancestors once stood. Perhaps my father imagined the same as he shed a few tears. He hadn’t known about the family’s history until he was in his thirties – he was told by ‘Aunty Helen’, whose real name was also Angeles.

In his old age, my grandfather would listen to Manitas de Plata and remember Spain. It’s what I’m listening to as I write. Looking out on the Bay of Biscay, I think about how families are like waves, repeating patterns over and over again. I turn to my father, staring out to sea on the adjacent balcony, and feel that just by being here a tear in our past is being repaired.