Spanish journalist Marina Ginestà(1919–2014) was the then-anonymous 17-year-old photographed in what became the one of the most iconic images of the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39. The rooftop portrait in which a young socialist militant poses with a rifle slung over one shoulder, the skyline of Barcelona framing her in the backdrop, came to symbolize a young generation's ardent resistance to fascism in Europe. The battle waged by Ginestà and her fellow Republicans would ultimately exact a heavy toll in Spain, which persisted as Europe's last fascist regime until 1978.
Perhaps destined to become a third-generation activist, Marina Ginestà i Coloma was born into a workingclass Spanish family in Toulouse, France, on January 29, 1919. Her mother, Empar (Amparo) Coloma Chalmeta, was a native of Valencia and the daughter of Micaela Chalmeta, a women's rights activist and a staunch socialist. Ginestà's father, Bruno Ginestà Manubens, hailed from Manresa, an important center of Catalonian culture and industry. His father had once taken up arms on behalf of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, known by its Spanishlanguage acronym PSOE.
In 1930 a new political age began in Spain when its influential but beleaguered monarch, King Alfonso XIII, ousted a right-wing ruling junta and announced upcoming elections. Ginestà's parents embraced the new era, training as militants for the Catalonian branch of the Communist Party. Her father was also active in Spain's Unión General de Trabajadores, or General Union of Workers (UGT). Ginestà and her brother, meanwhile, were active in youth groups, including the Juventudes Socialistas Unificadas, or Unified Socialist Youth, a branch of the United Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC).
New worker-friendly labor laws, wide-scale land redistribution, and a drastic curtailing of the power of the Roman Catholic clergy were three of the most significant actionable programs adopted by the Second Spanish Republic, whose origins were in the April 1931 municipal elections. Alfonso abdicated, a new constitution went into effect later in 1931, and progressive Spaniards embraced the new era. Women in Spain were granted suffrage, another important milestone for Ginestà's generation. Her mother and grandmother worked with others to form socialist-model cooperatives, while her uncle Joan Coloma Chalmeta rose to leadership posts in the UGT and PSUC.
The lively, extreme-left political scene in Spain created a backlash, however, and those tensions played out in a wave of assassinations and reprisal killings in early 1936, just in advance of that year's elections. A right-wing movement inside the Spanish military was plotting to seize control of the democratically elected government in Madrid. The group's leading officers had also marshaled support from conservative Catholic elements and pro-monarchists in Spain. Their attempt to stage an overthrow was routed in mid-July, and with that the Spanish Civil War erupted in earnest.
In the midst of this crisis, the PSUC took over the Hotel Colón, a palatial edifice on the Plaza de Catalunya that had served Barcelona's luxury-tourism market during the prosperous 1920s. It had radio broadcasting facilities, a warren of rooms, and a rooftop with views of the city; as the PSUC headquarters the Colón served well as a press office and recruiting center.
Ginestà went to work for the PSUC as a typist and translator at the Hotel Colón in the summer of 1936. During these months she was reportedly romantically involved with a notable Spanish communist, Ramón Mercader, who gained infamy a few years later for assassinating Russian Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky by ice pick in Mexico City.
The Republicans received widespread international attention, financial support, and even literal bodies in the form of foreign volunteers who enlisted in the newly created International Brigades, which fought against the Nationalist coalition forces led by Generalíssimo Francisco Franco. With vicious dictatorships firmly installed in both Italy (Benito Mussolini) and Germany (Adolf Hitler) by 1936, the Spanish Republicans’ cause was viewed as just and an optimistic sign pointing toward a new, more equitable European landscape in which progressive socialists might halt the spread of fascism. Journalists from around the world flocked to Spain to cover the showdown between thuggish militias determined to avenge their loss at the ballot box and bring down a legitimately elected leftist government and the entire Spanish Republic. Barcelona and the Catalonians, with their long history of dissension from mainstream Spanish values and views, became the center of action for the Republican side.
Pravda, the daily newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, sent one of its most talented journalists to cover the Spanish Civil War. In Barcelona, Ginestà worked for that correspondent, Mikhail Koltsov, as a translator. Historians of the Stalinist era of Russian history believe that it was in Barcelona that her friend Ramón Mercader was recruited by Koltsov into the Soviet Union's foreignintelligence corps of secret agents, an event that later led to the death of Trotsky.
Among the International Brigades’ new enlistees in 1936 was a photographer from Germany, Hans Gutmann (1911–1982), who later changed his name to Juan Guzmân. It was Guzmân who snapped the shot of Ginestàon the rooftop of the Hotel Colón on July 21, 1936. Visible behind her are landmarks of the Barcelona skyline as she stands in profile, turning toward the camera with an enigmatic smile. Her hair is cropped in a utilitarian bob, and she wears a plain, unisex shirt over which a rifle has been slung across one shoulder, as if battle-ready. This photograph became one of the defining images of the Spanish Civil War, revealing the bravado of young leftists who were battling to protect the Second Republic from another coup. “It is a good photo,” Ginestà told a reporter years later, according to the London Independent. “It reflects the feeling we had at that moment. Socialism had arrived and the clients of the hotel had gone. There was a sense of euphoria. We moved into the Colón and we started eating good food. It was as if the bourgeois way of life had suddenly become ours as well.”
British writer George Orwell, among the supporters of the Republican side, arrived in the city in December of 1936 to chronicle the war. His reportage was published in the 1938 volume Homage to Catalonia in which he described his first impression of the city as “startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle,” Orwell wrote. “Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no ‘well-dressed' people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving.”
On board an Atlantic Ocean liner Ginestà met her future husband, an ex-cavalry officer from the Republican side. She and Manuel Periâñez-Martin lived briefly in the Dominican Republic, where their son Manuel was born. They moved to Venezuela after a few years, joining Marina's brother Alberto and parents, until a right-wing regime came to power in the Dominican Republic. In 1949, she left Periâñez-Martin and Latin America, returning to France with her son. A few years later she married Belgian diplomat Carl Werck, with whom she had a daughter, Isabelle. Werck's job took the family to several cities in the 1950s and ’60s, including London and New Orleans. In the early 1970s, Ginestà returned to Barcelona, when Werck was assigned to represent Belgian interests in Barcelona during the final years of Franco's regime in the 1970s.
Ginestà wrote two novels in the Catalonian language in the 1970s; the first, Els antipodes, chronicles the story of Spanish Civil War exiles in the Dominican Republic during World War II. Her final years were spent in Brussels and Paris. In the mid-1980s, a trove of Guzmân's photographs of the Spanish Civil War were unearthed, the image of Ginestà and her rifle among them. The portrait captivated those who were intrigued by the tragic war and its ultimate consequences, which permitted fascist regimes to wreak havoc across Europe and Asia. Guzmân had written an identifying caption, giving the date as July 21, 1936, and the figure as Marina Jinesta. The image was used for the cover of a bestseller in Spain in 2004, Las trece rosas (“The Thirteen Roses”), Carlos Fonseca's account of several young female Republicans who died by firing squad shortly after Franco seized power in Spain in 1939.
The Spanish photo agency that held the rights to Guzmân's archive set out to find “Marina Jinesta” in 2006. A researcher discovered Ginestàtwo years later in Paris, aged 89, and she spoke about the Hotel Colón days in a documentary that aired on Spanish television. Before her death on January 6, 2014, in Paris, the 94-year-old was believed to be one of the last living French-born veterans of the Spanish Civil War. “They say that in the photo I have a captivating look,” the Glasgow Herald quoted her as saying. “It's possible, because we were immersed in the mysticism of the proletarian revolution and the images of Hollywood, of Greta Garbo and Gary Cooper.”
Orwell, George, Homage to Catalonia/Down and out in Paris and London, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), January 9, 2014, p. 31.
Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), January 11, 2014, p. 20.
Independent (London, England), January 23, 2014, p. 52.
Times (London, England), January 11, 2014, p. 78.❑