Carme Arbonès Sàrrias earned 400 pesetas as a typist for the textile company Corbera i Bertran, owned by two men with the same surnames, Jaume and José. Carme was 20 years old and already married. We were at war. It is 1938 and Barcelona is being bombed continuously and systematically by the fascist Italian and Nazi air force. More than 4,000 dead. More than 2,700 wounded. More than 300 buildings totally destroyed. More than 1,800 damaged buildings, including the cathedral. More than 1,900 bombs.
A terrible story among the tin cans of Muros.
Carme signs her work card in Corbera i Bertran with a round, optimistic handwriting that first turns in big circles backwards but ends up like an arrow, in a decidedly straight line, forwards. He lives at number 300, Carrer Rosselló. When he signs his certificat de treball it is August. In March, during the three terrible days when the Italians destroyed the city centre, a bomb fell very close to her house. Every day, Carme walks the 15 minutes that separate her house from the factory, bordering the Gràcia neighbourhood, in the Dreta de l’Eixample, between the current Verdaguer and Joanic metro stations. The typist has a wide, serene gaze, a small mouth that always seems to be smiling and her hair is tied back in curls, with a side parting, in the style of the 1930s.
All this, which is nothing and a lot, Fran was able to find out about Carme Arbonès Sàrrias ten months ago, when she found a filing cabinet in the rubbish. It was a ring binder, with cardboard covers, landscape and with laminated sleeves. Inside, a treasure: the files of all 206 employees of Corbera i Bertran in August 1938. It was in a container in València street, together with other objects from an office that looked like it was being emptied and everything there was destined for the rubbish dump. Fran is part of the historical memory group of the Ateneu Llibertario de Gràcia, so it seems that it was the archivist who found him.
Everything happens around the popular neighbourhood of Gràcia: the factory, the workers’ homes, the Ateneu, the container in which the filing cabinet was found, but the threads that tie this story together are still missing. The other members of Fran’s group are working on it. They have read the files, made them public, started looking for the descendants and preparing an exhibition. They don’t know much yet, but this is only the beginning.
Corbera i Bertran was a factory that had been established in the neighbourhood in 1929, at number 1, Carrer Romans, where there is now a brick building with nothing in particular, vulgar, ugly, where the only thing that stands out is a chemist’s shop on the corner. In 1936, Catalonia had 80% of the textile industry in the country and it was one of the most powerful sectors. The CNT had a strong and majority implantation so, when the social revolution that happened parallel to the Civil War began, the CNT-FAI started a process of collectivization of the industries that was very successful in the textile industry. Corbera i Bertran is one of the businesses that entered into this dynamic of self-management, but neither Jaume Corbera nor José Bertran were expelled from the company, as their files in the archive show, although they kept their jobs as managers and earned a higher salary than the rest of the workers. “The historiography says that in the anarchist collectivisations they got rid of the bosses and this folder shows that this is not so”, says Xavi Bou, from the Ateneu group.
But things were not going well in the textile sector: the war prevented access to markets, the warehouses were full of stock, cotton stopped arriving by way of imports, the rise in wages raised costs and reduced competitiveness. Xavi and his colleagues began to investigate the factory, which they had never heard of. Diving into the newspaper library, they found out that it was a particularly active business and that it stood out for its solidarity with the front, sending both warm clothes and money to the militiamen through the Socorro Rojo (Red Aid).
As they turned the pages with all those files, they were struck by the overwhelming majority of women: almost 90% of the total. The architect and town planner José Luis Oyón is also part of the Ateneu group and, with him, they are studying what these papers tell, what history can be extracted from them. The women lived very close to the factory because in addition to working they had to take care of the children and do the housework,” he says.The woman was conditional on having to work at a nearby site. Women were conditioned to have to work in a nearby place. We also see that many family groups work, because they bring their daughters and some pull others,” says Bou. “In addition to the records of the factory employees, there are also those who work in the headquarters where they had the offices, at number 21 Bruch Street, and there they are mostly men and live further away from their workplace,” he adds.
If the families were from the neighbourhood, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find descendants. The story of this discovery appeared in the local media and the Ateneu’s memory group did its best to attract the attention of anyone who might know something. But only a relative of one of the workers appeared. “It’s normal, the female memory with the surnames disappears after a generation,” she recalls.
The factory survived the war, the post-war period, the repression, the dictatorship and the crises, but not the relocation. It even overcame the divorce, so to speak, between Corbera and Bertran in the 1940s. In the 1980s it moved to Rubí and closed definitively in 1990. How this file ended up in a container in Barcelona’s Eixample and who owned it is still unknown. Xavi suspects that it might have been kept by an auditor of the Generalitat, which controlled the company during the collectivisation. When they have finished studying it and have put together the exhibition they are planning, they will donate the folder to an archive that will keep it and make it accessible to future historians, if there are any. “The greatest danger of memory is not that people disappear, but that people become insensitive to it,” he warns.