Sunday, September 10, 2017

A Tribute to José Utrera Molina


         In 1969, José Utrera Molina, who had recently stepped down as civil governor of the Province of Seville, was awarded that Province’s gold medal. In 2016, the province stripped Utrera Molina of this award. About five months later, José Utrera Molina passed away at the age of 91. At this point, you are probably wondering: “Who was this man? Why did he receive a gold medal? And why was the medal taken away from him shortly before his death?” 
  José Utrera Molina was a Spanish attorney and public servant. He came of age during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. From those years until his death, he was an ardent Falangist. After the Spanish Civil War, of course, the Falange was one of several groups that backed the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, which lasted from the end of the war in 1939 until Franco’s death in 1975. 
From 1962 until 1969, Utrera Molina was the civil governor of the Province of Seville. Having been born in Málaga, Utrera was reluctant to accept the post, for the rivalry between Málaga and Seville is similar to the rivalry between New York and Boston. General Franco, however, insisted that Utrera accept the appointment, telling him, “You’ll do a great job." Out of loyalty to Franco, Utrera accepted the position. 
  Utrera became civil governor of Seville at a very difficult moment for that province. Just a few weeks before Utrera took office, Seville had been ravaged by a great flood. As a result, much of the city needed to be rebuilt. Working-class areas had been particularly hard hit. One of the key tenets of Falangist ideology is social justice, as revealed by the slogan “Bread, Fatherland, and Justice.” Accordingly, Utrera Molina saw the flood as an opportunity to materially improve the lives of Seville’s working class. Utrera replaced devastated shantytowns with high-quality public housing. Thanks to Utrera, thousands of people were able to live in decent homes for the first time in their lives. Utrera Molina demolished a total of 34 shantytowns and replaced them with almost 11,000 housing units for poor families. For this, countless Seville residents showered Utrera with praise. 
  That accomplishment alone should have been enough to earn him Seville’s eternal gratitude, but Utrera Molina didn’t stop there. He built over 400 new schools. He helped keep a local furniture manufacturer from closing its doors, thus saving many jobs. He imposed fines on a Seville businessman who refused to pay his employees. In 1967, 60 people — including a number of children and elderly people — were evicted from their apartment building in Seville. Suddenly, 60 people had no place to sleep at night. When he learned of this, Utrera went to the apartment building to console the evicted families and assure them that the provincial government was working to ameliorate their situation. Deeply moved by the plight of the evicted tenants, Utrera persuaded a municipal official to open the door of the apartment building so that the former tenants would have somewhere to spend the night. With tears in their eyes, women thanked Utrera. Utrera Molina responded by promising them that the following day measures would be taken so that they would have a place to stay and that he would remain at their side until their situation was rectified. Needless to say, Utrera kept both promises. 
  Given Utrera’s selfless dedication to the Province of Seville and his many accomplishments, it is not hard to see why the Province of Seville awarded him its gold medal after his tenure as civil governor ended in 1969. You may be wondering, however: “Why on earth would the province revoke the medal nearly fifty years later?” The answer: intolerance. The province revoked the medal solely for ideological reasons. To his dying day, Utrera remained a fervent Falangist. Utrera was persecuted for remaining true to his convictions.  
  In 2016, the provincial government asserted that Utrera Molina was “totalitarian” and that during his stewardship of the province, critics of the dictatorship were tortured and detained with impunity. Yet there is not a shred of evidence for this claim in the provincial archives. As Utrera himself wrote shortly before his death, “I can’t speak to anything that might have happened before or after my time in office, but I can assert that I never ordered or tolerated anything of the sort.” 
  Not only is there no evidence that Utrera Molina was some kind of monster, but there are mountains of evidence that he was not. For instance, on one occasion when Franco was set to visit the province of Seville, the chief of police asked Utrera whether certain individuals who had served time in prison and were outspoken opponents of the regime should be temporarily detained. Surprised by the proposal, Utrera summarily rejected it and ordered the police chief not to bother the individuals in question. A few days later, one of those regime critics requested an audience with Utrera to personally thank him. That conversation was the beginning of a great friendship between the two men.  
  This was hardly the only occasion on which Utrera cordially met with opponents of the regime. As civil governor, Utrera frequently met with Communist union leaders. Utrera’s goal at these meetings was to achieve conciliation between the regime and the clandestine unions. Unfortunately, these conversations were not terribly fruitful, because of what Utrera described as the union leaders’ unwillingness to make any concessions to the system. Despite their intransigence, Utrera was always willing to speak to any union leaders who were willing to speak with him. In fact, he even expressed admiration for his Communist adversaries. As he once wrote, “I have always believed that those who are capable of fighting courageously for an idea deserve my utmost respect, even if I strongly disagree with their beliefs.” 
       In short, far from being totalitarian, José Utrera Molina worked tirelessly for social justice and for the reconciliation of his country in the years after its tragic civil war. Shame on the provincial government of Seville for punishing a good man who selflessly worked to forge a better province. Perhaps the significance his work and the selflessness of his spirit are best expressed by Utrera himself: “Those who have most ardently thanked me for my efforts have not been the powerful people of my time, but rather common people: bullfighters, farm foremen, farm laborers, street vendors, and the prisoners (both political and non-political) whom I was able to help. […] Until my last breath, with or without a medal, I will keep Seville in my heart. May God bless the land to which I dedicated the best years of my life, and may God bless each one of the members of the provincial government, especially those who hate me without knowing me. I forgive them with all my heart.”

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