Spanish Women Anarchists: Libertad Ródenas

Libertad Ródenas’s home was a haven for all of society’s outcasts. She kept an open house for the unemployed, victims of persecution and women who had fled the brothel in search of liberation and employment. All who wanted for a bite to eat, some human warmth and justice knew that they would find a war and friendly welcome there.

Militants living with terrified wives wasted no time in dropping off their guns at Libertad’s house which became a huge arsenal. In the wake of the failure of the uprising in 1917 there were so many explosives in Libertad Ródenas’s home that they had to be loaded on to a horse-drawn cart for removal. When it came to the marketplace, the cart was accosted by an official. The driver cautioned him in a “very friendly manner” against inspecting the cart’s load and it moved on without mishap.

Baron Koenig’s gang of gunmen in Barcelona, as everyone knew, was working for the Germans during the 1914-18 war. Many decent anarchists were murdered by the gang for refusing to go along with its underhanded schemes. The Ródenas family was one of the ones that suffered the heaviest reprisals. Baron Koenig had one day suggested to Progreso Ródenas who was working for the Barret company that he blow up the place. An outraged Progreso steadfastly refused, even though hem knew that his refusal would create problems for him and bring harassment down on his head.The arrival in Barcelona of the murderous generals Martínez Anido and Arlegui to take up the posts of civil governor and police chief respectively finally ignited the hatred between two opposing classes: reactionary employers ready to work for the highest bidder and exploited workers doggedly pursuing their revolutionary aims for the sake of progress and freedom.

When the deadly duo took office a ghastly crackdown on the CNT began. Most of its militants were jailed: some in the Modelo Prison in Barcelona, and others (including Jose Viadiu - who would become Libertad’s husband - Salvador Seguí El Noi de Sucre, Silva, Antonio Ocaña, Francisco Arín, Jesús Vega, etc.) were deported to La Mola Fortress in Mahón (Menorca). They were held for sixteen months in 1920 and 1921.In many cases lives were saved as a result of their imprisonment, for huge numbers of CNT personnel still at large were cut down in the streets of Barcelona using the ‘shot trying to escape’ ploy. Salvador Seguí was one exception for, as we know, he was murdered at the intersection of the Calle Cadena and the Calle San Rafael in Barcelona’s 5th District in March 1923.

It was a rare day that several militants’ corpses were not collected from the streets: and during those dark days for the working class generally and especially for the CNT, anarchist women played a very important role. Many of the women, prisoners’ partners or otherwise, slept many a night on the ground at the prison gates so as to prevent the ‘transfer’ of their menfolk to other alleged holding places, for it was common practice for some of those ‘transferred’ or ‘released’ never to make it home again.

One evening during those dismal days when tragedy could be sniffed in the city streets, prompting most passers-by to scurry home early, Progreso Ródenas was wounded in the Calle de Amalia. Luckily, the wound was not serious. The despicable “Baron” Koenig had not forgotten about the Ródenas family. Within days, not content with having had his revenge with an attack on Progreso, Koenig showed up at Libertad’s home and arrested Volney and her cousin Armando. Two months after that they were ‘set free’ one night, only to be met with a burst of gunfire as they made their way along the Calle de Floridablanca and Armando was gravely wounded, dying two months later of his injuries.

On 13 December 1920, Arlegui summoned Libertad Ródenas to Police Headquarters. This was on the night that the policeman called Espejo was attacked and killed. The police who came to arrest her were under orders to treat her with respect. When Libertad arrived at Headquarters, she was shown into the Chief’s office. He asked her:

- Your cousin’s dead, right?

- Yes, Libertad replied.

- Arlegui said: - Yet you people are still happy. No matter how persecuted you may be, you always have a moment to spare to care for one another and share one another’s problems. How the people in your home must have suffered! Yet I still envy the serenity and compassion I can see on your face.

- It’s called ‘having a clear conscience’ - Libertad retorted. Arlegui’s face dropped with annoyance and he continued:

- I know that you are in touch with the anarchist groups and this very night I’m going to have you committed to the jail in the Calle Amalia.

- As you please …

- And I’m going to have your brother ‘transferred’ tonight too …

- Well .. in normal circumstances I know that my brother would not ‘try to escape’ but now I’m sure that he will and his guards will be ‘obliged’ to prevent this and will fire on him.

- No. I can assure you that your brother is not going to be murdered. You can rest easy.

- I can’t believe that .. that uniform of yours .. your position …

- I am offended. I give you my word as a gentleman rather than as a police officer that nothing will befall your brother.

- Maybe if you were in a different line of work I could bring myself to believe that.

- Look, Libertad, I know that I have a reputation for being a killer, but all I have ever done is honour my commitments. When I took up the post I currently hold, several people promised the capitalists unswerving loyalty, only to chicken out later and sit on the fence.I realise that what I am doing may well cost me my life but I have given my word and I mean to honour it.

- And what was the monstrous commitment that you gave?

- Look here, Libertad. A lot of your people have been reduced to tears while sitting in that seat you’re in. Others, dyed-in-the-wool republicans, have even accepted bribes from me. You are only one who has been so dismissive of me and turned down my offers.

Arlegui had in mind the offer he had made to Libertad to provide her with an income and passage to the whole family to move to America, just to get them out of his hair in Barcelona.

- Can I go?

- Yes, but this is too much! I can’t let you walk away so easily this time without some punishment.

- As you like. - was Libertad’s reaction.

And the policemen waiting outside for her had orders to escort her to jail. She served three months there and Arlegui had a further thirty or more other comrades rounded up that night.

When she was released she travelled up to Madrid to brief the Ateneo there on the crimes being carried out in Catalonia by the sinister figures of Koenig, Arlegui and Martínez Anido.

Heedless of the prevailing terror, this examplary woman anarchist Libertad Ródenas, was bold enough to attend meetings held by the terrorists from the badly mis-named ‘free trade unions’ in order to object to their policies and expose them. At a meeting organised by the reactionary employees belong to the Bank and Savings Union, when thet began to brag about their handiwork, Libertad leapt to her feet and cried out: “Murderers!” The members of the ‘free’ gathered around ready to string her up but a group of comrades who had accompanied her and who included Manuel Molet, drew their guns and they got away unscathed …

When those dark days had passed, Libertad left with comrade Peiró on a propaganda tour through Guadalajara province. She was arrested and jailed for a fortnight, returning after that to Barcelona.

During a long period of clandestine activity she served on the Prisoners’ Aid Committee, spending her mornings and evenings visiting jailed comrades. The governor of Barcelona’s Modelo Prison knew that she was the prisoners’ guardian angel and he had a high regard for her. One day a Civil Guard with a reputation for inflexibility obstructed her from access to the prison. Using psychology and her gift of the gab, Libertad bean to talk so loudly that she gradually attracted a crowd of officials and guards who eventually caved in in face of the arguments put by the anarchist.

Libertad was indefatigable and never resed from her efforts on behalf of libertarian ideas. She was also active with the Brisas Libertarias team from Sans, of which the Moreno family and Rosario Segarra were members. Later she operated in concert with another group that included her close friend, the like-minded Rosario Dolcet and others.

Libetad Ródenas was in her thirties when she teamed up once and for all with the leading CNT militant Jose Viadiu. The Viadiu-Ródenas partnership produced three children. Motherhood kept Ródenas out of militant acivity with the Organisation for a time. Some malicious tongue seized upon this in order to air slanderous innuendo to the effect that they were living off Russian gold. The truth was very different, for the couple, who were very punctilious, refused the blandishments from a number of politicians who had mistook certain practices and tactics for renunciation of anarchist ideas.

After the outbreakof the fascist army revolt in July 1936, Libertad Ródenas left Barcelona with the very first Durruti Column. She took part in the capture of Pina del Ebro. And manned several positions and trenches and sampled the hard life on the battlefronts. One night she teamed up with a team of comrades carrying out reconnaissance in enemy territory: they took one prisoner whom Libertad escorted back to the republican lines at gunpoint.

When it became necessary to evacuate all children from the rearguard the CNT entrusted the task to Libertad Ródenas. Upwards of 600 children were moved into Barcelona. Libertad was a tireless militant and involved herself in a variety of ventures.

Towards the end of her life she had to face a great tragedy. With the civil war and Spanish revolution at their height, her three children were evacuated to Russia. Only one ever made it back to the Viadiu-Ródenas home in Mexico. Nothing more was ever heard of the other two. Did they die? Were they murdered? Were they ‘disappeared’? There was never any word.

Libertad Ródenas, a great militant of the Spanish anarchist movement, died in Mexico on 1 January 1970 at the age of 78.

From: Orto, [Barcelona] No 35, Jan.-Feb. 1986. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.