El Catalá

El Catalá has been mentioned in Antonio Téllez’s biography of Sabaté and in my “Looking Back after Twenty Years”. His real name was Francisco Denis and though his nickname might suggest a true Catalan, in fact he was a fellow-countryman of Durruti, coming from Leon – with all the strength and character that true “leones” possess. I described him as one who gave his life for freedom. He was a full human being who gave an example of sacrifice and generosity, giving all for a cause. In his way he typifies a large number of other militants. His story is theirs.

With the military uprising, he was one of the first on the streets against it. When the people were victorious and masters of the situation he believed the time had come at long last to put the revolution into practice. But, alas, comrades who were so much admired, and whose names impelled so much respect, were content with the opportunity of entering a government, against which they had so long inveighed. It was a sad disappointment for the militants like him, who were never consulted. The people who went into the Government dared not ask the consent of the organization.

In the trenches the long drawn out struggle meant that militarisation had to be accepted. The Popular Front, with its obsession of weakening the libertarian movement, formed a block with the Communist Party. The Commissar in each regiment was to replace the old Republican Army chaplain. El Catalá was – as a responsible militant of the libertarian movement – nominated commissar of the Battalion, which conferred a status equal to comandante.

It was a stroke of irony. El Catalá, the anti-militarist, the well-known revolutionary, now on a parity with the chief of a battalion mediating between soldier and command! He had a heavy heart as he took these duties. But he knew the communists only wanted the opportunity to smash the libertarian movement. Like so many others he thought it best to forestall them. He managed to gain the respect of the soldiers and to be totally disliked by the commanders. There was no confidence he could feel however: on the one hand the political parties were carrying the Government between them, on the other hand the attitude of Britain and France was strengthening the intervention of Hitler and Mussolini. He, like others, fought on without hope – only to stave off genocide. The inevitable defeat came.

Catalá did all he could to ensure an orderly retreat. They crossed the frontier, only to find at the other side that the French were putting them into prison – the most inhospitable places, in fact, cages on deserted beaches along the Mediterranean where they were kept until war broke out in 1939. Many were destroyed by dysentery and lack of nutrition. There was no protection against the humid sand, the darkening sky and the harsh wind of the mistral. Senegalese troops kept watch on them.

But Catalá did not give up the struggle. He was together with his comrades in the vicissitudes of exile, and later, when the Germans broke through, he was also one of those who helped initiate the Resistance. Already in 1943 he made his first contacts with those left inside Spain. From then on, until his death in 1949, he went backwards and forwards over the frontier. He made innumerable journeys into the heart of Spain to carry on the struggle. The pitcher went too often to the well. Thus, Catalá, in one of his many missions in June 1949, fell into the hands of the police when keeping an appointment with some comrades in Barcelona.

The Prefecture of Police knew what Catalá was worth to the libertarian movement. He was subjected to strict interrogation (torture). During three whole days he resisted but human endurance has a limit and he could not take any more torture. He did not crack. Like the majority of the guerrillas of that period, he carried a small quantity of cyanide inside the button of his jacket. In his fourth night of suffering, in the early hours of dawn, the chief of police Morán came for him in person, accompanied by his guards. Catalá was lying on the floor already suffering from his torturers. He swallowed the tablet rapidly. When they got in they only found a corpse. It was June 1949. Thus ended a life completely devoted to the cause of a better humanity.

If we take the parallelism of Plutarch, we must compare Catalá with another man, who like him, also struggled in a similar way: this man, a born anarchist, has been mentioned by Téllez and deserves a full biography. His name has been well known in spite of himself: he is known as Cara Quemada (burnt face) or Pasos Largos (Longsteps) or simply Ramon. We shall deal with him another time.

From: Black Flag Vol. 4, no. 5, Nov/Dec 1975.