The Spanish denuncia – then and now

According to conventional belief, the British are reluctant to complain. In Spain, on the other hand, the word denuncia, which translates as ‘formal complaint’, crops up so frequently that the act of denouncing seems to me almost a national custom. Did it start in Franco’s dictatorship when Republican sympathisers lived in constant fear of being reported by their neighbours? Or do its origins go back further than that? When I ask my Spanish friends, their answers are vague. No one really knows.

After Franco’s victory in the Civil War, the threat of a ‘denuncia’ would have struck terror into the hearts of those who opposed the regime. During the early years of the dictatorship, a neighbour’s denuncia often amounted to a death sentence. Mass summary trials by military courts – there were simply too many suspects to be tried individually – were a farce. Allegations could be true or false, it hardly mattered. Those involved in feuds that had been going on for years, perhaps generations, could now achieve easy revenge. Sentences of life imprisonment were the norm and tens of thousands were executed, often with no more evidence than a neighbour’s denuncia. Not attending Mass or tuning in to La Pirenaica, the radio station of the Spanish Communist party, transmitted from Moscow, were grounds enough. In his book The Spanish Holocaust, historian Paul Preston cites an example from Córdoba province where ‘70% of trials were triggered by denunciations from civilians’. Nor was it only the men who had fought on the side of the legally elected government – or were assumed to have supported them – that were vulnerable. Their mothers, wives and sisters could also be sentenced to prison or worse, just by association. The law was backdated so that being active in the Second Republic, before the coup, counted too. Teachers and other public officials who had served under the Republic were sacked en masse. Some men went into hiding far from their hometowns, staying away for up to thirty years, their whereabouts unknown even to their wives. A few – those who had survived – returned home after an amnesty in 1969, their families having long presumed them dead.

These days, denuncias against neighbours are thankfully not political but tend to centre round issues such as noise, obstructions or nuisance from dogs. Nor do they lead to death sentences, though if laws have been broken, they can result in large fines. According to a Catalan friend, they are particularly prevalent in Andalucía, as a substitute for talking. Or perhaps it’s a symptom of malafolla granadina, the grumpiness attributed to Granada’s population.

Planning laws exist but unless there is a denuncia, that is, someone objects, often nothing happens. So, for example, if a restaurant or entertainment venue has no fire exit or disabled toilet or is operating beyond the legal limits regarding noise or hours, they may well get away with it if no one has denounced them. Once the authorities get wind of illegalities, they inspect everything, impose substantial fines and insist on changes.

Denuncias are not the same as the more serious querellas (lawsuits) or the less serious reclamaciones. Every establishment offering goods or services has by law to keep a Libro de Reclamaciones or Complaints Book, which is regularly inspected by the authorities. In my limited experience, a reclamación can be highly effective. Two years after the soap containers in Granada’s bus station toilets were removed, I finally got round to demanding the complaints book. Within a month, the soap was back. As for denouncing, it has taken me nearly twenty years of living in Spain to participate in this popular tradition. My denuncia against the disco next door was not without good cause. I won’t go into the full story – it’s a long one and not yet fully played out. Suffice it to say there have been consequences – for them and for me.

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