June eighteenth marks the forty-fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Garabandal apparitions. A look in retrospect at that first day.
Those of us who have visited San Sebastian de Garabandal over the years might have seen a villager leading a cow or two out to or from pasture or to the watering trough. We might even have seen villagers working in the fields. This bucolic setting could give the impression that everything was done randomly with each family taking care of their own affairs. While it is true that individual families had to look after of their own cows and fields, there was a larger picture especially in the early 1960s before the demographics of the village started to change. San Sebastian was a commune of cattle breeders and it could only survive if everyone worked together despite whatever personal differences they might have had.
Photo: Field work from left: Serafin, Conchita and Aniceta.
The most crucial time of the year and the most intensively active (and not without its share of anxiety) was the harvest which started in June and extended into September, October or November depending upon time lost due to rain or overcast skies. Sunny days were such a precious commodity that the townsfolk had a special dispensation from the bishop to work on Sundays so they wouldn't miss any good days. Everything depended on the harvest. A shortage of hay meant that some cattle would have to be liquidated at market under unfavorable conditions or that all the livestock would be undernourished. A surplus of hay could fetch a good price. The amount of hay they could take in determined the number of cattle they could keep over the winter.
Photo: Conchita's brother Serafin about to put hay into a barn.
All family members except small children and the elderly were part of the work force. The young men and women who had left the village to work in cities returned for the harvest. The men did the cutting of the grass with their scythes while the women and children followed in their wake turning the grass with rakes and putting it in piles. The men carried the huge bundles of hay (coloños) to barns either in the village or in the meadows.
The fields were usually worked according to a set pattern with individual issues ironed out (sometimes heatedly) at town council meetings under the leadership of the president. In 1961. that would have been Mari Loli's father. Ceferino, often referred to as mayor, but who more accurately was the council president. The grass was cut first in the meadows closest to the village then in the higher meadows and finally in the highest and most distant. When all this was completed then the meadows closest to the village were cut again. During this whole process the cows were sent up to the high mountain pastures until all meadows were cut and then brought back down. In his novel EL SOL DE LOS MUERTOS, Manuel Llano immortalized the labors of these villagers:
That unceasing sound of scythes and rakes, of hammers and sharpening stones: that craning and going of the carriers with their huge toad of hay on their backs; that bending down of those taking the thistle out of the cut hay: that plaintive song of the carts; all the characteristics of the summer labor in the extensive fields.. .served as a most intense climax of the work of the countryside, beneath the fire of the sun.
Before dawn already the mower is bent over the grass, his arms and chest bared, his face burned, his hair soaked and his muscles aching. When the sun has hidden itself behind the ridges, always white with snow, still can be heard the sound of scythes in the meadow, beneath the songs of the girls who return to the village with rakes on their shoulders.
Of all the villages in the upper Nansa region, two were considered the most rustic: Tudanca and San Sebastian (de Garabandal). Garabandal then, in the mid 1960s, was in something like a time warp with the inhabitants living and working not much differently from their forebears centuries ago. They had no tractors, no motorized farm equipment; everything was done with hand tools. And while the work was hard, life was predictable. During the harvest, when they came back to their pueblo tired after each laborious day, they looked forward to a few hours of relaxation before turning in for the night in anticipation of the next day, which hopefully would be a sunny one. The last thing they needed was to come in from the fields and find their village crawling with people. RIGHT Photo: a Tudanca man.
While the villagers worked on Sundays during harvest, they usually quit early and were back in town by mid afternoon. The daily rosary in the church was recited earlier than usual and for the rest of the day they relaxed.
On Sunday, June 18, 1961, the young people were having a little dance in the village plaza when twelve-year-old Conchita Gonzalez and her one-year-younger friend Mari Cruz Gonzalez (no relation), slipped away from the others with the intention of snitching some apples from the schoolmaster's tree on the outskirts of the village. They could not have imagined what was about to happen in this village where nothing out of the ordinary ever happened.
As they were taking the apples three other girls spotted them. One was called away leaving Conchita and Mari Cruz with Jacinta Gonzalez and Mari Loli Mazon. They all decided to join in the fun and afterward settled in a lane a short distance from the apple tree. Suddenly they heard the sound of thunder despite no sign of rain. Then a beautiful angel in a brilliant light appeared to them with a sign beneath his feet. The other world had just entered into their world, a world that was in an instant changed forever.
Instinctively, they ran to the church, the only place in the village that dealt with the other world. Pili Gonzalez, Conchita's cousin, was the first to note their pale faces. Then the school mistress arrived on the scene and accompanied them into the church. Mari Loli later said they were so overcome with emotion that they were laughing and crying at the same time. The day ended for the girls later than usual and not without parental rebukes.
For the villagers, this angelic intrusion could not have come at a worse time. Perhaps heaven planned it that way so no one with any knowledge of what life was like up here for these mountaineers could accuse them of staging it. And they would be the first ones to put into practice the message of penance and sacrifice that was on the plaque beneath the feet of the angel. With the onslaught of people inundating their village they would be put to the test, despite the daily fatigue of the harvest, to provide hospitality and tolerate the indiscretions of so many visitors who trampled on their vegetable gardens. From all accounts, these ancestors of hidalgos (noblemen and women) performed admirably under such trying conditions.
Garabandal would go on to become a stage where incredible even miraculous events happened on a daily basis over the next couple of years, and it all began on this day of days. In her diary, Conchita put it simply: "The greatest event of my life occurred at San Sebastian on June 18, 1961."
Reprinted with kind permission from Garabandal Journal, May-June 2006, by Barry Hanratty