A Hostel Hides Spain's Dark Past: Franco's LGBTQ Prison Colony
The Canary island of Fuerteventura is a popular seaside tourist destination, but further inland are the remains of Spain's dark past of LGBTQ+ persecution.
TEFÍA — The Tefía Penitentiary Agricultural Colony on the island of Fuerteventura, in Spain's Canary Islands, was used to imprison homosexuals and others accused by the Vagrancy and Loitering Law. The law — and the accompanying labor camps like Tefía — were used by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco to "rehabilitate" social outcasts.
The facilities are in perfect condition, and the area is well-maintained as it now serves as a hostel. New buildings have been constructed around it, but the main one remains the same.
"This solemn and beloved isolated land of Fuerteventura is a desert," wrote Miguel de Unamuno during his exile on the island in 1924. He was sent there by Primo de Rivera due to his continuous attacks on him and the king. Almost a century later, the landscape depicted by the writer through his words remains unchanged.
Mapping the landscape of today
As you move inland, the fields become increasingly arid, and the golden sandy beaches disappear from view. Summer, which is clinging to its last days, makes its presence felt with high temperatures. The humidity contributes to making the atmosphere even more suffocating.
Roads are not abundant in Fuerteventura, but reaching Tefía is not particularly complicated. We are in a modest village of barely 200 inhabitants located 20 kilometers from the capital, Puerto del Rosario – formerly known as Puerto de Cabras – which ended up being the chosen location for the so-called Penitentiary Agricultural Colony.
Now it is necessary to continue along the road that crosses the village. The first thing that can be seen is an eco-museum, the main tourist attraction in the area. On the right side, continuing along the FV-207 road, a large wooden sign is revealed: "Tefía Hostel".
The paved road disappears, and the path becomes wild. In the distance, a windmill, like many that populate the island. Behind it, the youth center mentioned on the sign. The gates are open. A few buildings, a large courtyard, and a modest astronomical observatory fill the place.
They had committed no crime.
On these square meters, hundreds of people were confined by the Francoist dictatorship in order to "protect social peace and public tranquility." Now it is a meeting place for recreation. Before, it was a place of suffering.
In the Canary Islands under Franco, those labeled "inverts" were taken to an improvised Concentration Camp in Tefía, which is now knwon as the Tefía Hostel.
The colony's beginning
Some say that the majority of people who were imprisoned there were gay men, referred to by derogatory terms by the police and other officials. However, more recent investigations suggest that ”during the years of operation, the agricultural colony housed between 300 and 350 inmates. However, only around 20 of them were there due to their sexual dissidence, according to the analyzed records of vagrants and delinquents, a significantly lower number compared to the rest of the prisoners.” However, there are gaps of incomplete information.
They had committed no crime. Those who had engaged in "acts of homosexuality" were punished, as stated in the amendment of July 15, 1954, to the Vagrancy and Loitering Law, approved by Franco. Tefía became the center where the majority of the LGBTQ+ community from the islands ended up.
The idea of its creation had been in mind for some time. On Aug. 30, 1947, a newspaper published an interview with the then Director General of Prisons, Francisco Aylagas Alonso, who stated that his visit to the Canary Islands was to search for "magnificent lands" to establish "a model Penitentiary Agricultural Colony."
No further information about the project was known until July 17, 1953, when the new prison administrator, José María Herreros de Tejada, directly referred to Fuerteventura, and specifically to Tefía, in the same newspaper. And so it was. Through a ministerial order, the Colony was created on Jan. 15, 1954.
As attested by the memory of penitentiary institutions, in its first year, there were already 43 inmates and six officials. In its early days, it was capable of accommodating 200 individuals, but its capacity was increased to 300, a number never reached.
The prisoners were used as laborers in many of the public works that are still visible today. They carried stones and water, or they were forced to exploit a nearby limestone quarry, as newspapers from that time attest. Obligations also included military training with gymnastics sessions.
A photograph of the lands around where the Tefía Penitentiary Agricultural Colony was located, used by Franco to confine people under the so-called Vagrants and Miscreants Law, which from 1954 included homosexuals.
Remembering the trauma
Many prisoners remained silent. Some out of fear, others out of shame. The passage of time has taken away all those testimonies, with no possibility of getting them back. However, others decided to speak out. Octavio García didn’t stay silent about what he experienced in that place. He was born in 1931 in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, and at the age of 23, he was imprisoned. He was one of the first in Tefía, where he spent 16 months.
Octavio passed away last August. He was 87 years old and had a myriad of horrific memories. In several interviews he gave throughout his life, he recounted the beatings inflicted by the staff, the verbal and physical humiliations. "It transforms you; it takes away your mind," he said in one of them.
His intention in always speaking out was the same: "So that young people know what homosexuality was like, how it was repressed." After almost three years of confinement, he returned to the island of Gran Canaria, to his home, from which he had been banished by the island authorities.
The Colony remained in operation for 11 years. Its closure came by order of the Ministry of Justice on July 21, 1966, due to the almost nonexistent number of inmates. There were seven people left who were transferred to Barranco Seco Prison in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, which is now used as an Immigration Detention Center (CIE).
A plaque installed in 2008 by the Fuerteventura Island Council acknowledges the horror and injustice that was perpetuated along those dirt roads for over a decade. The injustices must not be forgotten.
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