The Thirteen Roses and Spanish Cinema’s Celebration of Motherhood

This summer I was once again able to spend a few weeks in Spain, for both work and fun. I presented a paper on the 2007 Spanish film, Las 13 Rosas (The 13 Roses) at a conference on Spanish and Portuguese Film in Salamanca: III International Conference on History, Art, and Literature in Spanish and Portuguese Film (CIHALEP). Visit the CIHALEP website I linked to for a video summary of the event and a glimpse of historic Salamanca.


Being “scholarly” at the University of Salamanca

Unlike last year when I spent three weeks in Spain prior to my conference presentation on Almodovar in Santiago de Compostela, this year the academic portion of my trip came first and I spent the a week in Salamanca where I presented my paper and toured the city. With the “work” portion behind me, the final week and a half my husband and I traveled south to Andalucia where visited a friend in Granada. We spent an entire day at the Alhambra and Generalife Gardens, explored the streets of the Albayzin, and ate tapas until we could eat no more (actually that’s a lie – I can always manage to eat more!). We finished the trip with a few days in Madrid, arriving just in time for the final events of Madrid Orgullo / Madrid Pride, the largest Pride Parade in Europe. In both Granada and Madrid we endured enjoyed early July temperatures of over 105 degrees; while I generally love dry summer heat and sunshine, these temperatures were just too much and I had to learn to appreciate a long siesta from almost 2-8pm every day! In a future post I plan to write about a few of the places I visited after presenting my paper, but in this post I will share a few portions of my conference paper (which was written in Spanish).


View of the Alhambra at dusk – Granada, Spain (image mine)

Who are “the 13 roses”?

As I mentioned, my paper analyzed the 2007 film Las 13 Rosas, which dramatizes the story of of thirteen young women who were arrested for supporting the Spanish Republic to varying degrees, or on suspicion of involvement in activities opposing Francoist (Nationalist) efforts to take control of Spain (especially Madrid). The majority of these women were between 18 and 22 years old, the oldest being Blanca, at 29. After their arrests in early 1939, they were imprisoned for months before they were executed by firing squad early in the morning on August 6, 1939. Over the past decade, this tragic story has found a broad audience, owing largely to the multiple literary, cinematographic, and theatrical interpretations of this brutal assassination that have populated Spanish cultural production in recent years. Below, for example, you can view the 2006 documentary (in Spanish), Que mi nombre no se borre de la historia (May my name never be erased from history), directed by José María Almela and Verónica Vigil. The title is based on the final words of  19-year-old Julia Conesa in the letter she penned to her family moments before her execution. Watch the entire documentary here.

Depicting Las 13 Rosas in popular culture

My presentation was not focused on the actual history of this event, but rather on the way in which it is depicted in contemporary Spanish society, particularly by director Emilio Martínez Lázaro in his cinematic rendition of the women’s murders. When historical events and tragedies are adapted to the big screen and designed for a general audience, the actual details of the historical event are often obscured behind attempts to make a profitable film that will appeal to the emotions and interests of a given audience. Romantic relationships are emphasized or even invented, additional characters are added and, in the case of the 13 Roses, the personal stories of only four of these thirteen women form the crux of the film’s narrative, and the particulars of their Socialist affiliations are left in the background. Obviously, including details of all 13 women in a film designed to entertain a general audience for 90-100 minutes is impractical, so such limitations are necessary. However it is telling that their socialist affiliations would be minimized and their story cast in a more apolitical light – Kajsa Larson has critiqued this “apolitical” depiction of the women in her article on the blurring of fact and fiction in the film. Below you can watch the (melo)dramatic trailer for Las 13 Rosas, with English subtitles.


The image below is the second slide of my presentation, which contains the movie poster for the film (left) and the cover of journalist Carlos Fonseca’s 2004 novel – or novelized journalistic study, as some literary critics refer to it – on which the film’s script was based, Trece rosas rojas (Thirteen Red Roses). Fonseca’s text is a mix of archival  material, objective journalism, and slightly novelized but factual depictions of the lives of these thirteen women. It even includes copies of the final letters that they wrote their families prior to their execution.

13Rosas_Movie poster

Movie poster for “Las 13 Rosas” (2007). The film’s script was based on the novel by Carlos Fonseca, “Trece rosas rojas” (2004). Image via Wikipedia

Las 13 RosasLa mitificación de la madre tradicional y apolítica en el cine español contemporáneo or “The 13 Roses: The Mythification of the Traditional and Apolitical Mother in Contemporary Spanish Film.”

This was the title of my presentation (paper), and my analysis centered on the depiction of Blanca (played by Pilar López de Ayala), the main female protagonist. Importantly, Blanca was the least political of the thirteen women, the only one who was not a member of the Juventudes Socialistas Unificadas (JSU) (Unified Socialist Youth, founded in 1936). Additionally, she was the only mother among the 13 young women who were arrested and executed during those final days of the Spanish Civil War. I propose that in the film, unlike her twelve militant and openly political female companions, Blanca personifies many of the characteristics associated with the most traditional of female roles: that of mother.

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Image via Pinterest

I argue that the emphasis placed on Blanca’s maternity and her role as mother in the film serve two purposes. Firstly, they highlight her innocence, as her arrest was entirely without just cause, largely the result of a “witch hunt-style” search for communist sympathizers; and secondly they serve to increase viewers sympathy, admiration, and respect for her, as opposed to the other twelve single, politically compromised women.  As a result, my analysis adds to (a)political criticism of the film by demonstrating the way in which the main narrative thread also idealizes a traditional, antiquated image of woman and, in the process, privileges the maternal role over other more revolutionary, political, and active female identities. I want to emphasize that I am not suggesting Martínez Lázaro intended for the film to communicate this message, I am merely analyzing the final product – the  representation – that resulted and what implications it may have for contemporary Spanish viewers.

I will include my entire Spanish paper at the end of this post, however I will highlight a few of the scenes and imagery that supported my argument in this post. First, very early in the film there is a scene in which Blanca is at home with her son, Enrique. She has taken out her revered images of the Virgin Mary, explaining to Enrique that they must put the in their proper place in the home. While it is true that the real Blanca Brisac was a woman of strong Catholic faith, the movie emphasizes her admiration for the Virgin Mother more than her dedication to the Catholic religion in general. It even seems that Blanca’s characterization is based on the Virgin Mother, specifically if we take note of her wardrobe and the placement of props and other characters around her. If there were to be any doubt about this connection, Blanca = Virgin Mary, the director erases it with the ensuing dialogue between Blanca and her son:  Blanca: “She’s pretty, right?” / Enrique: “She looks like you.”


Blanca: “Es guapa, ¿verdad?”(She’s pretty, right?) Enrique, without hesitation: “Se parece a ti” (She looks like you.) Screencaps mine, from Las 13 Rosas.

In this way the connection is made between this protagonist and the most pure and celebrated image of Catholic femininity. This is further reinforced the next time we see Blanca on screen, again with her young son. In this scene Blanca stands by Enrique and consoles him when the authorities enter their house investigating the supposed “communist activities” of her husband. As the two watch the patriarch leave their home with the authorities, mother and child appear on the screen in such a way that they resemble some of the most well-known and recognizable images of the Virgin Mary and the young Jesus Christ. Blanca wears a flowing robe, similar to that of Mary, and she is positioned behind her son, who is in the center, just in front of his mother.

Blanca-Enrique-Virgen e hijo_13Rosas

Blanca standing with Enrique when the authorities come to arrest her husband (his father). Screencap mine, from Las 13 Rosas.

Virgen e hijo_13Rosas

Left, Rafael’s “The Sistine Madonna” and Right, Perugino’s “Madonna and Child”, circa 1520. Images via Italian Renaissance Art.

If we are to consider the impact and influence of representations of motherhood by Catholicism, it is relevant to refer to Julia Kristeva’s study of the Virgin Mother: “The humanity of the Virgin mother is not always obvious, and we shall see how, in her being cleared of sin, for instance, Mary distinguishes herself from mankind” (p. 235). Of course in the film the “humanity” of Blanca is obvious, but given that the dialogue, the direction, and the scenes that I have briefly mentioned function together to establish a connection between her and the Virgin Mary, Blanca as a protagonist is further distinguished from her militant compatriots as a result of her maternity, not merely her purity (that is, her innocence due to her lack of involvement in politics).

Consequently, when viewers see Blanca in prison alongside the other “Rosas,” there has already been a clear distinction created between these women – a distinction the film continues to uphold in various scenes that take place in the prison. Blanca is treated differently by the guard Carmen; she is given the special task of playing the organ during the mass; and later she is the only woman allowed a moment with a visitor – her son – as the women are transported to the final cell they will occupy before their execution. Moreover, while thirteen women are executed and the film has focused on four whose stories are shared most closely, it is nevertheless the voice of Blanca – reading the letter she wrote to her child – that closes the film. The attention paid to the mother-child relationship, together with the manipulation of maternity used to characterize Blanca, function together to communication a broader message to the (Spanish) viewing public.


13Rosas_Blanca at mass

In the prison mass, Blanca plays the organ while the other Rosas irreverently talk, joke, and laugh, going so far as to let mice, which they had collected from the facility, escape during the ceremony. Screencaps mine, from Las 13 Rosas.

To summarize briefly, Blanca’s maternity not only minimizes the activism and political agendas of the other Roses, but it also reinforces the traditional glorification of maternity and motherhood by positioning Blanca – the celebrated innocent, pure, and Catholic mother – as the principal protagonist, representative of the most tragic of the thirteen deaths. In this sense, the film fits within the tendency of contemporary Spanish film, as identified by Barbara Zecchi, to promote maternity as an essential marker of modern femininity. Zecchi identifies what she describes as “a charged pronatalist context” in Spanish culture (148). She points out the country’s low birth rate and the way in which media and entertainment are again celebrating maternal figures with the hope that modern Spanish women may decide to have children. For Zecchi, contemporary Spanish film appears to uphold this “call to maternity” and “new efforts to foster the birth rate have paradoxically granted motherhood almost the same place of honor it had during Franco’s regime”  (148). See below for the link to Zecchi’s article, “All About Mothers: Pronatalist Discourses in Contemporary Spanish Cinema.”

My analysis of Blanca in Las 13 Rosas, and my critique of her representation as a heroine characterized primarily by allusions to the Virgin Mary, indeed fit within the tendency Zecchi identifies. As such, the overall message of the film can be problematic not only because it “softens” the brutal story of these thirteen women, but also because it idealizes a traditional and outdated model of womanhood that privileges motherhood over other more revolutionary, apolitical, and active female identities.

Guerra civil española

The young women called “The Thirteen Roses” gave here their lives for liberty and democracy on the 5th day of August, 1939. The community of Madrid remembers their sacrifice. 5th of August, 1988. Source of image:

What Spanish films have you seen recently that weave historical events with fictional stories? How do gender, politics, and social class factor into the resulting representations of individual protagonists? 


Bender, Rebecca. “Las 13 Rosas: La mitificación de la madre tradicional y apolítica en el cine español contemporáneo.” Presented at III Congreso Internacional de Historia, Arte, Literatura y Cine en Espanol y Portugués. Salamanca, Spain: 26-28 June 2015.
Paper: Las trece Rosas_APA_presentacion
PowerPoint: Las trece Rosas_powerpoint

Ferrero, JesusLas trece rosas. Madrid: Siruela, 2008.

Fonseca, Carlos. Trece Rosas rojas. La historia más conmovedora de la guerra civil. Madrid: Temas de Hoy, 2004.

Huete Machado, Lola. “La corta vida de trece rosas” (The short life of thirteen roses). El pais. 11 December 2005. Read full text in Spanish here: 

Kristeva, JuliaTales of Love. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia U P, 1987.

Larson, Kajsa. “Remembering the Thirteen Roses: Blurring Fact and Fiction.” Nomenclatura. Aproximaciones a los Estudios Hispánicos 2 (2012): 1-21. Retrieved from UKnowledge in June, 2015. University of Kentucky. <>.

Mártinez-Lázaro, Emilio, director. Las 13 Rosas. (Spain, 2007).

Zecchi, Barbara. “All About Mothers: Pronatalist Discourses in Contemporary Spanish Cinema.” College Literature 32.1 (2005): 146-64. Read abstract here.

About Dr. Rebecca Bender

Spanish professor
This entry was posted in Feminism, Spain, Spanish Civil War, Women and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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