Barreling north through Catalonia toward the Spanish-French border, a pickup truck races to the meetup point. Behind the wheel is Mercè, and sitting beside her is her young son Florencio Serras Rigalt. They are driving to pick up their next shipment of Levi-Strauss jeans for the family retail store, Serras 1919.
But they have to tread lightly and watch out for La Guardia Civil, because in an economically isolated, Francoist Spain, selling foreign goods is a black market business. But the Serras family doesn’t care. If Levi’s are what their customers want, Levi’s are what they’ll get.
“There was something about American or European jeans. Young people of the 60s and 70s wanted to dress different and have the freedom to choose,” says Florencio. “Levi jeans were very much appreciated, and very difficult to obtain. Perhaps they were a kind of icon, a symbol, for certain sectors of the youth.”
Multiple times a year, Mercé would travel to fashion capitals like Milan, Paris, and London to attend fashion events and go to factories to buy clothing to bring back to the store. She would cross the border back to Spain and claim the merchandise as personal property. When she would drive, sometimes Florencio would sit in the bed of the truck with the goods.
“The tags were removed and attached again when back home. Thus, it was organized as if they were for personal use. It was amazing,” Florencio recalls. “She would make me sit on top of them, sometimes, just at the moment of crossing the border. La Guardia Civil were not interested in a mother and a son.”
It was the 1960s, and by this time, Francisco Franco had a strong grip on Spain and an even tighter hold on the Basque Country and the region of Catalonia, where the Serras family has lived since the store founder, Enric Serras Pascual, Florencio’s grandfather, moved to the Barcelona area to learn to be a tailor.
After some time in Barcelona, Enric moved to Oviedo, then Geneva, and finally back to Spain in 1919, where he founded a tailor shop in the emerging industrial city of Mataró, a city just north of Barcelona. There Enric had four sons and a daughter–the eldest being Florencio’s father.
“He started studying medicine at the University of Barcelona in 1936, but the Spanish civil war broke out,” says Teresa Robert Font, Florencio’s wife and a current co-manager of Serras 1919. “He was called to go the front line to join the medical brigade at the Ebro River battlefront, where Hitler’s Nazi Luftwaffe and Mussolini’s Italian army helped Franco to win the war. He was 18 years old. That’s a shame, they were kids.”
After the war, Florencio’s father was forced into a prison camp, putting his tailoring business on hold. Years later, he was released. His young age may have saved his life.
“Most of the people recruited in Catalonia were on the republican side–they lost the war against fascism,” says Teresa. “Most of the young were released. many prisoners, though, involved in politics or in parties related to democratic or of the republic were killed.”
Since Franco seized control after Nationalist forces won the Spanish Civil War (La Guerra) in 1939, he made it his mission to bring cultural, political, and economic homogeneity to Spain. As a result of this, Franco suppressed cultural traditions and languages in the Catalonian and Basque regions of Spain, affecting the business and everyday lives of the members of the Serras family.
“The cultural suppression was damaging a lot of the life in Catalonia, as well as in most of Spain. All autonomic institutions were suppressed or controlled,” Florencio says. “Moreover, there were a lot of difficulties to establish industrial or commercial links with the rest of the world, unless you had some links with the regime.”
Catalan, the dialect of Catalonia, was forbidden in any formal setting and many cultural songs and dances were censored by the regime. Even books were hard to come by. Much like the Levi jeans and other clothes smuggled in by the Serras family, books in Catalan or other books forbidden by Franco had to be brought across the border from France or Andorra.
Franco ruled Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975. The social and economic consequences of his rule would scar Spain for decades to follow. Despite this, Serras 1919 found a way to thrive. Florencio’s father became a renowned tailor in the area and eventually was successful enough to buy the buildings next to his shop in the 1960s and convert the space into a department store.
At this point in time, there were not many competitors in Mataró, so customers were loyal to the Serras name, and they remain devoted today.
“Today, there is a lot of competition. Many international fashion stores are settled in Mataró, but the Serras store is still well known in the area,” says Teresa. “The people working in Serras know the client. There is very friendly and familiar treatment. The clients like that personal relation, and they come back.”
As Serras 1919 approaches its 100th anniversary, Teresa and her co-manager Andreu, Florencio’s cousin, look to celebrate Serras 1919 and its place in the Mataró community. To understand this fashion hub in the heart of Mataró, it is important to look at the success of the store and its history, as it has existed before, during, and after the Franco era. It is a testament to the resilience of the Spanish people and the Serras family itself.
Florencio remembers the uncertainty that came with Franco’s death. The day he died, Florencio enjoyed clandestine parties with free flowing champagne. That day, Spain looked forward into the unknown and even today, the legacy of the regime is prominent. Despite thousands of deaths and disappearances at the hands of Franco’s regime, some responsible are still alive and free.
Even though Spain enjoys democracy today, the importance of remembering its history is imperative to validating the struggles of groups, such as Catalonians, under the Franco regime. It is important to recognize the resistance presented by the people, even in small forms of protest, like wearing a pair of illegal Levi jeans.
“If governments that misbehave are not seriously penalized by the international community, then there will never be an end to the nightmare of many citizens without freedom,” explains Florencio. “Impunity favors the proliferation of obscure governments or politicians to take power with terror. We are seeing some examples of this around the world, right? History cannot be forgotten.”