Ludivina García's father fought on the side of the Republic in the Spanish Civil War and was imprisoned in one of Franco's concentration camps before he escaped to Mexico. Now, thanks to a change in Spanish law, the Mexican-born García, 63, is busy compiling the paperwork to obtain the citizenship she feels she has been unfairly denied all these years. García is already recognized as a Spanish citizen through marriage. But having her nationality acknowledged as her birthright is a matter of honor. "It's not redundant," she says. "I've always had an identity conflict, and now I have the chance to resolve it."
The law change, which goes into effect this week, is the latest in Spain's ongoing efforts to atone for its past mistakes. As part of the 2007 Law of Historical Memory, the Spanish government will now offer citizenship to anyone who can prove that his or her parents or grandparents went into exile during the war and the first decades of the dictatorship that followed. According to the Spanish government, some 500,000 around the globe are eligible. (Read TIME's top 10 news stories of the year.)
During the civil war, which lasted from 1936 to 1939, and the brutal repression that followed, hundreds of thousands of people left Spain because their political sympathies put them on the wrong side of Franco's authoritarian regime. The majority fled to France or Mexico, though thousands of children were also sent to the Soviet Union, Britain and the United States.
Now the children and grandchildren of those who fled have the opportunity to reclaim the nationality that, in many cases, their ancestors were forced to renounce. "It's a question of identity," says García, president of the Descendants of Exiles Association. "Even though I grew up in Mexico City, my school was founded by exiles, and we were always learning about Spanish culture. I grew up feeling Spanish."
Frank Casanova, a resident of Naples, Fla., whose grandfather emigrated from the Canary Islands to Cuba, is applying for Spanish citizenship for the same reason. "I was born in Cuba, but I never felt Cuban; I felt Canarian," he says. "I even preferred Canary's music over salsa. It's something you feel in your blood." (See pictures of Cuban musicians.)
Under the law, the descendants have until December 2010 to present themselves at the Spanish embassy in their home country and turn in documentation that proves their parents or grandparents fled Spain between 1936 and 1955. They do not need to relinquish their current citizenship.
"We don't have concrete data yet," said a spokesperson at Spain's justice ministry. "But we're getting reports from our consulates that a lot of people are signing up already." In Argentina, which is home to an estimated 300,000 emigré descendants, applicants have already snapped up all consular appointments through July 2009.
But the new provisions are perhaps most attractive to Cubans. On Saturday, the Spanish news agency EFE reported that hundreds of Cubans spent Christmas night lined up outside the Spanish consulate in Havana, waiting to pick up the necessary application forms. One of them was William, a 38-year-old resident of Havana, whose reasons for seeking Spanish nationality were not purely cultural. "In Spain, you can work, earn money, live comfortably," he told EFE.
And that's not the only benefit of a Spanish passport. "Once you have it, you can leave Cuba and go to the United States," says Casanova, who has five or six cousins planning to do just that. "It's closer, and you have more family there."
That will come as welcome news to the Spanish government, which is currently attempting to reduce immigration into the country. In response to the global economic crisis, Spain's once receptive labor ministry recently introduced a plan that essentially pays unemployed migrants to return to their country of origin. On Dec. 20, the administration extended the period during which police can detain undocumented migrants and barred legally registered immigrants from bringing over any family member of working age.
But economic concerns shouldn't apply to exiles' descendants, argues García. "We're not foreigners. We're Spanish."
Still, the organization she heads does hope for one form of special treatment. Spain's civil code requires potential citizens to swear an oath of loyalty to both the constitution and the King. But the Descendants of Exiles Association sees the latter requirement as "ideological coercion" that restricts freedom of expression, and is asking that it not apply to the citizenship process. "After all," she says, "our parents and grandparents were Republicans."