Taken Under Fascism, Spain’s ‘Stolen Babies’ Are Learning the Truth

Thousands of Spanish children were taken from hospitals and sold to wealthy Catholic families. This is Ana Belén Pintado’s story


On a balmy October day in 2017, Ana Belén Pintado decided to clear out some space in her garage. Her father, Manuel, died in 2010, followed by her mother, Petra, four years later. Their belongings sat gathering dust at her home in Campo de Criptana, a small town in the countryside south of Madrid. As she carefully opened the boxes, she marveled at the objects inside — her childhood dresses, a doll, an old dictionary — each so familiar, reminding her of a life the three of them once shared.

But then she came across some papers she had never seen: medical records from decades ago, including a note from her mother’s doctor. Petra Torres, the note said, had been married for eight years. She was 31 years old and had been trying to have a family. But a set of X-rays indicated that she had a uterine anomaly and obstructed fallopian tubes.

In other words, Pintado’s mother had been sterile. The diagnosis was dated April 1967, six years before Pintado was born.

Pintado had long believed that the couple who raised her were her biological parents, but there were a few puzzling aspects about her family. She had no brothers or sisters, which was rare in a small, Catholic town like Campo de Criptana — Pintado herself, who was then 44, had three children of her own. There was also an odd incident that happened after her father died: A lawyer handling the estate found some papers that showed she was born with a different last name, but before anyone in the family could have a closer look, her mother snatched the documents away and refused to speak about them again.

As Pintado sat in her garage, sifting through the papers, she found another document that was just as confounding as the doctor’s note. It was a birth certificate, which indicated that her mother had given birth to a girl in the Santa Cristina maternity clinic in Madrid. “Good appearance and vitality, good coloration,” a hospital staff member wrote. The paper was dated on Pintado’s birthday, July 10, 1973. There was even a room number: 22.

Pintado took a closer look at the birth certificate. She could see that someone had torn off the top third of the paper, leaving a jagged edge behind. Her birth certificate had been tampered with; there had been something here that someone wanted to hide. “I knew this couldn’t be my mother,” she told me. “And that’s when I thought, I might be a stolen baby.”

Pintado had long known about the phenomenon of babies stolen from hospitals in Spain. The thefts happened during the end of the regime of Francisco Franco, the right-wing dictator who ruled the country until 1975, and even today the disappearances remain a subject of mystery and debate among scholars. According to the birth mothers, nuns who worked in maternity wards took the infants shortly after they were delivered and told the women, who were often unwed or poor, that their children were stillborn. But the babies were not dead: They had been sold, discreetly, to well-off Catholic parents, many of whom could not have families of their own. Under a pile of forged papers, the adoptive families buried the secret of the crime they committed. The children who were taken were known in Spain simply as the “stolen babies.” No one knows exactly how many were kidnapped, but estimates suggest tens of thousands.

The stolen-baby phenomenon was just one part of a national nightmare that began in Spain with Franco’s rise to power. A right-wing army commander, Franco was among a group of military officers who plotted to overthrow Spain’s government in a 1936 army rebellion, triggering the Spanish Civil War. Overnight, Spain went from an elected democracy to a country in which death squads rounded up and executed leftists and intellectuals. When Franco’s Nationalists could not subdue the Basque Country, they called on warplanes from Nazi Germany that flattened the town of Guernica, inspiring the famed painting by Pablo Picasso that bears its name. The ruthlessness was typical of a new brand of authoritarianism that began toppling democracies one by one in Europe in the 1930s. But unlike Adolf Hitler, Franco survived World War II. Spain’s regime lived on as an enduring fascist state in the heart of modern Europe.