Monday, November 8, 2010

Culture of Silence

Blog Entry #6—November 11th 2010

Sorry it's been a while since my last post. It's not that I've forgotten to write, it's more that I've just been quite busy of late with school and other work. I've recently picked up some private lessons that earn me a bit more spending cash each week. There is quite a large, often undocumented, American ex-patriot community here in Madrid, and all over Spain, who work here (both illegally and legally) teaching English.

In the last few weeks I've gone down to Andalucía and visited the sleepy little town of Frigiliana, which is five minutes inland (by car) from Nerja, a town on the aptly named Costa del Sol (Sun Coast). I've also taken a trek to Picasso's home town of Málaga, and of course the beautiful and lively university town of Granada, smack-dab in the center of Andalucía (the souther region of Spain). I revisited the Alhambra, from where my first tattoo was inspired.

Avoiding your roots?

The famous Black Nationalist, Marcus Garvey,1 once said, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” Garvey, of course, was referring to the literal uprooting of millions of Africans from their origins, history, and culture through the Atlantic Slave Trade2. But I think we can apply this proverb to any sort of people, because any tree without roots will rot from the inside. My impression, at least as someone working in a Spanish school, has been that Spaniards (although still connected to their culture) like to avoid their history. As far as I've been able to tell, Spanish children don't learn about their history until late in their schooling. The 14 year old I work with privately has only just begun to learn geography and has never taken a history class. Indeed, the only historical fact I've gotten out of the older kids I work with is that Columbus “discovered”3 America. When I chirp out, “Well, actually, people were already there,” they respond with, “Oh that's right! The Vikings got there before!” At this reply I tend to rub my forehead.

Perhaps my schooling was an exception, but I remember clearly learning about US history at an early age. I remember being six or seven years old and seeing diagrams of how some white devils (and yes, I will call people who do devilish things devils) crammed several hundred innocent Africans into filthy, tiny, ship-holds to work for free on large farms for people who believed they were inferior because of the way they looked. It was confusing, to say the least, but I remember hearing about it. I also remember hearing about how even after those in bondage were “freed,” they were not treated the same as others, and were made to drink from different water fountains, play in different parks, and ride on the back of the bus.

I also remember being told about how ordinary people stood up against that treatment. I remember hearing about police unleashing attack dogs and fire-hoses on people declaring their identities as human beings and demanding their rights as such. And I remember learning that those ordinary, nonviolent people—who committed, together, extraordinarily courageous acts—won. I remember hearing a speech at a young age (or at least parts of it) that began with “I have a dream....”

And although that version of history was superficial, incomplete, and through a particular lens, at least it was touched upon, because above all was recent.4

There is a culture of silence in Spain about their own recent history. From 1936 to 1939, Spain was home to one of the most violent confrontations of the 20th century. In a prelude to the Second World War, the world's ideologies duked it out across Spain in a bloody episode known as the Spanish Civil War.5

In 1931, a coalition of liberal and radical forces came together and declared the Second Spanish Republic, after King Alfonso XIII abdicated his throne and fled the country. The Republic gave women the franchise, secularized education, separated the State from the Church, and began agrarian reform. The Republic was a response to 200 years of an essentially military/feudal system which bankrupted the country with experiments at Empire which failed miserably—the 19th century saw the once wealthy Spanish empire destroyed by the loss of the American colonies. However, the rise of the Republic did not go unchecked by the forces of old: The military, the Catholic Church, and the landed aristocracy.

A few years later, the conservative/nationalist forces won a slim electoral victory (1934) which began to try to reign in the Republic's reforms. However, by 1936 the sentiments of trade-unionists, women, peasants, and regional separatists could not be restrained. The Popular Front (a coalition of socialists, communists, liberals, anarchists, and Basque and Catalonian separatists) won a critical victory in the elections that Spring. Although a slim victory, many poor people took it as a sign that they were now in charge. Some workers took over their factories and some peasants took over the land they worked. Some people were so taken up in the fury that they often lashed out at their most visible historical oppressors through anti-clericalism. For example, some churches were burned (or converted into something useful) and clergy were killed: the clergy in Spain had for years done the bidding of the richest people, and owned a lot of land in those days.

The reaction from the right was predictable and well organized. On 18 July, 1936 the Civil Guard (like our National Guard), and the military rose up (supported by the Church and the Aristocracy) and attempted a coup. The coup was botched when some military units refused the order, and militias (organized by communist, Marxist, and anarchist trade unions) fought back. What commenced was an experiment at violence that the world had not seen since the First World War, and would give a glimpse of the gore that was to come a couple years later in World War II. The bourgeois democracies in the west ignored the Republic and its only ally was the USSR, which hamstrung its cause by creating strife between the coalition.6 To the aid of the Nationalists came the aid of Mussolini and Hitler (Italian troops fought in Spain, and the infamous fire-bombing of Guernica—which inspired Picasso's famous painting of the same name—was done by the Luftwaffe). Atrocities were committed on both sides, with mobs going after churches in Republican controlled areas. However, the fachas, as the conservatives were called orchestrated a calculated and planned program of attacking their political rivals. In fascist controlled areas, it was simply a policy of scorched earth. If you were connected with, or at one time supportive of, the republic, you were simply shot. Sometimes you were just shot for someone important enough not liking you, or having an old score to settle.

During the civil war one general rose to hold ultimate power on the Nationalist side. Generalissimo Francisco Franco7, a short, ugly little man, became the sole authority of the nationalist side. By the end of the civil war, he was the only political power in Spain. After the war his iron fisted dictatorship lasted until his death in death in late 1975. Through the civil war and until Franco's death, political repression flourished in Spain. During and after the civil war the fascists were responsible for somewhere between 120,000-250,000 executions (estimated), on top of the casualties of the Civil War.

The Spanish, today, are still afraid of their past. As bones are being dug up in mass graves found all over Spain, people still talk about the Fraquist regime in hushed tones and awkward glances. In school Franco is often the last thing covered (or so people tell me). Some teachers are beginning to start teaching students more openly about what went on, and more importantly, to understand why and how it must never be forgotten and never be repeated.

Recently, I've found one particular group of Spaniards who buck the usual trend: those whose loved ones were taken from them by the regime, and those who lived during it. Instead of the young calling for justice, it is the old who take up our cause. Every Thursday evening there is a protest, about a hundred strong in La Puerta del Sol, kilometer 0, the heart of Spain. They march for an hour around the central monument of the Plaza to remember the victims of Franco, and to call out against the current impunity for the murderers and repressors who made some of their lives living hells for close to four decades. 8 The ex-generals and officers who ordered the killings, the imprisonments, and the tortures have never faced punishment. They, unlike their victims, have had the privilege of reaching ripe old ages, and ripe old military pensions.

This last weekend, I visited a demonstration put on by these folks to remember the Defense of Madrid. As the historical capital of Spain, Madrid, was one of Franco's obsessions. He needed the city to help claim moral legitimacy to being the rightful ruler of Spain. In November of 1936, Franco began the siege of Madrid. Both sides fought tooth and nail, and the people of Madrid defended their city telling themselves, “¡No Pasarán!” They Shall Not Pass. By December, the nationalists were stalemated at the Casa de Campo park across the Río Manzanares to the west of the city. The Nationalists did not take Madrid until the end of the war when the Republic was collapsed.9

Perhaps small pockets of resistance like this and the discussions that are arising out of the discovery of hidden mass graves all over Spain10 will have an effect on creating the dialogue necessary to reexamine the past, and to guide thoughts as Spain moves into the future. The culture of silence on history, however, is rampant in the Western world. Injustice began in history and perpetuates itself today. Justice is also historical, and both concepts are key in the historical process of human relationships. Lets hope people take this to heart and not be afraid of the good and bad parts of our history.
3Perhaps “invaded” would be a better term?
4I've recently been quite interested in African-American history. I just read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and I think that every young man in America should read it, black or white. It provides insights on American history and the American experience, and paints a portrait of redemption and purpose.
5A good book on this subject see Anthony Beevor's The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1937-1939,
6The Civil War (as Beevor talks about) was almost triangular in its conflict. On the Republican side, tensions existed from the beginning between moderates and communists (who wanted strong state control and central authority) and Marxists, anarchists, and Basque and Catalonian separatists. Those tensions erupted into street fighting in Barcelona known as the “May Events” of 1937. A great book on this is George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. The USSR would often not arm or allow support for the marxist and anarchist militias fighting the Nationalists in the north. Also, having the USSR on their side kept the Western democracies from helping the Republic, because they didn't want to be seen on the same side of the USSR.