Notes from

The haunted generations: History lessons in Spain

by Belinda Lopez , February 7, 20132 Comments

Each month,
Kill Your Darlings publishes ‘Notes From’, a series designed to illuminate the lives and lifestyles of different people around the world. This month, Belinda Lopez visits Madrid during economic protests, where she encounters young Spaniards trying to find footholds in a time of great uncertainty. For Belinda, whose grandfather escaped Franco’s Spain in the 60s, this is a trip of self-discovery, where she reflects on the life she may have lived, and how unlearned history can have damaging consequences.

‘If this isn’t fixed: war, war, war,’ the Spanish miners shout, light streaming from their helmets as they fill Madrid’s centre. It’s a weeknight around 1am. They are flanked by thousands of Madrileños, the citizens of Madrid. The marching miners chant the same rally cry used by anarchist miners at the start of the Spanish Civil War, and among them are young people flying flags of yellow, red and purple – the flag of the Second Spanish Republic, which lasted for eight years in the 1930s.

Nearly 80 years on, these young protesters also invoke the flag as resistance, this time against a democratically-elected foe: the government of the centre-right People’s Party. Lately, the flag of the Second Spanish Republic is flown at nearly every demonstration held in opposition to the Spanish government’s austerity cuts, and during my visit to Spain I’m fascinated by why – in an economic crisis, in a new century – these old symbols still matter.

It’s a very personal fascination. As a child growing up in Sydney, I made birthday cards for my maternal grandfather themed red, yellow and purple, knowing it would make him happy, but never really why. He was a child of the civil war, and had lost two brothers who’d signed up to fight Franco. In 1961, my grandfather gave up on fascist Spain, taking his small family with him to Australia – back when Australia might as well have been the moon, for the isolation it represented.

Growing up with Spanish parents, Spain was an idea for me as much as it was a geographical location. It was the person I would have been if I’d grown up there (much tidier, real Spanish girls always kept their room tidy); it was a squeamish attempt to tell stranger-relatives I loved them, even if they only existed in between the crackles of an international phone call. My family couldn’t afford to visit Spain when I was growing up, so I only ever saw its history and people through the red, yellow and purple-coloured glasses my grandfather had me wear, as his stories about Spain became family lore. It was glorious and revolutionary. It was, I later reflected, republican propaganda spread through bedtime stories.

*          *          *

Three years ago, I moved from Sydney to Europe for work, finally settling in the Netherlands. Instead of working my way through the checklist of must-see European capitals during my holidays, I found myself returning to Spain again and again. I searched for cheap tickets to tiny regional airports – the ones that had sprung up all over Spain when it was tripping on a boom time pill, fed to it by European banks. (My grandfather had died in 2010, just as the country was sinking deeper into recession). And it was while I was living overseas that I found myself wanting to understand more who I would have been if I’d grown up in Spain. I wanted to see the real, modern Spain, without a faded filter of that flag.


But as I stood in the middle of that protest in Madrid, I realised I still hadn’t found it. Spaniards my age surround me, raising the republican flag as they clash violently with police over a 60 percent youth unemployment rate, raised taxes and the decimation of public services. They are using a flag older than our grandparents as symbolic shorthand – an inherited mass nostalgia for a time they never even lived through. This could have been me, I think, if my family hadn’t made a certain set of choices. I have an Australian passport and, unlike my Spanish friends, can live in Australia at any time.

Madrid has the crisis on its mind. Every conversation I overhear seems to contain the word paro: the dole. Construction sites are stillborn, buildings left half-baked to bear the elements without their scaffolding. At another protest march in Madrid, I meet Alejandro*, a 30-year-old IT specialist with ribbons of dreadlocks running down his back. He’s out of work, but unemployment has allowed him to dedicate himself full-time to the media section of the 15M Movement. ‘I can’t afford to pay for my house, but I’m constantly busy,’ he grins. He joined 15M right at its inception – 15 May 2011 – and told himself he’d wait three years.
‘Three years until what?’ I ask him.
‘Until I take out the arsenal,’ he says, gently. ‘Bombs. Or maybe something more dangerous… Hacking.’ A pause. ‘I’m a hacker.’
I ask him how long it’s been since he joined.
‘One year.’
‘So what would need to happen in two years for you not to resort to this?’ I ask.
He barely pauses before he answers: ‘To get rid of all injustice.’

*          *          *

‘The Lost Generation’, as the current 20-somethings in Spain have been described in the Spanish newspapers, is not the most hopeful of generational titles. It’s not the first time the phrase has been used either. In his memoir A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway recounts American poet Gertrude Stein’s story of a mechanic, a young man who had served in World War I. His boss, the owner of the shop, had described him as a member of la génération perdue:the lost generation.

‘That’s what you are. That’s what you all are,’ Stein told Hemingway. ‘All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.’

‘You need a war to shake you up.’ Paula Ferries, a doctor, heard these words from her father whenever she complained as a small child. Paula is 44, a petite woman with strong, dark eyes, living in Spain again and raising her three children after a career on the frontlines with Medicines San Frontiers. We meet in Bilbao, in the Basque Country, at a TEDx meeting, one organised by mostly Spanish students finishing off their Masters in humanitarian studies. Everyone I speak to is focused on leaving Spain’s decaying economy to ‘help people in the world who really need it’.

‘My father grew up after the Spanish Civil War – he lived the Spanish Civil War,’ Paula says. ‘So he remembered how creative people were in the time after the war. Now I understand perfectly: this is a war, we need this war. This is a crisis that will shake us up … so it’s good.’

The TEDx conference is on just before the final of the European Football Championship, when Spain later took on Italy and won. In a break between rehearsal sessions, Paula expresses a sentiment that I was yet to hear any other Spaniard pronounce: that it would be a good thing if her country didn’t win the football. In Spain, this is almost treasonous, and I catch myself looking around to see if anyone had heard her.
‘I can see that the football is always used as an anaesthesia mechanism,’ she says.
‘Opium of the masses, you mean?’
‘Exactly,’ she says. ‘Franco used football for calming the people. I have nothing against football, but I think Spanish people are happy very quickly with things, and sometimes it makes me a bit nervous to see that just because we win the football, everything will be okay.’

*          *          *

I travel back to Madrid to spend time with my Spanish relatives, and to watch the Euro 2012 final in the house of one of my grandfather’s nephews. After the match, the streets blare with audacious horns, and at each heavily congested traffic light people beam from open windows.

The next day, it feels like the whole population has poured into the centre of Madrid to give the footballers a hero’s welcome. Later, after food and drinks with friends, we head back towards the cries of fans, in search of the celebration. But all we find are riot police. They charge in the direction of the crowd – us – armed with shields. We run. I wonder for one brief moment what would happen if we held our ground, the stand of the innocent. One young woman, chubby and terrified, presses fearfully against a nearby wall and a policeman in a heavy vest shoves against her with his shield until she screams. We escape into a nearby side street and for a moment I can only hear the clink of thrown bottles from retaliatory young men and the sound of my heart in my ears.

A couple of days later, I travel to the city of Valladolid with my friend Patricia. It’s about two and a half hours northeast of Madrid. Patri is 28, with an international Masters degree behind her, perfect English and work experience in journalism here and overseas. She’d be an impressive applicant for a white-collar graduate job, if there were any to apply for. Instead she is currently working as a hawker for a charity organisation, smiling at strangers in streets, asking for donations for Palestinians – a tough ask when everyone is worrying about their own empty pockets. It is a tiring job, she says.

Image credit: Patricia López Villalón

The difference between what her credentials had promised her a few years ago and the work she does today is enormous, but I am encouraged by her relentless happiness. It also puzzles me. I suspect she is so happy because she has a dream. With no serious job prospects in the capital city, Patri has realised she has been pursuing something that she perhaps never truly wanted in the first place. Next month she is leaving Madrid to live with her parents in Valladolid, to work in her mother’s small lingerie shop and pursue her true passion: writing.

We sit together in the back seat of her friend’s car, the sun burning down the horizon at 10pm. Its red glow turns the plains pinkish-yellow. This is Castilla y Leon. The land is flat and empty. ‘I used to hate this,’ Patri says, looking at the parched fields. There are no mountains, just this seemingly endless desolate earth.

She turns to me, smiling. ‘When I came back from living overseas, I finally understood what the poets had meant about this land, and why Antonio Machado had to write about it.’ Machado was a wanderer – yet another Spaniard who left; for Rome, when Rome was the centre of the world. He kept returning, in poetry and in person, to this bare land. ‘You may think this land is ugly,’ Patri continues, ‘but it’s ours. And in the emptiness is an honesty. There is nothing else but the land.’

*          *          *

Once arriving in Valladolid, Patri and I head to a bar to meet two friends of hers. The Beluga presses itself against one corner of an empty square of the city. It does not look like it belongs among the typical no-nonsense waterholes of Spain. It looks part Alice through the Looking Glass, part grandmothers’ vintage lounge room. An exhibition of black-and-white cartoons hangs on the walls.

Patri’s friends are Carlos Chavez Muñoz and Almudena Zapatero, the proprietors of this establishment. They are both in their early 30s, have worked abroad, lost their jobs and, about a year ago, decided to return to Spain and open a bar in their home town of Valladolid. If there’s one sure-fire way to make money in Spain, they acknowledge, it’s through the sale of alcohol.

But Carlos and Almudena say that in this economy, the bar is the means by which they are able to fund the projects they actually want to do – such as founding Revista Extra, a liberal online magazine about their rather conservative city.

As they predicted in the first edition of their magazine more than a year ago, the sprawling youth unemployment would have consequences: ‘We wrote that the lack of economic activity, the lack of government and business initiatives, would generate a situation in which the only option you were left with was to leave,’ Carlos says. ‘And this situation has only become worse. According to the official data, nearly 30,000 young Spaniards have left Spain.’

But against the tide of young Spaniards, these two old friends moved back home, determined to create an alternative paper of record for their home town. Valladolid has been handed a rather curious nickname by other Spaniards: Fachadolid. Facha, in Spanish, means fascist. Valladolid was a stronghold of Franco’s army during the Spanish Civil War and had propped up Spain’s fascist party when the Second Spanish Republic was in full swing.

Carlos and Almudena say the town is still notoriously conservative. In March 2012, a local artist called Manolo Sierra painted a mural in the town centre in requiem of the republican university professors who were killed by fascists during the 1930s. The current conservative leaders of Valladolid were outraged at the writing on the wall, and the city council fined Sierra 750 euros under a law regulating anti-social behaviour. The mural featured the republican flag of the Spanish Spanish Republic. Carlos came out in support of the artist and the mural in Revista Extra.

I tell Carlos that I find it curious that Spaniards of his generation – who weren’t even born at the time of the dictatorship – are the ones supporting the display of the old republican flag. It’s because his generation, he tells me, unlike past generations, hasn’t internalised the fear of speaking about historical atrocities and ongoing abuses of power – for fear of retribution from the Franco regime.

‘In the city where my father comes from, it was like nothing had happened. But [Franco’s army] killed 5000 people in three days,’ he says. ‘Your grandparents knew but they never said anything because they were scared. And our parents were told to never talk about politics in the street.’

I had never witnessed anything like this in my own family back in Australia. I wonder what kind of family lore my grandfather would have created had I grown up in Spain.

Carlos looks at me evenly. ‘And I would say that right now, any theme – social, political, economic or cultural – existing now in Spain, is related to Franco’s era. Because Franco didn’t die assassinated by the masses, through revolution. He died in his bed, from old age.’

Franco died on 20 November 1975, and Spain entered what is known as la transición, the country’s transition to democracy. At the time, young men like Felipe Aranguren, were out in the streets, celebrating the end of a dictatorship.

*          *          *

I want to speak to Felipe because he is one of the founding members of the Iaioflautas – a group of now ageing Spaniards who today say that their celebrations in 1975 were premature. I’m hoping Felipe might help me understand why those who find problems with Spain’s democracy today are still invoking the old symbols of resistance.

I meet Felipe in one of the tiny alleyways of Barcelona, where I am staying with my paternal grandmother (a woman who has internalised the Franco-era social custom of never speaking of politics in the streets). Felipe and I walk into a warehouse, wallpapered with radical posters. He’s 61 years old, a bookish, wiry man with steel glasses, a retired sociologist. He looks somewhat out of place in this dank, industrial space. I’m sure he’d disagree.

As a 14-year old he joined the Communist Party after his father, an ethics professor at a university in Madrid, was arrested and stripped of his teaching license for supporting student protests. His father was never again allowed to teach in Spain during Franco’s lifetime. Instead he had to find a job at the University of Santa Barbara in California to earn a living for his family back home.

Ten years later Felipe, like the rest of his generation, was swept away by the spirit of cultural and social change that followed Franco’s death. ‘But there wasn’t a transition,’ he tells me. It was more like a transaction between the same kinds of people: the monarchy and the nationalists.

Franco had been grooming the Spanish Prince Juan Carlos to succeed him as the head of an authoritarian state. Yet following Franco’s death, the new King Juan Carlos I used his new wide-ranging powers to assist in the country’s transition to democracy, to the ire of the Spanish military and many conservatives. For many republicans, however, this wasn’t enough. Several protagonists of the dictatorship were granted amnesty and some even continued their political careers. Meanwhile, human-rights abuses committed during the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship were never investigated. Baltasar Garzón, a Spanish judge who did attempt to investigate some of these crimes, found himself tried for abuse of judicial power (he was acquitted in February this year).

Felipe says that meanwhile, friends of his generation watched as their children were rendered politically placid by the Spanish boom years of the 1980s and 1990s – in other words, relaxed and comfortable.

‘Our children, in their 40s and 50s, are a lost generation,’ he says. ‘Lots of money came to Spain, for the highways, for the airports, and where did it come from? From the efforts of the Spanish? No. The money came from outside. They had the false perception of living in a developed economy, in which everything could be bought. That generation has grown up thinking that we could live as though we were all rich.’

I tell him that I’ve only heard people say that it’s the grandchildren that are the lost generation.

‘No,’ he counters immediately. ‘The young people are starting to mobilise. They’re very disorganised, and they don’t have a clear political direction of where they’re going and what they want, but they’re moving. And that’s very good, that they’re moving.’

With the mobilisation of 15M, people of Felipe’s generation and political stripe were reawakened, full of nostalgia and renewed hope. They watched as the young protesters were labelled perroflautas, a derogatory word similar to ‘hippies’ or ‘bums’. In solidarity, they called themselves Iaioflautas – grandfather hippies – and went out to join the fray. Armed with canes and spectacles, the Iaioflautas have since overrun bank branches and confronted police in the street, becoming a strong voice in the debate about the future of Spain, while reminding it of its past.

Image credit: Patricia López Villalón

‘We’re the only country in the world,’ Felipe says, ‘that has removed the monarchy twice, through peaceful and democratic means, which has then had the monarchy returned through violence.’ (As well as Spain’s Second Republic of 1931, there had been an earlier short-lived attempt at democracy in 1873). ‘And today, the nation-state of Spain is again something of a fallacy,’ Felipe continues. ‘Today, politics are carried out not by democracies but by the biggest financial institutions. I think more and more young people are taking out the republican flag because they’re becoming aware of this lack of liberty. Because, finally, we’re sick of the royals.’ He laughs. ‘For the third time in our history! Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it,’ he adds solemnly. ‘Karl Marx said that history always repeats itself, first as tragedy, and then as farce. The Spanish civil war was the tragedy. Now we have the farce.’

*       *       *

I return home that afternoon to find videos of young protesters holding the republican flag all over the internet again. I find little farce in the police brutality shared through YouTube, nothing laughable about the images of students clustering together to protect themselves against the batons, as they demand more transparency in their democracy.

But for all the dismissals of my generation as a lost generation without ideals, I realise, proudly, that we young Spaniards have learnt from history. Unlike many of our parents and grandparents, we are not afraid to teach each other about those that came before us, who fought for a democracy we now want to uphold. And it matters very little whether this lesson is in the form of a flag, a YouTube video, or even a bedtime story. What matters is that the lesson continues to be learnt.


Belinda Lopez recently returned home to Australia after five years away, working as a journalist and radio producer in Indonesia, Europe and South America. She is the features executive producer of the radio storytelling show All the Best.         

*Some names in this article have been changed to protect privacy.

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