When I was choosing my classes for my semester at the University of Granada’s Modern Languages Center, I picked “History of Spain: Franco to the Present Day” just to fill my fifth course slot. I thought it looked interesting and figured it might be good to know some recent history of the country where I’d be living for five months.
Not only has it become my favorite class, but it has also proven to be the most valuable in terms of really understanding the culture of Spain today. We’ve only gotten up to the ’50s so far, but I already feel like I’ve learned so much crucial information.
In class, we watch propaganda videos (called NO-DO, or Noticiarios y Documentales) that used to play in the movie theaters here, created and mandated by the Falange under Francisco Franco to project an image of Spain as rich and isolated from a very foreign and far-away war. We have seen photographs that show what life was like for Republican exiles and have read texts that describe what school was like for children being educated by the government and church. We have also read Franco’s laws and compared the Republican constitution with Franco’s Fuero de los Españoles.
My professor frequently encourages us to ask our host families or other people we know what they think about the topics that have come up in class — Franco, the Civil War, controversial newer acts that help family members of victims to locate their loved ones who disappeared during the war — but she always tells us to ask carefully.
I was surprised when she first said this, because I assumed that since Franco was a fascist dictator, everyone would hate him. That is not the case, though. My first encounter with this truth occurred when a very sweet, loving elderly woman I know proudly told me that her husband had been in the military and that Franco had once visited his office to ask for advice.
The professor also told us that, in her opinion, many contemporary cultural phenomena have their roots in Franco’s era. For example, many older women are very religious, in part because the church was really their only social outlet during this time. She also thinks that the catcalling that my female classmates here sometimes experience is the product of a fascination with the foreign woman that began when socially acceptable Spanish women were very restricted in what they could wear. (Tourists from the U.S. and other countries did not abide by the same standards of modesty.) Though that difference has virtually disappeared today, my professor argues, the male mindset has not.
The most important thing I’ve learned through this class, though, is that everything is much more complex than it seems — which I think is usually the case when we study history. We can point out injustice and ache for the people who were exiled or killed unjustly, but we cannot draw stark contrasts that weren’t there. Not everyone was either a fascist or a communist. And at least based on my comprehension, there was never an easy fix for the problems Spain was facing even before the Civil War.
I’ve realized that if I want to fully grasp Spain’s current political and cultural atmosphere, a simplistic understanding of its not-too-distant past just won’t cut it.