Now, hold on. I know what you’re thinking.
Don’t exit out. History is fun, dammit.
The history of Spain reads like a bittersweet Shakespearean tragedy, a dramatic tale of triumphant rise, prolonged enrichment, and painful faltering.
Until the fifteenth century, Spain was an international non-player, a fragmented collection of kingdoms that loosely shared languages. But with the unification of Castile and Aragon under Isabella and Ferdinand, and with their bankrolling Columbus’ voyage, Spain (plus Portugal) dominated the international scene, ferociously importing American spices and gold, constructing unprecedented labor systems, and revolutionizing Western food, government, medicine, and science. That is, until its inflationary habits and strained colonial organization crumbled its economy, left it trailing behind streamlined empires (like Britain), and fostered within it a vulnerability to fascist dictatorship.
The United States is a reflection of Spanish history: imperialistic roots in monstrous Spanish and Portuguese empires; involvement in Latin American countries that were purposefully underdeveloped to serve Spanish imperial needs, and whose revolutionary turmoil was the aftershock of ours; a history of slavery pioneered by Spanish and Portuguese plantation and ingenio owners; a budding capitalism that necessarily developed from complex international trading. We, Americans, are Spaniards too.
For better or worse.
Early in my program’s orientation, a professor related the “two Spains” hypothesis. Exactly how popular it is, I don’t know, but it goes like this: Modern Spaniards reflect on their nation as if there were two, one that represents their rich culture and proud progress, and one that contains the nation’s historical blunders. The latter wasn’t their fault: the wrongdoing of misguided, unrepresentative leaders, a collection of unfortunate, often unavoidable circumstances. The former represents their best, truest selves. The following excerpt from the poem “Apología y petición” captures it:
A menudo he pensado en esos hombres,
a menudo he pensado en la pobreza
de este país de todos los demonios.
Y a menudo he pensado en otra historia
distinta y menos simple, en otra España
en donde sí que importa un mal gobierno.
Often I have thought about those men,
often I have thought about the poverty
of this country of all those demons.
And often I have thought about another history
distinct and less simple, about another Spain
Where a bad government does matter.
– Jaime Gil de Biedma (1929–90)
Spain is also a country whose culture radically emerged from rigid Franconian dictatorship with an uncertain yet fierce pursuit of free expression. It is distinct. In the metro, in the park, wherever, couples osculate carnivorously, publicly, to the embarrassment of the puritanical American. Across the Complutense campus, student groups have defaced literally every building with gaudy graffiti, reading “anti-fascism,” “anti-capitalism,” and whatever other superficially poignant phrase they could produce. It’s “free expression?”
American culture is, by no means, static or homogeneous. But as I dip my toes into Spanish culture, there’s a noticeable tentativeness. Like a silent whirlpool of influences that could, without warning, swallow new influences or eject ones of centurial standing.
Spain stands at a precipice. It’s surveying its options. And the direction it chooses will, like the Spain of centuries past, draw our whole Western world with it.