Walking Around Scarecrows and Scarefishes: Surrealist Angst in Maruja Mallo and Pablo Neruda

One of the things I love about teaching and analyzing Spanish literature is that each time I (re)read a text for a new class or course, I end up interpreting it differently depending on what else I happen to be reading or researching at that time.  This week in my graduate seminar on AP Spanish American Literature (syllabus) we analyzed and discussed Pablo Neruda’s 1935 poem Walking Around.” As I had been reading quite a bit about the avant-garde Spanish painter Maruja Mallo (I wrote my previous post about her 1920s Verbenas (Carnivals)), I discovered a few fantastic connections between one of her unique series of paintings from the early 1930s and the grotesque, surrealist imagery of Neruda’s poem. As I find it especially fruitful for students to analyze poetry alongside a visual, I was particularly enthused about these similarities. I’ve done this type of analytical activity before with poetry and art dealing with the Spanish Civil War, specifically comparing a poem by Vicente Aleixandre and Picasso’s Guernica.  This time, the final lines of Neruda’s poem called to mind one of Maruja Mallo’s most well-known surrealist paintings, Espantapájaros (Scarecrows) (1930) – part of her series Cloacas y campanarios (Sewers and Belfries), exhibited in Paris in 1932. This series – a stark contrast to her colorful Verbenas from only four years earlier – is characterized by a dark, monochromatic aesthetic that transmits an eerily pessimistic and destructive sentiment:

"Espantapájaros" (Scarecrows), Maruja Mallo, 1930.

“Espantapájaros” (Scarecrows), Maruja Mallo, 1930.

Espantapájaros made quite an impact in Paris in 1932, and it was in fact later purchased by André Breton, the French writer and filmmaker who essentially founded and defined the surrealist movement in 1924 with his “First Surrealist Manifesto” (Primer manifiesto surrealista -PDF).  Mallo’s Espantapájaros, while not conforming to the precise tenets of surrealism as Breton laid them out, nevertheless exhibits several surrealist traits: the juxtaposition of random, often ordinary objects, the use of dreamlike imagery (especially landscapes), and a sort of liberated chaos that results from the free, disconnected flow of the individual’s unfiltered subconscious thoughts, desires, or fears.  Mallo has stated that this series represents her only true “surrealist moment” (Mangini 171). In these paintings, the dark landscape evokes death and desolation, while the somewhat ghostly, skeletal figures demand the viewer’s attention amidst a scattered array of random, broken objects. I immediately thought of these murky, dilapidated scarecrows when I read the final stanza of Neruda’s “Walking Around” – the last four verses of the poem read:

“paso, cruzo oficinas y tiendas de ortopedia,
y patios donde hay ropas colgadas de un alambre:
calzoncillos, toallas y camisas que lloran
lentas lágrimas sucias

I walk by, going through office buildings and orthopedic shops,
and courtyards where there is clothing hanging from the line:
underwear, towels and shirts that cry
slow dirty tears

(English translations of “Walking Around” are from Robert Bly. I’ve modified a few.)

A second, very similar painting – Espantapeces (Fish Scarers, or Scarefishes), below – also formed part of Mallo’s Cloacas y campanarios (Sewers and Belfries) series. This “pathetic and startling sub-aquatic scenery, composed of strips and shreds of cloth, with ruminant skulls and knives stabbing the background” (Gandara 24), received several awards in Barcelona. Like Espantapájaros, Espantapeces presents shadowy, grotesque imagery that finds parallels in “Walking Around” – specifically Mallo’s skulls, animal skeletons, and cavernous underground setting mirror Neruda’s references to death, suffering, and a dark subterranean landscape:

No quiero seguir siendo raíz en las tinieblas,
vacilante, extendido, tiritando de sueño,
hacia abajo, en las tripas moradas de la tierra,
absorbiendo y pensando, comiendo cada día.

No quiero para mí tantas desgracias.
no quiero continuar de raíz y de tumba,
de subterráneo solo, de bodega con muertos,
aterido, muriéndome de pena.

I don’t want to go on being a root in the dark,
insecure, stretched out, shivering with sleep,
going on down, into the moist guts of the earth,
taking in and thinking, eating every day.

I don’t want so much misery.
I don’t want to go on as a root and a tomb,
alone under the ground, a warehouse with corpses,
half frozen, dying of grief.

"Espantapeces", Maruja Mallo, 1931

“Espantapeces” (Fish Scarers / “Scarefishes”), Maruja Mallo, 1931

While these two paintings – Scarecrows and Scarefish – are most similar in their depiction of decomposing, “scarecrow-like” figures covered in tattered rags, the other paintings in Mallo’s series continue to illustrate themes of death, destruction, and deterioration against a barren, gray wasteland.  Bones, skulls, and rubbish piles abound.  Antro de fósiles (Fossil Den), below, for example, is a large-scale painting featuring arcade-style arches in the background, while a pair of human skeletons stand out amidst the toads, broken barrels, and mushrooms that populate the rust-colored, toxic earth of the foreground. The arches framing the upper portion of the painting suggest an abandoned urban setting, or perhaps a forgotten civilization in ruins…

"Antro de fósiles" (Fossil Den), Maruja Mallo, 1930

“Antro de fósiles” (Fossil Den), Maruja Mallo, 1930. Image via http://www.museoreinasofia.es

…which leads to yet another connection to “Walking Around,” as Neruda creates a nauseating visualization of modern city shops and locales:

Sucede que entro en las sastrerías y en los cines
marchito, impenetrable, como un cisne de fieltro
navegando en un agua de origen y ceniza.

El olor de las peluquerías me hace llorar a gritos. […]

Y me empuja a ciertos rincones, a ciertas casas húmedas,
a hospitales donde los huesos salen por la ventana,
a ciertas zapaterías con olor a vinagre,
a calles espantosas como grietas.

And it happens that I walk into tailorshops and movie houses
dried up, waterproof, like a swan made of felt
steering my way in a water of wombs and ashes.

The smell of barbershops makes me break into hoarse sobs. […]

And it pushes me into certain corners, into some moist houses,
into hospitals where the bones fly out the window,
into shoeshops that smell like vinegar,
and certain streets hideous as cracks in the skin

This darker, more pessimistic, and often existential vein of surrealism became especially prominent in the 1930s. This was an era marked by general social and political unrest on a global scale – the first World War had left world powers divided, social revolutions were springing up across Latin America, the stock market crash in 1929 sparked the decade-long Great Depression in the US, and Spain was suffering from great political instability an the downfall of its monarchy and dictatorship… indeed the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) was looming on the horizon. Artists responded, remedying their angst and disgust by rejecting traditional aesthetic and moral values that had brought the world to its current place. Surrealism offered a perfect expressive outlet – Breton had defined it as “pure psychic automatism,” a process by which thoughts are expressed without the intervention of reason, logic, or moral or aesthetic preoccupations. Under this paradigm, chance, locura (craziness), dreams, and subconscious desires – no matter how absurd or offensive – were celebrated. Salvador Dalí’s painting, Melancolía (Melancholoy), although created later in 1945 after the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, is an example of the way in which Surrealism allowed for a new way of interpreting reality that would take into account the most violent, irrational aspects of man’s psyche.


“Melancolía” (Melancholoy), Salvador Dalí, 1945. Image via http://www.museoreinasofia.es

Returning to Mallo’s paintings, however, it is telling that Neruda lived in Spain from 1933-35 (Barcelona and Madrid). Having met Federico Garcia Lorca in Buenos Aires in 1933, Lorca introduced Neruda to his intellectual and artistic circle in Madrid – a group that included Rafael Alberti, César Vallejo, and Miguel Hernández. As Mallo and Alberti had begun “a passionate, if Bohemian relationship” (Havard 93)  in 1926 that would last until 1931, it is likely that Neruda became familiar with Mallo’s work as well. While many have pointed to the mutual influence of Mallo and Alberti, fewer have examined connections between Mallo and other poets of this time – especially those like Neruda whose primary place or residence or study was not Spain’s cultural nucleus, Madrid. Juxtaposing Mallo’s and Neruda’s works affords us a more complete and complex understanding of those early twentieth century Spanish and Spanish American artistic movements that were becoming increasingly transatlantic in scope.

Robert Havard’s book on Rafael Alberti and the Surrealist Ethos in Spain, for example, discusses at length the ways in which Mallo and Alberti collaborated and shared similar approaches to the role of (surrealist) art in general. Considering the sordid side of Spanish surrealism, Havard’s book includes a chapter on scatology and eschatology, which itself dedicates a section to “Maruja Mallo and Eschatology” (92-104). He notes, as I have above,

"Tierra y excrementos" (Earth and excrement), Maruja Mallo, 1932

“Tierra y excrementos” (Earth and excrement), Maruja Mallo, 1932. Image via http://www.museoreinasofia.es

that with Sewers and Belfries “Maruja turned from the apparent gaiety of her initial paintings to the haunting theme of left-over objects lying on the ground […] depicted in dark-toned paintings, virtually devoid of colour” (95). Two paintings in Mallo’s series, Tierra y excremento (Earth and Excremet) and Sapos y excrementos (Toads and Excrements), are explicitly named after human or animal waste, emphasizing her view that the earth and modern society, particularly the contrast between urban Madrid and the barren landscape of the city’s outskirts, were becoming veritable wastelands.

"Sapos y excrementos" (Toads and excrement), Maruja Mallo, 1932

“Sapos y excrementos” (Toads and excrement), Maruja Mallo, 1932

Havard points out similarities in Mallo’s visual representation of a rotting wasteland and Alberti’s poetic verses featuring “junk objects” (95). Both Havard and Mangini emphasize the role that the outskirts of Madrid played in influencing the pair, especially because Mallo lived at one point on the outskirts of Madrid and Alberti would visit her there. The train ride afforded them opportunities to contemplate the state of civilization and man amidst the ruinous decay outside the city: “The austere landscapes on Madrid’s outskirts inspired her, particularly the garbage, the burnt and waterlogged land, the sewers, the broken bell towers, and the rubble, all of which was undergoing the process of decomposition. In the midst of this detritus, Mallo tells us [in an essay on her work] that ‘the presence of man appears among the footprints, the suits, the skeletons and the dead’ (Mangini 163). Tellingly, two paintings in her Sewers and Belfries series were titled Basura (Garbage) and La huella (The Footprint).


“Basura” (Garbage), Maruja Mallo, 1932. Image via http://www.spainisculture.com


“La huella” (The Footprint), Maruja Mallo, 1929





Finally, the limited palette of grays, whites, and blacks in Sewers and Belfries, together with the general sense of fragmentation, has led may critics to establish comparisons to Picasso’s 1936 Guernica (Gandara 24). Since Mallo’s paintings were created before Guernica, her influence may not have come from Picasso as much as from Spanish painters of the past – notable Francisco de Goya. In fact, in writing today’s post on Mallo’s shocking, “dark paintings” after having just written about her colorful Verbenas, I could not help but think of the way in which Goya took a similar dark, cynical turn during his prolific career – I wrote about this shift and his so-called “Black Paintings” (and the controversy surrounding them) last year. Mangini also points to Mallo’s respect for and admiration of Goya, particularly regarding Los caprichos (Caprices), which Mallo praised for their satirizing of “the corruption and superstition of his era” (164). If Goya’s nightmarish sketches were a source of inspiration for Mallo, then we might consider these surrealist landscapes to be more than mere expressions of angst and disgust; their attention to decay and ruin may be read as a similar critique of modern corruption and uneven modernization.

Several other paintings were included in Mallo’s series, but I have been unable to locate them online – one is titled “Largarto y cenizas” (Lizards and Ashes) and another “Campanario” (Belfry). Gandara describes the former as a “terrifying vision of a reptile skeleton with human hands” and the latter as a symbolic satire (24).  If any of my readers knows where to find these, I’d appreciate any help!

What other Spanish or Latin American artists could be compared to Mallo or Neruda for their creation of grotesque, dark surrealist imagery in poetry, prose, or the plastic arts?



Ballesteros Garcia, Rosa Maria. “Maruja Mallo (1902-1994). De Las cloacas al espacio sideral.” Aposta. Revista de Ciencias Sociales 13 (Dic 2004): 1-34. PDF via ApostaDigital.

Gandara, Consuelo de la. Maruja Mallo. Artistas españoles contemporáneos. Madrid: Ministerio de Educación, 1978. Google Books.

Havard, Robert. The Crucified Mind. Rafael Alberti and the Surrealist Ethos in Spain. London: Tamesis, 2001. Google Books.

Mangini, Shirley. “The Gendered Body Politic of Maruja Mallo.” Modernism and the Avant-Garde Body in Spain and Italy. New York: Routledge, 2016.

Neruda, Pablo. “Walking Around” in Residencia en la tierra II (1935).
PDF for use in class: Neruda-walking-around_poema









Posted in Art, Literature, Spain, Spanish America, Surrealism, Women | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Women and the Avant-garde: Maruja Mallo’s “Verbenas” (Carnivals)

Lately I’ve been returning to the art and literature of the Spanish Avant-garde – the time period that sparked my interest in studying Spanish literary, art, and cultural history more in depth (roughly 1917-1930s). Since I received my copy of an edited volume on the Spanish and Italian Avant-garde, Modernism and the Avant-garde Body in Spain and Italy (Routledge 2016) – to which I contributed an article on the 1929 novel La Venus mecánica (The Mechanical Venus) – I’ve been studying the contributions of my colleagues and re-visiting everything I love about this early 20th century era… the chaos, the rejection of tradition, the innovation, the creation of entirely new art forms (surrealism, cubism, futurism, etc.), and, of course, the controversy and scandal that accompanied such aesthetics. Salvador Dalí‘s paintings had always fascinated me, and I’ve written several blog posts about his Christmas cards, landscape inspiration, and public service announcements. Certainly Dalí (along with his renowned contemporaries Luis Buñuel and Federico García Lorca) is one of the most representative figures of Spanish Surrealism; however the historical focus on male artists fails to honor the legacy of the women who began to break through social and cultural barriers by forging non-traditional paths of their own (aka, any role that was not almost exclusively “wife” or “mother”) as artists, poets, and journalists.

mallo_fosiles 1931_ahorasemanal

Maruja Mallo (left) next to her painting, “Antro de fósiles” [“Fossil Den”], in 1931, alongside Josefina Carabias (right), who is considered Spain’s first full-time female journalist. Image via Ahora (www.ahorasemanal.es).

The above photograph features Maruja Mallo (1902-1995), one of the most talented and controversial painters of the Spanish surrealist scene who participated extensively in Madrid’s artistic and intellectual circles at the height of the Avant-garde. Yet her contributions are only beginning to be recognized in this context. As I continue my research on Spanish women’s literature and cultural contributions during the early decades of the 20th century, I am becoming increasingly aware of my own tendency, on this blog specifically, to write about the most celebrated, recognizable male personalities for my general audience. While I have written twice before about Carmen de Burgos’s novel  La rampa, the tragic execution of the “Thirteen Roses,” and women of the Second Republic, in terms of Avant-garde visual art, my posts have predominantly centered on male artists like Dalí and Picasso. As such, it seems I’m perpetuating the lack of attention given to female artists and the privileging of their already canonical male contemporaries. Ooops. Time for some blogging-reflection…  When a student – or anyone! –  googles “Vanguardia” or “Surrealism(o)”, for example, I’d like for them to find contributions beyond those of Dalí, Lorca, Buñuel, and their male contemporaries. There are already some excellent Spanish articles and blog posts about Mallo — Las amigas de Buñuel, Lorca y Dalí; Maruja Mallo y su ruptura con la pintura tradicional; and Maruja Mallo. Transgresion en la obra y en la vida — however there is little information available in English.

Mallo documentary

Image from the documentary, “Maruja Mallo. Mitad ángel, mitad marisco”, produced by TVE (Television española: http://www.rtve.es)

An early sign of her love for masquerade and self-transformation, Maruja Mallo is actually a pseudonym; she was born Ana María Gómez González in 1902 in Viveiro, Galicia, Spain. When her family moved to Madrid in 1922, Mallo studied art and befriended Dalí, who introduced her to Lorca and Buñuel. In fact, in the documentary on her life, “Maruja Mallo. Mitad ángel, mitad marisco,” it is suggested that she embodied the “fourth vertex” of the famous surrealist triangle formed by the artist (Dalí), the poet and playwright (Lorca), and the filmmaker (Buñuel). The title of the documentary is taken from Dalí’s poetically surreal description of his friend: “mitad ángel, mitad marisco” – “half angel, half shellfish.”   Shirley Mangini, who has written at length about Mallo, describes this vanguardista as the most noteworthy singularity of the Spanish Avant-garde, given that she embodied the clash between traditional Spanish patriarchy and the emerging “modern woman” (“Madrid” 52). In fact, some of her antics and costumes – throughout her life – rivaled those of Dali’s in terms of “surreality,” absurdity, and scandal.


Maruja Mallo. Image via http://www.rtve.es


Mallo covered in seaweed (1945)

Today Mallo’s artwork is on display across Spain, in Paris, and in New York. Madrid’s Reina Sofia Museum houses “La verbena” (The Carnival, or The Street Fair), which is one of a four-part series of oil paintings exhibited in 1928 that was dedicated to capturing the chaotic, surreal, and often subversive atmosphere of Madrid’s open-air festivals. In this post I will discuss these four colorful paintings, particularly with regards to they way in which they defy the expectations and logic of Mallo’s contemporary Spanish society while exposing a multiplicity of sensations and perspectives on topics such as social class, religion, and the female form. I’ll draw much of my commentary from Shirley Mangini’s  chapter published in the aforementioned Modernism and the Avant-garde Body in Spain and Italy, entitled “The Gendered Body Politic of Maruja Mallo” (pp. 151-173). Importantly, Mallo’s Verbena scenes contain subtle – and sometimes not-so-subtle – sociocultural criticism and satire. These transgressive elements were key components not only of Mallo’s artistic production and the Avant-garde in general, but of her notoriously iconoclastic personality that shattered taboos and challenged the validity of traditional beliefs, values, and practices. Below is the first Verbena, painted in 1927:

Verbena-1927_Reina sofia

La Verbena (1927). [Image via Reina Sofia Museum, http://www.museoreinasofia.es/coleccion/obra/verbena%5D

While this rendition of an urban street fair features many familiar components, Mangini notes that the central focus of this painting is clearly two strong female figures: “young, muscular women in tennis dresses, obviously representing Mallo and her athletic friend, Concha Méndez, who was a competitive swimmer. Although their masquerade includes wings and halo-like party hats, their extroverted behavior, unladylike stances, and rowdiness defy these angelic artifacts,” yet their tennis attire suggests an upper-class affiliation  (“The Gendered Body” 159). Mangini’s chapter focuses on Mallo’s depiction of the female body – specifically, on her tendency to represent women as active subjects that defy the male gaze, rather than as passive subjects or muses merely admired for their beauty and sexuality. Mallo’s unique female representation expresses the freedom and autonomy that she believed women deserved – but that was often denied them – as these qualities would enable them to challenge tradition and defy patriarchal law (159). In fact, one of Mallo’s most famous paintings, “Mujer con cabra” [“Woman with goat”], created in 1929, suggests this same tendency towards female liberation in the public sphere.

mujer cabra_El pais

“Mujer con cabra” [Woman with goat] by Maruja Mallo, 1929. Image via http://www.elpais.es

In a second Verbana (below), social class is apparent in the foreground of the painting. The upper-class couple seated on the right is juxtaposed with a working-class couple in costume seated at a table drinking on the left. The bourgeois couple appears stiff, smug, and bored, while their counterparts seem to be more relaxed, enjoying themselves at this particular event (Mangini, “The Gendered Body” 159). Mangini includes a quote from Maruja Mallo in which the artist explains the subversive natures of the Verbenas, or Carnivals more generally: “That is how the parties and popular fairs were… Irreverence and grace, sarcasm and the creation of a society that ascends and confronts a dominating society, converting it and representing it in a world of ghosts and puppets” (150). For Mangini, Mallo’s juxtaposition of the working and privileged classes suggests that “Spanish politics would soon be changing, that the unruly working class […] would soon dominate the public sphere” (“The Gendered Body” 159-60).

"Verbena" (Street fair), 1928. Image via Curiator

Verbena (Street fair), 1928. Image via Curiator

In Mallo’s “Verbena de Pascua” (Christmas Carnival) (below), two rather large women are again front and center, though this time they are not the focal point of the painting. Nevertheless, Mangini notes that their movements and appearance defy social mores, as their “corpulent female bodies prominently fill the space with their ungainly strides and short dresses” (159).  Their dresses – a bit short for the time – imply that they are maids or servants, thus further placing their liberated public behavior at odds with the expectations of their subservient duties within a private space. The reversal, rejection, or interruption of traditional hierarchical structures, order, and law are key concepts of Carnaval, as Mikhail Bakhtin has pointed out. Curiously, Mallo’s Verbenas visually depict these same notions before they were popularized by Bakhtin, and both Mangini and Urioste point out that Mallo’s paintings are perfect pictorial representations of “el mundo al revés,” or “the world turned upside down”. With law and order suspended in Mallo’s worlds, all social classes and age groups share one public space; opposing concepts of the religious and the profane, high and low culture, and the exceptional and the insignificant coexist, and a parodic new image of contemporary society results (Urioste 205).

Verbena Pascua_LeerEs

Verbena de Pascua (Christmas Carnival), 1929. Image via http://www.leer.es

A fourth festival painting, Verbena Kermesse (below), features a celebration specifically associated with the Church. This particular brightly colored, chaotic atmosphere with a religious basis serves as an excellent illustration of Mallo’s fascination with open-air festivities. Mangini quotes and translates her explanation from Lo popular en la plástica española a través de mi obra (1928-36): “They are a pagan revelation and they express discord with the existing order… On these commemorative dates the street crowds meet. The masses take mythology and the saints as a pretext to enjoy themselves collectively. They feel no veneration for the church whatsoever; rather, they parody celestial order and the demonic hierarchies, masquerading with the elements and attributes of the divine and satanic beings” (158). From this commentary, we might assume that the entire social structure – not  merely the dominant Church-State institutions or upper classes – become the objects of Mallo’s subtle critique.


Verbena Kermesse (Street Fair in celebration of Church founding), 1929. Image via Alamy

Finally, Fernandez Utrera discusses the possible influence of Salvador Dalí‘s earlier, 1923 rendition of a Spanish Street fair near his rural village of Figueres (Catalonia) – a stark contrast to urban Madrid. While both Mallo’s and Dalí‘s paintings include typical festival attractions like circus performers, games, giant puppets and masqueraders, Fernandez Utrera argues tht the depiction of the “masses”, or the pueblo, is distinct in these artists’ paintings. In Dalí‘s Ferias de la Santa Cruz de Figueres (Santa Cruz Street Fairs in Figueres) (below), individual attendees become lost among the masses, and this homogeneous pueblo occupying nearly three fourths of the painting’s space – appears in opposition to the marginal circus performers (96). In Mallo’s Verbanas, however, Fernandez Utrera argues that the crowds, the general populace, actually disappears behind the exaggerated, parodic representations of “Official Spain”, and thus becomes secondary within, if not eliminated from, the world Mallo creates (96). In this sense, Fernandez Utrera challenges the so-called subversive nature of Mallo’s Avant-garde Verbenas by suggesting that her position as an artist-intellectual (minority) prevents her from adequately representing the vast majority of the Spanish populace.

Dali-Feria Santa Cruz-1922_SalvadorDaliOrg

Ferias de la Santa Cruz de Figueres (Santa Cruz Street Fairs in Figueres) by Salvador Dali, 1922. Image via http://www.salvador-dali.org

Regardless of the explicit or implicit social critiques of these festival paintings, a comparison of Dalí’s and Mallo’s interpretations provides opportunities for ample discussions on gender, social class, and tradition in the context of Spanish modernity. They would be excellent visuals to use in conjunction with early twentieth-century urban literature from Ramon Gomez de la Serna or Carmen de Burgos, for example. I’m planing to dedicate several upcoming posts to Maruja Mallo and other female writers and artists who are often overlooked or forgotten when it comes to the Avant-garde, or the Spanish vanguardia, and the subsequent Generation of 27. Stay tuned…

What are your favorite paintings or literary texts from the early 20th century Avant-garde movements?


Fernandez Utrera, Maria Soledad. “Esencia de verbena: sabor popular y estética de minorías en la pintura de Maruja Mallo.” Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispanicos 28.1 (2003): 87-102.  JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27763905

Mangini, Shirley. “The Gendered Body Politic of Maruja Mallo.” Modernism and the Avant-Garde Body in Spain and Italy. New York: Routledge, 2016.

Mangini, Shirley. “Madrid es un Cabaret y Maruja Mallo la protagonista.” Lectures du genre. Numero 11: Genre et caberet: les loisirs nocturnes du corps (2013): 52-65. PDF: http://www.lecturesdugenre.fr/Lectures_du_genre_numero_11/Contenus_files/5.MANGINI.pdf. (Index, Numero 11: http://www.lecturesdugenre.fr/Lectures_du_genre_numero_11/Contenus.html).

Mangini, Shirley. Maruja Mallo and the Spanish Avant-Garde. Farnham, Surrey, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010.

Urioste, Carmen. “Violencia discursiva y género: El caso de Maruja Mallo.” Homenaje a la Profesora L. Teresa Valdivieso: Ensayos críticos. Newark, DE: Juan de la Cuesta, 2008. p. 197-209.

























Posted in Art, Spain, Surrealism, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Summer in Mexico: Monuments, Murals, and Mole, oh my!

It’s summer vacation! My third since starting this blog…  And while the past two summers I traveled to Spain primarily for professional reasons (to present at conferences), I also made sure to plan my trips to include some vacation time. In 2014 I spent time living in Madrid, blogging and exploring the Prado for several weeks before presenting on Almodovar’s La piel que habito in Santiago de Compostela. I concluded the trip by visiting a friend in Oviedo, which marked my first visit to Asturias. Last year (2015) I attended a conference on Spanish cinema in Salamanca where I presented on Las trece rosas, then traveled to Granada to visit a friend before ending the trip in my favorite city, Madrid. This year, however, I had planned a trip to Mexico for purely “recreational” purposes – no conferences, no workshops, and no research! I almost didn’t take my laptop. Since I don’t have a research paper to share this year, I thought I’d post a few pictures from my trip that relate to topics about which I have previously taught and/or blogged.

First, I picked up this fabulous poster (below) that I plan to frame and hang up in my office – Mapa artístico, turístico y cultural de la Gran República de México, designed by Jorge Escudero de Sybaris. I love the details that depict the cultural diversity and vast geographic scale of a country many students in the US, unfortunately, associate with violence, drug trafficking, and [“illegal”] immigration. If you visit Mexico City in the near future, you should be able to purchase one from one of the many kiosks selling magazines, postcards, and – my favorite – individual cigarettes. You can also order a similar poster-map here from Porrua for MX $100 pesos (or about US $5.00), plus shipping. The second image below is a more detailed look at the imagery, including prominent geographical features, states and cities, famous historical events and figures, and regional products and dress.

mapa de mexico_escudero

Image via Porrua.com.

Details: Mapa artístico, turístico y cultural de la Gran República de México, by Jorge Escudero de Sybaris. Image mine.

Secondly, I was looking forward to visiting Mexico City’s Palacio Nacional again, specifically to see Diego Rivera’s murals. The construction of the Palace began in 1692 on the site of Moctezuma II’s “new” palace, and the building later became the site of Hernán Cortez’s home and the residences of colonial viceroys. I highly recommend taking the time to see the palace and Rivera’s murals – the structure borders the central Zócalo and admission is free; just make sure to bring your passport or government issued ID to enter. If you are new to Mexican history and Rivera’s murals, I highly recommend paying for a guided tour so that you can better appreciate the historical significance and the complexity of these representations of Mexican cultural history. Unfortunately, on my visit the massive, central mural surrounding the staircase (a triptych containing three panels: “Class Struggle” [left], “The History of Mexico” [center], and “The Legend of Quetzalcoatl” [right]) was undergoing restoration. I was still able to get a nice view of the masterpiece from the second level – but as you can see, my photograph leaves much to be desired. #Fail.

My disappointing photo of Rivera’s three-part staircase mural, including the central “The History of Mexico”, undergoing restoration work.

The above Getty image shows the left portion (“Class Struggle”) and the central pane (“The History of Mexico”). The YouTube video below does a nice job of describing the different sections of this mural and many of the smaller murals lining the Palace’s upstairs hallway. Additionally, this website provides a detailed but brief introduction to all the murals by Diego Rivera that adorn the interior walls of the Palacio Nacional.

Crossing the Zócalo, directly across from the Palacio Nacional, gold and silver shops line the plaza and surrounding streets. In these stores you can purchase (or sell) all sorts of gold and silver jewelry, chains, watches, etc. Among the religious pendants of crucifixes and the Virgin of Guadalupe, I was struck by several flashy gold representations of “Santa Muerte”. I’ve written on my blog about Santa Muerte as a controversial folk saint of death, so these particular pieces fascinated me. The first one below is holding the scales of justice, in addition to the death scythe and a rather large, “diamond”-studded semi-automatic weapon. There were four different varieties of Santa Muerte for sale at this particular store, and they retailed for 600 pesos, or about US $33.00. As I type this and caption my pictures, I’m starting to regret  not purchasing one… (some pricey ones are available on Amazon).

Four different versions of “Santa Muerte” to go with any ensemble. Image mine.

During our first full day in Mexico City, we walked about 3 miles from the historic center down the Paseo de la Reforma to the Castillo de Chapultapec (Chapultapec Castle). The Castle is surrounded by a large park (Bosque de Chapultapec) and sits on a hill, offering beautiful views of the city in any direction. Each time I visit Chapultapec I think about Rodolfo Usigli’s play, Corona de sombra, which I have taught in introduction to Hispanic literature courses. If I have the opportunity to take students to Mexico in the future, I’d love to design a course on Mexican history that would include this literary text, combined with a visit to Chapultapec, as a means of approaching 19th-20th century Mexican history in Mexico City from the unique “anti-historical” perspective Usigli’s drama offers.

View of Mexico City from Chapultapec Palace. Image mine.

Inside the palace are several amazing murals by renowned Mexican muralists David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco — Photographer Margaret Metcalfe has a wonderful site with beautiful photographs of these Chapultapec murals. However, Gabriel Flores Garcia –  who is much less ‘famous’ than Orozco, Siqueiros, and Rivera – painted the mural that boasts the most dramatic placement on the ceiling above the main stairwell. This mural is dedicated to six young cadets – teenage soldiers between the ages of 14-19  referred to as Los niños héroes – who died defending Mexico City in a battle against the US during the Mexican-American war in 1847.

Chapultapec Castle’s impressive stairwell. A portion of Gabriel Flores Garcia’s ceiling-mural honoring the Heroic Boy Soldiers (Los niños héroes) who died defending Mexico City in 1847 is above; to the left is a portion of Orozco’s mural of the Mexican Revolution. Image mine.

On our second day in Mexico City we decided to visit the pyramids at Teotihuacan, about a 45 minute bus trip outside the city. We ended up taking a tour that included several stops – first, the Plaza de las tres culturas (Three Cultures Plaza), then the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and finally Teotihuacan. There are many places in Mexico City offering such guided tours and they tend to cost between US $25-50, plus tips. We took a tour offered through the youth hostel off the Zócalo, just behind the Cathedral (Mexico City Hostel).


Plaza de las tres culturas. Here are the remains of an Aztec temple (pre-Colombian culture), a Spanish church (Spanish colonial era), and large modern housing complexes surrounding the square (independent ‘mestizo’ nation). Image mine.


Entering Teotihuacan – view of the Pyramid of the Sun. Image mine.

Archaeologists date the origins of the ancient city of Teotihuacan, located about 30 miles outside of Mexico City, to somewhere between the 1st and 7th centuries A.D. The city owes its Nahuatl name – meaning “Place of the Gods” – to the Aztecs, who came upon the abandoned city and its impressive structures in the 14th century. The original Mesoamerican city was an immense urban center, thought to have contained a multi-ethnic population of about 200,000 at its peak (375-500 A.D.). However, archaeologist are still uncertain as to the precise civilization that actually built the city. Regardless, the city’s art, architecture, and religion would influence  all subsequent Mesoamerican cultures, especially the Aztec Empire. Today, the ancient urban center is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites, and it is a must-see if you visit central Mexico. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest pyramid in the world, at 75 meters, or 245 feet high (although, this is only slightly over half the height of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, which is over 140 meters tall). The smaller Pyramid of the Moon is about 43 meters, or 141 feet tall, and the two structures are connected by a wide boulevard known as the Avenue of the Dead. I’m linking to two websites that provide excellent information about the Teotihuacan and its history: Aztec-History.com and The Ancient History Encyclopedia. I used images of Teotihuacan when teaching Julio Cortázar’s “La noche boca arriba,” a short story in which the Aztec practice of human sacrifice atop stone temples features prominently.


View of the Pyramid of the Moon from inside the city ‘streets’. Image mine.


Close-up view of the Pyramid of the Moon from the top of the Pyramid of the Sun. Image mine.


Awkward academics celebrating from the top of the Pyramid of the Sun – after climbing up 283 quite irregular stone steps! View of the Pyramid of the Moon and the “Avenue of the Dead” behind us. Image mine.

And last but certainly not least….I was able to eat so much MOLE!!!! The sheer variety of mole created in Mexico is astounding, and every restaurant has a different recipe. Below is  my meal from “La casa de las enchiladas,” where you can build your own enchiladas – just pick the tortilla, filling, sauce, and toppings. My three chicken enchiladas, wrapped in blue corn tortillas, were topped with Mole Poblano, Mole Verde, and salsa Encacahuatada, which is a mild chile and peanut sauce. All three enchiladas are topped with onions, cilantro, Oaxacan cheese, and sesame seeds. Combined with a Michelada after our long walk to and through Chapultapec, this was one of my favorite meals in Mexico City.

Lunch from La casa de las enchiladas. Image mine.

Now that I’ve managed some productive procrastination, I suppose it’s time to get back to work planning this weeks’ classes and assignments for my summer literature course.

Have you traveled to Mexico City with students (study abroad), for a conference or workshop, or simply for fun? What are some of your favorite places?
































Posted in Art, History | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Discovering “The Soul of Spain”… in Kansas!

Since my hectic, teaching-heavy spring semester is finally over, I now have some time to start easing back into a few of my research projects. But first, of course, I needed some time to relax and not think about anything related to academia – or so I thought. It happens that whenever I have the time to do something seemingly unrelated to academic work, it ends up transforming into an entirely new type of learning and research.  Last week I stopped in to look around The Dusty Bookshelf here in Aggieville (Manhattan, KS), and I ended up finding quite the gem to add to my book collection – The Soul of Spain, written in 1908 by [Henry] Havelock Ellis, an English physician, sexologist, essayist, and progressive intellectual.  This particular book caught my attention not simply because it dealt with early 20th century Spain, but because I had read about Havelock Ellis and his research, specifically his significant influence on and connections to several Spanish intellectuals at this time who were involved with research on human sexuality and sexual reforms.  The book I purchased – for only $7.00 –  is a later edition, published in 1937. It also includes 12 illustrations (absent from the original and earlier editions) and Ellis’ new Introduction, in which he reflects on his numerous visits to Spain and on the early stages of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Towards the end of this post I have included a sample of the images and vintage photographs found in the book.

Havelock Ellis cph.3b08675.jpg

Henry Havelock Ellis (1912). Image via Wikipedia.

Soul of Spain

My instagram-worthy $7.00 purchase









Before I discuss The Soul of Spain, it’s worth mentioning a few key details about Havelock Ellis’ life and career. In turn of the century England, his work challenged traditional taboos surrounding sexuality, and he examined topics such as homosexuality, masturbation, the physiology of sexual behavior, and eugenics. He was also one of the first physicians to study transgender phenomena, and his work was quite controversial. His 1897 essay on homosexuality (which he termed “sexual inversion”) was banned in England for being obscene. Nevertheless, in the early 20th century, his research found a ready audience when Spanish translations arrived in the peninsula (Zubiaurre). For example, the young Spanish prodigy Hildegart Rodríguez corresponded with Ellis regarding his research on human sexual behavior and eugenics, and she advocated many of his theories on sexual reform in her essays and public lectures (see Sinclair for the letters between Ellis and Rodríguez; see my posts on the life and death of 17-year-old Hildegart here and here).  The fact that Spanish intellectuals read and engaged with Ellis’ research was perhaps an additional quality that drove the physician to further explore a land and a people that he found “singularly fascinating” (Ellis vi).

So… I wondered, what exactly does a controversial British sexologist write about when he sets out to capture the “soul of Spain” in the early 1900s? Curiously, the New York Times gave The Soul of Spain a glowing review in 1908, calling it “a book which clears away many delusions regarding an enigmatical land and people” and “one of the best and most enlightening books on Spain and the Spaniards that have ever appeared”. A quick glance at the Table of Contents reveals the most obvious objects of Ellis’ largely observational study:

La marquesa de las Mercedes - Francisco De Goya y Lucientes - www.franciscodegoya.net

“La marquesa de las Mercedes”, Francisco de Goya (1746-1828)

1. Introduction
2. The Spanish People
3. The Women of Spain
4. The Art of Spain
5. Velázquez
6. Spanish Dancing
7. Ramón Lull at Palma
8. ‘Don Quixote’
9. Juan Valera
10. Santa María del Mar
11. The Gardens of Granada
12. Segovia
13. Seville in Spring
14. Seville Cathedral
15. Monserrat
16. Spanish Ideals of To-day

This list includes many of the most “classic” themes associated with Spanish Culture, as anyone who has ever taught an introductory or survey course on the topic can attest – Don Quixote and Cervantes, Velázquez, the cities and architecture of Andalucía. But what caught my attention immediately is the fact that Ellis devotes two chapters to the Spanish population: one to the Spanish People and another to the Women of Spain. Were women not people in 1908?!? (Wait, don’t answer that…) In his defense, though, Ellis does also set Velázquez off in his own chapter instead of discussing the renowned painter in the section on  Spanish Art, which might actually be considered complimentary. In any case, I want to discuss a bit more of what I read in the chapter on Spanish women, since it most closely relates to my general research focus on gender and women’s representations.

This chapter dedicated to Spanish women is preceded by a late 18th-century painting by Francisco de Goya (above), La marquesa de las Mercedes. This is a fitting illustration, as Goya and other Spanish artists “created an image of the native woman that projected an Iberian ‘authenticity’” (Zanardi n.p.). Moreover, a woman’s dress was often the primary means by which Goya conveyed her particularly Spanish persona (Zanardi). In his search for the “Soul of Spain”, Ellis also focuses his observations on the Spanish woman’s appearance – both her physical beauty and her wardrobe. As he notes, “The distinguished qualities of Spanish women can scarcely be questioned. Their beauty and grace are a theme for rhapsody to every tourist” (65). He begins the chapter with through descriptions of the beautiful Spanish women in traditional dress who populate the city of Sevilla during the annual Feria de Sevilla (65-69). Ellis emphasizes her hair, adorned with combs and flowers, as well as her mantilla (lace shawl), folded and worn in an oblong (not triangular) shape. His praise of the Spanish woman’s distinctly feminine beauty is expressed in terms of her difference from other European women, notably the “fashionable” French women of Paris: “…for a Spanish woman in a Parisian costume is nearly always badly dressed, while in her native costume her distinction is perfect” (66). He goes on to “eloquently” describe the entire ensemble as “a kind of coquettish war-paint, the appanage of youth and vigour” (67). Below is an image of modern Spanish women donning this traditional attire for 2016’s Feria de Sevilla.

It is in this chapter on women that I found Ellis’ interest and expertise in modern eugenics to be most evident in his discourse, as words and phrases such as “better-bred,” “racial Iberian trait, “dignified, silent, and intense race” appear on nearly every page. While such vocabulary is evident in many parts of the book, it is especially prominent here as he details Spanish women’s “interesting peculiarities” – their stature, the shape of their chests and breast (including a footnote on nipple size!), the curvature of her spine, the manner in which she walks, her face, complexion, nose, and mouth – in over 15 pages (69-84)! His male gaze was clearly working overtime during his visits to Spain, as he provides no such meticulous physical descriptions of Spanish men… I  mean, Spanish people.

Below are a few of the most notable quotes regarding “the soul of Spain” as Ellis perceives it in Spanish women – I’ve divided them into six general categories:

(1) Regarding the “heightened” curves of the Spanish woman’s spine (what he terms an “Iberian saddle-back”) and the way they impact her movement:  “This gait… is the erect dignified carriage, with restrained movement, of a priestess who is bearing the sacred vessels. At the same time, the walk of Spanish women, while not lacking in proud human dignity, has in it something of the gracious quality of a feline animal, whose whole body is alive and in restrained movement, yet without any restless or meaningless excess of movement” (72-73).


In this image, film star Gene Tierney (c. 1946) is shown posed as the notorious 19th century Irish cabaret dancer Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, Countess of Landsfeld, who reinvented herself and her history under the stage name Lola Montez. Tierney plays up the coquettish spirit for which the “Spanish Dancer” was known, thus illustrating the most performative aspects of physical feminine beauty on which Ellis focuses in his book. Image via Grapefruit Moon Gallery: http://grapefruitmoongallery.com/20269

(2)  Regarding her face: “The face varies greatly in outline… the lower part of the face, though often as beautiful as could be desired, is the part  most liable to be unsatisfactory; it may become somewhat coarse and thick. The nose also is sometimes defective” (73-74).

(3) Her hair: “The hair, again, thought sometimes considered a special beauty of the Spanish woman, does not, to me at least, stand in the first rank of her charms; it is not comparable, for instance, to the beautiful and abundant hair which one sees so often among Polish women in the streets of Warsaw” (74).

(4) Her eyes:  “It is usual to say that the Spanish woman’s eyes are large and black, sometimes, it is added, and bold… but it is by no beans the ‘black’ eye which is in chief honour. The black eye is plebeian, and it is usually associated with a plebeian style of beauty. The Spaniard, whatever region of the country he belongs to, has nearly always admired the ‘mixed’ eye, that of medium pigmentation… green. Calderon, it is true, associated black eyes with beauty, but in the Celestina green eyes with long lashes are one of the chief markers of supreme beauty…” (74-76). Ellis goes on to cite Don Quixote’s description of Dulcinea’s eyes as “green emeralds”, and similar references in the the literature of Juan Valera and Vicente Blasco Ibañez. In fact, throughout the book he uses literary references to buttress his observational claims, demonstrating his familiarity with Spanish literary and cultural history. In the chapter on women, he impressively references Calderón, Lope de Vega, Cervantes, La Celestina), Franciso Delicado, Santa Teresa (St. Theresa), Valera, Blasco Ibañez, Concepción Arenal, Emilia Pardo Bazán, and Benito Pérez Galdós .

mujeres del quijote

Image via Casa del Libro

(5) Regarding women’s complexion, Ellis again employs literature to support his claim that “the Spanish skin is the most perfect in Europe, and there is no need to hide it, as was once the Spanish custom, by rouge, and now by the unpleasant use of powder” (76). He continues: “There is a quality about the skin of a beautiful Spanish woman which always instinctively suggests… the quality of the finest and most exquisitely wrought metals. This had not escaped Cervantes. ‘Senor Don Quixote,’ asked the duenna, ‘ have you observed the comeliness of my lady the Duchess, that smooth complexion of hers like a burnished polished sword?'” (77).

(6) Finally, Ellis observes the Spanish woman’s general attitude towards men: “[Her] manner towards a man, gracious as it may be, is always cool and self-possessed… All the old Spanish traditions show that the women of this race required much wooing; a certain chastity corresponding to their extreme sobriety seems to lie in the temperament of the people. This proud reticence, the absence of any easy erethic response to masculine advances, is the probable source of that erotic superiority of women, the sexual subjection of men, which has often been noted as characteristic of Spain, and is indeed symbolised in the profound Spanish adoration for the Virgin Mary. It is probably very primitive” (83-84).

This connection of Spanish womanhood to the Virgin Mary is a perfect place to continue including images from The Soul of Spain – starting with Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s “Madonna and Child (1638), a prime example of Spanish Baroque painting.  In his discussion of Spanish art, Ellis suggests that Murillo was “once counted as more than the peer of Velázquez, [but] has fallen from his high estate in critical estimation… Murillo was lacking in original force… He was an artist of feminine and receptive temperament, a realist indeed, but with no virile force, inapt to express the vigorous dramatic qualities which most natively find expression in Spanish art” (125).

Madonna and Child_Murillo-wikiart

“Madonna and Child” by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1638). Image via Wikiart.

In the above quote on Murillo’s “feminine” temperament that lacked “virile force”, we can clearly see the way in which Ellis genders the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the Spanish people, whether discussing talented Spanish artists of the past or ordinary citizens of his present-day. Feminine traits are associated with weakness and deference; masculine traits with strength and authority. Yet paradoxically, Ellis justifies his dedication of an entire chapter to Spanish women as a consequence of their superiority to men: “The Spaniards, if we take their history as a whole, have been a peculiarly virile people, yet at the present day one is tempted to think that the women of Spain are on the average superior to the men” (61).  He notes three causes of this purported “depletion of manhood” in Spain, or three factors that have “tended to crush Spain’s manhood”: centuries of war, the Inquisition, and the vast colonial empire (64). War, he declares, eliminated the most energetic and virile soldiers; the Inquisition the most intellectual thinkers; and the colonial empire the most entrepreneurial spirits.

Overall, The Soul of Spain is a fascinating read for (1) the elements of its discourse that today seem rather antiquated (i.e., racist, sexist, and classist!) and (2) for the manner in which a physician/scientist is so willing to engage with art, literature, and cultural history. The 1908 New York Times review highlighted the cross-disciplinary nature of the resulting study, referring to Ellis as “that rare combination, a scientist who is also a poet”.  Below, I’ve included a sample of the images that appear in the 1937 edition of the text.  The first image included in the book is the Frontispiece, a black and white photograph of a dramatic mural painted by American artist John Singer Sargent in 1882 – “El jaleo. I was not familiar with this painting or artist, so it was a welcome discovery.


“El jaleo” (1882), by American artist John Singer Sargent. Image via wikipedia.

“Jaleo” is the name of a popular Andalusian dance, Jaleo de Jerez, and the word itself can be translated as “boisterous amusement or fun,” or “din, commotion, ruckus.” The full color images available online today are stunning, and the stark contrasts between the light and dark make Sargent’s depiction of the Spanish gitano  (gypsy) dancers especially compelling. At 12-feet wide, the large scale of the mural was meant to suggest a “stage” to the viewer, thus emphasizing the performative aspect – the theatricality –  inherent in the Spanish Gypsy’s dancing (see wikipedia for a fairly detailed analysis).

Segovia-alcazar For two images, I was actually able to find digital copies of the identical photographs  in the book, which seem to date from the 1920s.

To the left is an image of the Alcázar (Castle) at Segovia, a small, medieval town about an hour northwest of Madrid. Ellis poetically describes it as a “‘dead city,’ still serenely sleeping, in a dream of which the spell has been broken neither by… the tourist crowd, nor… commercial activity, nor by any native anxiety for self-exploitation. How deeply Segovia sleeps…” (322).

Below is a photograph of the great Cathedral in Sevilla/Seville, which Ellis affirms is “the largest of all Gothic churches, and indeed, after St. Peter’s at Rome, the largest church in Christendom” (355).


Now that I’ve spent some time reading through The Soul of Spain, I’m anxious to get back to work on an article dealing with print literature in early 20th-century Madrid. I also want to make time to visit The Dusty Bookshelf more frequently, as their inventory is constantly changing and I’ve been impressed with what I have found so far.

What vintage books have you found in libraries or local bookstores? Have you come across any unusual discoveries?



Ellis, [Henry] Havelock. The Soul of Spain(New Edition with an Introductory Essay on the Spanish Civil War). Boston: Houghton Mifflin [The Riverside Press, Cambridge], 1937.
Online version of first edition via Hathi Trust Digital Library (and the University of Michigan) – this edition does not contain illustrations: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015011927384;view=1up;seq=19

Review: Havelock Ellis’s Soul of Spain.New York Times. 9 May 1908.
Online via New York Times TimesMachine: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9504E0D81F3CE333A2575AC0A9639C946997D6CF

Sinclair, Alison. Sex and Society in Early Twentieth-Century Spain. Hildegart Rodriguez and the World League of Sexual Reform. Cardiff: U of Wales P, 2007.

Zanardi, Tara.Framing Majismo: Art and Royal Identity in Eighteenth-Century Spain.” University Park: Penn State U P, 2016. Google Books preview here.

Zubiaurre, Maite. Cultures of the Erotic in Spain, 1898-1939. Nashville: Vanderbilt U P, 2012.
—. A Virtual Wunderkammer. Early Twentieth Century Erotica in Spain. Companion site with image gallery and PDFs of Spanish essays from the 1920s-30s: http://sicalipsis.humnet.ucla.edu/
(See my post on this book and its “Virtual Wunderkammar” here).




Posted in Art, History, Literature, Spain, Women | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Photography and the Chromatic Language of Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban

With the Obamas’ recent trip to Cuba (March 2016), the Caribbean island has been appearing frequently across social media and in a variety of US news outlets – from the New York Times to Buzzfeed. National Geographic featured a piece on How Tourism Will Change Cuba; TeleSur aimed to reveal the hypocrisy of the United States with regards to human rights abuses in Cuba; and even Buzzfeed capitalized on the president’s visit to provide readers with an 11-item listicle (of course) on What to Know Before Planning Your Trip To Cuba… a list that includes the pearl of wisdom:  “10. The Food is Very Fresh” (seriously). But the most powerful pieces are often photographic series aiming to provide glimpses into the “real” lives of the Cuban people; to capture the beauty and intrigue associated with the stark contrasts of modern(izing) Cuban life. For example, a series from the New York Times, Cuba on the Edge of Change, presents Cuba asa land of endless waiting and palpable erosion.” The short introduction to the New York Times series goes on to emphasize the contrasts of the isolated island, seemingly abandoned by the world amidst the continued passage of time:

“Cuba at times can feel like a nation abandoned. The aching disrepair of its cities, the untamed foliage of its countryside, the orphaned coastlines — a half-century of isolation has wrapped the country in decay. Yet few places in the world brim with as much life as Cuba, a contrast drawn sharper amid its faded grandeur.”

The flurry of all-things-Cuba in my Twitter feed over the past few weeks gave me the extra push I needed to read Cristina García’s novel, Dreaming in Cuban, which had been on my list for quite some time. With a conveniently timed Spring Break and recommendations from two of my former students at K-State (who had coincidentally *just* read the book in their Latino Literature course), I had several reasons to read something “for fun” as I traveled to give a talk and visit friends and family over the break. Since a large portion of my research interests lie within the realms of women’s literature, the literary and cinematic representations of motherhood, and (women’s) inter-generational relationships, I was hoping this book might fit well in a future transatlantic Hispanic women’s literature class. I’ve written before about incorporating Latino Literature into traditional Hispanic Literature courses, and I plan to continue expanding my knowledge and familiarity with the vast, diverse body of work produced by Latino writers.

Dreaming in Cuban traces the lives of three generations of the Puente family and, in the process, explores the strain and aftermath of leaving Cuba, beginning a new life in the United States, and what happens to those left behind. The novel’s chapters are narrated by or focalized through different family members and the story crosses both geographical  (New York City, Miami, Cuba) and temporal (1930s-1970s) spaces. The majority of the chapters feature an omniscient third-person narrator, but the younger generation of grandchildren represented by Pilar, Ivanito, and Luz present their experiences and observations in a more personal, first-person narration. García’s shifting narrative allows her to present a complex, kaleidoscopic image of the Puente family and their relationship to Cuba – to the island’s culture politics, and history.

The matriarch of the Puente family is Abuela Celia, who has never left Cuba. She and her husband Jorge had three children – Lourdes, Felicia, and Jorge.  Lourdes, her husband Rufino, and their daughter Pilar live in New York City; Felicia and her three children – twins Luz and Milagro, and son, Ivanito – remained in Cuba; and Jorge married in Europe, then settled there with his wife and young daughter. García provides a family tree (below) at the onset of the novel, which is an extremely useful reference to help familiarize readers with the characters. Many critics suggest that Celia’s granddaughter, Pilar, is the  protagonist of the novel, given that she provides readers with a first-person account of her experience as a first-generation Cuban-American growing up in New York City (thus providing several autobiographical links to García, the author). However, in her article on trauma and exile in the novel, Inger Pettersson argues that Lourdes is the true protagonist of the novel: “Without Lourdes, Dreaming in Cuban would not be about representing differences, with the possibility of understanding them. Without Lourdes, there might be nothing more than dreaming” (60). Pettersson highlights the different subjective experiences of Cuban immigrants and exiles to the United States, which is particularly relevant to Lourdes and her husband Rufino (54-55). Lourdes considers herself an immigrant to the United States, pursuing and American Dream that would have been impossible in Castro’s Cuba; Rufino, on the contrary, feels that he has been exiled from his homeland. The novel explores this complicated relationship to national identity by following various characters in Cuba, Miami, and New York, between 1959-1980.

Dreaming in Cuban_Family tree

The Puente family tree ( from Dreaming in Cuban)

Rocío Davis’s article, “Back to the Future: Mothers, Languages, and Homes in Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban, further explores the way in which language and mother-daughter bonds serve to (re)connect and/or sever the connections to one’s home, family, and history. For Davis, “the question of language and exile metaphorically dramatizes the mother-daughter relationships… [and] García turns to family, language, and motherland to develop and analyze sources of personal identity and creative expression” (67). I appreciated Davis’s analysis of the mother-daughter and mother-son relationships, however she does not delve deeper into the implications of this female-centered transmission of culture and identity and how it compares to that which occurs in the traditional patriarchal family. For example, the absence of traditional father-son relationships and the dysfunctional, even debilitating nature of the mother-son relationships presented (Celia-Jorge; Abuelo Jorge and his mother; Felicia-Ivanito) suggests a broader critique of patriarchal customs and social organization. I’m planning to explore this topic further, as I have only begun to read the (many!) critical articles written on this novel.

While these themes of mother-daughter relationships, national identity, and language are present throughout the novel, another aspect that caught my attention was the way in which García imbues her prose with extremely visual, chromatic language. Perhaps I noticed this as a result of having seen so many photos of Havana and Cuba (like the one above, from a website titled Besieged by Color in Havana) featuring the prismatic colors of antique automobiles and the vibrantly painted buildings that, even when weathered with age and neglect, nevertheless cast an artistic glow over the urban Caribbean landscape. Or perhaps it was because photographer Omar Robles’s Ballet Dancers Practicing in the Streets of Cuba had made numerous recent appearances on my Instagram and Facebook feeds. Regardless, I wanted to highlight some of Dreaming in Cuban‘s beautiful narrative descriptions and connect them to an image – perfect for the informal, visual nature of blogging! First, the description of Palmas Street repeatedly emphasizes the bright, perhaps unusually striking YELLOW paint:

“The driver turns left on Palmas Street with its matched rows of closely set two-story houses, all painted a flamboyant yellow. Last fall, the line at the hardware store snaked around the bock for the surplus paint, left over from a hospital project on the other side of Havana. Felicia bought the maximum amount allowed, eight gallons, and spent two Saturdays painting the house with borrowed brushes an ladders. “After all, she said, “you could die waiting for the right shade of blue” (García 38-39).

During my search for images, I came across photographer Michael Eastman’s series Colors of Cuba. Many of his images portray the decrepit, interior walls of Cuban homes or businesses through an intriguing monochromatic palette. Below are a few of his images, coupled with a sample of the novel’s prose.


from Colors of Cuba by Michael Eastman. Image via http://www.featureshoot.com/2011/02/qa-michael-eastman-st-louis-missouri/


“When Celia returns from the fields, she finds her daughter’s condition has declined. Felicia’s skin appears enameled in pinks like the wallpaper of Old Havana inns. The blue roses of her flannel nightgown adhere to her damp filth” (García 45).







In García’s novel, GREENS and BLUES are especially prominent – not entirely surprising for a story taking place in the Caribbean. While green is associated with the lush, tropical landscape of Cuba, it is also intrinsically connected to a sensation or psychology of instability, discontent, and madness. Such associations are made visible through the characterization of Celia’s second daughter, Felicia, who suffers from an apparent mental illness:

“Felicia del Pino doesn’t know what brings on her delusions. She knows only that suddenly she can hear things very vividly… The colors, too, escape their objects. The red floats above the carnations on her windowsill. The blues rise from the chipped tiles in the kitchen. Even the greens, her favorite shades of greens, flee from the trees and assault her with luminosity. Nothing is slid until she touches it” (García 75).


from Colors of Cuba by Michael Eastman. Image via http://trendland.com/colors-of-cuba-by-micheal-eastman/


from Colors of Cuba by Michael Eastman. Image via http://www.featureshoot.com/2011/02/qa-michael-eastman-st-louis-missouri/

“They play a game with colors as they walk. ‘Let’s speak in green,’ his mother says, and they talk about everything that makes them feel green. They do the same with blues and reds and yellows.” (García 84)

“Later, they passed colorful handkerchiefs over Felicia’s body, all the while grieving in low voices to purify her corpse. By the time they finished, the terrible lumps on Felicia’s head had disappeared, and her skin was as smooth as the pink linking of a conch. Here eyes, too, had regained their original green (García 214).


Towards the end of the novel, when Pilar and Lourdes finally return to Cuba to be with their grandmother and mother, Celia, blues begin to dominate the descriptions of the setting, the characters, and their moods. Blue was also a prominent color at the beginning of the novel, when Celia swims in the ocean with her clothes on and, in a sort of magical realist fashion, a blue light emanates from (Abuelo) Jorge’s hospital room in New York just after he dies. But the blues that end the novel contain an additional aesthetic dimension – their literary presence is accompanied with a pictorial counterpart, as art student Pilar paints a portrait of her Abuela Celia on the porch of her coastal Cuban home:

“I paint Abuela Celia just the way she wants – dancing flamenco with whirling red skirts and castanets and a tight satin bodice… Mostly, though, I paint her in blue. Until I returned to Cuba, I never realized how many blues exist. The aquamarines near the shoreline, the azures of deeper waters, the eggshell blues beneath my grandmother’s eyes, the fragile indigos tracking her hands. There’s a blue, too, in the curve of the palms, an the edges of the words we speak, a blue tinge to the sand and the seashells and the plump gulls on the beach. The mole by Abuela’s mouth is also blue, a vanishing blue”
(García 233).

For me, Pilar’s description of her grandmother’s blue-tinged portrait brings to mind the haunting, melancholic style of Picasso’s early twentieth-century Blue Period, especially when Abuela Celia questions her granddaughter as to why she looks “so unhappy” (García 233). It is interesting, then, that Dreaming in Cuban ends with such muted tones, especially after two-hundred pages of vibrant, and decidedly multicolored visuals of the people, places, and feelings associated with Cuban – and Cuban-American – identity.

Woman with Folded Arms (Picasso, 1901-02). Image via Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38983222.

Melancholy Woman (Picasso, 1902-03). Image via Wikipedia and The Detroit Museum of Art, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40528007













Have you read or taught Dreaming in Cuban? What other resources would you recommend for teaching courses on Cuba, Latino Literature, or Caribbean culture and history?



Davis, Rocío G. “Back to the Future: Mothers, Languages, and Homes in Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban.” World Literature Today 74.1  (2000): 60-68. [Article preview]

García, Cristina.  Dreaming in Cuban. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.

Pettersson, Inger. “Telling it to the Dead: Borderless Communication and Scars of Trauma in Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban.” Journal of Literary Studies 2 (2013): 44-61. [Abstract]






Posted in Art, Language, Literature, Spanish America, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Teaching Spanish America: From the Conquest to Contemporary Film

This semester at Kansas State I’m teaching a 500-level Spanish American Literature survey course, and I decided to experiment a bit with the way I structured the content. Survey-style courses are always challenging to design, given their vast scope — Spanish literature covers more than a millennium of texts produced in the Iberian peninsula; Spanish American literature covers well over 500 years and twenty countries spanning across two continents and the Caribbean.  For this course, rather than take a chronological approach to Spanish American literature like I did with Spanish literature last semester, I divided the course into four units: (1) Discourses of the Conquest, (2) Women’s Voices, (3) The Nation, Land, and People in Narrative, and  (4) 20th Century Poetry. The first four weeks have so far been dedicated to discussing the heterogeneity of Spanish America – in terms of culture, worldviews, and geography. I began the course on day one with Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres García’s inverted map of South America – “America invertida” (1943) –  which has proven to be an excellent visual and touchstone for the course thus far.

América invertida (1943), by Joaquín Torres García (Uruguay). Image via http://www.culturamas.es

After beginning the semester with selections of the Popol Vuh, nahuatl and quechua poetry, Christopher Columbus‘ letters, Bartolomé de Las Casas‘ chronicles, and Inca Garcilaso‘s “Commentaries,” I wanted students to understand the process of the Spanish Conquest and Colonization in terms of the lasting discourses they produced. After reading these varied texts, I assigned the 2010 film, También la lluvia (Even the Rain), hoping that the often difficult and seemingly antiquated texts of these early explorers would take on new relevance with a contemporary connection. I had seen this film a few years ago after it was released, and I thought it would be excellent for a Latin American Literature or culture course… whenever I might happen to teach one.  The entire film is available on Vimeo in Spanish, both with and without Spanish subtitles, which made it easy for my students to access it and view for homework. I have not found a free streaming version with English subtitles yet; the link below is to the version with Spanish subtitles.

The film is based on events that occurred in Bolivia between 1999-2000, and I wanted my class to understand the context of the events depicted before viewing the film. “The Water Wars”, or “La guerra de agua,” is the name given to the protests in Cochabomba, Bolivia’s third-largest city located high in the Andes mountains, after the takeover of the regional water supply by the San Francisco based Bechtel Corporation. The dramatic increase (300%) in water rates as a result of privatization sparked local protests that culminated in a civilian march of tens of thousands of citizens that led to violent confrontation with police. These “Water Wars” between this Bolivian city and the powerful Bechtel corporation are a feature of the 2002 Canadian documentary, The Corporationwhich explores the exploitation of human rights by powerful multinational corporations such as IBM, Coca-Cola, and Monsanto. Prior to their viewing the film, I required that my students conduct a brief search for information on the “guerra de agua” in Cochabomba, and I provided them with this 2002 Frontline article that details the events and their consequences. I also gave them a short English YouTube video (below) that begins with this crisis in Bolivia and points to potential future disputes over water as a global commodity.

To briefly summarize the plot: A Spanish film company is shooting a movie about the Spanish Conquest, or the “Discovery of the Americas,” in Cochabomba, Bolivia. They hire and cast local residents in order to save money and give an aura of “authenticity” to their film. While filming, the Bolivian extras launch a protest against the privatization of their water supply, and their modern-day protests parallel the Spanish conquest and exploitation of the New World… the precise historic event that the Spanish film company is attempting to recreate from a “new” perspective, more sympathetic to indigenous populations.

As part of their homework (link at the end of this post), students selected one of the main characters and analyzed their representation and evolution. It was a fairly even split between Costa, Sebastian, and Daniel (about 3-4-3).  I also asked that they select a scene that they found most thought-provoking or forceful. I have a small class of ten students, and several selected the scene in which indigenous women – working as extras who are paid only $2.00/day by the Spanish film company making a movie about the Spanish Conquest – are asked to “drown their children” in the river. Despite reassurance from the directors that the children will be replaced with dolls and that their babies will not be harmed, the women cannot even fathom experiencing anything as terrible as drowning their own children, even out of fear, desperation, or self-preservation. This is a powerful scene on many levels, especially given the uncomfortable way in which these 21st century Bolivian indigenous women are asked by foreign (Spanish) filmmakers to recreate a disturbing scene of subjugation and abuse that has come to form a part of their cultural conscience. It also serves as a point of convergence that helps communicate the parallels between the exploitation of both the 16th and 21st century indigenous populations by foreign nations (or companies) who value only their own economic gains.

As a film, También la lluvia is especially useful in a literature course because of its complex structure – particularly the staging of a “movie-within-a-movie.” This allows for more direct comparisons to literary narratives, and also serves to emphasize the parallels and similarities that exist between the exploitation of indigenous peoples by sixteenth century conquistadors and modern day foreign filmmakers and global corporations (like the scene with the women and children mentioned above). To identify the narrative structure, we drew a box-framework similar to that used in describing frame narratives – “cajas chinas” (Chinese boxes) or “cuentos intercalados” (interspersed stories). I drew the diagram on the board in class based on my students’ descriptions and analyses, and from there we were able to identify elements of each of these narratives – scenes, characters, language, props – that functioned to communicate the same narrative of exploitation as the initial Spanish Conquest within the various levels of the film. Below is an example of the chart we created and one of the parallels identified (in yellow).  For example, the “commodity” – or the item of economic value that allows the powerful to exploit the weak – that appears in each respective narrative is gold (16th century) and money (salaries) and water in the 21st.

narrative_tambien la lluvia

always improving my graphics…!

My students also drew parallels between Sebastian/Costa (the fictional filmmakers and directors), Columbus/Las Casas, and the Bechtel Corporation and Bolivian politicians in the film, and we added these characters to their respective narratives.  The above “design” would work well as an in-class collaborative activity (worksheet), especially if you had time to dedicate more than one class to discussing and analyzing the film.  After having read samples of Columbus’ letters and selections of Las Casas’ chronicles, my students were able to easily follow the film’s historical references and consider the lasting effects of the Spanish Conquest on contemporary Spanish American nations – so they didn’t have any problems identifying obvious connections and, from there, considering more complicated or subtle points of convergence as a group. I will definitely use this film again, especially because my class genuinely seemed to enjoy it and none of them had heard of the Bolivian Water Wars (which makes sense, given most of the were barely 10 years old at the time!). In the future, as I mentioned, I think it would work well to dedicate the first class to discussing the film, the characters, and the narrative structure, and then use a second class for analyzing the composition of particular scenes (the staging, lighting, set, use of props, music, etc.)

Have you taught this film in a Latin American Literature, Culture, or film course? What other contemporary films or narratives function well in conjunction with the (often difficult) centuries-old chronicles of the Spanish conquest and subsequent colonization of the Americas?


Textbook: I’m using the 3rd edition of Voces de Hispanoamérica in my course this semester (since we will work with only about 1/4 of the textbook, I wanted to keep costs low by using the older edition. Many texts we will read this semester are not in Voces – especially women’s literature – and I provide students with these texts as PDFs as much as possible).


Posted in History, Literature, Pedagogy, Spanish America | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Picasso’s “Guernica” and Aleixandre’s “Oda”: The Spanish Civil War in Art and Poetry

One of my favorite things to do when creating lesson plans and homework assignments is to find visuals that evoke the same themes or feelings as the literary text. When teaching poetry for example, I have found that images work to make the complexities and ambiguities of the text less intimidating and frustrating. Or they sometimes cause students to “see” something in the poem that they had missed  on their first read. These comparisons help my students arrive at analysis – HOW do the selection or order of words, the meter, or the use of devices like repetition or metaphor, create imagery or sensations that are similar to those conveyed by a visual? In the past when I taught film and theater set in post-war Spain (1940s-1950s), I had used surrealist paintings by Salvador Dalí, as well as Pablo Picasso’s Guernica – perhaps the most famous contemporary representation of the destruction and horrors of war – to introduce the magnitude of the war in its historical context. A few weeks ago I returned to Guernica to teach about the Spanish Civil War more generally in my literature class, and this time I paired it with with a 1937 poem by Vicente Aleixandre, “Oda a los niños de Madrid muertos por la metralla” (“Ode to the dead children of Madrid killed by shrapnel”). The analysis activity I used in my literature class worked well as a way of discussing literary and visual techniques, so I thought I would make a new “teaching” post to share this lesson.


Guernica (1937) by Pablo Picasso. Image via Museo Reina Sofia.

In my previous post, “Painting the Spanish Civil War,” I wrote about the appearance of the Spanish Civil War and its effects in the artistic production of Salvador Dalí as a way of illustrating the extent to which the conflict impacted the country’s artists and intellectuals, especially those of the “Generation of 1927”. Born in 1898, Vicente Aleixandre is considered a member of this generation – a generation that produced many of Spain’s most celebrated modern poets, including Federico García Lorca, whose assassination at the hands of Nationalist forces in 1936 would serve as a symbol of the brutal violence and tragic loss of Spain’s intellectual and cultural life. After six month of civil war, and a mere five months after the murder of his friend and fellow poet Lorca, on January 18, 1937 Aleixandre published “Oda a los niños de Madrid muertos por la metralla”  in the Republican periodical Ahora.  Describing Aleixandre’s wartime ode, Fernandez Ferrer notes that, while the poet indeed strays from the surrealist style that characterized his verses in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he nevertheless manages to incorporate themes that were unique to his own poetic universe, such as the desolate landscape, the transcendental symbolism of childhood, the cosmic sentiment of death… (177-78). At the time of the poem’s publication in 1937, the bombing of Guernica (Gerika), a small Basque town in northern Spain, was still four months away. This aerial strike – still a relatively new tactic of 20th century warfare – is the event Picasso would immortalize later that same year; the attack on Guernica occurred on April 29, Picasso’s Guernica debuted in Paris  in June. The brief Spanish video below presents information on the attack on Guernica, providing images of the destruction and commentary on the political aftermath (for example: Germany’s and Franco’s denial of involvement; and discrepancies in the death toll as reported by Nationalists (120) and Republicans (2,500+)).


My (very quickly sketched-out!) notes for class. Students were to write words and verses of Aleixandre’s “Oda” near where similar or contrasting imagery appeared in “Guernica,” and I quickly showed them my “work” so that they had an idea of what they were expected to do.

Below I will discuss a few of the parallels my class observed in Guernica  and “Oda a los niños…” and describe the group activity I used for comparing the imagery of the poem to the mural. My students had read the poem for homework prior to class, identifying poetic devices like anáfora, metáfora and apostrofe. Since they had already read the poem at home, the class was dedicated to sharing interpretations, learning about Guernica, and performing the comparative analysis task in pairs or small groups of three. I handed out copies of Guernica with enough space around the painting to write and identify similarities and differences.  In the class activity (attached at the end of this post) we worked with the entire mural, but for this post it is easier to discuss the similarities and differences in fragments.

In the first image, the right portion of Picasso’s painting, my students noticed that the person with their arms raised appears to be screaming… and in Aleixandre’s poem, the verb “gritar” (to scream/yell)  and the words “grito” (a scream) are used repeatedly – not only do the women scream, but the houses, the streets, and the windows. Aleixandre emphasizes the sounds of war, speaking of the “voz de las víctimas” (voice of the victims). Additionally, the poem uses haunting imagery, such as “espanto” and “fantasma” (terror and ghost), and Guernica presents a ghostly figure entering the window of the room. Observing this imagery in two different pieces of art – literary and visual – prompted my class to pay more attention to how the use of a word like “ghost” functions to communicate broader themes of death, memory, and loss, something they may have overlooked in their first reading the poem. In this way, images actually help students perform close-readings (often without their realizing it!).

In the next fragment, the central portion of the mural, the most obvious connection is the light at the top of the painting. In “Oda a los niños…”, the destruction and devastation occur “bajo la luz terrible” (“under the terrible light”). Here, we discussed what in fact “terrible” light would look like and if Picasso’s presentation of light corresponded with Aleixandre’s. Also in this portion we see a hand grasping a broken sword or knife, next to what appears to be another human limb (at the bottom); above and to the right is an abstract rendering of a human head. In the ode, Aleixandre presents this same imagery of fragmented, dismembered bodies: “un bracito” (a little arm); “Rostros pequeños, las mejillas, los pechos, / El inocente vientre que respira” (little faces, cheeks, chests or breasts / the innocent belly that breathes);  “Pequeños corazones, pechos difuntos, caritas destrozadas” (little hearts, deceased chests, little destroyed faced). Whereas Picasso depicts individual suffering more generally, Aleixandre highlights the harm done to children by using diminutives (bracito, caritas) and adjectives like “pequeño” (small, tiny, little).

Finally, the third portion of Guernica below, the left side of the image, contains one of Picasso’s most recognizable images – the devastated mother holding her dead or dying child. Aleixandre’s poem begins with the image of women running in the streets – “pobres mujeres que corren en las calles” – and later he repeats, “Las mujeres corrieron” (the women ran). Women and children were common motifs in Civil War propaganda and, as Fernandez Ferrer observes in Aleixadre’s “Oda,” the presentation of infancy or childhood as victims of the conflict – much like in Picasso’s Guernica – symbolizes the most tragic consequences of the brutality born of wartime violence (177). Again, Picasso’s figures appear to be wailing in agony, just as the voices of Aleixandre’s figures are heard through the streets: “Su voz está sonando. / ¿No oís? Suena en lo oscuro. / Suena en la luz. Suena en las calles” (Their voice is ringing. Don’t you hear? It rings in the dark. / It rings in the light. It rings in the streets). When discussing these verses, my class noted the emphasis on the sounds of war and the use of the second-person verb (oís) that appears to involve the reader (spectator) in the action.  Finally, one of the main points of contrast between the two pieces is the use of color. Picasso’s use of black, white, and greys is one of the most dramatic characteristic of Guernica. By contrast, Aleixandre focuses on red blood – the word (sangre) appears six times – evoking this color with descriptive verbs like “salpicar” (to splash/spray). Homes are splashed with blood (salpicadas de sangre); blood sprays through windows (salpicó la sangre); the light is bloodlike (la luz de sangre). This creates a very distinct, equally powerful vision of death, misery, and distress.

After working with the “Oda” and Guernica in class, one of my students chose to write about Aleixandre’s poem for his second course essay. As I have mentioned in other posts on writing assignments, I always require that students select an image for their essay. This prompts them to think about alternative ways in which they might communicate their ideas by forcing them to consider what themes are most important to their essay. By performing a brief Google-images search for certain key terms or titles, they are often surprised at what types of imagery or artwork they discover. The student who wrote about the victims of war in Aleixandre’s poem, for example, discovered that the 1937  fresco-style painting by Horacio Ferrer, Los aviones negros (The Black Planes) perfectly illustrated the themes of his essay. My students’ creative connections also help me as the professor – the images make the essays seem more “fun” to read, and they suggest new insights that often go beyond those found in students’ written analyses. In this case, I was was not familiar with Ferrer’s painting before, and I now plan to use it in the future when I teach Aleixandre’s poem, Guernica, and/or the Spanish Civil War.

Madrid 1937 (Aviones negros)

“Madrid 1937, Aviones negros” (Madrid 1937, Black planes). Horacio Ferrer, 1937. Image via Museo Reina Sofia.

According to the information provided by the Museo Reina Sofia, Aviones negros was created for display in the 1937  International Exposition in Paris – the same exposition for which Picasso created Guernica. The Pavilion representing Spain at the expo was dedicated to defending the legitimacy of the Republican government and decrying the atrocities occurring in the war-torn country. Consequently, many of the works of art displayed realist tendencies or “excessively propagandist elements”. Ferrer’s piece was notable for his exceptional use of the Italian fresco technique, an aesthetic which helps to balance the incendiary highlighting of Spain’s painful wartime atmosphere . Much like Guernica, “Oda a los niños…”, and both Republican and Nationalist poster propaganda during the war, Ferrer’s Aviones Negros features terrified and fearful women fleeing from the attacks while attempting to protect their innocent children. Below is an example of the types of posters created during this time.

Criminales! Sketch of Eduardo Robles’ poster, Barcelona, 1936.

What representations of the Spanish Civil War – either visual or literary – would be good resources for use in Spanish literature or culture classes?


“‘Oda a los niños…’ and Guernica.” PDF file of poem and painting for use in class: Guerra civil_Oda a los ninos muertos-guernica
(** I added vocabulary to this version of the poem because I later used it in my Spanish Culture and Civilization course, and my students read it during class rather than for homework. I provided definitions for the more unfamiliar words to facilitate comprehension).

Fernandez Ferrer, A. “Un poema olvidado de Vicente Aleixandre: ‘Oda a los niños de Madrid muertos por la metralla’. Bulletin Hispanique 83.1-2 (1981): 175-180.  Link to PDF.



Posted in Art, History, Literature, Spain, Spanish Civil War | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Francisco de Goya: The Enigma of the Black Paintings

This semester at Kansas State I am teaching a survey course on Spanish Civilization and Culture. While it is certainly requiring me to brush up on history and politics (from prehistoric times to the present, nonetheless), it is also giving me a chance to more thoroughly explore some of my favorite Spanish artists with my students – particularly the works of Diego de Velázquez and Francisco de Goya.  Between this week and last my class has been studying eighteenth century (Enlightenment) and nineteenth century Spain, and Goya serves as a perfect bridge between these eras – he was born in 1746, began painting for the Spanish monarchies in 1774, became official painter of the Spanish royal court in 1789, and continued painting almost until his death in 1828, though he lived his final years in exile in France.  The subjects and themes of Goya’s paintings range from portraits of the Spanish royalty, to religion and the Inquisition, to provincial customs and traditions, to historical events capturing the horrors of the Spanish War of Independence in the early 19th century. In this post, I will discuss the question of authorship (paintership?) behind the Black Paintings, and also include some materials I created for a class activity – it’s been quite some time since I posted about class assignments or lesson plans, and this was a fun class that I thought was worth sharing.

El Quitasol (Goya).jpg

“El quitasol” (The parasol) by Francisco de Goya (1777). Image via Wikipedia. High resolution image available via Museo del Prado: https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/the-parasol/a230a80f-a899-4535-9e90-ad883bd096c5

El dos de mayo de 1808 en Madrid.jpg

“El 2 de mayo 1808” (The 2nd of May, 1808) by Francisco de Goya (1814). Image via Wikipedia.

The Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, where the majority of Goya’s paintings are on display today, has organized Goya’s works in a fabulous online gallery, “Goya en El Prado.” Here, you can search paintings, drawings, prints, and even manuscripts, either by category or by date. The online presentation of the renowned “Pinturas negras” (“Black Paintings”) is exceptional, and I particularly appreciate the “Comparar” (compare) feature that allows you to evaluate two paintings of your choice side-by-side in a single window. You can view the entire collection of Black Paintings here via the Prado Museum. Below are two of my favorite examples – I am especially drawn to the dimensions of these two pieces, and also the interplay of light and dark that makes such an impact on these other wise “black” images.

Las parcas, o Atropos (The Fates). Image via Museo del Prado

Goya: La romería de San Isidro

La romería de San Isidro (The Pilgrimage to Saint Isidro). Image via Wikipedia

The Black Paintings – dated to 1820-1823 – are perhaps the most studied and, as I have recently learned, controversial of Goya’s oeuvre.  These paintings clearly represent a dramatic shift in style, themes, and worldview, and they take their name as much from their dark appearance – the predominance of blacks and greys, as well as the limited light – as from their dark themes – terrible, pessimistic presentations of human suffering, illness, poverty, witchcraft, and nightmarish imagery. While these pieces have been given titles by art historians over the past century, they were not initially titled by Goya. In fact, they were not even discovered until well after the painter’s death in 1828 – they had apparently adorned the walls of his home in Madrid and were removed and transferred to canvas decades later, between 1873-74. The YouTube video below gives an excellent overview of Goya’s life and work (in Spanish) before concentrating predominantly on the Black paintings and the corresponding “transformation” of attitude and outlook that must have accompanied, or even inspired their production.

The video follows the common, rather melodramatic yet convincing narrative of Goya’s gradual disillusionment with the trajectory of both political and social progress. This narrative positions Goya on a path of decline, deterioration, and even bitterness by suggesting that he struggled with personal demons as he grew older – not only did he battle debilitating illnesses, one of which left him deaf, but he also witnessed the failure of Spain’s first constitution and the return of an oppressive, absolutist regime. The ominous music of the video underscores this notion, as does the sensationalist narration:  “What happens when the artist comes face to face with misfortune? With the consequences of illness? … THIS HAPPENS!!!”.  “THIS” meaning that he leaves behind the colorful, pleasant images of his early career and resorts instead to depicting the dark realities of his aging consciousness and ever more imminent death. Certainly, this is a plausible explanation for the contrast between paintings like these:

El pelele.jpg

El pelele (The Puppet), Goya, 1791. Image via Wikipedia

Goya: Dos mujeres y un hombre

Dos mujeres y un hombre (Two Women and a Man), Goya, 1821-1823. Image via Wikepedia.

However, the end of this particular video also alludes to recent investigations questioning the authenticity of these pieces. This part intrigued me, since I had not studied these paintings or their history in depth since my first visit to Spain over 10 years ago. I did a bit more googling research and promptly came across a 2003 article in the New York Times, The Secret of the Black Paintings. In the process of writing a book on Goya and the Black Paintings, professor and Art historian Juan José Junquera (Complutense University, Madrid) conducted research not only on Goya’s life and artistic production, but on the home within which the paintings were found. The entire NYTimes article is worth reading for the details of this fascinating archival investigation, but I’ll briefly summarize the evidence that Junquera suggests might cause us to reexamine the attribution of these paintings to Goya. In sum, Junquera examined the deeds of sale for Goya’s property (La Quinta del Sordo) – he found that when Goya sold the property, it was only a one-story dwelling. The second story – which contained several Black Paintings – had apparently not been added until after Goya’s death! It is possible then, according to Junquera, that Goya’s son painted the notoriously grim images, and that they were subsequently brought to public attention by Goya’s grandson who, needing money, knew he could receive more for paintings purportedly created by his famous grandfather than by his father. You can see a virtual reconstruction of the Black Paintings’ locations within the Quinta del Sordo here.

Goya; Peregrinación a la fuente de San Isidro

Peregrinación a la Fuente de San Isidro, o El Santo Oficio (Pilgrimage to the Fountain of Saint Isidro, or The Holy Office). Image via Wikipedia

In my class we discussed the changing themes of Goya’s art over time, particularly in terms of his modern renditions of war (El dos de mayo, El tres de mayo), his haunting and often satirical etchings, and the Black Paintings. But we did not delve into the question of authorship – I’m planning to return to this concept towards the end of the course s we discuss Contemporary Spain. This will also give me more time to read more about these recent discoveries and theories. Instead, I had the class work in small groups to analyze select paintings by Goya that related most directly to the historical content of the course – I used “La familia de Carlos IV” (Charles’ IV’s Family), “Fernando VII en manto real” (Ferdinand VII in Royal Robes), “El tres de mayo 1808” (The 3rd of May, 1808), and two select etchings dealing with the Inquisition and Women. I am attaching PDF documents at the end of this post – one with the images I used, one with the questions that I gave to each group, and one with “fun” coloring-book images that I used for the fifth part of the activity.

After discussing the homework, which consisted of Goya’s etching “El sueño de la razon produce monstruos” (The sleep/dream of reason produces monsters), I divided my students into 5 groups of 3 and 4 each. I gave everyone the “questions-Tasks” document, which contained one or two questions for each of the four images I handed out. I gave one image each to four groups… and the fifth group got crayons and the coloring-pages. For 8-10 minutes they analyzed and discussed their assigned painting and its accompanying questions (or they colored!). Then, I collected the images and re-distributed them. I’m sure a few students wondered why their college professor was giving them crayons and a “coloring book”, but at this point in the semester a bit of stress-relief is always appreciated – for both professors and students. In fact, I felt guilty taking the crayons away from them when their coloring turn was over! In any case, the following class we discussed each group’s thoughts on these paintings, the majority of which also served to “introduce” the main events of the early nineteenth century (Charles IV, Spanish War of Independence, Ferdinand VII).

Museo del Prado - Goya - Caprichos - No. 43 - El sueño de la razon produce monstruos.jpg

El sueño de la razon produce monstruos (The Sleep/Dream of Reason Produces Monsters) 797-99. Image via Wikipedia

I’m looking forward to revisiting Goya in a few weeks to further discuss questions of authorship, authenticity, and cultural narratives. If any of my readers are or have taught a Spanish Culture course, I’d love to hear your thoughts on resources and productive assignments. What types of activities have you used to break up what can easily become monotonous presentations of historical facts? Do you incorporate projects that are not writing intensive in upper level Spanish courses?

For groupwork (groups of 3-4 are ideal):
Discussion questions and writing tasks: Goya_questions-Tasks
Paintings to accompany questions/tasks: Goya_paintings for discussion
College coloring fun: Goya_coloring

Posted in Art, Spain | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Following the Footsteps of a Literary Hero: Personal Histories of Place

This summer I had several projects to work on, including an article on urban Madrid, two new syllabi to prepare, and a conference presentation in Salamanca on the film Las 13 Rosas. But I also took on another smaller project that allowed me to work on something slightly different than what I typically do as a Spanish language and literature professor – a book review of a recently published English language book: As I Walked Out Through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee, by British author P. D. Murphy. Granted, the book is set (predominantly) in Spain and is steeped in the history and culture of the country, but it is still a far cry from what generally constitutes my summer reading list. After reading the novel, I wrote a review for The Volunteer, the journal of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA). According to their website, ALBA is an educational non-profit dedicated to promoting social activism and the defense of human rights. Their work is inspired by the American volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade who fought fascism in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

The Volunteer

Journal founded by the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (ALBA): http://www.albavolunteer.org

My original, and more concise review can be found on The Volunteer, but below I am posting a lengthier version that includes additional links, resources, and connections that may be of interest to professors or teachers of Spanish or literature. Once I started writing my review I found I had many more thoughts than would fit in a short 1,000 word post.

REVIEW: P. D. Murphy, As I Walked Out Through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee (Bristol: Silverwood Books, 2014).

In recent years, and especially during those of the nascent twenty-first century, the literary and cultural production of contemporary Spain has been rich in themes of historical memory – the recovering, remembering, and reconciliation of the nation’s tumultuous twentieth-century legacy of Civil War, dictatorship, and a somewhat fragile Transition to democracy. Some literary and cultural critics have even suggested that, for the majority of Spaniards, the brutal Civil War (1936-39) is today considered the most significant event in the history of their country, an event which must be confronted and revisited in order to understand present-day Spain (Bernecker 15). While celebrated Spanish authors like Javier Cercas, Dulce Chacón, Isaac Rosa, and Lorenzo Silva have penned narratives that address the complexities of the nation’s collective and personal histories, British author P. D. Murphy’s novel, As I Walked Out Though Spain in Search of Laurie Lee, reveals the perspective of a non-Spaniard – an “outsider,” so-to-speak – who nevertheless has deep personal connections to Spain. In this novel, Murphy’s desire to follow in the footsteps of his literary hero, English writer Laurie Lee (1914-1997), not only sends him on a personal journey through the history, culture, and geography of Spain, but also forces him to explore his own personal history and (present) identity.

As I Walked Out

Laurie Lee’s 1969 memoir, “As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning,” which inspired P.D. Murphy to retrace Lee’s journey across Spain to pen a tribute to the English author in 2014, “As I Walked Out Through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee”

According to Murphy, his novel is a story of two journeys, on two levels: “Laurie Lee’s through Spain in 1935 and how it profoundly shaped the way his life unfolded; [and] my journey following in his footsteps across Spain in 2012 and how it has given me a second chance in life” (9). Indeed, Murphy is the first person to retrace the path across Spain blazed by Lee just prior to the onset of the Spanish Civil War. According to Christopher M. Keirsteak, footsteps travel writing is a growing subgenre of contemporary travel writing. In these narratives, writers retrace the routes of earlier travelers, and their resulting literary production is “highly intertextual and characterized by deem immersion in the discursive and personal space of the subject”. These “earlier travelers” can be famous explorers, well-known literary or artistic figures, or often merely a personal hero of the author preparing to embark on such a journey. Such is the case for P. D. Murphy, who had admired, studied, and revered Laurie Lee since his adolescence. While Lee’s 1935 walk from northern Galicia to southern Andalusia would later form the basis of his successful novel, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969), a coming of age tale of a young man’s journey across an unfamiliar country that would enchant and inspire him, Murphy’s modern-day route culminates in the publication of this curious narrative that blurs the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction; between biography, hagiography, and autobiography; between past and present. Below is Murphy’s video describing his novel and his reasons for following in the footsteps of Laurie Lee.

The book is structured chronologically, with dated entries that also indicate the place in which they were written: “25 June 2012, Madrid,” for example. Though Murphy’s path is recorded chronological, entries with dates ranging from the 1910s to the 1990s are interspersed, juxtaposed with Murphy’s present-day experiences. These samples of the past generally narrate Lee’s experiences, providing readers with biographical information on this English writer in rich narrative form. Murphy’s re-creation of Lee’s experiences for modern-day readers is often prompted by his arriving at the same place as Lee had, observing the same buildings Lee detailed, or breathing in the same colored landscape so poetically captured by his literary idol. There are moments when Murphy includes references to Lee’s poetry, using Lee’s words as a way of ascribing meaning to his own lived experiences. Clearly Murphy is not only an expert on Laurie Lee, but an avid fan and follower of both his professional work and personal life. In this sense I can relate to Murphy’s experiences of standing in the same place as one’s artistic inspiration – I wrote before about visiting each of Salvador Dali’s three museums in northern Spain, including his summer home in Cadaqués, the Museum he constructed in the town in which he was born (Figueres), and the Castle in Pubol that he purchased for his wife, muse, and lifelong companion, Gala.

Indeed the journey across marked geographical spaces and particular moments in time is ripe for literary interpretation. The trajectory of the classic hero’s journey – Odysseus, for example; Don Quixote in the Spanish context; and even Harry Potter as a more contemporary example – is as much about the foreword progression of the (generally male) protagonist’s quest as it is about the process of self-recognition and identity solidification. Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero With a Thousand Faces is a seminal study of the hero’s journey, what he terms the monomyth. In just under five minutes you can learn about the main premises of the Hero and the Monomyth according to Campbell in the below TedEd Talk on “What Makes a Hero.” I discovered this short video it on Maria Popova’s excellent Brainpickings blog, which I linked to just above regarding the hero’s journey.

By following in the path of his own literary hero, Murphy embarks on a journey that will not only connect him to Lee and his history, but also afford him clarity and acceptance with regards to his own personal history, identity, and experiences of loss. He confronts his rocky relationship with his father, for example, and learns to accept the dissolution of his marriage and his present relationship with his daughter. Yet to ultimately achieve this solace Murphy, like Lee before him, must set out from his familiar surroundings, navigate the unexpected roadblocks or detours of the foreign land through which he travels, and finally return home transformed, where he will reintegrate into the society he had left behind. At times the book becomes somewhat melodramatic in its telling of this this sort of male mid-life identity crisis, a narrative frequently repeated in contemporary film and literature, but I am willing to bet this is a common characteristic of “footsteps” travel writing given the process of identity formation that accompanies the narrated journey.

The sense of place is what I found to be the strongest aspect of Murphy’s book, as evidenced by the aforementioned headings structuring the text. A map of the similar routes both Lee and Murphy took across Spain, in 1935 and 2012 respectively, is included among the novel’s foreword and introduction. On this single map of Spain the reader can compare the two pilgrimages and use the visual as a point of reference when Murphy’s narration makes significant divergences from or exhibits clear similarities with Lee’s initial route.


Map of Laurie Lee’s and P.D. Murphy’s routes across Spain, from the Introduction of Murphy’s novel, “As I Walked Out Through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee” (2014). Lee’s route appears in red, Murphy’s in yellow (I traced the routes as best I could, since the the grey “x” and “-” did not show up well on the copy I made of the page in the novel).

A perhaps self-conscious observation confirming the pertinence of place appears in Murphy’s musings during the second half of his narrative: “The essence of a place is made up of the people who live there and their stories” (154). Surely reflective of Murphy’s own philosophy, this line is fitting for a journey that includes a solemn visit to the Valley of the Fallen, Toledo’s Alcazar (that houses the National Museum of the Army), and a stop in a small local bar in Cádiz that resulted in an intimate conversation with a young gypsy musician. The descriptions of the northern Galician countryside and the southern landscapes of Andalucia are perhaps the most vivid in the book. It was a pleasure to read these after having spent time last summer (2014) in Santiago de Compostela, and having just returned this July (2015) from a visit to Spain that included several days in Granada and a day-long visit to and tour of the magnificent Alhambra (below).

While the sense of place is crucial to capturing the spirit or soul of the Spanish nation (its duende, as Murphy accurately refers to it) and the protean Spanish countryside that both writers so dearly love(d), the role of History is equally as important in As I Walked Out Through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee. Personal connections to Spanish national history and the debate surrounding the nation’s historical memory feature prominently in contemporary Spanish cultural productions. For a nation whose transition from dictatorship to democracy in the late 1970s was marked by a philosophy of “forgetting the past” in order to look towards the future, the notion of recovering and acknowledging a traumatic history is a heavy cross to bear. Murphy’s book captures the complexities of Spanish attitudes towards the nation’s history by recounting interactions with Spaniards throughout his journey. Late in the book, for example, a Spaniard and his American-born wife reveal their opposing views with regards to the question of exhuming bodies from sites purportedly containing mass graves. His is representative of the more conservative viewpoint: the war is over and Spaniards should attempt to live in peace by not meddling with the past or disturbing the dead. His wife is of the opposite opinion, generally supported by those with Republican ties or members of younger generations: the dead deserve justice, respect, and honorable burials, just as the victors who supported the Francoist cause received upon the war’s end. Murphy’s conversation with this couple certainly reveals the way in which the interplay of historical memory and amnesia affects contemporary discussions of the violence and trauma of the Civil War, exile, and dictatorship. As an outsider, Murphy refrains from engaging passionately in such discussions, though a careful reader will notice that his views most closely align with those in favor of recognizing Spain’s past sins.

As I Walked Out Through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee is an enjoyable and informative read for anyone interested in the life or writings of Laurie Lee, the ghosts of the Spanish Civil War that still haunt Spain’s psyche, or the geography, history, and people of 20th-century Spain.

What English-langauge novels have you read that take place in Spain (besides Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises)? Have you used English-language fiction hen teaching classes on Spanish Culture or Civilization?


Altmann, Werner, Walther L. Bernecker, and Ursula Vences, Eds. Debates sobre la memoria histórica en España. Berlin. Tranvía, 2009. Essays in Spanish and German.
[Spanish essay: Bernecker, Walter L. “Memorias Históricas” en España – debates y desarrollos recientes.” pages 15-40.]

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008.

Keirsteak, Cristopher M. “Convoluted Paths: Mapping Genre in Contemporary Footsteps Travel Writing.” Genre 46.3 (2013): 285-315. Abstract: http://genre.dukejournals.org/content/46/3/285.short



Posted in Literature, Spain, Spanish Civil War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Thirteen Roses and Spanish Cinema’s Celebration of Motherhood

This summer I was once again able to spend a few weeks in Spain, for both work and fun. I presented a paper on the 2007 Spanish film, Las 13 Rosas (The 13 Roses) at a conference on Spanish and Portuguese Film in Salamanca: III International Conference on History, Art, and Literature in Spanish and Portuguese Film (CIHALEP). Visit the CIHALEP website I linked to for a video summary of the event and a glimpse of historic Salamanca.


Being “scholarly” at the University of Salamanca

Unlike last year when I spent three weeks in Spain prior to my conference presentation on Almodovar in Santiago de Compostela, this year the academic portion of my trip came first and I spent the a week in Salamanca where I presented my paper and toured the city. With the “work” portion behind me, the final week and a half my husband and I traveled south to Andalucia where visited a friend in Granada. We spent an entire day at the Alhambra and Generalife Gardens, explored the streets of the Albayzin, and ate tapas until we could eat no more (actually that’s a lie – I can always manage to eat more!). We finished the trip with a few days in Madrid, arriving just in time for the final events of Madrid Orgullo / Madrid Pride, the largest Pride Parade in Europe. In both Granada and Madrid we endured enjoyed early July temperatures of over 105 degrees; while I generally love dry summer heat and sunshine, these temperatures were just too much and I had to learn to appreciate a long siesta from almost 2-8pm every day! In a future post I plan to write about a few of the places I visited after presenting my paper, but in this post I will share a few portions of my conference paper (which was written in Spanish).


View of the Alhambra at dusk – Granada, Spain (image mine)

Who are “the 13 roses”?

As I mentioned, my paper analyzed the 2007 film Las 13 Rosas, which dramatizes the story of of thirteen young women who were arrested for supporting the Spanish Republic to varying degrees, or on suspicion of involvement in activities opposing Francoist (Nationalist) efforts to take control of Spain (especially Madrid). The majority of these women were between 18 and 22 years old, the oldest being Blanca, at 29. After their arrests in early 1939, they were imprisoned for months before they were executed by firing squad early in the morning on August 6, 1939. Over the past decade, this tragic story has found a broad audience, owing largely to the multiple literary, cinematographic, and theatrical interpretations of this brutal assassination that have populated Spanish cultural production in recent years. Below, for example, you can view the 2006 documentary (in Spanish), Que mi nombre no se borre de la historia (May my name never be erased from history), directed by José María Almela and Verónica Vigil. The title is based on the final words of  19-year-old Julia Conesa in the letter she penned to her family moments before her execution.

Depicting Las 13 Rosas in popular culture

My presentation was not focused on the actual history of this event, but rather on the way in which it is depicted in contemporary Spanish society, particularly by director Emilio Martínez Lázaro in his cinematic rendition of the women’s murders. When historical events and tragedies are adapted to the big screen and designed for a general audience, the actual details of the historical event are often obscured behind attempts to make a profitable film that will appeal to the emotions and interests of a given audience. Romantic relationships are emphasized or even invented, additional characters are added and, in the case of the 13 Roses, the personal stories of only four of these thirteen women form the crux of the film’s narrative, and the particulars of their Socialist affiliations are left in the background. Obviously, including details of all 13 women in a film designed to entertain a general audience for 90-100 minutes is impractical, so such limitations are necessary. However it is telling that their socialist affiliations would be minimized and their story cast in a more apolitical light – Kajsa Larson has critiqued this “apolitical” depiction of the women in her article on the blurring of fact and fiction in the film. Below you can watch the (melo)dramatic trailer for Las 13 Rosas, with English subtitles.

The image below is the second slide of my presentation, which contains the movie poster for the film (left) and the cover of journalist Carlos Fonseca’s 2004 novel – or novelized journalistic study, as some literary critics refer to it – on which the film’s script was based, Trece rosas rojas (Thirteen Red Roses). Fonseca’s text is a mix of archival  material, objective journalism, and slightly novelized but factual depictions of the lives of these thirteen women. It even includes copies of the final letters that they wrote their families prior to their execution.

Movie poster for “Las 13 Rosas” (2007). The film’s script was based on the novel by Carlos Fonseca, “Trece rosas rojas” (2004). Image via Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Las_13_rosas

Las 13 RosasLa mitificación de la madre tradicional y apolítica en el cine español contemporáneo or “The 13 Roses: The Mythification of the Traditional and Apolitical Mother in Contemporary Spanish Film.”

This was the title of my presentation (paper), and my analysis centered on the depiction of Blanca (played by Pilar López de Ayala), the main female protagonist. Importantly, Blanca was the least political of the thirteen women, the only one who was not a member of the Juventudes Socialistas Unificadas (JSU) (Unified Socialist Youth, founded in 1936). Additionally, she was the only mother among the 13 young women who were arrested and executed during those final days of the Spanish Civil War. I propose that in the film, unlike her twelve militant and openly political female companions, Blanca personifies many of the characteristics associated with the most traditional of female roles: that of mother.

I argue that the emphasis placed on Blanca’s maternity and her role as mother in the film serve two purposes. Firstly, they highlight her innocence, as her arrest was entirely without just cause, largely the result of a “witch hunt-style” search for communist sympathizers; and secondly they serve to increase viewers sympathy, admiration, and respect for her, as opposed to the other twelve single, politically compromised women.  As a result, my analysis adds to (a)political criticism of the film by demonstrating the way in which the main narrative thread also idealizes a traditional, antiquated image of woman and, in the process, privileges the maternal role over other more revolutionary, political, and active female identities. I want to emphasize that I am not suggesting Martínez Lázaro intended for the film to communicate this message, I am merely analyzing the final product – the  representation – that resulted and what implications it may have for contemporary Spanish viewers.

I will include my entire Spanish paper at the end of this post, however I will highlight a few of the scenes and imagery that supported my argument in this post. First, very early in the film there is a scene in which Blanca is at home with her son, Enrique. She has taken out her revered images of the Virgin Mary, explaining to Enrique that they must put the in their proper place in the home. While it is true that the real Blanca Brisac was a woman of strong Catholic faith, the movie emphasizes her admiration for the Virgin Mother more than her dedication to the Catholic religion in general. It even seems that Blanca’s characterization is based on the Virgin Mother, specifically if we take note of her wardrobe and the placement of props and other characters around her. If there were to be any doubt about this connection, Blanca = Virgin Mary, the director erases it with the ensuing dialogue between Blanca and her son:
Blanca: “She’s pretty, right?” / Enrique: “She looks like you.” 


Blanca, Enrique, Virgin Mary, Las 13 Rosas

Blanca: “Es guapa, ¿verdad?”(She’s pretty, right?) Enrique, without hesitation: “Se parece a ti” (She looks like you.) “

In this way the connection is made between this protagonist and the most pure and celebrated image of Catholic femininity. This is further reinforced the next time we see Blanca on screen, again with her young son. In this scene Blanca stands by Enrique and consoles him when the authorities enter their house investigating the supposed “communist activities” of her husband. As the two watch the patriarch leave their home with the authorities, mother and child appear on the screen in such a way that they resemble some of the most well-known and recognizable images of the Virgin Mary and the young Jesus Christ. Blanca wears a flowing robe, similar to that of Mary, and she is positioned behind her son, who is in the center, just in front of his mother.

Inline image 2

Inline image 1

If we are going to consider the impact and influence of representations of motherhood by Catholicism, it is relevant to refer to Julia Kristeva’s study of the Virgin Mother: “The humanity of the Virgin mother is not always obvious, and we shall see how, in her being cleared of sin, for instance, Mary distinguishes herself from mankind” (p. 235). Of course in the film the “humanity” of Blanca is obvious, but given that the dialogue, the direction, and the scenes that I have briefly mentioned function together to establish a connection between her and the Virgin Mary, Blanca as a protagonist is further distinguished from her militant compatriots as a result of her maternity, not merely her purity (that is, her innocence due to her lack of involvement in politics).

Consequently, when viewers see Blanca in prison alongside the other “Rosas,” there has already been a clear distinction created between these women – a distinction the film continues to uphold in various scenes that take place in the prison. Blanca is treated differently by the guard Carmen; she is given the special task of playing the organ during the mass; and later she is the only woman allowed a moment with a visitor – her son – as the women are transported to the final cell they will occupy before their execution. Moreover, while thirteen women are executed and the film has focused on four whose stories are shared most closely, it is nevertheless the voice of Blanca – reading the letter she wrote to her child – that closes the film. The attention paid to the mother-child relationship, together with the manipulation of maternity used to characterize Blanca, function together to communication a broader message to the (Spanish) viewing public.

las 13 rosas, mass

In the prison mass, Blanca plays the organ while the other Rosas irreverently talk, joke, and laugh, going so far as to let mice, which they had collected from the facility, escape during the ceremony.

To summarize briefly, Blanca’s maternity not only minimizes the activism and political agendas of the other Roses, but it also reinforces the traditional glorification of maternity and motherhood by positioning Blanca – the celebrated innocent, pure, and Catholic mother – as the principal protagonist, representative of the most tragic of the thirteen deaths. In this sense, the film fits within the tendency of contemporary Spanish film, as identified by Barbara Zecchi, to promote maternity as an essential marker of modern femininity. Zecchi identifies what she describes as “a charged pronatalist context” in Spanish culture (148). She points out the country’s low birth rate and the way in which media and entertainment are again celebrating maternal figures with the hope that modern Spanish women may decide to have children. For Zecchi, contemporary Spanish film appears to uphold this “call to maternity” and “new efforts to foster the birth rate have paradoxically granted motherhood almost the same place of honor it had during Franco’s regime”  (148). See below for the link to Zecchi’s article, “All About Mothers: Pronatalist Discourses in Contemporary Spanish Cinema.”

My analysis of Blanca in Las 13 Rosas, and my critique of her representation as a main heroine characterized primarily by allusions to the Virgin Mary indeed fits within the tendency Zecchi identifies. As such, the overall message of the film can be problematic not only because it “softens” the brutal story of these thirteen women, but also because it idealizes a traditional and outdated model of womanhood that privileges motherhood over other more revolutionary, apolitical, and active female identities.

Guerra civil española

The young women called “The Thirteen Roses” gave here their lives for liberty and democracy on the 5th day of August, 1939. The community of Madrid remembers their sacrifice. 5th of August, 1988. Source of image: http://www.taringa.net/posts/info/15014241/Las-13-rosas.html

What Spanish films have you seen recently that weave historical events with fictional stories? How do gender, politics, and social class factor into the resulting representations of individual protagonists? 


Bender, Rebecca. “Las 13 Rosas: La mitificación de la madre tradicional y apolítica en el cine español contemporáneo.” Presented at III Congreso Internacional de Historia, Arte, Literatura y Cine en Espanol y Portugués. Salamanca, Spain: 26-28 June 2015.
Paper: Las trece Rosas_APA_presentacion
PowerPoint: Las trece Rosas_powerpoint

Ferrero, JesusLas trece rosas. Madrid: Siruela, 2008.

Fonseca, Carlos. Trece Rosas rojas. La historia más conmovedora de la guerra civil. Madrid: Temas de Hoy, 2004.

Huete Machado, Lola. “La corta vida de trece rosas” (The short life of thirteen roses). El pais. 11 December 2005. Read full text in Spanish here: http://elpais.com/diario/2005/12/11/eps/1134286010_850215.html 

Kristeva, JuliaTales of Love. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia U P, 1987.

Larson, Kajsa. “Remembering the Thirteen Roses: Blurring Fact and Fiction.” Nomenclatura. Aproximaciones a los Estudios Hispánicos 2 (2012): 1-21. Retrieved from UKnowledge in June, 2015. University of Kentucky. <http://uknowledge.uky.edu/naeh/vol2/iss1/8>.

Mártinez-Lázaro, Emilio, director. Las 13 Rosas. (Spain, 2007).

Zecchi, Barbara. “All About Mothers: Pronatalist Discourses in Contemporary Spanish Cinema.” College Literature 32.1 (2005): 146-64. Read abstract here.

Posted in Feminism, Spain, Spanish Civil War, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments