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



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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

Women of the Second Republic (Spain 1931-39)

While I was in Spain last summer (2014), I was able to attend the “Feria del libro” (Book Fair) that takes place annually in Madrid’s central park, El Retiro. According to the Feria del Libro’s (FLM) website, its goals are to promote books, reading, and the work of those businesses and institutions that are dedicated to publishing, distributing, and selling books. I’ll be in Spain again this June/July (2015), but will have just missed the 74th Feria, which was May 29-June 14th. If you are ever in Madrid in early June and have the chance to attend the Feria, you could easily spend a few hours – or even days if you are real book nerd lover – exploring the park and checking out the newest or most popular books for sale from the hundreds and HUNDREDS of displays lining Retiro’s walkways. Many publishers offer special discounts or incentives to purchase books during the Feria – I saved 15% on my purchase, for example. Below is the poster for the 2014 Feria, and you can see the collection of past posters at the Feria del Libro’s “Carteles” page.

Feria del libro 2014

The poster for 2014’s Feria del libro, which was designed by Santiago Miranda of Seville. Image via http://www.estandarte.com

After spending several hours wandering around the book displays one afternoon, I ended up buying a fantastic book dedicated to women who lived and worked during Spain’s Second Republic in the 1930s – Mujeres de la II Republica. Historia de la mujer. Tomo I. 1931-39. The Second Republic was the democratic political regime that existed in Spain from 1931 until the end of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) when Francisco Franco would take control of the country, establishing a dictatorship that would last for forty years. Since the question of women’s roles in early twentieth-century Spanish society and politics falls right within the focus of my main research projects, I considered the text to be a necessary addition to my bookshelf. In any case, I finally had a chance this past semester to read through the book, and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on the text, as well as a few other projects pertaining to the Second Republic that I became aware of as I did a bit more research on a few of the women featured.

Mujeres de la II Republica. Historia de la Mujer. Tomo I. 1931-39. (Women of the Second Republic. Women’s History. Volume I). Editor: Ramon Guerra de la Vega. Publication date, 2013.

The first thing I want to mention is that the book provides more of a schematic outline and introduction to the numerous women who participated, to varying degrees, in public life. Thus the volume reads more like a photographic “encyclopedia” of women – artists, teachers, activists, writers, musicians, actresses, and intellectuals – than a detailed historical narrative. This makes it accessible to a more general audience, and in fact the short 2-4 page “chapters” would be perfect reading material for an undergraduate Spanish or Spanish culture course. First, Cristina Valcarce provides a brief, two-page prologue, and from there the volume dedicates 2-4 pages each either to an individual woman or to an issue or concept relevant to Spanish women’s history – “The First Flight Attendants,” “Red Cross Nurses,” and “Women’s Hockey [or] Tennis” for example. In total, the book provides information on 106 different women, as well as 16 unique topics that relate to these women’s participation in Spanish political, intellectual, and cultural life during thirties. The “topics” pages are generally composed of high-quality, original black and white photographs with only brief captions.

I’ll include sample images of a few pages and the often-overlooked women that they feature. I’m hoping to get clearer pictures later this summer when I return home and unpack this book from my office boxes – I hadn’t realized my photos did not turn out so clearly until I put them on my computer – #SpanProfFail! In any case, before I am able to update my files, I though you could get a feel for the book in case you are interested in adding it to your collection or learning about the numerous women who were quite influential in early twentieth-century Spain and Spanish culture, despite the fact that they are not generally featured in dominant historical narratives.


The first woman (above) I’ll include here is Gala (Éluard) Dalí (1894-1982), the wife of renowned Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dalí. As any fan of Dalí (like myself) knows, Gala was not only his lover and wife, but also his muse, appearing in or inspiring several of his most recognizable works. I was happy to see that she was included in this volume, given that her influence on Dalí during the pre-Civil War era was essential to the artist’s overall aesthetic and ideological development. Below are a few examples of Gala in Dalí’s 1940s paintings:







Maruja Mallo, a Spanish surrealist painter who studied and fraternized with her more (in)famous male contemporaries of the Generation of 1927 (pdf),  specifically Salvador Dalí, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Luis Buñuel,  is also included in Mujeres de la II Republica. I have been drafting a blog post on Mallo and her depiction of Las verbenas for some time now, but several publishing projects have gotten in the way of its completion – I hope to post it sometime next year [UPDATE: “Women and the Avant-garde: Maruja Mallo’s ‘Verbenas’ (Carnivals)]. Mallo’s work has in fact been receiving more attention lately, especially from feminist scholars and Hispanists like Shirley Mangini.


Featured in the book is one of Mallo’s most recognizable works is “Mujer con cabra (Woman with Goat)” [below], which she completed in 1929. This painting is distinct for it’s portrayal of a visibly strong, active, and independent woman – “the new woman” – walking outside her home. The woman is presented from a female viewpoint, combining characteristics that were previously considered incompatible from the male point of view: strength, athleticism, and energy, alongside beauty and femininity. Mallo’s “new woman” is capable of taking an active role within Spanish society and outside her home. This was a stark contrast to traditional depiction of femininity in western art that presented sensual and passive women who exhibited little or no energy or free will.

Maruja Mallo, Mujer con cabra (Woman with Goat), 1929. [Image: http://elpais.com/diario/2005/06/11/babelia/1118444768_740215.html%5D

After having read Mujeres de la II Republica. Historia de la mujer. Tomo I. 1931-39, I’m even more excited to continue my work on Spanish women’s contributions to art and literature during this time, as their varied roles and accomplishments are finally receiving more attention within both scholarly literature and popular media. I recently discovered the relatively new, popular television series 14 de abril. La República on RTVE (Radio y Television española), and it appears that women characters have roles that are much more complicated than simply acting as the love interests of male protagonists. I’m putting it on my “to-watch” list this year – maybe it will have some Downton Abby-vibes! Moreover, I just presented a paper on the film Las 13 Rosas (dir. Martínez-Lázaro, 2007) at a conference in Salamanca. My next post will discuss my paper and my time in Salamanca… where I am now! In fact, it’s getting late, so it’s about time to head out for wine and tapas!

What television programs, documentaries, or literature about Spanish women during, or leading up to, the Second Republic and the Civil War have you discovered recently? Have you taught students about these topics in a Spanish culture course? I’d love to hear your thoughts and recommendations!





Posted in Art, Feminism, First-wave spanish feminism, History, Spain, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Miguel de Cervantes: An internet sensation?

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616) has been in the news a lot lately… considering he lived over four centuries ago! First, in late January, Spanish researches reported unearthing a coffin in the Madrid convent where Cervantes was purportedly buried in the early seventeenth century; the coffin contained bone fragments and was marked “M.C.”, leading the team of researches to conclude that the artifact just may contain the remains of Spain’s most illustrious novelist. Secondly, this year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the second book of Don Quijote de la Mancha (the first volume appeared in 1605; the second in 1615). This remarkable piece of literature is not only the author’s masterpiece, but it is widely considered to be the first “modern” novel. Given these events, my Twitter feed has been flooded with Cervantes-related headlines lately – especially given that I follow the Instituto Cervantes, the culture section of El Pais, and the Spanish National Library, to name a few. In this post I’ll include a few of my favorite “Cervantes Finds” of the month, most notably the incredibly well-done Interactive 1st edition of Don Quijote de la Mancha from the Biblioteca Nacional de España (Spanish National Library). #DigitalHumanities ftw!

First, I’m always a sucker for illustrations, so the below diagram of Cervantes is a perfect new “poster” for my office. The title “Secuelas para identificar a Cervantes” refers to the scars and physical features of the author that may be evident upon examining the exhumed body found in Madrid, should “M.C.” prove to be the creator of Don Quijote. For example, Cervantes was wounded in battle, and lesions to the left arm and chest may have left perdurable evidence. Moreover, as this visual points out, Cervantes only had six remaining teeth (in quite poor condition), and a distinctly disfigured spinal column.

“Secuelas para identificar a Cervantes” [Marks/Scars to Identify Cervantes]. Source – El Pais. Cultura. http://elpais.com/elpais/2015/02/14/media/1423947827_337702.html

 The second piece of internet-based Cervantes memorabilia that I found is an Interactive version of the novel, Don Quijote de la Mancha: El Quijote interactivo. While many of my colleagues who specialize in Golden Age (Siglo de Oro) Literature are likely familiar with this resources, I had not seen it before. The Spanish  National Library has digitized a first edition of the novel, from 1605, so readers can browse the digital pages as if they had a printed copy of the text in their fingertips. I highly recommend watching the short video below before checking out the digital text – it does a great job of highlighting features that you may overlook. For example, you can choose to read the original text in centuries-old Spanish script, or you can opt to view a modernized version with updated Spanish spelling and typography. The modern version would be especially useful for teaching a course on the Quijote. The text is also searchable, and you can share or email select pages, chapters, or the entire book.

Finally, after toying with this Interactive version of The Quijote, I decided to revisit my favorite edition of the novel – one that that adorns my home office, but that I have rarely picked up to read – a 2004 edition of the novel illustrated by Salvador Dalí. I’ve written several posts about Dali already, but I have yet to talk about his illustrations of the Quijote. Dalí originally illustrated the text in 1946, and Editorial Planeta released a new edition about ten years ago. Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog showcases some of the most notable images from Dali’s original illustrations of Don Quijote. You can still find a few original 1946 editions of the novel, though they will cost you a few hundred dollars.

One of Dali’s illustrations of Cervantes’ Don Quijote. Source – BrainPickings: http://www.brainpickings.org/2013/10/09/salvador-dali-illustrates-don-quixote/

I appreciate that Martín de Riquer’s Introduction to this new collector’s edition is so thorough. It includes a biography of Cervantes, an examination of the style and purpose of El Quijote in its epoch, and an analysis of the “locura” (madness; insanity) of the titular (anti)hero. In discussing Quijote’s “locura,” Riquer emphasizes the way in which Don Quijote’s excessive and obsessive reading of the tales of Knights-errant contributed to and even provoked his mental instability (XXVIII-XXIX).  I cannot help but draw parallels between today’s “reading” material – “fantastic” listicles, tweets, and mindless sensations like #TheDress – and our own mental stability in the digital age. How can we avoid becoming so consumed by our digital worlds and selves that we begin to lose our connection to reality, our sanity? It seems to me that the questions and themes dramatized by Cervantes via Don Quijote over four centuries ago are as relevant today as they were in their own time.

One of Dali’s illustrations of Cervantes’ Don Quijote. Source – BrainPickings: http://www.brainpickings.org/2013/10/09/salvador-dali-illustrates-don-quixote/

I was lucky to receive a copy of this edition back in 2005, just after it was released, and I see that today it can be quite difficult – and expensive – to come by. That’s as good a reason as any to post a gratuitous Spanish-professor selfie on my blog, right?


Have you read or taught Don Quijote de la Mancha? Which episodes of the novel are your most/least favorites? Are you familiar with any of Cervantes’ other numerous novelas?


Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de. Don Quijote de la Mancha. Ed. Martin de Riquer. Illustrations by Salvador Dali. Editorial Planeta, 2004.


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Winter Break in the Southwest: Mission San Xavier del Bac

This year over Winter Break I decided it would be smart to spend a few weeks in warmer weather – last year’s frigid Iowa winter made for a rather tiring “Spring” semester. We decided to visit Tucson, Arizona, to spend time with friends and family, eat lots of tamales and tacos, and soak up some sunshine! While I had been to Tucson several times before, I had never quite managed to visit the San Xavier mission just outside of the city, on the Tohono O’odham San Xavier Indian Reservation. The Church at this site is a fantastic example of Spanish colonial architecture in the United States, and this time I made sure to be a good tourist and include it on our trip. I have written before about the importance of including Hispanic culture and history from within the US into Spanish classes (as opposed to relegating it to Latino or Chicano studies seminars), and I hoped this visit would provide me with additional knowledge to bring to my future classrooms.  I was especially excited that I purchased a coloring book of the “Madonnas of Mexico” – each image appears with an English and Spanish information paragraph. I’m fairly certain that I will find myself coloring in my office at some point this semester when I’m feeling stressed!


Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, AZ (January 2015) – image mine


Vendors selling “Indian Frybread,” beans, and all sorts of delicious homemade concessions in the sprawling plaza in front of the church

According to the plaque on the church, “Mission San Xavier del Bac was founded by the Jesuit missionary, Fr. Eusebio Kino in 1692. The present church was built under the direction of the Franciscans. Construction began in 1783 and was completed in 1797.” As an 18th century edifice, the church is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona. Importantly, it was a part of New Spain (Mexico) for just as long as it has been a part of the United States – The Gadsden Purchase of 1854 ultimately placed the Mission inside the US. The “History” page of the Mission’s website provides a brief overview of the history of the site and structure, as well as a timeline of major events, treaties, and legislation that affected the Mission. Below are a few images of the Church’s exterior. You can see that the left tower has been restored most recently.


The interior of the church is quite Baroque in its rich, detailed sculpture and embellishments. According to the Mission’s information page, very little is known about the people who decorated the interior, but the artwork was most likely created by artists from Queretero, in what is now Mexico. The sculptures, paintings, and frescoes boast brilliant colors and ornate details typical of European Baroque styles (Byzantine and Moorish). The National Park Service travel itinerary on American Latino Heritage presents detailed information about the architecture and history of the San Xavier Mission Church. Below are images of the main altar, followed by two altars just off to the side of the central one. In general, I was struck by the juxtaposition of contemporary green and red Christmas decorations and tinsel with such intricate and historic baroque sculpture and painting.


Central Altar, Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson Arizona (January 2015) – image mine


Central Altar, Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson Arizona (January 2015) – image mine


Central Altar, Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson Arizona (January 2015) – image mine

Below is the alter dedicated to Saint Francis, which is to the left of the main altar. It serves as a destination for both reverent pilgrims and local devotees who travel to the Church with special needs, requests, or thanks to give the Saint. According to the Mission’s website, the tradition of praying to God through the intercession of Saint Francis goes back to Father Ignacio Joseph Ramirez y Arellano, “who is believed to have had a miraculous state in death that was witnessed by people from all over the Tucson area.” Those who come with needs or prayers often leave a small, handwritten message at the Saint’s altar or at the base of his sculpture. Interestingly, given the high-tech world in which we live, you can now leave a message for Saint Francis online – simply fill out the online petition and your intention will be printed out and offered to Saint Francis (confidentially, of course!). I may just have to do this – if only for the sake of using the internet as intercessionary prayer!


Altar to St. Francis at Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, AZ (January 2015) – image mine


Finally, the Nativity Scene inside the church contained figures that represented the cultural and artistic heritage of the Native American community of the greater Southern Arizona region. The Mission is still run by Franciscans, yet it continues to serve the Native community, the Tohono O’odham, within which it was built. While the architecture and design of the church is decidedly European, there clearly exists a mixture of Colonial Spanish and Native American influences within the present decor.  Importantly, while many in the present community identify as Catholic, traditional beliefs and practices have not been lost, and they continue to be passed down from elders. In addition to the Nativity scene, there is also a statue dedicated to one of the first Native American Saints in the Roman Catholic Church, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. The Southwest Photo Journal has beautiful images of the celebration of her canonization at San Xavier.


Nativity Scene inside the Church (Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, AZ. January 2015) – image mine


Details. Nativity Scene inside the Church (Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, AZ. January 2015) – image mine

This wooden statue of an O’odham woman is part of the interior wall design in San Xavier del Bac.

Wooden statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American Saint. Part of the interior wall design in San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, AZ. (image from Galen R. Frysinger – http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/american_latino_heritage/San_Xavier_del_Bac_Mission.html)

After learning about the Tohono O’odham Nation for this short blog post, I cannot help but focus on the erasure of Native communities and their narratives from both our knowledge of history and of our contemporary cultural imaginary. For example, while I found information about the Gadsden Purchase on several websites, none included references to the O’odham people. On the Tonono O’odham Nation homepage, however, the (delayed) effects of this purchase on Native communities is highlighted:

“On the U.S. side of the border, the Gadsden Purchase had little effect on the O’odham initially because they were not informed that a purchase of their land had been made, and the new border between the United States and Mexico was not strictly enforced. In recent years, however, the border has come to affect the O’odham in many ways, because immigration laws prevent the O’odham from crossing it freely. In fact, the U.S.-Mexico border has become “an artificial barrier to the freedom of the Tohono O’odham. . . to traverse their lands, impairing their ability to collect foods and materials needed to sustain their culture and to visit family members and traditional sacred sites.” O’odham members must produce passports and border identification cards to enter into the United States” (http://www.tonation-nsn.gov/history_culture.aspx).

I’ll end this post with a few colorful images of the chapel at San Xavier, which was overflowing with votive candles, rosaries, santitos, and flower offerings. If you ever have the opportunity to visit the Mission, I highly recommend it. In the meantime, you can take a virtual tour here.

IMG_0067 IMG_0068

Have you visited the San Xavier Mission? What other examples of Colonial Spanish Architecture within the United States have become popular tourist attractions?

Posted in History, US Southwest | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Memory of War in Madrid

I recently came across the Spanish blog and online magazine Yorokobu, a Madrid-based publication that discusses historical events and narratives not typically featured in traditional media. According to their “About” page, the writers at Yorokubu aim to inspire their audience by prompting the discovery of extraordinary individuals and events that are not necessarily “famous” or featured in mainstream news. In their words, their blog, magazine, and social networks feature creativity, innovation, reflection, and humor… always from a positive and “slow” focus. Isabel Garzo‘s recent post on their blog, “Madrid not so long ago: Windows to the war in Google Street View,” features a project by Madrid-based (Chicago born) musician and artist Sebastian Maharg. Maharg juxtaposes historical images of Madrid during the Civil War (1936-39) with modern day photographs taken by Google’s streetcar. The results are both beautiful and haunting. As Garzo’s Spanish post describes them, Maharg’s “series of photographic montages… rattle the conscience of the spectator with disquieting flashbacks.”

Calle Montera (1937). Image via http://www.yorokobu.es/guerra-civil-street-view/

Maharg explains that he got the idea for this project after seeing a series in The Guardian that fused current images from Google Street View with photographs of the First and Second World Wars. The city-subjects in The Guardian‘s series are multinational, and include both larger cities and smaller towns across Europe and North America: France (Paris), Belgium, the US (New York City), Canada (Toronto), and England (London), to name a few. I highly recommend viewing the entire series. Maharg’s project is essentially a replication – in a purely Spanish cultural context –  of this phantasmagoric endeavor. He found that those evocative photographs provoked such visceral responses in the viewer that they essentially caused one to feel as if they had traveled back in time; their present surroundings were transformed entirely. (I am paraphrasing Maharg’s Spanish commentary in Garzo’s original post.)

Both Maharg’s and The Guardian‘s fusion of historic photography and modern Google Street Views reveal windows into the past – a past that is in reality not as distant as we may consider it.  In images like these, we observe the way in which history remains in all corners of our contemporary cities and lives. Maharg explains: “I believe it is easy to forget the history that surrounds us. We associate the streets through which we wander with our lives, without perceiving the truly dramatic situations that were experienced by others in Madrid.” Not surprisingly, he speaks of contrast as a key factor of the project, noting that strength resides precisely in these unpleasant counterpoints that provoke pause. Our thoughts are interrupted, disquieted by the fact that “the background of cadavers, ruins, and hunger is fused with the almost banal daily existences of people walking about and shopping.” These images, and Maharg’s commentary, speak to the increasing presence of and debate surrounding historical memory in contemporary Spanish cultural production. In fact, Maharg had personal, as well as artistic reasons for pursuing this project – his grandfather fought and died with the Spanish National Front in January, 1939. This personal connection to Spanish national history (and memory) is a salient feature of contemporary Spanish cultural production, owing largely to the “Pacto del olvido (Pact of forgetting)” that followed the fall of Franco’s dictatorship in  1975 and to the “Ley de la Memoria Historica (Historical Memory Law)” which was passed in 2007. I’ll briefly discuss each of these below.

Puerta del Sol (1939)

Puerta del Sol (1939) .Image via http://www.yorokobu.es/guerra-civil-street-view/

In 2007, Spain passed the Historical Memory Law (Ley de Memoria Histórica). The law officially recognized the victims of the Spanish Civil War, gave rights to the victims (and their descendants) of the war and subsequent dictatorship, and formally condemned the Franco Regime (1939-75), among other things. There were still groups that opposed this law, however, perceiving it as insufficient on the one hand, or a new form of political propaganda on the other. On the official page of the Spanish Government, Memoria Histórica, the stated goals of this law include acknowledging the rights of recognized victims, healing past wounds, and eliminating any element of division between citizens. The statement on the “Archive” page is especially relevant to projects of “memory” like Maharg’s: One of the priorities of the Historical Memory Law is the summary (review) and diffusion of historical information and relevant documents pertaining to the Civil War, exile, and the dictatorship. [“La Ley de Memoria Histórica tiene como una de sus prioridades la recopilación y difusión de la información histórica y de los documentos  relativos a  la Guerra Civil, al exilio y a la dictadura.”]

Puerta del Sol (1936)

Puerta del Sol (1936). Image via http://www.yorokobu.es/guerra-civil-street-view/

While these would seem to be logical goals in many countries, the recognition and diffusion of the unpleasant historical past is of utmost importance in contemporary Spain, given that the Spanish transition from the Franco dictatorship to democracy in the late 1970s and early 1980s was marked by the “Pact of forgetting(or forgetfulness),” or “El pacto de olvido.” According to Madeleine Davis in a 2005 article, this political agreement was “Spain’s way of dealing (or not dealing) with its repressive legacy” (p. 863). In essence, the pact promulgated a philosophy oriented towards the future of the Spanish nation that depended on leaving the violence, repression, and shame of the past behind. It has since been critiqued and characterized as “a deliberate, but largely tacit, agreement to ‘forget‘ the past—a pact of oblivion based upon an ‘erasure of memory‘ or a ‘collective amnesia‘” (Davis p. 863-64). This strategic position has certainly had a lasting impact on Spain’s collective consciousness and the individual historical awareness not only of those Spaniards living through the transition, but of those born during the post-dictatorship decades.  The “pacto del ovido” suppressed difficult questions about the (recent) past, and no individuals or parties were held accountable for or charged with any human rights violations, which were numerous during both the war and dictatorship (Davis suggests as many as 30,000 individuals were executed and buried in mass graves, p. 864)). Moreover, all Francoist symbols were removed from public buildings and spaces, and Franco had been highly visible in the public sphere (Hadzelek). The interplay of historical memory and amnesia has thus affected Spanish representations and discussions of the violence and trauma of war, exile, the dictatorship, and human rights violations.

Calle Toledo (1936)

Calle Toledo (1936), just off one of the entrances to the Plaza Mayor, the arch of which can be seen in the background. Image via http://www.yorokobu.es/guerra-civil-street-view/

A note on the above/below images – The above contains the slogan, “No pasarán,” or “They will not pass,” a common phrase appearing on posters and propaganda defending Madrid…. Below, a large poster encouraging the evacuation of the city covers the façade of a building at the heart of the city center.  See my previous post on Civil War Posters for more examples of such propaganda slogans and imagery. To view Maharg’s entire project, visit the original Yorokobu site to which I have linked several times in this post.

Puerta del Sol (1937)

Puerta del Sol (1937). Image via http://www.yorokobu.es/guerra-civil-street-view/

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, a large quantity of the literary and cultural production of contemporary Spain is centered on themes of historical memory and the recovering and remembering of the nation’s past. In his 2009 article, Julius Ruiz questions the “pacto del olvido” and notes that “Seventy years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, the appetite among Spaniards for accounts of the brutal repression carried out by both sides during the conflict is evident. Books on Republican and Francoist terror… regularly appear in non-fiction bestseller lists [and] films depicting the experiences of victims have been commercial successes. Las 13 Rosas, a film that recounts the exectution of thirteen young women in Madrid in August 1939, was the third highest grossing Spanish pictures in 2007″ (459). A few other  contemporary examples are the novels La caída de Madrid (Rafael Chirbes, 2000)Soldados de Salamina (Javier Cercas, 2001) and La voz dormida (Dulce Chacón, 2002); and the films Soldados de Salamina (based on the novel; directed by DavidTrueba, 2003) and Las 13 Rosas (dir. Emilio Martínez Lázaro, 2007).

What narratives have you read, or what films have you seen, that deal with these themes? If you have taught contemporary Spanish literature, what texts and resources are you favorites?


Davis, Madeleine. “Is Spain Recovering its Memory? Breaking the Pacto del olvido.” Human Rights Quarterly 27.3 (2005): 858-80. [Project Muse: https://muse.jhu.edu/journals/human_rights_quarterly/v027/27.3davis.html]

Garzo, Isabel. “Madrid hace no tanto: ventanas a la guerra en Google Street View.” Yorokobu. 26 November 2014. http://www.yorokobu.es/guerra-civil-street-view/

Hadzelek, Aleksandra. “Spain’s ‘pact of silence’ and the Removal of Franco’s Statues.” [Australian National University Press – http://press.anu.edu.au/apps/bookworm/view/Past+Law,+Present+Histories/9961/ch09.html]

Ruiz, Julius. “Seventy Years on: Historians and Repression during and after the Spanish Civil War.” Journal of Contemporary History 44.3 (2009): 449-72. [JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40543043]

Posted in Art, History, Spain, Spanish Civil War | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Posters and Propaganda from the Spanish Civil War (1936-39)

A few weeks ago one of my friends passed on a link to these Spanish Civil War posters, which were published over at Retronaut, “The Photographic Time Machine.” I had just finished teaching a unit on representations of the war in film (El laberinto del fauno), theater (Escuadra hacia la muerte), and art (Picasso and Dali) so this was a timely find.

Since there was no text accompanying this particular “photo-blog” entry, I wanted to do a bit more investigation. The post linked to the Spanish National Library (Biblioteca Nacional de España) and the images contain their copyright, but I was unable to find these exact images at the library’s website. I did, however, find an extremely detailed online exhibit curated by the University of California, San Diego: The Visual Front. Posters of the Spanish Civil War. The site contains a chronology of the war, an introduction to the history and power of images used in revolution and war (by Alexander Vergara), and a visual index of nearly 100 Spanish Civil War posters. From the visual index page, you can click on each thumbnail to learn more about each specific poster; details include English translations, sponsors and distribution, and a general overview of the social, political, and cultural context that informed each visual.

UCSD’s online exhibit, “Visual Front,” contains only a sample of the numerous poster created during this time period – according to the introduction, about 1,500 to 2,000 unique posters were designed during the war years (1936-39), and about 2,000-3,000 editions of each were printed.  In this post you will find a sample of the propaganda posters and information available over at the UCSD exhibit. Since I ended up finding such an enormous variety of posters from various websites as a result of my online investigation [links below], I am planning to do a follow-up post with a more focused analysis of repeated themes and imagery – given my current research interests, it will likely focus on the way in which gender (masculinity and femininity) and the family (mothers, fathers, children) are deployed to communicate a range of messages regarding nationalism and Spanish patriotism.

Below is the first poster that caught my attention – produced by the anarcho-syndicalist trade union, the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, or National Confederation of Labor). Here, as the UCSD summary explains, “the Spanish conflict is presented as the struggle of man against beast.” It was designed by the artist and graphic designer Manuel Monleón (1904-76), who specialized in techniques of photo-montage. This poster is likely from the early months of the Civil War in 1936.

In the next poster below, “Mañana el mundo, hoy España / Tomorrow the world, today Spain”, I was drawn to the juxtaposition of a smiling baby, Hitler, and Paris – three elements that scream political propaganda if there ever were any! Here, the Spanish conflict is placed within a lager scale, suggesting that Spain may become “the gateway to the spread of fascism across Europe and the ‘world’.”

Tomorrow the world, today Spain. [Source: http://libraries.ucsd.edu/speccoll/visfront/newadd27.html%5D

I didn’t realize it until I read the summary on the UCSD website, but the figures surrounding the German document on the lower left corner are actually dead Spanish children – knowing this makes the image of the smiling, happy baby in non-fascist France all the more powerful. Invoking children – both dead and alive – is in fact a powerful means of legitimizing one’s political position.  In this regard, I couldn’t help but think of Lee Edelman’s work on the link in political discourse between the child (as a concept) and futurity, or national prosperity. As Edelman points out, the figure of “the Child” within political rhetoric creates a form of “self-evident one-sidedness,” given that the innocence of a child in need of defense is such an uncontested, uncontroversial cultural value (18-19).  See Edelman’s article “The Future is Kid’s Stuff: Queer Theory and the Death Drive” [link at the bottom] for an exceptional interrogation of the politics that informs “the trope of the child” (19). In any case… I may revisit this article in more detail as I explore these posters over the next few weeks.

Finally, a third poster that interested me was one of the few in the UCSD collection that featured female figures: “Que tu familia no viva el drama de la guerra: Evacuar Madrid es ayudar a la victoria final / Don’t let your family live the drama of the war: To evacuate Madrid is to help the final victory.” According to the summary, “this poster was distributed between mid-December 1936, when the government of Madrid began its intensive effort to evacuate the city, and April 1937, when the issuing entity was dissolved.” Evacuating the city was considered essential to avoid increased civilian casualties and, while many citizens had indeed fled to safety in other regions of Spain, the exodus slowed down by late December. This poster attempts to show the dangers of living in the city – not only was the threat of enemy bombers greater, but provisions and secure housing were becoming scarcer. And of course, what better way to convey this danger than to depict the terror faced by women and children?

Take some time to visit the links below – While I selected a few posters from UCSD’s  “Visual Front” exhibit, I actually think there are more curious, visually appealing posters on a few of the sites linked below. Which images would you like to explore further? Do you know of other useful online resources that I have not included here?


Edelmen, Lee. “The Future is Kid Stuff. Queer Theory, Disidentification, and the Death Drive.” Narrative 6.1 (1998): 18-30. JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20107133

The Visual Front: Posters of the Spanish Civil War. University of California, San Diego’s Southworth Collection, which I referenced and relied heavily upon for this post.  Introduction by Alexander Vergara.

Digital Poster Collection: Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Here you can view posters from a variety of political and cultural contexts: Spain’s Republican and Nationalist Factions, France, and Germany.

Library of Congress: Spanish Civil War posters: The Library of Congress’ collection contains approximately 120 posters. You can click on the thumbnails to access JPEG files, and very basic information is provided for each poster (date created/published, titles and translations, and the creator, sponsor, or advertiser). Unlike the UCSD’s “The Visual Front” exhibit, there is no narrative description or background information provided.

Retronaut: Posters from the Spanish Civil War. These images are extremely colorful and among the most compelling visually, however there is no information provided about any of the posters.

Posted in Art, History, Spain, Spanish Civil War | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Maternity and Madrid: Gendered Spaces in La rampa (1917)

I have officially decided that September is the fastest-moving, shortest month of the (academic) year. It flies by quicker than winter break. One day you are rather calmly introducing the course syllabus and getting to know new students… the next you are grading essays and the first round of chapter exams, creating midterm exam and project prompts, and counting down the days until fall break. Who assigns all this student-work anyway?!?

In addition to teaching my three classes, I had volunteered to present at one of Grinnell’s European Studies Salons this semester. This past Thursday evening was the first in a series of three “Salons” this fall hosted by Grinnell College’s European Studies Concentration. The events are intended to promote the college’s European Studies Concentration while allowing students and faculty to share and discuss their academic research projects in relaxed, non-academic settings. The promotional fliers on campus describe the Salons as “social gatherings for the informal exchange of ideas with food, drink, and good cheer.” The first salon, for example, was hosted by Professor Kelly Maynard (History), and the theme was “Sex and the City”. For a new initiative, we had an excellent turnout of more than 30 professors and students which, to be honest, was actually a larger audience than I have faced at many professional conferences! I think it was the allure of “food and drink,” combined with the enticing topic of “sex and the city”. I presented a portion of my research on the representation of specifically gendered city spaces – notably Madrid’s maternity ward – in Carmen de Burgos’ 1917 novel La rampa; Kristina Kosnick, lecturer in the Department of French and Arabic, presented on narrative strategies used by protagonists in contemporary francophone texts to relate their bodies to the urban cities that surround them; and Dana Sly, a senior Art and Art History major at Grinnell  (’15), discussed the research she conducted last semester on women in the Sherlock Holmes series.

Maternity in Madrid - Title slide

Title slide for my presentation

While La rampa and the maternity ward form a portion of the second chapter of my current book project, and I have written a relatively lengthy article on this topic, I approached that argument largely with regards to how the female protagonist and her pregnancy functioned didactically as a means of educating (warning?) women of the potential risks and pitfalls of motherhood (in general, such “negative” depictions of pregnancy and motherhood were uncommon at this time).  My women’s literature course also read an abridged version of La rampa last semester, and I discussed their projects on female identity here. But for this short, informal presentation, I re-framed my analysis to concentrate on the gendered nature of the maternity ward as an enclosed space within Urban Madrid – within this unique setting, readers encounter varied female experiences that are conspicuously absent from canonical male-authored narratives dealing with life in Madrid at the height of modernity. Isabel’s experience in La rampa does not fit within the image of Madrid as a bustling, metropolitan city full of new opportunities (like the picture above), which is often presented by male writers during the same time period. On the contrary, Burgos’ novel opens with a heartfelt, rather ominous dedication to her female readers:

“To the multitude of defenseless, disoriented women who have come to me, asking me what path they should take, and who have caused me to lament their tragedies” (1).

According to the newest edition of "La rampa" (Stockcero 2006), this cover graced the earliest editions of the novel.

According to the newest edition of “La rampa” (Stockcero 2006), this cover graced the earliest editions of the novel.

From the onset, readers can deduce that their protagonist will face challenges and setbacks in her quest to improve her lifestyle in the city. To briefly summarize La rampa, Burgos portrays the life experience of Isabel, a single, formerly middle-class woman struggling to support herself in Madrid. She works as a shopgirl in the centrally located Bazar, but when she discovers she is pregnant her life takes a dramatic turn. Due to increasing physical limitations, Isabel must give up her job and, as a result of losing her only source of income, she seeks out Madrid’s charitable maternity hospital, la Casa de Maternidad.

I limited my discussion to two main elements: (1) the geographic location of the maternity ward and (2) how experiencing pregnancy in this location affected women’s sense of self. First, the precise geographic location of the Casa de Maternidad within Madrid is especially relevant to an analysis of gendered spaces within the capital. According to the novel, along with the Hospital General, the open-air flea market El Rastro, and the Tobacco Factory, the Casa de Maternidad and the attached orphanage (the Inclusa) were strategically grouped together, just outside the increasingly modern city center. The peripheral location of the maternity ward thus obscured both the unpleasant aspects of pregnancy, as well as the consequences of what were considered immoral sexual relations. As the protagonist approaches the doors of the maternity ward, she fixes her gaze upon its looming presence:

“It seemed that they had grouped everything together in this neighborhood in order to clean the golden city center of its miseries – the same way that they cast the dead far away, in the outskirts of the city, so that the view of the Cemetery and its putrid emanations do not trouble or contaminate the city’s inhabitants” (103).

Given that the Casa de Maternidad depicted in the novel was an actual institution that existed in 1920s Madrid (near the neighborhood of what is today Lavapies), I thought a map depicting the city at this time would be useful for illustrating the citation I selected from the novel. At The 1900 Collection, I discovered several old maps and plans of Madrid from between 1899-1929 – high-resolution copies can be purchased for about 13 euros. Below is a low resolution copy of the image I selected from 1899 (the novel takes place in 1917):

Madrid - 1899

Map of Madrid during the 1920s. You can access a larger version of the map here: http://www.discusmedia.com/catalog.php?catId=9.1.12

This map provides an important visual of the location of the Casa de Maternidad in relation to the areas of the city most frequently discussed and presented in both literary and cultural history accounts of Madrid at this time. To discuss this space, I referred to Michel Foucault’s concept of the heterotopia, though I simplified it significantly for an audience composed of undergraduate students from many different fields of study (including biology, political science, philosophy, and languages). There is a link to Foucault’s article at the end of this post, and you can view my PowerPoint presentation and paper to read my interpretation of the ward through this principle. The main point I wanted to emphasize was the way in which this city space functioned as a means of identifying and isolating a specific portion of the female population – single mothers. By way of this “heterotopic” spatial isolation, single mothers in this ward represented an immoral deviation from the traditional norm of female pre-marital chastity. Even more importantly, this was a gendered transgression, as no men occupied this institution, nor did a parallel space exist for sexually “immoral” males.

Casa de Cuna, Cadiz (Spain). I have been having difficulty locating images of Madrid’s Casa de Maternidad. This image depicts the interior of the Casa de Cuna in Cadiz, and institution run by Catholic Nuns that would take in abandoned infants and children. See the link for its fascinating history.

Of equal importance is the fact that La rampa provides a counter-discourse to official historical records. While the website of Madrid’s Hospital General Universitario refers to the “Historia del Hospital Materno Infantil,” it provides little insight into the actual experience of women in the institution at various points in history. For example, when discussing the place of the ward within the city, the website explains that in the late nineteenth-century, “the hospital’s fame and prestige had extended throughout all of Madrid.” Certainly there is truth to this statement; a hospital of this size at the turn of the century was indeed an admirable display of science, medicine, and progress. However, the details Burgos includes in her novel indicate that female patients were certainly not benefiting from nor celebrating this institution’s “fame” or “prestige”. On the contrary, they suffered greatly within the walls of the ward and were mistreated by the nuns who worked there. Below are a few examples of the way in which Burgos incorporates the medical language of progress into a decidedly non-progressive depiction of the female experience in this space.

  • As she enters the main room of the Casa de Maternidad, the narrator describes Isabel’s impressions of her new peer group: “…that group, formed of about fifty withered, haggard women who appeared tired of supporting their dropsical abdomens… Some of them were married women who, lacking proper medical care, found themselves there; but the majority were single women, the deceived, the abandoned. There were old women, repeat offenders who had already left several children there, who only saw their maternity as an unpleasant physical accident, purely mechanical, from which it was necessary to escape as if it were typhus or pneumonia, without any sort of sentimentality” (108).
  • Pregnancy is described as an illness, show to attack and disable the female body; Isabel fails to recognize herself upon catching a glimpse of her reflection prior to entering the Casa de Maternidad: “Was she really that flaccid woman, with swollen features even despite her emaciation; with a tired face, fallen; cheeks covered by a yellowish tinge that seemed to cover her eyes, giving her that peculiar expression of pregnant woman; that opaque look that appears to convert their pupils into the crystals of glasses through which they wish to see other eyes?” (104).
  • In La rampa, women are not happily awaiting the birth of a beautiful new baby, but rather suffering from an illness provoked by the “polyp, fetus, garbage, illness, stain, or tumor stirring within their wombs” (123-27). The words child, son, daughter or baby (hijo/a, niño/a, bebé) are virtually absent from the chapters dedicated to the Casa de Maternidad, effectively dehumanizing and devaluing the maternal experience within the walls of this institution.

All of the above translations are my own and, to be honest, translating the Spanish to English was quite eye-opening – I felt the force of the language even more profoundly when attempting to find English equivalents. Also, I had never used the word dropsical before, and I always appreciate “learning” English while studying Spanish!

Conditions in which children lived and played in early 20th century Madrid. The Casa de Maternidad and the attached Inclusa took in abandoned children, however they discouraged women from leaving their children in the institution after giving birth due to the very little space available. (Foto: Páez, 1914; Memoria de Madrid. Taken from: http://laventanadeteresa.blogspot.com/2012/05/la-maternidad-2-parte.html)

As this post has gotten a bit long, I will not go into more detail about the second main aspect of my presentation (how experiencing pregnancy in this location affected women’s sense of self, using Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject), but you can access my short English paper at the end of this post if you’re interested in learning more. I also want to make it clear that I am in no way attempting to endorse Burgos’ fictional narrative as an historically accurate depiction of pregnancy in Madrid at this time; I do, however, believe literature provides us with another window through which to view history, and therefore even fictional accounts contain relevant information about the past. I will end this post here with the slide I also used to wrap up my presentation – three different covers that were used to illustrate La rampa at three different moments. What you you think about these different depictions of the novel? If you have read La rampa, which do you think is most accurate? Misleading? Perhaps inappropriate? I would enjoy your comments of feedback, especially if you have used the novel in a Spanish literature course.



Bender, Rebecca M.
(paper) “Maternity in Madrid: Gendered Spaces in Carmen de Burgos’ La rampa (1917)”
(PowerPoint) “Maternity in Madrid: Gendered Spaces”

Burgos, Carmen de. La rampa, ed. Susan Larson. Buenos Aires: Stockcero, 2006. Print.

Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces.” Trans. Jay Miskowiec. Diacritics 16.1 (1986): 22-27. Print. JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/464648. PDF available online here.

“Historia del Hospital Materno Infantil.” Hospital General Universitario Gregorio Marañón. Comunidad de Madrid. 2002. Web. 7 Sept. 2010. <http://www.madrid.org/cs/Satellite?cid=1142588696022&language=es&pagename=HospitalGregorioMaranon%2FPage%2FHGMA_contenidoFinal>.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror. An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia U P, 1982. Print.

Ugarte, Michael. Madrid 1900: The Capital as Cradle of Literature and Culture. University Park: Pennsylvania State U P, 1996. Print.

Versluysen, Margaret Connor. “Midwives, medical men and ‘poor women labouring of child’: lying-in hospitals in eighteenth century London.” Women, Health and Reproduction. Ed. Helen Roberts. Boston: Routledge, 1981. 18-49. Print.

Posted in History, Literature, Modernity, Science and Medicine, Spain, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments