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Breaking the silence

June 4, 2010
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Spain struggles to put its bloody past into perspective

En Español

francoIt was a slow death. For five weeks, there had been abdominal cramps. Weakness. Chest pains. Delirium. And then, on November 20, 1975, General Francisco Franco, the dictator who had ruled Spain for 39 years, died at the age of 82.

Into the governing void stepped Prince Juan Carlos, who oversaw the transition of Spain from a dictatorship to a democracy within a remarkably short timeframe. The bloody era of Franco—during which an estimated 465,000 people lost their lives to combat, malnutrition, and execution—was over.

2010 marks the 35th anniversary of Franco’s death—as well as 35 years of struggle by the Spanish people to put the past into perspective. After Franco’s death, Spain enacted a pacto de silencio, or pact of silence. All dialogue about what had happened under Franco ceased since many felt that talking about the past would limit the country’s ability to move ahead.

Now, that silence is breaking, and difficult questions have emerged, including how to honor the thousands of people Franco murdered, which remnants of Franco’s regime—if any—should remain visible in the culture, what elements of history should be brought to light, and more.

A recent conversation with University of Michigan associate Spanish professor Cristina Moreiras-Menor, incoming Chair of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, reveals why and how Spain still remains deeply divided over its troubled history, and what it will take for Spain to heal the wounds of the past.

Michigan’s Center for European Studies-European Union Center (CES-EUC), in collaboration with the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies (WCED), devoted the winter semester of 2010 to exploring recent debates about the meanings of transition and memory in democratic Spain.

protester“Part of Spain feels that we need to erase all our past because it was a violent past,” says Moreiras-Menor from her office on the fourth floor of the Modern Languages Building. But a different part of Spain, she says, is ready to recognize “that the Franco dictatorship was horrible.”

In 2007, Spain passed the Ley de Memoria Histórica, or the Historical Memory Law, which officially recognizes victims on both sides of the Spanish Civil War, officially condemns Franco’s regime, prohibits political events at Franco’s burial sites, removes Francoist symbols from public buildings or spaces, and more.

While Moreiras-Menor thinks the law “is a good thing,” she also questions whether the government can “make a law of memories,” and whether legislation really is the best way to regulate discussions about the past.

Moreiras-Menor argues that instead, historical facts should be the focus. “I would like to see more historical accuracy about what [Franco’s regime] meant for Spain and the rest of the world,” she says.

Moreiras-Menor’s work focuses on precisely this: how many of the facts long buried in Spain’s past come to light not through textbooks and documents, but through the arts. Books, paintings, music, movies, and more.

The 2007 film Pan’s Labyrinth, for example, might on the surface seem to be a tale about a little girl’s vivid imagination. But underneath the visual splendor is a narrative about the armed resistance that fought Franco in the years following the Spanish Civil War. “That movie gives historicity to the [resistance],” Moreiras-Menor says. “The new generation in Spain doesn’t know about these figures,” in part because of the pacto del silencio.

Of course, bringing this buried history to light may take a backseat since Spain has other issues to contend with these days. Moreiras-Menor says immigration and a troubled economy are of pressing concern to Spaniards as well. But the debate about historical memory is still an important one.

“Franco died 35 years ago and Spain is still dealing with that, which seems antiquated in a way. The past leaves wounds on the present, and Spain has tried to pretend that’s not the case.”

Moreiras-Menor is aware of the role her own research plays in re-starting these difficult discussions. “I think it’s possible to dialogue about Spain’s past, and at the first front of the conversations are academics, historians, and cultural critics.”

Lara Zielin is Editor of LSAmagazine.  This story originally appeared on the LSA Wire. Second photo on this page by Javi S&M, used under Creative Commons license.

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