Why Spanish history is more relevant than you might think…

I’ve been reading and viewing a lot of Spanish history lately.  And I’ve written before here about why I think that is so important.  But recent national and international events have me thinking about the specific lessons we could learn in particular from Spain.  Is there a correlation between Isabel and Fernando’s decision in 1492 to expel the Jews from their kingdom and to persecute their remaining Muslim population and the current “no Syrian refugees because they might be Islamic terrorists” hysteria?  Between Spain’s often-brutal empire of the 16th to 18th centuries and our own ubiquitous international presence?  Between the bitter economic and social divisions that led to the Spanish Civil War and the angry rhetoric that results (whether intentionally or not) in mass shootings like we witnessed recently in Colorado Springs?  I would propose that yes, there are correlations, and that our national dialog would be better served by reasoned historical study and reflection than by name-calling and questionable “facts.”

As I’ve said, the last three books that I read all dealt with aspects of Spanish history.  I started with Henry Kamen’s Empire:  How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763 (HarperCollins, 2003).  Kamen is a prominent historian, and I spent quite a bit of quality time with his research on the Spanish Inquisition while I was writing my master’s degree thesis on representations of witches in Spanish literature and art, but had not read any of his more recent works.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this volume.  It is quite dense, yes, but Kamen makes a complex topic accessible.  I was particularly interested in his chapters on “The Frontier” and “Identities and the Civilizing Mission.”  And in the “Conclusion:  The Silence of Pizarro”, I couldn’t help but think back to the innumerable students during my career who protested that they shouldn’t be made to learn another language because everybody should speak English…everywhere in the world.  It echoes eerily the Spanish imperial insistence that “New World” natives should learn Castilian.  Even contemporaries like Garcilaso de la Vega “observed the lamentable inadequacy of many Spaniards in matters of language and the consequent gap of comprehension between cultures.”  That gap of comprehension had tragic consequences that still resonate today in the Spanish-speaking world.




After finishing Kamen’s book, I went back in time a bit with The Queen’s Vow:  A Novel of Isabella of Castile, by C.W. Gortner (Ballantine Books, 2012).  I had never read any of this author’s historical fiction, and at first I was not at all sure it’s as good as many reviewers indicate.  But as I read, Gortner’s voice grew on me.  Putting aside my annoyance with using “Isabella” instead of the correct Castilian “Isabel” (or my preferred medieval “Ysabel”), I did find that the book captured well the political tensions this remarkable woman navigated.  A common tendency in the recent biographies and novels I’ve read about Isabel is the inclination to try to explain away or rationalize actions she took that are reprehensible (hopefully) to modern sensibilities, like expelling all Jews in 1492 who refused to convert to Christianity.  While I agree with historians that she was acting within her milieu, and under intense pressure from a variety of religious and political forces, I still think judging and excluding people based on their religion is wrong.  (Yes, I’m looking at you, Donald Trump!)  Gortner has written another novel about Isabel’s daughter, Juana “La Loca”, that I’m looking forward to reading soon.  So I suppose I liked his writing well enough!

I rounded out my Spanish history reading with Hell and Good Company:  The Spanish Civil War and the World It Made, by Richard Rhodes (Simon & Schuster, 2015).  Rhodes won a Pulitzer Prize for a previous book, and he’s a very good writer, but something about this book just didn’t quite work for me.  It felt a bit choppy, lurching from detailed military descriptions of troop movements and bombs to an esoteric analysis of Picasso’s “Guernica”.  That said, I did learn a great deal about this conflict, and about the people who participated in it.  When I first studied in Spain, in 1980-81, Generalísimo Francisco Franco had only been dead for five years, and Spain was struggling to establish itself as a modern European democracy.  I was there during the attempted military coup of Antonio Tejero, an event that I have spent the last 34 years slowly beginning to really understand.  The Civil War that resulted in Franco’s dictatorship has taken me that long, as well, to start to wrap my mind around.  And it occurs to me that perhaps what bothered me about this book is less about the writing style and more the vague sense I got from reading it that we might, perhaps, be heading down the same road in our own country.  I’m not sure it’s that far of a stretch from “roughing up” protestors to committing mass executions.

I’ve also been watching a lot of Spanish history on the television.  RTVE (Radio y Televisión Española) has been streaming Carlos, Rey Emperador, about the grandson of Isabel and Fernando.  Carlos V was the monarch who oversaw the initial years of the Spanish empire, and also grappled with the rise of Protestantism. It is not nearly as good as Isabel, but the 16th century costumes and locations and stories are still fascinating and compelling.  I’ve been alternating this show with Velvet, which is another series picked up by Netflix (hence subtitled in English) and is set in a Madrid high fashion store.  While I don’t like it as much as Gran Hotel or Tiempo entre costuras — I find it a bit too formulaic and predictable — I’m enjoying 1950’s Madrid, the clothing, and, of course, the Spanish.

What I like about both television series is the way in which seemingly boring facts and figures become REAL and immediate.  And when we can also read critically, when we can look at how people quite like us reacted to situations and challenges much like the ones we face, then I think we’re more likely to make smarter — and more compassionate — decisions about our future.