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Time traveling in Spain: Past versus present

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SEPTEMBER 06, 2023

When a Spanish student who had lived in my home urged me to attend her wedding in Seville, I was excited to join the festivities. The invitation presented a chance to revisit a country that has   undergone transformational change. I knew the journey would be nothing less than epic because of the distance of time.

I last set foot in Spain in 1974 and 1975 during the final years of fascism under dictator Francisco Franco. I studied at the Complutense University of Madrid thanks to the University of California Education Abroad Program. 

Franco, who seized power in 1939 with Nazi Germany’s assistance, outlived fellow fascists Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini by 30 years. Known as El Caudillo — the “warlord” or “strongman” — Franco nearly died before I arrived in Madrid in 1974. He died for real after I resumed my studies at UC Berkeley in 1975.

Returning to Spain 47 years later propelled me between past and present while prompting me to contemplate democracy’s future. Braced to observe big changes in attitude, lifestyle, art and social mores, I was surprised by political tensions beneath Spain’s vibrant democracy.

As I rode the bus from the airport to Madrid’s center, I was struck by the helpfulness of passengers.

That contrasted with my past experience. Like other Europeans, Spaniards seem more reserved than Americans; but decades ago, many Spaniards were downright guarded and kept to themselves. I rarely heard English, much less Mandarin, German, Russian and the Tower of Babel surrounding me on the bus.

Riding through Chueca, Madrid’s gay-friendly neighborhood, reminded me of news I had read post-Franco that Spain had become one of the first European nations to allow same-sex marriage. Spain’s move to draft a democratic constitution facilitated other reforms, including freedom of religion. 

A flowering of artistic expression, especially in filmmaking, accompanied the removal of governmental restrictions. Meanwhile, Spain’s economy and standard of living improved after Franco’s death. In the mid-1970s, my Spanish household had allowed me only two showers a week.

As I exited the bus and walked toward the Gran Vía and Puerta del Sol, I noticed streets packed with people from around the world. In the ensuing days, wherever I was — be it in the street, a shop, a café or a museum — I found myself speaking Spanish with Mexican, Colombian, Argentinian, Chilean and Ecuadorian people as well as with Spaniards. 

No longer insular, Madrid is international.

There were few tourists during fascism’s final years. As an extranjera, or “foreigner,” I was regarded as though I were from another planet. The only Asian people I saw comprised a family operating a Chinese restaurant near Puerta del Sol. 

Now, there are Asian people representing every nation, including Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and China.

The day I arrived, I visited the apartment building where I had lived. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. My luck couldn’t have been better. 

A man emerging from the building listened to my story about how I had lived there 47 years ago. On seeing the snapshot of the Spanish couple with whom I had lived, Francisco Coello recognized Amparin, my Spanish host mother. He wanted to hear about my Spanish host father who had fled Communist Russia. 

My host father had fought with Franco to replace democracy with fascism. Coello and I agreed to meet for coffee to talk more — after the wedding I would attend in Seville. I felt as though I was making a new friend. 

Striking up a conversation, let alone making a friend, was not so easy decades ago. That caused me to ponder how fascism’s insistence on conformity stifles spontaneity, creativity, diversity and communication. 

In 1974 and 1975, I studied the Museo Nacional del Prado’s display of old masters — Velázquez, El Greco, Goya, Raphael, Ribera, Murillo, Zurbarán, Bruegel, Bosch, Rubens, Rembrandt. But I was deprived of new masters. Under Franco’s dictatorship, Madrid lacked a dynamic art scene. 

When fascists ousted democracy in 1939, many writers, musicians, philosophers and painters fled Spain. Those who stayed were imprisoned and/or executed, most notably poet Federico García Lorca, deemed “undesirable” for his leftist politics and sexual orientation. 

Pablo Picasso, another legendary artist, moved to France long before the civil war, and he later vowed never to return to Spain under Franco’s dictatorship. 

After such a long absence, I myself was something of an exile, so viewing Picasso’s “Guernica” topped the “must do” list. 

Herbert Behrens | Creative Commons

Acclaimed as the world’s most potent anti-war statement, “Guernica” depicts Nazi Germany’s and fascist Italy’s bombing of civilians in Guernica, a village in Spain’s Basque region. Spain’s democratic government commissioned the painting in 1937 to garner international support to fight fascism.

Fascists won the Spanish Civil War, which raged from 1936 through 1939, killing nearly a million people in a country about two-thirds the size of Texas. Viewing “Guernica” reminded me of today’s attacks on human rights around the world and the campaign of terror against many civilians.

There was little discussion about the civil war when I lived in Spain. And that hasn’t changed, according to tour guide and art history professor Dr. Almudena Cros. Although she mostly shepherds tourists through the Prado and other art museums, Cros offers a walkabout featuring the Spanish Civil War. 

Armed with vintage photographs and primary source documents, Cros points out civil war markers, many of which contain misleading information. An activist of historical memory, Cros also notes the lack of markers. Her tour begins at Madrid’s provincial government office, which served as a jail and torture chamber for Franco’s perceived enemies during the years I lived in Spain. There is no plaque describing this detail, nor is there a plaque on the opposite side of Puerta del Sol, where Nazi Germany dropped a bomb at a pharmacy. 

For me, what stood out during Cros’ presentation was seeing bullet holes, pock marks and craters on buildings at Complutense University of Madrid. When I attended classes there, no one mentioned that the campus was a strategic civil war battleground and site of a long stalemate. 

A new memorial on the campus honors volunteer soldiers from 50 nations who defended democracy. But I was disheartened to learn the memorial is occasionally vandalized. I was also shocked to learn that Cros is sometimes harassed in the streets when she talks or displays her flag of Spain’s democratic government that reigned from 1931 to 1939. 

Such anecdotes reveal the fault lines underlying Spain’s current democracy — a situation confirmed by other Spaniards, including two old friends who I hadn’t seen in decades.

To show me fascism is alive and well, my longtime friend Mariano Fernandez introduced me to Casa Pepe during a road trip from Malaga to Madrid. Nearly 100 years old, the family-owned business stands in the middle of nowhere. The combination restaurant, bar, souvenir shop and mini-museum contains a shrine to Franco and fascism. 

A political poster there declares, “With Franco 40 years of peace, justice and liberty. And with democracy, shit, shit!!!”

Casa Pepe attracts people who identify as fascist, falangist or who are dissatisfied with the government. From multiple conversations and the road stop’s ambiance, I gleaned that some Spaniards believe communists control the government. They feel the government is too liberal and accepting of immigrants, migrants and refugees. They want a return to “law and order.”

To my dismay, I realized the politics in Spain are just as polarized as those in the United States. But because I was traveling in a country with a longer history, I could connect to a time and place free of conflict. 

Córdoba, an hour train ride from the wedding I attended in Seville, is the subject of Lorca’s hauntingly prophetic poem “Song of the Horseman.” One verse roughly translated to English — “Death is watching me from the towers of Córdoba” — makes me think of Lorca’s execution by fascists in 1936. 

Córdoba is most renowned for its Mosque-Cathedral. Its seemingly endless columns and arches are simultaneously mesmerizing and breathtaking — just as I remembered them 48 years ago. 

Built atop centuries-old Visigothic and Roman ruins from 784 to 786 A.D., the Mosque-Cathedral became an important pilgrimage site. After founding one of Europe’s first universities, Córdoba became a mecca of learning where scientists, religious leaders, artists, philosophers, government officials and astronomers shared information and ideas. 

More impressive than its blend of western and eastern aesthetics is Córdoba’s lesson in history. For 300 years, before Spain’s monarchs decided otherwise, Christian, Jewish and Muslim people lived peacefully in Córdoba. 

Relearning this exceptional period of harmony gave me hope, making my trip to Spain nothing less than epic.

Hagstrom is a journalist and a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of UC Berkeley. She is the author of “Sara’s Children: The Destruction of Chmielnik,” a World War II history text documenting the survival of five siblings in Nazi Germany’s death camps.

Contact Suzy Hagstrom at 


SEPTEMBER 06, 2023