Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 6

4:40 p.m.

          “How long have you been living in Madrid?” asked Laura exasperated. “You’re making me want to go back to smoking.”

          “Long enough to know that this is not the way out of the city,” I replied annoyed. “I’ve never even seen these streets before in my life. This is like the goddamn Twilight Zone. Where the hell are we? We’ve been driving around the Complutense for hours. It’s killing my eyes!” Madrid’s largest public university, built largely in the post-war period with the sole purpose, in my humble opinion, of trying to round up the country’s seven worst architects and chain them to a desk until they produced the most hideous collection of functional and utilitarian design ever to be constructed in one place on the planet. Unfortunately for future generations, they achieved their goal, assembling so many eye sores at once, they made state buildings from communist east Europe appear ornate. Almost twee. Nothing about them imbues academic excellence or inspires higher order thinking. One gets the feeling that the masterminds behind the works wanted to equate higher education with living in a basement cell with a lidless toilet. Its only redeeming quality was maybe, and I mean maybe, its open space, which permitted the buildings to be built so far apart, you didn’t have to look at too many and any one time. Rumor has it, Franco wanted this setup so that his tanks could roll in and quell uprisings if the college students got too feisty. God knows he had his chance to blow the whole place to smithereens but didn’t take advantage of the opportunity. So, unfortunately, except for the help of a major seismic catastrophe forcing the state to raze them and start over, there is nothing you can do about it.  

          “Give me the phone,” insisted Laura. “And we’ll use Google maps.” Hearing those words is like sticking a knife in man’s heart. The ultimate emasculator. In today’s high-octane feminine charged society, with all that was fun about being male has been deemed worthy of public scorn, spatial orientation when driving remains one of our last bastions of manhood. Until Google came around.

          “I’m not Ok with that. But if you use it without my consent, I won’t stop you. ‘Cause if I drive by the Medical School building one more time, I’m going to get out and donate my internal organs. I am losing my will to live.”

          I knew how to get through the Complutense to the A-6 highway, mainly because I had assigned several hundred neurons to learning the route by heart, so as to avoid the obvious inconveniences of playing it by ear. But this time, I was trying to get on the M-30 beltway and was making it up as I went, using basically the sun as my only point of reference. There are some signs theoretically pointing you in the right direction, but more often than not, you get the feeling that the Department of Traffic seems to encourage you go it on your own. It’s then when you try to improvise and quickly realize how futile improvising is. 

          “We’re not far at all. Just follow my instructions.”

          “I refuse to. But if you say it out loud, it’s not my fault. Got it?”

          “Got it.”

          “Just promise me you’ll tell me when to turn before we’ve actually passed the street.”

          “Calm down. We’re on vacation, remember? We’re in no rush.”

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 5

The Law of Historical Memory, once passed, was off to a solid start until the conservative Partido Popular returned to power in 2011. Then procedures stalled. The new ruling party acknowledged the existence of the law but removed all funding, citing Spain’s ailing economy as the main cause, and effectively bringing progress in this department to a screeching halt. It wouldn’t be until the left-wing parties combined to take over the regional government that there was a renewed effort to execute the law. Cebolla’s time had come, and the long and short of it can be found in the minutes of the town council meeting on the fateful April day in 2017. They met in the usual place, a simple room decorated with practicality in mind. There was a solid wood table aligned in a U-shape filling up much of the space, rose pink curtains flanking the windows, flags representing the region of Castilla-La Mancha, Spain and the European Union in each corner, and in the center a royal blue banner with the Cebolla coat-of-arms stitched on it. The symbols which comprise it are two wolves on the right, next to a fig tree above two crossed keys. Symbols which on the surface are so unrelated, you’d think we were looking at a rebus.

          The debate started with some remarks made by the opposition party, which I assume was the Partido Popular, the nation’s center-right party. The speaker, Sr. Doblado Sánchez-Horneros, “wanted to know more about the basis for the changing of the names and wanted to express his concern over the potential problems the proposed changes might cause some of the residents of the town, since some residents will be affected by having to have their home address changed and, in some cases, their business address as well. Sr. Doblado Sánchez-Horneros went on to add that while he understood the reason for three of the new names, as they were the names previously used, he did not see the reason for renaming Calle Jose Antonio to Calle Castillo de Villalba. Why not Calle Santa Ana. That was its original name.”

          The mayor, Silvia Díaz de Fresno, replied that “this subject had been discussed on numerous occasions and that they have to comply with the law, but that they were aware that this might be a problem for some residents and therefore they didn’t regard it as a priority (the fact that they had waited ten years made that clear to me). She added that she personally was not offended by the names but due to the fact there was a formal complaint made by the president of the Protection of Historical Memory, which denounced the existence of a street called José Antonio, it was their duty to obey the law because the law is there to be obeyed. As for the change in names, she agreed…that the choice of names of the three streets to substitute Calle Calvo Sotelo, Calle Gran Canaria and Calle Comandante Sánchez Rubio was obvious because they were the original names of those streets before they had been changed, as indicated in the report prepared by a town clerk, but regarding the change for José Antonio, this is simply a proposal and that if you  (referring to the opposition party) have an alternative which is better, she would be more than happy to discuss it, mainly because this matter was of no special interest to her. She had originally come up with Calle de la Igualdad (Equality Street), because it sounded light and easy, but after discussing it with the town clerk, he suggested using a name associated with the town of Cebolla, but notied that because there already existed a Calle Barriada Santa Ana, the creation of a Calle Santa Ana might be confusing. So they came up with the Castillo de Villalba because the old castle is located within the town limits though many people associate it with (nearby town) of Malpica. That’s why we have these proposals, but if the opposition party can come up with a better choice, they have no problem with looking at it and, if need be, accepting it, because they don’t want to politicize the matter.”

          The bill was passed and the names approved. The changes are as goes:

Calle Calvo Sotelo Calle La Froga
Calle Gran Canaria Calle La Nueva
Calle Antonio Primo de Rivera Calle Castillo de Villalba
Calle Comandante Sánchez Rubio Calle Los Frailes

The opposition party abstained from voting, which is what these groups normally do when they don’t want to vote against progress but aren’t willing to support the other party either.

          The street sign had finally been taken down, but hardly a soul seemed to care, except for the neighbor whose sleep had been disturbed. In towns like Cebolla the whims of political parties don’t impact their world very much. They have other pressing matters to tend to, like annual crop yield, rampant unemployment and urban flight. These are communities which on the outside seem impervious to the fast-paced world of the major cities, and to an extent they are. Cebolla rarely grabs national attention because one gets the feeling that hardly anything ever changes here. And yet, if you look closely, the outside world has managed to touch this municipality more deeply than one can ever imagine. To such an extent, you’d think you were looking at all of Spain itself.

Six hours later, a pair of visitors was racing towards the heart of this town at blistering speed unaware of the events which had transpired that very morning. Their lives would never be the same again.

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 4

Back in Cebolla, there were four street names that were under scrutiny. One was Calle Calvo Sotelo, in honor of José Calvo Sotelo, a right-wing politician whose greatest contribution to posterity in his life was undoubtedly his death in 1936. A conservative monarchist who advocated a return of the royal family to preside over the turbulent years that led up to the Spanish Civil War, Calvo Sotelo (in Spain they often go by their last two names) was considered to be one of the leading voices of his day. He wasn’t bashful about his opinions either, expressing on more than one occasion that if the government could not establish order in the streets, the army should. There are clearly more democratic ways of conveying popular discontent with an administration’s performance, but this proposal actually coincided with an age-old tradition in Spain to simply remove a government by force when things didn’t go well. As you would expect, advocating a military intervention tends to polarize any nation. Those in support of his vow to “Make Spain Great Again” looked favorably upon his hardline approach, and he began to attract a greater following. Those against his views, regarded him with plenty of fear and loathing.

          Calvo Sotelo’s soaring career was cut short rather abruptly by a bullet that came to a stop in his head. In July of 1936, tensions in Spain were as high as they had even been in decades. Five years after the monarchy had been ousted in a referendum, the fledgling Second Republic teeter-tottered as it struggled to find a balance in the dizzying ideological scenario of the day. The political right was outraged by the loss of traditional Spanish values; the Church was incensed by the growing numbers of atheists; the socialists were irked with the Church; the communists miffed about the socialists; and the anarchists were pissed off with just about everyone. And if you add to that the disgruntled nationalists from three different regions (Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia) who wanted to separate all the together, who had a cocktail christened “chaos”. That very summer, the nation was on the verge of falling apart and would, in fact, begin to disintegrate before the month was out. But first, events would have occur to set the explosive situation off.

          On July 13, a group of soldiers detained Calvo Sotelo at his home and, in an act of cold-blooded revenge for the murder of a pro-government officer José Castillo just hours before, stuck him in the back of a truck, shot him and dumped his cooling body next to a cemetery which, if you think about it, was a kind of bizarre gesture of humanitarian consideration on the murderers’ part given the circumstances.

          There is debate as to whether the captors intended on doing him in or if it was just a major fuck-up. Research into the matter suggests that the latter seems the more likely. But if it was just a mistake, it was real doozy. His assassination did not cause the Spanish Civil War, but it is safe to say it effectively cemented a collision course which had been long in the making. For those unfamiliar with Spanish history, this was the “Archduke Ferdinand killing moment” of the Spanish conflict. The act the triggered the tragedy. Calvo Sotelo became an instant martyr for the fascist cause. His death ignited anger throughout the country, and undermined the credibility of the government, which was already quickly losing its grip on law and order. What’s worse, it persuaded a general who had been banished to the Canary Islands –I guess there are worse places they could send– by the name of Francisco Franco to become more pro-active. Apparently, he had had second thoughts about the uprising, mainly because he didn’t want to get hanged by his balls if it failed. With the situation spiraling out of control, he made up his mind that it was time to join the coup. Four days days later he was on a plane heading for Morocco to take charge of the seasoned legionnaires of the Africa army stationed in that Spanish protectorate and lead them in the crossing to mainland Spain. Calvo Sotelo had become a martyr. It was only fitting his memory be perpetuated in the streets of Castile.

          Another street in question was named Gran Canaria, after the third largest island of the Canaries. It’s a beautiful volcanic landmass and a haven for vacationers from around the world. Why was this seemingly innocuous reference to a pretty tropical isle so offensive to the sensitive Spanish ear? Maybe we should be asking, what such a place is doing being honored in a small, unassuming Spanish town to begin with. The connection is obvious once history comes into play. Franco, as we know, had not been sent to the Canary Islands to catch up on a little R&R for a job well done, but rather had been reassigned to the archipelago by the Spanish government because they saw him as a threat to the nation’s legitimate constitution. Time would prove they were right to feel that way. They just came up short in their efforts to prevent what know seems to be the inevitable.

          Then there was Calle Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera in honor of another major figure during that period. Son of the former dictator of Spain Miguel Primo de Rivera (yes, there has been more than one), he went on to found Spain’s version of the fascist party, known as el Falange. When war broke out in 1936, he was put in jail cell in Alicante, officially serving a sentence for possession of firearms. He was later tried for rebellion, even though he was in the slammer when the uprising started, condemned to death and shot on November, 20, 1936, the same day Franco would pass away 39 years later. He is currently buried in the basilica of the Valley of the Fallen near the El Escorial, in the province of Madrid, basically next to the caudillo. While José Antonio’s mausoleum-mate may soon be expelled from the grounds, he has been allowed to stay as a true victim of the war. His body will be taken from the altar and re-interred in a less privileged spot.  

          And finally you have Comandante Sánchez Rubio, a figure so unknown no one seems to even recall even his first name. He was just a soldier from Cebolla who happened to be stationed in Cebolla when Franco’s forces took over. Honored in his day as a local hero, he was on the black list for being on the wrong side at the wrong time. So, tough luck; he’s out!

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 3

What in the name of Sam’s hell was going on? The law, that’s what. Implementing the law, more like it. On April 27, 2017, a full fifteen months before the early morning skirmish of Calle Comandante Sanchez Ruiz, as it has been come to be known, a meeting of the Cebolla town council was held to address the matter of changing the names of several streets in the town in accordance with the Law of Historical Memory, a controversial piece of legislation which had been passed by the Spanish National Parliament a full ten years before in 2007. The Law of Historical Memory has been one of the most hotly debated decrees in recent Spanish memory, as is anything having to do with the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship. It was passed with the hope of bringing closure to a very painful time in this country’s recent past; it may have just opened the wounds further.

          For some Spaniards, though, closure had already occurred decades before when the Generalissimo died on November 20, 1975. The ensuing period of switching from a repressive dictatorship to a democracy under the format of a constitutional monarchy (known as La Transición in Spanish) played out without too much trouble. I say this with a large degree of hesitation, but let me explain. Those involved in the Transición look upon the achievement with pride. The image one has of those years is that of a peaceful and level-headed process, where sanity superseded visceral emotion, where pragmatism outdid revenge. And it’s fairly accurate in the sense that the country did not implode or rewind back to the explosive days of the 1930s. Society more or less cohered. But goodwill and pleasantries were not across the board by any means. Terrorist attacks by numerous separatist and Marxist groups inflicted hundreds of deaths and thousands of wounded. And you can’t ignore the fact that parts of the most conservative sections of the armed forces attempted to overthrow a legitimately elected government in 1981. By no means was it perfect sailing, but the Spanish seemingly pulled it off.

          How was it done? First of all, it wasn’t easy. You see, having your government run by a fascist dictator for 36 years is a stain on any country’s resume, but to help with the healing process, a Pact of Forgetting was agreed upon in 1975 by parties and factions on both sides of the political spectrum so as not to stir up unpleasant memories of the past. The feeling was that by not addressing the horrors of the past and not demanding anyone own up for their wrong deeds, the nation could focus on caulking the fissures and bringing about a smooth transition. This unofficial deal was institutionalized two years later with the Law of Amnesty of 1977, by which the parliament formally released any and all political prisoners, deleted their police records, and banned criminal procedures against anyone from that period, regardless of which side they were on. Basically, the idea was to erase the board and reset.

          The political far right was game for the idea. Who wouldn’t want to be criminally responsible for tens of thousands of human rights violations and get away with it scot free? The political left earned a reputation for acting with extreme generosity and uncommon understanding. Having achieved that, everyone leaders then got together to create a new framework for Spain’s future. All sides sculpted a well-thought-out constitution, restored democracy and got on to being just another stable Western European country, with great museums, terrific vacation spots, an unmatchable historical heritage, outstanding cuisine, annual entries at the Eurovision Song Contest, and to top it off, a World Cup soccer title in 2010. What more could a European country ask for?

          Meanwhile, reminders from the past were slowly but surely being plucked away from visibility. Between 1980 and 2000, statues, signs, monuments which had in any way honored the Franco period had been retired from public view, many times under the cover of the night to avoid confrontation. Streets were renamed, as were squares, fountains and other landmarks. Plaques were unscrewed and pried off building walls, paintings and pictures sent to the basement or just tossed all together. The cleansing was fairly comprehensive, but far from complete, especially in the small towns, where the vestiges proved more resilient. Was enough, enough, or was a more thorough job required?

          In 2007, the Socialist Party, under Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero, decided to propose a bill to deal with a number of issues associated with the sensitive past which had not been fully addressed. These went beyond just unhinging a bust or rechristening a lane. They also included financing the locating, identifying and exhumation of bodies buried in many of the countless number of common graves that littered the country, where the remains of an untold number of victims of the war lay. The most high-profile controversy was the mother of all disinterments, that of Franco’s body from the Valle de los Caídos Basilica (The Valley of the Fallen). The Franco-period church-monument-monastery built in honor of all victims of the Spanish Civil War, was never meant for the caudillo himself to be there in the first place, as he was not a victim of the war. He personally asked not to. But that is precisely where he ended up. The result was predictable, since the landmark acquired a kind of pilgrimage status for those who yearned for the days when you good suppress your opponents instead of rely on democratic voting. And while participation in these tributes has waned since the first few years, the fact remains, the old dictator still occupies a place of honor in the side of a mountain twenty-five miles from Madrid. 44 years later, left-wing parties are in the midst of a legal dispute with the Franco family, as they dispute where his final resting place will be. He’ll probably go, but when and where is a mystery.

          The Spanish Civil War and Francoism still hold a firm grip on the psyche of parts of this society, even though many citizens are hopelessly unaware of it. In fact, the two Spains that historians often refer two have their origins in conflicts that hark back to the 19th Century, but it’s the war “la Guerra” that continues to be most relevant to them.

          It may be tempting to say that bickering over events that occurred 40, 50, 60, 70 and up to 80 years ago is absurd, but it’s a more complex issue and more widespread phenomenon than people think. Some Americans, for example, are still coming to terms with visible reminders of their very own civil war. They may wrestle to recall the name of a general or a battle or even forget which century the conflagration took place, but that doesn’t matter. There are matters left unresolved, they’ll say. Just in the past few years, statues have been toppled and flags taken down, and crowds still fill the streets on occasion to protest the commemoration of former Confederate soldiers and leaders. Mind you, we are talking about an event that took place 150 years ago. So, it’s not really for us to judge others, which is a shame, because judging others is one of my favorite pastimes.

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 2

A couple of workers from the town maintenance department lumbered out of the vehicle and hauled their tools and a ladder to the corner of the street where the main square began. They lit cigarettes, exchanged a few instructions, aligned the ladder with its destination ten feet above and prepared for action. One climbed up to their desired height, produced a chisel from his pocket with one hand, grabbed a mallet which had been dangling from his hammer loop with the other, lined the two up and started chipping away at the edges of a colorful Talavera design ceramic plaque which indicated, before it was removed, the name the street had been known by for the previous 75 years: Calle Comandante Sanchez Ruiz. It was a tremendously long title for an extraordinarily short road, in honor of an immensely anonymous character from some forsaken annal of time. Mr. Sanchez was getting the boot, and some locals felt it was about time. Most, though, could not have given a crap.

          The nerve-racking echo of repeated knocking on a solid wall would have spurred even the most staid individual to rise from their bed and investigate. David, the neighbor whose home the plaque was lodged in, just happened to be one of those individuals. He emerged from the iron door outside his patio wearing only a summer robe (and we can assume something underneath) and slippers. He assessed the situation carefully. Though not necessarily as stable a person as he would like to be until he had his first cup of coffee, he felt he could manage the matter and avoid victims at the same time. He was also the proud owner of several hunting weapons, knew how to use them effectively and was quoted as saying once, after an evening of several gin & tonics served in glasses the size of vases, “Everyone should know what it feels like to be hunted down at least once in thier life. It builds character.”

          Without alcohol running through his veins, David was a decidedly less swashbuckling person. As a first course of action, he folded his arms and affected a long, determined glare of disapproval, which he planned on maintaining until one of the two looked in his direction and picked up on the gravity of the situation. But the workers pounded away and did not even acknowledge his presence at first, basically because they didn’t see him. The slight prompted him to adopt a new more aggressive approach. Within seconds he came up with a line he was sure would grab their attention and convey disdain at the same time, “Buenos días.”

          It lacked in creativity but you can’t say it didn’t achieve the desired effect. The man up top stopped hammering. Both he and his colleague looked in the direction of the morning salutation, where David had gone back to his pose of displeasure. They returned the greeting, “Buenos días,” nodded, and continued with the dismantling.

          David sensed that a peaceful resolution was going to be harder than he thought, but he was convinced he could cope. Thanks to the Mindfulness courses that he had taken when he was laid off two years before, he had learned to manage tense situations without, what people close to him described as, “going berserk”. He himself wasn’t armed, but the town employee, the worker in charge of removing the inscription, wielded a tool so imposing that would have passed for a battle mace, meaning that should things take a turn for the worse, he was at an immediate disadvantage. David realized he had nothing to defend himself with, but recalled that he was wearing slippers and that they might serve as a potential flying defense mechanism to divert their attention, should the need arrive. It would probably stun them just enough to give him time to scramble back inside his house and lock the door. The sensible thing to do, though, his Mindfulness coach had instructed him, was to bring tensions down a notch or two. So he shouted at the worker from a comfortable distance. “Is it really necessary for you to be doing this at this time of day?”

          “It is.” replied the worker on the ladder. “What do you want me to do about it?”

          “I want you to leave and come back when normal humans work. That’s what I want. It’s eight o’clock in the morning! Can’t a person get some rest around here?”

          “Of course they can. But that’s not the issue here. Do you always react this way to these situations?”

          “What do you mean, that’s not the issue? What are you, a psychologist?” Given the current unemployment rate of 17%, it was entirely possible. “This is simply not right.”

          “Do you hear that, Quique?” he addressed his coworker who was holding the base of the ladder and pretending to keep him safe. “We have a protestor here. An indignado.” The worker stepped down from his place up top and began to advance towards David, who glanced at his foot and wondered if he’d have time to snag the slipper and whip it in the aggressor’s direction. But the town employee paused to put down the mallet, mainly because it was too heavy, and inadvertently gave David the impression that he was a man of peace. “Look. I’m just doing my job. Is that a lot to ask?”

          “At this time of day, you bet it is. Come back later.”

          “Come back later, or what?”

          The ensuing minutes broke down, according the version reported to me, into an exchange of opposing views where each side had no hope of convincing the other and yet had no intention of being convinced. So they just insulted each other relentlessly until they had their fill. David, who in a matter of seconds had abandoned the counseling of his Mindfulness coach, finally suggested that the worker do something creative with the chisel, while his opponent recommended that if he had a problem the man go to the town hall and take it up there. That’s how they left it off. As is usual in these cases, there was much more bark than bite.

          David went back inside and vented his frustration by immediately taking a shower and scrubbing his head extra hard with shampoo, and the workers, riled by the altercation, decided they needed to take a break to calm down and sauntered over to a café on the other side of the square. The street sign no longer bore the name of the Commander, and only the top left corner where the town seal was exhibited remained. It isn’t clear if this was done out of respect for town property or because they forgot to finish the job, but the fact is, the emblem has been left untouched ever since.

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 1

8:06 a.m.

In a place of La Mancha, whose name is not easily forgotten, on the morning of August 14, something historic took place. The events unfolded just beyond the crack of dawn, an ungodly hour for the middle of the summer holidays especially when an insistent heat wave, now into its third week, was battering the country with record high temperatures. The vegetation shriveled at frightening rates and turned the countryside into a mix of humbled colors that ranged from parched khaki to deathbed brown. After such an extended stretch of punch after punch of punishing heat, the thermometers no longer had the will to cool off at night, except for maybe between five and seven in the morning when near imperceptible variations might insinuate the sensation of descent. That fact, combined with the incessant shouting and laughing of the young people who hung out in the main square every night until three in the morning, made rest not only a challenge to the even soundest sleeper, it sometimes made it an absolute impossibility.

To add to the difficulty, members of the town’s public sanitation department come out in force first thing every day to perform a task which can only be likened to a battery of convicts laying down gravel with hydraulic equipment. It’s the town street cleaners and waste management teams making their way through the narrow streets with one purpose in mind: wiping up the carelessly strewn remains of the previous day. Their target was trash, and removing it at unreasonable hours is a widespread scourge that has tormented the dreamers of this country for years. Despite the obvious inconvenience associated with this activity, it is immensely popular among public officials everywhere. The local governments will tell you that the system allows them to freely sanitize the city while their citizens rest, but I am here to attest to the fact that it’s really actually proof of their immense sense of humor; the supposed beneficiaries of the service, meaning us, are jolted awake to a commotion which, when it catches you with the windows open, can seem seismic in dimension. Nothing about the noise they make appears in any way related to the improvement of urban hygiene. Quite the contrary. Yet by the time the townspeople awake and are on the run, the pavement is damp and spotless and ready to be soiled again.

On this day, though, a second unexpected pair of intruders came upon the scene and set up shop. Their intent was completely different and the time they expected to hang around extended beyond what people would consider to be common courtesy. But what did that matter? History was in the making, I tell you. And in the town of Cebolla, located on the western end of the province of Toledo, of the autonomous community of Castilla-La Mancha, run-ins with posterity don’t come along very often. In fact, they are pretty goddamn rare.