Mother Spain and her difficult daughters

When a Peruvian friend heard, his voice trembled at the thought that I would be moving to la madre patria, the "mother-fatherland." I laughed and explained that, for me, Spain was more like an adoptive "tía abuela" (great-aunt) -- my known ancestors all hailed from more northern parts of Europe.

My Spanish American friends tend to have strong, ambivalent feelings about the Madre Patria, and because I had lived and worked for so many years in the former Spanish colonies, I shared those ambivalences. Madrileños were said to be arrogant and racist, contemptuous of Latin Americans who failed to speak with their ridiculous, effeminate lisp. Gallegos were said to be dull-witted and suspicious, catalanes shrewd and money-grubbing, and andaluces simpáticos and frivolous and not to be taken seriously. Other Spaniards -- e.g., asturianos, vascos or leoneses -- barely existed in our mental picture of the country.

These thoughts and some scant knowledge of the history -- there had been a terrible civil war, and then the cruel Franco dictatorship -- and some poetry of García Lorca were what I had in my head when I arrived on my first visit in the summer of 1981. Franco had died 6 years earlier, but an assault on parliament in February 1981 had very nearly succeeded in restoring his repressive system. (See the note by my alter ego, Baltasar Lotroyo, on this dangerous moment: Un instante que sigue reverberando.) The scary Guardias Civiles were still parading around with their bandoliers, three-corner hats and submachine guns, and the stirrings that would give rise two years later to the huge Socialist Party victory were barely discernible to a visitor.

And I had a wonderful time, made even better by the fact that I had expected to be miserable. The Guardias Civiles who approached when I had a flat in my rented car turned out to be shy and eager to help --even willing to get their uniforms dirty to crank up the jack. Nobody laughed at my accent, though I spoke like a South American, pronouncing Z's like S's. And the music, the food, the wine, the laughter, the kindness of people, the fascinating layers of history visible in caves and castles -- you can see my reactions in this poem I wrote at the end of my trip, Las cosas buenas de Andalucía.

And now, since 2006, we are living here, in Andalucía. Spain has changed enormously, mostly for the better: the democratic system has been greatly strengthened, the country is far more prosperous, and both the government and its many civil organizations are very active in aid of all sorts to needier countries, for example in the current crisis in Haiti. There are many other examples, some of them controversial, such as the military presence in Lebanon and Afghanistan, but all of them obeying a sense of obligation and international solidarity. Spain has in particular been a major contributor to economic development and cultural programs in its former colonies.

Many Latin Americans have by now forgiven Spain for the massacres of the conquistadores, the Inquisition and expoliation, for two compelling reasons: They see that Spain is no longer the same country it was in its imperial days, and they have seen that crimes like those are not specifically Spanish. In fact, Spain was a refuge for many Latin Americans fleeing the barbarism of military regimes in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and elsewhere in the Americas in the 1980s.

But 2010 is the bicentennial of the first cries of independence, the beginning of the wars that finally "liberated" most of Spain's American colonies. The anger of two centuries ago, and beyond to the 300+ years of colonization, is now an atavism, but still kept alive by nationalist politicians, and we'll be hearing demands for apologies and reparations. Spain has more than apologized: its historians and musicians and writers embrace and are embraced by their counterparts everywhere in the Spanish-speaking world. And as for reparations, Spain's sponsorship of schools, hospitals and development projects in the bast 30 years has been exceptionally generous for an economy of its size. But the ambivalence persists, and so will angry cries of victimhood. So be ware.

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