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Las Fallas
Fighting for los trabajadores -- at Las Fallas

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July 2008 Email this to a friend
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Not Always a Gay Time
How history put the 'pain' in 'Spain'
By Frank Laterreur

The history of Valencia, like that of all Spain, has been a series of vio lent episodes, followed by orgies of conquest and long periods of decline. Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes has written that Spain's relation with the outside world began with a "sort of Vietnam for Rome," as it took the Romans 200 years of bloody back and forth to complete their conquest of Spain. Even in Roman days, the Latin historian, Appian, describes the ugly results of this conquest in one Roman victory: "the majority of the inhabitants have killed themselves, the rest came out... their bodies dirty, squalid and stinking, their nails long, their hair unkempt... on their faces were written rage, and pain and exhaustion." Spanish history has been a tale of death and destruction from Rome to Peru to Guernica.

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Episode after episode of violent conquest, extraordinary cultural and economic glory, and then terrible defeat, haunt Spain to the present day. Valencia is named for Emperor Valens. It was founded in 137 B.C.E. by Roman legion officers as a retirement community, becoming the principal city of Rome's Hispania Province. After Rome came the Visigoths, and then the Moors from 709 C.E., who called it Balansiya. El Cid conquered the city from 1094-99 but it soon passed back to Muslim rule for another century until James of Aragon's conquest formed the Kingdom of Valencia within the Crown of Aragon. The blue on the Valencian flag that sets it apart from that of Catalonia dates from this time. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Valencia became one of the wealthiest cities along the Mediterranean.

The city shared in many of Spanish history's cruelties. There was the expulsion of its Muslims -- 200,000 prosperous farmers who were forced to convert and then thrown out anyway just after 1600. They left behind beautiful architecture as well as hundreds of place names. Valencia's Jews -- a prosperous urban population of about 50,000 -- were expelled exactly as Columbus reached America. After the departure of these two important ethnic groups, Valencia declined economically and culturally for at least 300 years. The last victim of the Inquisition in Valencia was said to have been a local school teacher, executed as a freemason in the early 1700s, long after the Inquisition had been abandoned in the rest of Europe.

A recent photo exhibit at the University of Valencia detailed the most recent of these episodes of grim defeat following great hope: the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. The photos revealed the great dreams of liberty that flooded Valencia, and all of Spain, with young Soviet soldiers and anarchist and communist youth arm in arm, wearing garlands of flowers -- only to be followed by the devastating bombardment of the city's working- class neighborhoods, starvation and disease among its children, and finally the murder of thousands of its people (including most of its artists and other intellectuals) by the Fascists -- as the Spanish Republicans waited in vain for America and the other allies to come to their aid.

Looking at these photos, I began to understand the angry and sad faces of so many Valencians I encountered, the seeming coldness of my Valencian neighbors when they refuse to acknowledge my "buenos d’as," the aloofness and downright rudeness that seemed to prevail. Maybe this was all the result of a history of incredible promise followed by stunning defeat, time after time. Valencia, I began to see, was a wounded city. The Spanish -- and the Valencians -- are a wounded people. An old saying in Valencia says it well: one must suffer for one's identity.

Germans, of course, are a wounded people as well. Germany was wounded even more severely by its terrible Nazi time and the holocaust. But Spain is less healed today than Germany.

Why? I think there are two important reasons.

Franco shrewdly placed the allies against each other after and during the war, and intensified fascism in Spain just when it was defeated elsewhere in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of people were tortured and killed by the Fascists in Valencia and throughout Spain, yet Franco became the darling of the West in its fight against Communism. Franco held onto power until he died. Even afterwards, in 1981, Fascist military officers overthrew the elected government and occupied many cities, including Valencia, expecting the support of the recently restored King Juan Carlos. The memory of fascism and its atrocities is thus stronger and more recent than in Germany.

And while Germany underwent a thorough de-Nazification program, wiping out virtually all vestiges of reactionary nationalism, there's never been a de-Francoization in Spain -- never even a reckoning or a national remembrance of the victims, or a reconciliation. There remains literally two Spains, and two Valencias -- the Spain of those who resisted Franco and those who still revere him. The latter find a home in today's strong right-wing -- staunchly Roman Catholic, nationalist, homo- and xenophoic. The division is palpable not only in elections, where the split is almost fifty-fifty, but in the culture as a whole. Valencia is controlled politically by the arch-conservative People's Party, yet the culture is dominated by left-wing artists and academics, and punctuated by a politically radical homosexual vanguard.


see the next sections of our coverage of Valencia...
-- A Paella for Ya
-- Revel Without a Cause
-- Beyond Quiet Matrimony
and the main article... -- Discovering Valencia


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