Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Many Days Of 12 October

Spain's National Day, Spain's National Holiday, Spain's Day of Hispanicity, the day of the Guardia Civil, the day of the Virgen del Pilar, the day of Columbus's arrival in the Americas. Make your choice. Yesterday was all of them.

They still refer to the "Día de la Hispanidad" - Hispanicity - albeit that a 1987 decree sort of abandoned the notion. As a national day, the Hispanicity concept was one that first surfaced outside Spain: in Argentina to be precise. In 1931, a one-time Spanish ambassador in Buenos Aires proposed that there be one. By that time, Argentina had been celebrating Columbus for some forty years. In 1913, they came up with the Fiesta de la Raza - the festival of the race, the Spanish race. That's another option to add to the 12 October list.

Hispanicity, a form of international nationalism, now seems a gloriously anachronistic and archaic concept. At the time that it surfaced, Spain was entering yet another of its periods of turmoil. Perhaps Hispanicity was something to cling to, an attempt to boost a nationalist morale that had been shattered by, among other things, the losses to the Americans at the end of the previous century.

Five years after that ambassador, Ramiro de Maeztu, proposed the name, what happened? Well, I think we all know what happened. Under Franco, allied to the image of the Virgen del Pilar, here was the perfect means to express what "Spanishness" meant - deeply conservative, highly Catholic, militaristic, fascist.

With the exception of the latter, this was a meaning that had characterised Spain for decades previously, though goodness knows there had already been fascistic tendencies in a line from Ferdinand VII to Primo de Rivera; earlier than even Ferdinand it might be said. A further characteristic was turmoil; it was pretty much the normal state of affairs during the nineteenth century, as liberalism vied with conservatism and usually came off worse.

Was this a fair assessment of Spanishness? And what assessment can be made nowadays? The Civil War has defined Spain ever since. Yet here was a country which had more than 120 years previously given the world the notion of liberalism. Here was a country which during the last century spawned three of the greats of the world of art - Dali, Miró, Picasso - heirs to the crown of arguably the greatest of all, Francisco de Goya. It was a country of suppressed sophistication, a factor which perhaps contributed (and still does contribute) to the fascination that Spain has for the foreigner.

On the surface, Spanishness was also its enduring images, such as the bullfight and flamenco, ones that the Franco regime was only too willing to promote. But there was what lay under the surface. Writer after writer sought to dissect and analyse it. Ernest Hemingway, Laurie Lee, George Orwell. Not all the writers have taken the Civil War as a theme, but many have and still do. Victoria Hislop's "The Return" is a more contemporary example.

The war continues to inform and inspire the foreign writer. It's unsurprising, given that fundamentals of that time continue to inspire national (and independence) debate. The fascism and militarism no longer exist. Hispanicity, in the sense of some form of fading global power, has faded further. The images have altered. The bullfight has been replaced by the beach. Tapas and football are Spain's global brands. But the struggles remain between conservatism and liberalism, the monarchy and the republic, the church and the secular authorities.

The tensions within Spanishness are created by anti-Spanishness. Some of it is vehement, just as it has been since the days, three hundred years ago, of Felipe IV and his Catalan repressions. Some of it is less so, but in its current-day guise it can cause a collision between one of the global brands and a key reason for the tensions. Barcelona's Gerard Piqué will retire from international football. Pro-Catalan, pro-independence, he says he feels unwanted by the national team. The national team: Spain, España, Spanishness writ large for the current day.

The National Day was against the background of the political chaos caused by the two elections. In truth, this chaos is a re-emergence of how it always was. The years of transition, the boom years under González and Aznar and the stability of politics might be seen as their own anachronisms; Spain has historically not done stability. And into the chaos have come throwbacks to the 1930s - those divisions between left and right, wholly unreconcilable and with the corruption which defined attempts at mock democracies prior to the war.

But there is one thing which is now very different and which undermines any psychological yearning for Hispanicity. It is Europe. Yes, Spain has done well by Europe, but the country is grateful. Catalonia would also be grateful. A new Spanishness of regional acceptance and forgiveness might just breed a new form of nationhood.

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