Spanish Issues

text by Elizabeth Duval

It wasn’t until I left my country behind that I began to understand what a country could mean, with all its facets: what a country means emotionally and theoretically, as if it represented both passion and pain, as an imaginary locus. My relationship with Spain changed permanently when I crossed the Pyrenees and installed myself in Paris, France. Sharing drinks in Parisian bobo or precarious terraces, we immediately recognised each other as brothers and sisters in our dispossession. Deprived of a life, we could only inhabit in memory, dwelling once again in its phantoms and nostalgia, gloating in rituals ill-suited to our new spaces. We lived out of banalities, Spanish tortilla and complaints about what was best at home, far away from those gabachos; we simulated our New Year traditions, shocking our French friends with the great skill with which we ate grapes while they bemusedly confused fruit for choking hazards. In order to understand that we had somewhere we could go back to; we first had to leave it behind. Then, upon arrival, we would recognise each other through a seemingly infinite list of common cultural references, languages that strangers could only learn but in which we were always wholly immersed.

This is one way to acquire a country, by dispossession: identity manifests itself precisely through its absence. It appears where the original community does not exist. As I was immersed in French culture, time and time again, I claimed what I identified as Spanish. In Imagined Communities, political scientist Benedict Anderson wrote: “In an age when it is so common for progressive, cosmopolitan intellectuals to insist on the near-pathological character of nationalism, its roots in fear and hatred of the Other, and its affinities with racism, it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love.” To inspire love, an idea or a concept (and a nation does, in fact, constitute an idea) must be embodied within. A nation is also made of flesh and blood and faces.

How could portfolios of young Spanish artists (let us take them as examples of those faces, of that flesh) answer questions about their cultural heritage, their immediate relationship to their country, and what would those answers tell us, explicitly or implicitly, about Spain or, rather, about the Spanish issue? Writing these lines in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I find it necessary to admit that there was a considerable part of provocation in this exercise. We don’t often ask our artists directly about Spain; because any answer could take a controversial turn, and everything could be read through a politically harsh subtext. Spain is always portrayed as a divided country: fragmented throughout the twentieth century, divided for even longer than that. “Españolito que vienes al mundo, una de las dos Españas ha de helarte el corazón” (Little Spaniard coming into the world, one of these two Spains will make your blood run cold.) wrote Machado, and who will be the first Spaniard not to have his heart frozen by one of the two Spains?

I chose to frame one of my questions through the idea of heritage. It was a way to ask about history without asking about history. When asked if she felt like the heir of any Spanish tradition, Ana Rujas answered—and it was one of my favourite answers—that she felt she was the heiress of Spain in general, that she loved her roots, that Spanish cultural traditions were implicit or already embedded within her. And she did it in a critical manner, revisiting parts of those traditions that provoked a moral conflict, such as bullfighting (widely rejected amongst a part of Spanish youths). Nevertheless, she also spoke about how the aesthetics, rather than the action of bullfighting, with their traje de luces and banderines, were a part of her (I’d say our) image of the country she (I’d say we) could hardly do without. A complex relationship with tradition and heritage, the need to transform what we inherit while still respecting it; the desire, as she told me, to look to the past and understand it through a shared love for the present. And the feeling of responsibility provoked by representing her country in a portfolio of young Spanish talent.

The answers were very different from one another. Iván Pellicer told me that he did not identify with this heritage, and this saddened him: he would have loved for someone in his family to be a cantaor or flamenca. But he spoke about the importance of language, both in his view of current Spanish culture and his regard for Latin America. Language as a joyful, shared heritage, as a way, precisely, to envelop this shared community we are debating about.

Mitch emphasised how his heritage or connection to Spanish culture was based on simple, everyday things, which in his view, constituted a Madrilenian way of life, with its love of vermut and tapas. But this acceptance and love of the everyday component of, how shall we put it, ‘Spanish-ness’ went hand in hand with a more complex view of the country’s present image and past life. In Mitch’s words, he found it difficult to feel pride for his country precisely because of how it had been tarnished by people “who used its name in vain”, partly in reference to the Franco dictatorship. And it was also difficult for him to identify himself with his country in the present: “In a prostituted and globalised world that wipes out cultural values and countries’ identities, making everyone everywhere dress the same way, listen to the same music and have the same references.”

Alex Villazán, like Iván Pellicer, did not feel like an heir of Spanish cultural heritage. Still, he did admire and feel the influence of great Spanish artists, citing Goya, Dalí, Sorolla as painters, or composers such as Sarasate and Manuel de Falla, admiring them for their particular style and discourses. What he felt was important to underline about Spain was precisely its relationship to class, its working-class tradition, the history (Unamuno would say intrahistoria) of the Spanish working people, of the poor South in relation to the wealthy northern Europeans. 

Lola Rodríguez particularised her relationship to Spanish heritage by speaking about her family’s belonging to an “island culture”, characterised by a sacred respect for nature and its roots and a deep bond with the sea: a more complex genealogical tree composed by the Canary Islands, Spain and Cuba. She spoke of Spain and its talent poll as if they were one and the same, praising its bravery and transgression, its art and its overflowing talent. When asked if she thought her path would have been different had she been born in another country, she answered that she wouldn’t change her roots for anything in the world.

In the case of Guitarricadelafuente, his links with Spanish heritage and culture constitute a central part of his identity: he began to play the guitar and sing in his grandmother’s village in Aragon, as if music had to have something to do with family and land, like his great-grandfather Clemente, who taught bandurria and jota in that same village. His latest album, La Cantera, is inspired by traditional songs from Spain and Latin America. “For a long time”, he tells me, “we in Spain have considered what was produced or created elsewhere as being of a higher quality than our own makings, but now we’re in a moment where music made in Spain is more present than ever, and it’s perceived, even from the outside, as our unique movement. And that’s amazing.”

We love an idea or a nation because we love one or many who make us love the collectivity they embody. After all, they teach us what being part of such a community could mean; the idea behind a community is always put forward by those who imagine belonging to one. And, in relation to strangers, these are also Spinoza’s words: “If someone has been affected pleasurably or painfully by anyone, of a class or nation different from his own, and if the pleasure or pain has been accompanied by the idea of the said stranger as a cause, under the general category of the class or nation: that someone will feel love or hatred, not only to the individual stranger but also to the whole class or nation whereto they belong.”

We recognise the collective imaginary we belong to through this notion of prosopopeia: personifications, embodiments. It’s an organic relationship with Spain, far from the reduction of Spain to one single issue—a conflict we only inherited but did not take part in. In no case is it an imposition through political choice, and under no circumstance did we instrumentalise our country; a relationship that, through culture, has expanded, grown more complex and interwoven, it has become stronger, planted its roots and has given the necessary space for a conversation. Maybe the only resolution to a topic such as the Spanish issue is to plant the seeds for it to no longer be an issue: to dream of circumstances in which Spain is no longer in conflict but something else. Circumstances that, upon looking at these portfolios of young Spanish artists—of which I’m honoured to be a part of—it does seem possible.

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TEXT BY ELIZABETH DUVAL