Post-Franco Spain: Testimony and Mourning as Acts of Resistance

My name is Michael Le, and I am a rising senior majoring in Hispanic Studies with a minor in Japanese, though it is my affinity for cultural studies and frank curiosity that drives my ultimate goals of becoming a translator. Having said this, I never imagined having the opportunity to work with Professor Francie Cate-Arries on her project investigating the role of testimony in Post-Franco Spain, particularly the effects of the oppressive regime on the new, emerging Spanish culture seeped in a tradition of repressed grievance and wide spread amnesia. Now, in the wake of the 2007 Ley de la memoria hist√≥rica, a government incentive to address the atrocities and injustices of Franco’s dictatorship, one cannot ignore the role of testimony and memory as invaluable sources of information both in terms of constructing identity and establishing alternative histories. I’ve taken three courses with Professor Cate-Arries and am familiar with her project having helped translate and subtitle her documentary¬†La memoria se abre paso posted below. As such, my work this summer in transcribing and subtitling testimonies will offer insight into both the shatteringly human voice in the face of the Franco regime and the reclamation of memory as an act of self-agency.

We often consider History to be an objective and clean chronicle of events, a sort of logical and inherently infallible series of consequences meant to map out the human condition. A grand narrative, if you will, that has no prerogatives nor prejudices because History seeks to report not represent. And for the most part in our day to day lives, this is a rather functional and pragmatic model that allows us to make sense of surroundings. After all, the progression of the day seems quite routine despite the chaos of our world, which becomes so ingrained and natural. However, History is not so kind as to confine itself to a single narrative exempt from human subjectivities and, because of the nature of memory, becomes elevated to a stage of discourse for self-fashioning.

I find German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s model of History most appropriate for addressing the discrepancies between the Official History and the collective memory. He describes History as highly fragmented and contradictory with the historian excelling in the art of montage. Indeed, the historian’s task involves de-contextualizing and recombining pieces of History in order to allow new modes for building and maintaining one’s communal and individual identity. This model allows for not only an Official History dictated by the State, which express the hegemonic power’s desire to eliminate contradictions in its account, but also alternative narratives that, by nature, must confront and contradict the hegemonic history. A tale of winners and losers. Ultimately, the act of remembering and crafting history (the plural here perhaps being more appropriate) becomes an act of collective memory, this communal process meant to address questions of identity rather than “fact.”

Keeping this model in mind, as we begin to look at the effects of Francisco Franco’s nearly forty year regime we note a highly restrictive policy on alternative narratives considering that the dominant rhetoric of the time included images of “purification” and “purging.” His thorough erasure of Republican expression resulted in a lack of any sustained conversation acknowledging the reign of violence and injustice in the public sphere, which demanded a complete relinquishment of individual and cultural agency. Without a forum to foster collective memory, the public lacked a means to construct a communal identity, and, ultimately, society fell into a state of trauma: unable to accept the atrocities of the past, plagued by anxieties of the future, and living in a perverse present akin to death. In the face of this oppression, the testimony serves to at once denounce and lament the regime, which transforms the confession into an act of resistance and a reclamation of agency.

It is precisely this transformation and rebellion in the attempt to consolidate trauma that fuels my interest while raising questions of legitimacy and narrative. Who has the authority of interpretive power in Spanish history, and must that always result in a hegemonic narrative? Should we consider an alternative approach to conceptualizing history? How does a nation use memory to recover from trauma after years of repression, and what are the moral implications of remembering? And perhaps on a more personal level, what does this say about how we conceptualize ourselves and our own narratives as individuals? Even with my interdisciplinary training I find myself humbled by the sheer ambition of this project, and I am ever grateful for Werner and Mary Anne Weingartner, Professor Cate-Arries, and the Charles Center for this opportunity.


  1. Miranda Elliott says:

    I dropped out of Global History freshman year after a couple classes, but if you had written the textbook it’s safe to say I wouldn’t have. This is some of the most fascinating research I’ve read about on this blog, and that’s coming from a math major who has essentially no prior knowledge on the topic. Very thought-provoking. Can’t wait to read the rest of your posts. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Wow, that’s very flattering of you to say. Thank you very much for reading and commenting, and I hope whatever I learn is useful or at least interesting to you!

  3. Mikaela Neville says:

    Hello. I have enjoyed all of your posts, but this one stood out to me because appreciate the way that you discuss history as a result of authority, memory, and perspective. I think you make a very good point in this article by noting that history is very subjective and differs depending on the perspective of the person telling it. It is true that in school we are often taught to believe that history only occurs in one way. However, every person has their own story to tell, and it is very unfortunate when you have a situation like the regime of Francisco Franco where so few voices are heard and history is erased or manipulated in order to suit those with power. Overall, great post and fascinating topic!

  4. Mikaela Neville says:

    By the way, in your second article, your clarification of the way that narrative impacts the construction of identity was very helpful to me and helped me understand that rhetoric is a major factor in the crafting of history. Also, could you clarify the concept of “civilized evil” and how it connects to the Franco regime? Thank you. I’m glad to learn about your interesting project.

  5. Amar Kakirde says:

    The thing that struck me about this post was your treatment of the practice of history. I found your description of History as a kind of conflict between all those who write and maintain it , very interesting. Rather than a historian writing simply to record, he has to piece together disparate scraps of information into a cohesive narrative. This allows for the author to dramatically alter substantial events and memories, in the manner that Franco did. I had somewhat understood this prior to reading this post, but I did not realize exactly how this was another form of oppression. It amused me that a historian, with his pen can have such a major influence on a people. At the same time, it was alarming that simply by fabricating the literature, the Falangists managed to nearly totally alter the record on their behalf. This then raises the question: how are Spaniards avoiding and preventing this oppression nowadays?

  6. I’m happy you all read my posts, and I hope it was useful. I will say, I got super sassy in my later thoughts, so I find it funny that you guys commented on my tamest one. To answer your questions, Mikaela, for me civilized evil is how we as a nation or community try to justify morally ambiguous, if not clearly terrible, acts. For example, looking at World War II and the atomic bombs, we justify it on the basis that it ended the war early and prevented more life lost. And yet in hindsight, we’re not so sure anymore. The what-if’s are agonizingly persistent, and I think that has to do with a moral conflict rather than an economic/collateral-damage one.

    In terms of the Franco and the Spanish Civil War, air raids and mass shootings were the norm. Neighbors were encouraged to turn against each other in the name of national duty. The fact that the term desaparecidos even exists is a testament to the atrocities committed. And yet, people justified what were essentially war crimes. Yes, there are many factors that contribute to why people behaved the way they did: fear, corresponding ideologies, even moral righteousness. But I think the point of civilized evil is that it is a system, an institutionalized rationality that seeks (self-) justification, not an individual.

    And to Amar, government incentives such as the Ley de Memoria, exhumations of mass graves, and a huge influx of media and pop culture address these alternative narratives to remind the new generations of what transpired before them, of the sacrifices made. But of course, it’s difficult to continue addressing these themes. If you read Bobby Bohnke’s posts, he addresses the challenges of obtaining government support to fund exhumation projects, which gives you an idea of the politics behind it all. Is it that there are still Franco sympathies within the government? Or perhaps in order to continue forward, we must learn to forgive the past (in which case, how long does one suffer until that happens, or even can that happen)? And maybe economic priorities must be taken into account? Spain is currently in an economic depression with alarming unemployment rates, which has lead to wide-spread protests. So then protesting and the power of public dissent is another way to combat oppression.