By Carl Hancock Rux
Madrid: little more than a year since a series of explosions hit three train stations during morning rush hour. Two hundred killed. Fifteen hundred injured. Neither the city nor its inhabitants gave any outward indication that a travesty of such magnitude occurred. Castilian remnants and medieval basilicas stretched out on wide avenues decorated in statues; the arched gateways of the Puerta del Sol-Calle Mayor-Calle del Nuncio-Plaza del Marqués de Comillas; Goya; the Teatro Espanol and Picasso on the Prado. Checked into a small but immodest hotel of marble and gilt chandeliers with attic rooms overlooking acres of rooftops rolling in clay tile, unpacked my curiosity and made my way out in search of Spain’s Moor culture. Arab occupation. Spanish Civil war. Hints of an ancient African past stamped on Madrid’s memory—evident in plaques mounted above medieval fountains. Wandering down an alleyway, I came to San Nicolás de los Servitas, the oldest church, and the church of San Pedro el Real or el Viejo, with its bell tower, past the apartment building that had once been home to the poet Gabriel Garcia Lorca. His bronze likeness stood in the Plaza de Victoria surrounded by tourists taking pictures . Returned again and then again, to Lorca, to the bronze poet with cupped palms holding a bird and the political tensions that lurk in the city. Who is Spain now? Did any of us remember Lorca's discontent? His arrival in America and his criticism of American democracy as a government of commercialism and race oppression. Was the statue meant to simply be a reminder of great art, or was it, perhaps, a monument to the Frange militia that murdered the poet/playwright, and cast his body into an unmarked grave? Should it remind us of the his final play, House of Bernida Alba, the cautious widow who incarcerates her daughters who wait impatiently for the arrival of a lover who might marry one of them and deliver their freedom. Was the statue a reminder of the artist’s work, which could not be openly discussed during Franco’s regime, whose expression remained suppressed and absent from the literary canon and library bookshelves of Spain until his death in 1975?.It was hard to decide what a monument—still standing long after the event it once immediately referenced—means to the contemporary viewer. I’d read that sometimes, right wing Spaniards would tie a red scarf around Lorca’s neck, and then as quickly as the scarf appeared, it would be removed by the left; a symbolic and age old argument as yet unresolved, played out poetically with a simple garment around a bronze figure. Perhaps the best use of a monument is what it incites , the discussion it encourages for the centuries to come. Over breakfast at our hotel, which over the weeks lost its charm as we battled bedbugs, confronted depressing images of poverty and brothels in the immediate neighborhood, and received little to no assistance in 24 hour internet cafes packed with voiceless Chinese teenagers playing war games into the morning hours. I read of news of the Freedom tower memorial back home—and the conflict that had erupted over its new architectural designs, and plans of an art gallery that would occupy one of its spaces—against the wishes of the “victims families”—that newly formed party of people who are bereaved relatives of people who lost their lives in or near the World Trade Center or the Pentagon on Sept. 11th. The “families” were first outraged by the initial plans for the freedom towers; its height, its shape, whose names would be carved in stone on its walls and whose names would appear first—the pedestrian victims or the abiding officers? Once the plans were settled, and it was agreed that the Freedom tower would soar 1,776 feet into the sky, the most recent argument regarded plans for an art gallery to occupy its space—one that was known for exhibiting “transgressive works sympathetic to terrorism”. The gallery had exhibited works by artists who questioned America and its political profile, and both the firefighters union and the victim’s families were concerned that a memorial to patriotism had no place for anti-American sentiment. It seemed terribly important to the firefighters and the relatives of the victims that we that we control how history remembers pain. Understands, specifically, the events we endured and honors it accordingly. But how do we control the progression of human understanding? How can a structure, intended as not only a marker but also a piece of art, negate art that disagrees with its premise? Spain had just returned to democracy only thirty years ago, and all of its monuments spoke to so much historical conflict and political transition. Like the red scarves that would appear and disappear around Lorca’s neck, a conversation was still being had. By day's end, several of us were pick-pocketed in the open flea markets of the Rastro as we browsed for antiques along the Calle del Prado and in the Plaza de las Cortes. It dampened our spirits but didn’t distract us from the beauty of Madrid’s galleries and parks and sublime red wine. I went out again, this time to find the 500 foot high cross erected by Franco as a monument to the victory of the civil war. It is said it took 15 years to complete with the blood, sweat and tears of prisoners of war. I didn’t find many Spaniards surrounding it, or tourists taking pictures in front of it. Neither could I find Franco’s statue. Since his death and Spain's return to democracy, Franco’s statues and memorials had been removed from public places. The greatest monument to Franco, torn down from its base in the square of San Juan de la Cruz a couple of years before I was to arrive , much to the dismay of the right wingers who protested its demise. And on our last day in Spain, it was reported that a paper mache statue of a man on horseback, was mysteriously and anonymously erected in one of the town squares, only to be removed by officers. A tribute to the missing representation of Franco? A reminder that there is still a societal disagreement regarding democracy, fascism, and the reigns of a conservative government replaced by a renewed brand of Socialism? An attempt at the continuum of communication ? Or the erection of another relevant marker? To date, I am unaware of any monuments or markers recalling the train station bombings in Madrid. Perhaps, it would be better, if there were none.
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