Photo: Metropoli Abierta
Spain is in a battle with itself to reckon with history. Photo: Metropoli Abierta

The controversial "Conquest" of America continues to divide the Spanish

The celebration of Hispanic Heritage Day in Spain is not experienced by everyone the same. Does anyone seem interested in finding out what really happened?


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Should we dismantle the statue of Christopher Columbus that presides over the port of the city of Barcelona? This and other debates are raging in Spain as we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Day, although debates about the real meaning of the so-called "Discovery" of America and its "conquest" have become entrenched and are stirring up mixed passions, with a government intent on intoning mea culpa while right-wing parties consider it little less than an outrage to national history. 

There are many controversies on the subject of Hispanidad: from the dark legend of the conquest to the international campaign to discredit the Hispanic Monarchy, and its first major crises at the end of the 16th century, during the reign of the controversial Philip II, to the loss of Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico in 1898. 

This patriotic crisis reached a peak last year when a book by a "pseudo-historian," Elvira Roca Barea, was questioned head-on by another author from across the ideological aisle, José Luis Villacañas, but much more rigorous in terms of  historiographical perspective.

Roca Barea's book — Imperiofobia y leyenda negra: Roma, Rusia, Estados Unidos y el Imperio español — has sold more than 100,000 copies. It has sold out dozens of editions, becoming an unprecedented phenomenon of opinion. However, Imperiofilia y el populismo nacional-católico, by Villacañas, has managed to disprove the thesis of Imperiofobia to the point of reducing it almost to a laughable extremist pamphlet.

From a presentient and almost paranoid position, the most ultra-nationalist sectors of the Spanish intelligentsia are determined to continue seeing off attacks on the Hispanic world and on Catholicism to try to counteract the erosion Spain could be suffering through the defiance of the Catalan people. 

The Catalans represent their perfect external enemy, in the absence of Jewish minorities or rival Protestant powers. These tensions between the value of today's Spain and its historical challenges are turning the dissemination of Spanish history into a maze of accusations. And indeed, in the 19th century, in the times of Modesto Lafuente, Antonio Cánovas, Juan Valera and Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo and other liberal historians, this was already the case.

There is no way for Hispanic writers to agree on a plausible version of the common national story. And, above all, there seems to be no way to articulate a calm story about the value of Spain today. 

"We should learn to accept any constructive criticism about our past because only in this way will we analyze and know better our present reality", Antonio Espino.

Currently, the theses of Elvira Roca Barea have been widely disavowed by academic sectors and by much of the Spanish general press. The author manipulated, or invented a great part of the data she handled in her best-selling book, as demonstrated by several authors and journalists, to the point that her name is the symbol of an anachronistic ultra-nationalism, and the emblem of certain extreme right-wing tendencies.

For his part, military history expert Antonio Espino, author of La conquista de América, told the Catalan newspaper Ara:

"In recent times, and for various reasons, the Spanish conquest of America seems to be in fashion. Although the American indigenous movement has been wary of figures like Fray Junípero Serra for some time, and a certain Los Angeles city councilor insisted on the removal of a statue of Admiral Columbus from a park in this city at the end of 2018, the truth is that the demand made by Mexico's President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to the King of Spain officially apologizing for events that occurred half a millennium ago may come as a shock to some."

That's how things stand for now. King Felipe VI visits Barcelona and they void him, while some exalted people burn his effigy in the street. 

History seems to be as discredited as some institutions that are struggling to improve their image in the face of a divided society. It's as if the statues continued to scream and oppress us and as if the value of the statues yesterday had to be exactly the same as the value we give them today.

Espino advocates for a loyal, but non-dramatized assumption of the past. It would be a matter of understanding what happened, without looking for parallels in the present because of how much societies have changed. 

"It is not exactly a question of forgiveness, but of understanding what happened without presentiment, apriorism or false erudition," concluded the researcher. "We should learn to accept any constructive criticism about our past because only in this way will we analyze and know better our present reality. To criticize Cortés' feat should not be understood as an insult to Spanish society today, since it is not." 

It is precisely the presence, the fierce struggle between the right and the left, that does not allow us to see clearly, without passion, what happened.


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