As a contributor to the Weaving the Streets project, I have been looking into the issue of collective memory and the reconstruction of identities in post-dictatorship Spain. My first two blog posts focused on Lavapiés, a multicultural neighborhood in Madrid, using street as a medium for juxtaposing modern-day activities with the history of the Franco dictatorship. This third post focuses on Santander, a city where the present and the past exist simultaneously.

I am particularly interested in this area because it helped me understand the conflict between forgetting and remembering the collective memory. Also, we ought not discount the construction of modern day identities in the post-dictatorship era. This process may differ regionally, as I have seen through various means of expression, some of which advocate for independence from the Spanish State in the Basque Country and Catalonia, for example. These cases demonstrate the resilience of groups that articulate their regional identity in the new era.

Nonetheless, the site of memory is a place of struggle in a country that lacks a consensus about its national history. In this context, it is critical to examine the process of forgetting 42 years of authoritarian rule under the command of General Francisco Franco. The dictatorship decentralized the society and armed families against one another. Although time has passed, this issue cannot be escaped no matter how hard one tries to forget. In other words, forgetting is not equivalent to healing as tensions often continue to fester beneath the surface.

Workers begin removing the Franco statue. (El País/Javier Cotera)

Reconstruction of the collective memory and alternate identities remains in process in Santander, a city recognized as the last to remove the final statue of Franco from the peninsula. It followed the lead of the rest of the country on December 18, 2008, when the final statue was removed from its pedestal, as written by Giles Tremlett for the Guardian. The bronze sculpture was to be taken out of the public’s eye and relocated to a museum (which at the time ceased to exist).

Present at the scene were Franco supporters who brought flowers as mentioned in the article. This tribute was in hopes of asserting their identity and serves as a reminder to the community that there are people who have not forgotten their beloved leader. It also reveals the social/political divide which continues post-dictatorship.

The counter-narrative is that by removing the statue, Spain could finally have closure from the past. Although the symbol has disappeared from the surface, I believe it lives through other means. Mario Benedetti once wrote “el olvido está lleno de memoria” (forgetting is full of memory). This holds true in Santander, where traces continue to linger. Some are captured in the murals that I observed. In Santander, there is a call to keep the narrative alive that is upheld by alternative groups.  

El Rio de la Pila. (Ajok Deng)

On the bridge of El Rio de la Pila. (Ajok Deng)

Marginalized or excluded identities are manifested through the work of Belgian artist ROA. His intentions are to allow by-passers to reflect on the monumental paintings. He chooses to paint animals to bridge the disconnect between humans and the mistreatment of other living creatures. These images evoke emotion because it is difficult to see animals suffer. The mouse in the picture to the left is painted in black and white with red paint bleeding from its eye. I also observed how enormous the mural is, occupying the entire bridge, as well as how it appears to rise from the ground. It is a greatly moving tool for truth and justice.

I believe that this piece calls attention to the victims that are still buried in graves scattered across Spain and speaks to those who are unable to find closure without the remains of the deceased. For as long as the victims are buried in undisclosed locations, families are unable to host funerals and say their goodbyes so that they can best move on.

Santander reminds us once again of the difficulty of adapting to the present because it can be inhibited by the past. What I mean by this is that for some people, it is difficult to separate the pain of memory from the hope of a future that is yet to be. They are forced to recreate their identity under these circumstances.