“Dear God,” I silently begged, “please no more castles, cathedrals, or churches.”
It was day two of my visit to the Spanish region of Castilla and León—a place where you can’t swing a stick without hitting a turret—and I was fighting a bad case of monument fatigue. When our guide kicked off the afternoon by proudly declaring that the city of Salamanca boasts not one but two cathedrals, I imagined vaulting over a parapet.
Although I have visited Spain frequently, most of my time there has been spent either in the northwestern region of Galicia, where my parents grew up, or points east, where I’ve often traveled for reporting assignments. I had only ever stepped foot in Castilla and León once, for a work conference, and saw very little of the area on that trip, but I was keen to return.
Since my father died in the spring of 2018, I have found myself probing the past in new ways, trying to develop a fuller picture of the country that shaped him and the other members of my family—the ones who left for American shores, and those who decided to stay. Given the central role the region has played in Spain’s long and complicated narrative, I hoped that more time spent there might yield a better understanding of the country as a whole.
The nation’s physical and political heartland, Castilla and León was also home to Miguel de Cervantes for a time, the place where he wrote the prologue for Don Quixote and secured its publication. Although chunks of the novel are set in what is now known as Castilla La Mancha (an adjacent region to the south), the influence of the broader Castilian landscape and its myriad sagas are unmistakable in Cervantes’ magnum opus.
Ringed by mountains, this landlocked plateau is Spain’s largest autonomous region by area but also one of its least populated. The history of this place—and its more than 200 castles—is deeply intertwined with the monarchy and the Catholic Church. In centuries past, Castilla and León’s wide-open vistas demanded the construction of imposing fortresses to protect troops during pitched battles—whether the power struggle in question was precipitated by the Romans, Moors, or Christian kings and queens whose “reconquest” of the peninsula ultimately won them naming rights. The area is teeming with structures designed to honor the influential patrons who made victory possible.History is not written just by acts of war and feats of conquest, nor should it be commemorated only in the monuments erected by its victors.
While these monuments are indeed stunning, by the third in-depth guided tour, their imposing majesty was starting to blur in the ramparts. I imagined myself as Don Quixote in reverse: Instead of seeing a castle where a humble inn actually stood, I tried to transform these grand structures into something more accessible—to plot a different route into the past. I did not care to know every last detail of their benefactors’ crushing triumphs. “Yeah, you came and you conquered. Now what?”
Not surprisingly, I found the answer in a classroom.
My time in Salamanca began with a wonderful lunch al fresco at Restaurante Don Mauro in Plaza Mayor, the main square. As the sun shone brightly, I felt slightly hypnotized by the interplay of golden light and shadow as they bounced off the city’s signature sandstone buildings—though it’s more likely that my stupor was due to the ungodly amount of bread and local charcuterie I had consumed. This would have certainly pleased my father, who was never happier than when he was feeding people. After a childhood marked by war and poverty, he’d grown into an adult who overcompensated for that lack to an almost pathological degree.
To snap out of my food coma and prepare for the afternoon tour, I did as he would have done and fortified myself with a café cortado, though I skipped the splash of aguardiente, the grappa-like moonshine that Dad would routinely add to our guests’ espressos whenever we had company. While my heart sank at the tour guide’s initial mention of the two cathedrals, I willed myself forward because I knew we’d also be visiting the landmark I was most eager to see.
Founded in 1218, the University of Salamanca is the country’s oldest surviving institution of higher learning and the fourth oldest in all of Europe. Empire does not build itself, and like every world power, which it was for a stretch, Spain has its own ugly résumé—of killing and exiling people for their religion, and brutally colonizing the Indigenous nations it “discovered” in the New World—but that sordid history is precisely why the idea of this university has always meant so much to me. It is a beacon to our better natures, a place where knowledge and ideas have the capacity to eclipse military and state power.
The university’s Historical Library is world renowned, though it remains quarantined from most public contact because of the potential for damage to the valuable manuscripts therein—including books, pamphlets, and maps dating back to the 11th century. (Among these is the earliest extant edition of El Libro de Buen Amor, or The Book of Good Love, a literary masterpiece from the 1340s.)
To safeguard these treasures, visitors must remain confined within a four-foot rectangular indentation that’s surrounded by plexiglass. The day I was there, I spied a librarian up on the balcony level, attired in a long white lab coat that made her look like a doctor on hospital rounds. As she tended to her small patients with gloved hands, I was unexpectedly stirred to see such care bestowed on bound pieces of tree pulp or animal skin marked with ink. Of course, these materials are much more than the sum of their physical components, but in a world that seems to have eschewed old knowledge in favor of the instantaneous tweet, my heart was gladdened by the sight.
Although the University of Salamanca still offers classes on many different subjects, these days it is most widely known as the premier school to study the language named for its region of origin: Castilian, or what much of the world knows simply as Spanish. The same language my mother insisted I learn as a child in New York City, at weekly private lessons after school.
Despite my initial protestations, I grew to love language study—first Spanish, then French, plus a little bit of Galician, Portuguese, and Italian. What I appreciated most was what each language taught me about the culture it represented, its words serving as ambassadors of a particular place, time, and outlook on life. Looking back, I realize that acquiring these new ways of seeing the world was a big part of why I became a writer. And now, here I was, touring a shrine to words and ideas. Few things could make me happier.
One of Castilian’s earliest promoters was Luis de León, an Augustinian friar and lyric poet. A descendant of conversos (the term for Spanish and Portuguese Jews who converted to Christianity to avoid being banished or killed), Fr. León went on to become a member of the university’s theology department in the 1560s. The fact of his heritage only came to light later, after he’d drawn unwanted attention for defying the Council of Trent by translating portions of the Bible—including the racy Song of Solomon—from Hebrew into Castilian instead of starting with the church-approved Latin text, which he felt was flawed. Ideas mattered, and he wanted them accurately disseminated.
Even though he was arrested, Fr. León was one of the luckier targets of the Inquisition, avoiding torture on the rack and serving about five years in prison instead. Soon after his release, he returned to teaching and, on his first day back in the classroom, it’s said that he kicked off his lecture with the phrase, “As we were saying yesterday,” as if not a moment had passed.
In homage to the friar’s ability to play the long game, his classroom has been preserved in its original state—a dark and funereal gathering space, which seems a fitting paean to the material austerity of pure intellect. The man himself is immortalized with a statue that commands the Patio de Escuelas, a small plaza located in what used to be the heart of the campus. With his outstretched arm and a gaze that peers down at you from above, he seems to be tsk-tsking the viewer, as if to say, “I may have lost the battle, but if you thought I was planning to lose the war to THOSE fools, you grossly underestimated me.”
Just down the hall from Fr. León’s time machine, we entered the paraninfo (auditorium), another room whose shoulders seemed to sag under the weight of dark wood and bulky drapery. It was here, centuries after the friar’s return to the breach, that a different confrontation took place. That scene unfolded in the fall of 1936, a few months after General Francisco Franco and his Nationalist troops launched their military coup against Spain’s democratically elected republic—sparking a brutal civil war that lasted nearly three years, whose grim sequel was more than 35 years of dictatorship.
In the early days of that war, Salamanca became the de facto headquarters of Franco’s Nationalist army. On October 12th, 1936, the university hosted a celebration of the annual holiday that commemorates Columbus’ voyage to America. The event drew a range of personalities to the auditorium, including a Spanish cardinal, Franco’s wife, and General José Millán Astráy, the head of the Spanish legion and the Generalísimo’s propaganda chief. When someone in the crowd yelled out the legion’s necrophilic battle cry, “¡Que viva la muerte!” (“Long live death!”), Millán Astráy echoed the sentiment and launched into a diatribe about fascism’s power to exterminate the metaphorical cancers that were plaguing the country.
Also present in the paraninfo that day was the university’s rector: the famed novelist, poet, and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno. Although Unamuno entered the room a Nationalist supporter, he publicly chided Milláy Astrán for his comments, which prompted the general to interrupt him and scream out a call for death to intellectuals (or intelligence, depending on whose version of events you accept). In response, Unamuno rebutted him a second time, speaking some variation of the phrase for which he later became known, “Venceréis, pero no convenceréis” (“You will win, but you will not convince”).
After his riposte, Unamuno was escorted out of the auditorium. Although various revisionist accounts disagree about the intensity of the verbal confrontation between the two men, it is a fact that Unamuno was placed under house arrest not long after and removed from his position as university rector, dying in his home just ten weeks later. For a man like him, knowledge was surely power, but as he also knew full well, cruelty and aggression have the ability to trump it in the short term—a scenario that’s visible all over our world today, including right here in the US.
As I stood in that somber room, I thought about my father’s own brush with the regime in 1948. Even though he had been born in the US and spent the first three years of his life in New York (until his Spanish parents returned to their homeland because of my grandfather’s failing health), Dad was denied an exit visa by Franco’s government, and his only way out of Spain was to escape via the mountain range that borders Portugal, illegally crossing the frontier in the dead of night with the help of a smuggler he’d paid off. Like so many who fled the country during the diaspora of that time, my father chose to abandon the dictatorship’s suffocating cruelty and head toward the promise of a better future. It wasn’t easy for him to leave behind his entire family—in fact he later helped to bring over his sister, brother, and their families—but during the subsequent 70 years he spent in New York City, he never once expressed the desire to live in Spain again.
For most of his life, Dad avoided talking about his feelings, a true product not only of his generation and gender, but also of life in Spain under the Generalísimo—particularly during the first two decades after the civil war, when it was possible to disappear in the middle of the night, never to be seen again, simply because a neighbor or cousin had reported you to the authorities for expressing an unpopular opinion.
Following the onset of dementia in my father’s final years, however, the veil of silence gradually began to lift, and he grew more emotionally expressive. Increasingly, he would verbalize his profound love for my mother and me, pulling us into frequent hugs, clutching our hands tightly, and communicating the happiness that our presence brought him. But even as he shared his joys, he also revealed the intense sadness that he’d kept bottled up inside for so long—most notably, the intolerable challenge of saying goodbye to his mother, who had already been widowed for six years when Dad left Spain at the age of 20. My entire life, I had heard him address my mother using the term of endearment “mami,” but during the final months of his life, he would often call out for “mamá,” and there was something unmistakeable about the way that he said it that made it clear to us it was my grandmother he was summoning.
Looking around the university’s paraninfo, at row upon row of empty wooden seats, I started to see my father’s story from a different perspective. There is no doubt that his experience, and those of so many others like him during that same period, have lived on as dramatic tales of exile and abandonment, a momentous leaving behind, but each one of those individuals was also a line item in the huge ledger of losses that a country accrues as it drives out or silences a significant chunk of its population—the sum total of the potential that disappears with them.
Although I had not planned the trip with this in mind, my time in Salamanca coincided with my birthday. That night, I was fêted in good company, and the celebration was punctuated with tapas, wine, and gin-and-tonics at various cafés and bars in and around the Plaza Mayor. One of the establishments we visited was a famed literary hangout called Novelty, founded in 1905. As the oldest surviving café in the city, its name has since taken on an ironic cast. Still, the concept of novelty is a relative one, and on this day, my year was as new as it gets, so I figured that it couldn’t hurt to start the next chapter of my own personal story by tracing the footsteps of writers past.
As I later discovered, the café’s moniker is oddly fitting, considering how many times the place has reinvented itself. Before the civil war, it was where Miguel de Unamuno regularly met with other writers, professors, and intellectuals, including the philosopher and essayist José Ortega y Gasset. Although Novelty also welcomed businessmen, ranchers, and merchants, these two groups often self-segregated, with liberals sitting to the left of the entrance and conservatives to the right. (It’s said that Unamuno usually avoided the choice, opting for the outdoor terrace instead, even in winter.)
After Salamanca became the headquarters for Franco and his Nationalist army, Novelty was rechristened Café Nacional—proof that tyrants everywhere feel the ceaseless need to colonize even buildings—and the name held until 1964, when the owner’s son took over the business and reverted to the original. In the early 1970s, Novelty became a hub for those interested in plotting the demise of the Generalísimo’s dictatorship, a site for clandestine gatherings in the back rooms, where manifestos were drafted and copied on the hand-cranked machines that were hidden there. Finally, in the late 70s, the local government reclaimed a chunk of the property, which it owned, to create its new city hall, but the rest of the space remains a café-bar that has welcomed presidents, kings, and a range of leading literary figures, including Mario Vargas Llosa, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, and Juan Benet.
Accompanied by my friends, I headed back out into the plaza to continue the birthday festivities, leaving behind thoughts of Novelty’s circuitous biography. As my small group of revelers ambled from one tapas bar to the next—happily grazing and drinking like the free-range ibérico pigs that are raised just outside of the city—the magical surroundings elevated our celebration. Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor is one of the most picturesque central squares in all of Spain, and it is at its loveliest in the evening, when the Baroque architecture is illuminated by the soft glow of the incandescent lamps. The quality of the light lent an almost timeless aspect to the scene, turning it into a kind of photo negative of daytime’s glaring sun and devouring shadows.
Earlier that day, after lunch in this same square, the tour guide had called our attention to the top edges of the arcade that forms the plaza’s perimeter, pointing to a series of medallions carved in stone that feature busts of famous figures in Salamanca history—from Unamuno, Cervantes, and a slew of Spanish kings, to the Duke of Wellington and the mystic and poet St. Teresa of Ávila. If you were to scan the entire colonnade, however, you’d notice that several of the medallions are empty. This is no accident, the guide explained. They were left that way on purpose, to allow space for new faces to be added in the future. I smiled at the wisdom of the city planners, for they understood that the people and stories we choose to commemorate reveal as much about our present as they do about the past.
After my tour of the region ended, I headed north to Galicia to visit with my mother’s family for a week. When I arrived, the national news programs were bleating frequent updates on the imminent plans to exhume Franco’s body from the Valley of the Fallen—the mausoleum and monument just south of Castilla and León that he had ordered built in the 1940s and 50s, its construction relying in part on the slave labor of political prisoners.
Although the monument was originally conceived as an homage to the Fascist war dead, the regime was later pressured by the Vatican to dedicate the site to all combatants killed during those three bloody years, regardless of which side they represented. Franco’s government even went so far as to disinter the bodies of veterans buried in cemeteries all over the country—in many cases without notifying their families or obtaining permission—and transporting their loved ones’ remains to the Valley of Fallen. Later, the site became a meeting place for right-wing sympathizers who arrive on the anniversary of the Generalísimo’s death, kitted out in their Fascist and Nazi regalia.
In the 2000s, the debate on historical memory entered the mainstream, as the children and grandchildren of those lost during the civil war and dictatorship called for their ancestors’ remains to be exhumed from mass graves across the peninsula. (According to a report by Amnesty International, Spain has the world’s second largest number of disappeared, after Cambodia.) Much like what we are now seeing here in the US—with the push to remove statues and other paeans to Confederate leaders and high-profile slave owners—the descendants of those who were tortured, raped, and murdered during and after Spain’s civil war have called for the addition of historical markers in locations where firing squads and other atrocities once occurred, as well as the renaming of streets christened after Franco and his most sociopathic lieutenants.
With a contentious national election looming last fall, the back and forth over when Franco’s remains might be extracted from the Valley of the Fallen and where they were to be moved was surely an exercise in political theater, even as it simultaneously represented another skirmish in the conflict that has raged since the civil war’s end 80 years earlier. While it’s ridiculous to say that the government’s performative gesture of restorative justice was carried out for the purest of reasons, or that it might come anywhere close to compensating for the extreme damage of the intervening years, it was still impossible for me to listen to those news reports without recalling the subversive words of Unamuno and Fr. León—or without thinking of my father.
What my visit to Salamanca taught me is that history is not written just by acts of war and feats of conquest, nor should it be commemorated only in the monuments erected by its victors. History is also shaped by absence and a thousand quiet acts of resistance. By the people who leave, disappear, are forced out, or endure punishment and injustice for having the audacity to speak truth. By the ones who are muted or those who must mute themselves as a means of survival.
If we think of history as a river, those individuals are the stones that line a waterway. Like the knight-errant at the heart of Cervantes’ work, they are often worn down by the relentless pressure of the current even as the overall flow continues on its course; but knock one of those stones hard enough, and its position might shift, causing a tiny amount of water to detour in an unexpected direction. Dislodge enough of them, and soon you’ve moved the river. Their quests may have a touch of the quixotic about them, but they are never futile.
I am grateful for their acts of defiance, for the small brakes they exert on the headlong rush of blind certainty, and I celebrate the ways they bind us to a truer, fuller view of human history—one that’s ultimately cyclical, like the seasons of the land upon which it is wrought. And I am forever indebted to my father for the capacity to endure his own jarring displacement in order to establish himself in an entirely new place.
About a week after I returned to New York City, Franco’s remains were finally removed from the basilica at the Valley of the Fallen and loaded onto a helicopter for transport to a family crypt. As I watched the news footage that day, I couldn’t help but think back to the intentionally empty medallions that line the colonnade in Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor. They are a fitting reminder that there is still much more history that needs to be written.
Featured image: Miguel de Unamuno leaving Salamanca University after disavowing the fascist coup. October 1936.