Designing a Spanish Language Class on the Civil War & the Transition

November 6, 2021
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Meeting in Barcelona of the City Network against Francoist Impunity, Jan. 2018. Photo Diario de Madrid. CC BY 4.0.

Spanish teachers in the ALBA workshops often ask whether they can use the rich and complex material about twentieth-century Spanish history in language classes, even at beginning or intermediate levels. The short answer is: Absolutely!

For the past decade, I have taught a sixth-semester course at Tufts University that deals with the war and the Transition and that can easily be adapted for higher or lower levels, as well as AP courses. I usually begin the course by dividing students into groups and asking them to reflect on an impactful event from their past. As an example, I relate the following anecdote from my own life. In my Junior Year Abroad, with St. Lawrence University in 1968-69, I lived with a very religious family in Madrid who had high praise for Francisco Franco. As it turned out, the mother of the family had lost two brothers during the war, one on either side. I was 20, very naïve, and I had never read much on history or politics, let alone thought about social class differentiation. We lived in the wealthy Barrio of Salamanca. My Spanish host father proudly held a title of Marquis. His wife, as Marquesa, often took me shopping with her. She thought she deserved to go to the head of the line in any neighborhood store. One day, embarrassed by her rudeness, I asked her why she did not wait on line with everyone else. Indignant, she scoffed: “Why, I’m nobility!”

My Spanish family made clear I was not to ask too many questions. My teachers at St. Lawrence also cautioned me. As a result, I would not realize the true nature of the Franco regime until I researched Spanish history, many years later. In 1988, I began to coordinate exchange programs with a public high school in Madrid. I went to Madrid with students ten times, always in February. Even then, historians advised me not to talk about the Civil War. I followed their advice while in Spain, but when I returned to my teaching assignment at Braintree High School, MA, in the early 1990´s, I discovered ALBA and the Volunteer. In the late 90s, I took my AP classes to Tufts to see ALBA’s poster exhibit, Shouts from the Wall.

I was hooked. After my retirement from Braintree, I became a part-time teacher at Tufts, where sixth-semester courses can focus on one topic as long as they include level-appropriate grammar work. I immediately saw the opportunity for a course focused on the war and the Transition, which I’ve taught every year since then.

I have adapted the course frequently to incorporate current events. In 2017, the Tisch College at Tufts encouraged us to design courses that would allow undergraduates to engage in research involving civic or historical education. In the course’s current iteration, students compare Spain’s 2007 Memory Law with a similar law or event in another country. The students do independent research, maintain a diary which they hand in three times during the semester, and at the end of the semester all participate in a roundtable discussion in which they present about reparations, controversies, museum interventions, and other ways of dealing with the past. I ask them to reflect on how they learned history in high school, and how they think the methods of teaching history should be adapted in Spain, the other country they researched, and the United States. (For a recent syllabus of the course, see the Volunteer’s online edition at albavolunteer.org.)

As the student reflections included below indicate, the course has not only helped students develop their proficiency in Spanish but allowed them to engage with important questions at a broader level in ways that I, as an undergraduate in the 1960s, never could.

Patricia Smith teaches at Tufts and is a consultant for the College Board. You may email her with questions or comments at patricia.smith@tufts.edu.


“My grandfather served in Franco’s navy in the late 1940s and I always knew that my grandparents grew up under the Franco regime, but it was never something they talked about or something I had learned about in high school. This class gave me an opportunity to not only learn about a fascinating, complicated part of Spain’s history, but to gain insight into my own family’s history. In March 2019 I had the opportunity to present on historical memory in both Spain and Germany at the Worcester State Undergraduate Language Conference. I plan to move to Spain next year upon graduation and am considering doing research focusing on historical memory.” — Hannah San Sebastian

“It is because of this curriculum, in conjunction with other courses about fascism, that I have decided on a major in political science and intend to study abroad in a Spanish-speaking country. Learning about historical memory changed my view on the ways large-scale traumas affect different nations across the globe. It has also made me more understanding and empathetic towards the many different responses to such traumas.” — Maeve Hagerty

“I enrolled in the course with absolutely no prior knowledge of the Spanish Civil War, and quickly realized how many valuable aspects and layers there were to learn. My eyes were opened to the fact that this war, and countless others, weren’t taught in my standard high school, for some reason I still do not understand. I was even more shocked to learn that currently, a significant portion of Spanish people themselves are not fully educated on this key part of their history. This course has made me consider what history books and teachers don’t tell us—events and perspectives that they purposely don’t want to make public. This was the first time I felt I was part of a conversation in Spanish that truly had meaning in the real world, and I absolutely loved it. Learning more about the rich and complex Spanish culture in general made me realize that I want to major in Spanish cultural studies.” —Elitsa Ilieva

“The idea of historical memory was particularly impactful. Once I learned more about how historical narratives are crafted, I began to use that lens to examine some of our own history. This became invaluable in the summer of 2020, as the nation took a small step towards reckoning with past and present racial injustices. The events led me to form a diversity, equity, and inclusion group in my community, which has since joined my school district’s administration to address bias. Professor Smith’s class and our study of the Spanish Civil War … inspired me to continue my pursuit of social justice and to major in Spanish Cultural Studies before beginning medical school.” —Alex Martin


Learning about the Spanish Civil War and Its Aftermath: A Student Reflects

By Michael Wrede

The intimate study of the Spanish Civil War through the work of historians, writers, leaders and other figures reveals some of the darkest truths of our human existence. A swirl of factors before the war— including increasing tribalism, factions and hate—led to unspeakable crimes. The Spanish Civil War and particularly its aftermath highlights how hard it is for countries to come to terms with acts like these.

In our class, we learned of years of censorship that prevented writers from telling their stories and starting a healing process. Even when democracy arrived in Spain in the 1970s, it wasn’t a rush of conviction, but instead a slow burn and a desire to leave the past in the past. Yet what is evident in the current day is that the past pains in Spain are alive and well.

I saw this starkly during my time abroad. In one case, we were passing the Valle de los Caídos, the massive memorial built for Franco’s tomb which was recently exhumed. I asked the Spanish chaperones, who were all my age, about the memorial, and the laughs and jeers familiar to a school bus ride slowed as they explained their thoughts on the monument and the history explaining how ancient and distant it was. But they also explained that, as young city kids, they saw Franco’s exhumation from it as an important step. In an opposing interaction, my host parents told me of their firm belief that what was the past should stay there and that the stirring of the pot was not worthwhile and a waste of time. What’s most clear to me after learning so much about this history of Spain is that the processes and events that happened in Spain do not exist in a vacuum. Similar processes and pain can be seen elsewhere. In each case, we learn lessons and express regret for not acting earlier, but yet this process will continue to repeat for at least my lifetime.

In A Problem from Hell, Samantha Powers tells the story of Raphael Lemkin, who created the word genocide in 1944. Let that sink in: The word we came up with to define these acts did not exist till 1944. Lemkin’s work in the early 1930s was not taken seriously. He became a famous legal scholar on human rights only after people decided to pay attention. His story shows how hard it is to address the recent pains in a nation. But, as we see in Spain and many other countries, wounds fester if not tended to gently—but also concretely. Atrocities can occur anywhere. They happen when the world turns its back or closes its eyes to the horrors of the world. When this happens, we all lose.

It is an immense task to track, prevent, and address genocide. There needs to be bold action from policy makers that at times goes against the conventions of diplomacy. There need to be reporters that risk their lives to tell the stories of those suffering so that they can push people in faraway places that live in comparable luxury to care about some people or culture they’ve probably never heard of thousands of miles away. There need to be definitions, documentation, careful evaluation of pain, and statistical analysis of these horrible acts. Are we as humans equipped to talk about, address, and deal with pain so immense? I think loss of the loss of words that one finds trying to console a friend who lost a loved one. How can we possibly do this same thing for millions? Lawyers and statisticians would never be able to calculate the uneven and jagged grief of millions. The details of trials and law are staggering as well. Who do you bring to trial? Where does the guilt lie? How do you conduct these trials fairly? How do you define justice for millions killed?

I know one thing: this is a task that we as humans must take up no matter how much we feel unprepared and scared of missteps. The process can be slow, witness what happened to some of the war criminals in the Balkans who died before they ever faced a jury. We must take our time, but also be ready to fully address genocide after it happens. Yes, the details of that healing are complicated, fraught, and could devolve into more bloodshed. But after learning about the atrocities committed by humans on this planet, it’s clear to me that every single person has the obligation to fight for those that suffer genocide and find the best way to help people heal and recover with open, but careful minds.

Michael Wrede is a student at Tufts University who took Prof. Patricia Smith’s course on the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath.

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