Teaching Francoism in Times of Covid: A College Professor Reports

November 6, 2021

Poster of Luis Lucia’s Ha llegado un ángel (1961).

How might instructors teach the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and Franco dictatorship (1939-1975) to students who have little prior knowledge of the period? A participant in ALBA’s teaching workshops explains.

How can we immerse US-based students in literary worlds that depict the scarcity of postwar Barcelona, as in Carmen Laforet’s novel Nothing, or the complicated gender roles of the later years of the dictatorship, as in Miguel Delibes’s Five Hours with Mario? How has the pandemic changed the way instructors address these topics in class? I first grappled with these questions as a participant in “America and World Fascism: From the Spanish Civil War to Nuremberg and Beyond,” the five-week professional development workshop run online by ALBA and the Collaborative for Educational Services in the summer of 2020.

The workshop allowed me to inhabit an in-between space as a graduate student gaining subject-matter expertise and an instructor aiming to make the Spanish Civil War and dictatorship accessible to students. I first experienced the weekly Zoom activities— such as analyzing letters from members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade—from the perspective of a student. I then turned these learning experiences into future lesson plans during lively group discussions with colleagues across different disciplines in K-12 teaching and higher education. I especially enjoyed the discussion conducted in Spanish about teaching poems by Rafael Alberti and Miguel Hernández. For me, the most meaningful take-away from the workshop was the strong commitment shared by the participants to empower students to recognize the humanity of the victims and survivors of the war and dictatorship.

Soon after the summer workshop, I found myself applying what I’d learned, as Dr. Eugenia Romero and I each took on an asynchronous online section of Spanish Culture During Francoism at The Ohio State University. Taught in Spanish, the course introduces students to the literature, film, and music of the Franco dictatorship. We prepared a series of prerecorded lectures and presentations and shared these materials with both class sections. Students met with us in small groups on Zoom twice during the semester. They also produced weekly lesson checks, posted in online discussions using the Canvas Learning Management System, wrote two film reactions, met with classmates on Zoom, and submitted a final paper on a topic and text(s) related to the course. Although the students wrestled with the uncertainty and stress associated with living through the pandemic, their awareness of living a historic moment also piqued their interest in reading stories of survival from the darkest moments of the dictatorship.

We began the semester reading Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s La Guerra Civil contada a los jóvenes (The Spanish Civil War Told to Young People) as part of an introductory unit on the Spanish Civil War. The illustrations and short vignettes in the book prompted students’ questions and curiosities, setting a course for the topics we would cover later in the semester. After talking about the historical context and inconsistencies of Francoist ideology, we examined the impact of the war and dictatorship on the lives of ordinary people represented in novels and films. We ended the semester reflecting on the ghosts of the war and dictatorship in more recent films like Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone.

Reading about suffering was difficult. The titular short story in Alberto Méndez’s The Blind Sunflowers left a lasting impression on the students, who could sense Ricardo’s fear and frustration living sequestered in a closet as a topo—a person who hid from Francoist repression during the postwar years. While I was hesitant to include this text in the course, my students were more than willing to engage with unsettling stories like these in thoughtful discussions and group videos. As the pandemic rages on, Méndez’s stories help us recognize human perseverance and the daily challenges of life in isolation. His close-up views of life in postwar Spain gave us an opportunity to reflect on our own quarantine routines and efforts to keep our communities and loved ones safe. My students also enjoyed watching Luis Lucia’s 1961 musical film An Angel Has Arrived and discussing folklore and child stars. We thought critically about how Marisol, the film’s young protagonist, teaches her family members how to be productive members of Francoist society using catchy flamenco inspired songs and dances. My favorite question from a lesson check was asking students to share how they would direct a movie representing the ghosts of the war and dictatorship. They not only had great ideas for plots and settings, but they also practiced using a range of Spanish vocabulary and grammar.

In addition to introducing students to the major actors and events of the Spanish Civil War and dictatorship, I also wanted them to visualize daily life under the Franco regime. In my lectures, I focused on details like the poor quality of the soup Andrea, the main character in Laforet’s novel during the “hunger years,” eats at a restaurant. Apparently mundane details like these, I tell my students, prove especially important for uncovering lives and works excluded from dominant historical and cultural narratives—including women and members of the LGBTQ community.

Since we didn’t have regularly scheduled class meetings, I met students in small group “coffee talks” to see how they were responding to course topics in real time. It turned out they were connecting what they learned in other Spanish or history classes with the context of the Spanish Civil War and dictatorship. (In fact, I ended up learning more about international politics and diplomacy from them!)

Teaching an upper-level class online was a lot of work for instructors and students alike. The amount of material was ambitious, and the lack of regular meetings made it difficult for students to pace their reading and viewing of the course materials. For the second half of the semester, we decided to adjust the workload to give students more time to develop their final paper. While not everyone read and watched the entirety of the texts on the syllabus, my students were able to approach each lesson with empathy for characters who, like them, were navigating life on the cusp of adulthood. Just as those in Spain assumed that the war would be over by Christmas of 1936, so too did students expect the pandemic to be a distant memory by 2021. The greatest lesson learned from teaching during the pandemic is that we have the tools to represent and participate in the history unfolding around us daily in our art and activism.

Angela Acosta is a Ph.D. Candidate in Iberian Studies and Graduate Teaching Associate at The Ohio State University.