Thursday 23 April 2009

Signs of the Times

In Leon, an town important town in Spain’s Northwest, a street name either has been, or is in the process of being, changed. The story came as part of other research I am doing and I can’t find an exact date, which is annoying. However, to get back to my point: A street that has (or does) bear the name of one General Vincente Lafuente is being renamed. General Lafuente gave the orders for a Captain Juan Rodríguez Lozano to be shot by firing squad during the civil war.
The renaming of this street follows the introduction of a law introduced by the present government led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to remove statues, symbols and street names that commemorate General Franco or his supporters.

This is doubly unlucky for General Lafuente. Leon is Mr. Zapatero’s town of birth and the young captain Lafuente ordered to be shot was the grandfather Mr Zapatero never knew.

Calle by calle, plaza by plaza, the names of the leaders of the civil war are being expunged.
Street names, like history, are written by the victors. But they still have a way to go.

Being a curious soul, I have endeavoured to find out as much about my new country of residence as I can and, of course, it is impossible to avoid the civil war. At the beginning of that war a terrible atrocity was committed. Known as the Massacre of Badajoz, in Extramadura, the advancing nationalist army, led by General Juan Yagüe y Blanco, murdered between two thousand and four thousand (estimates vary according to who is telling the story) civilians, including women and children. This is well documented and the general himself was quoted by an American journalist, John T Whitaker, as saying, “Of course that we have killed them. What did you suppose? Will I take 4.000 red prisoners with my column, having to advance against the clock? Or will I leave them in my rearguard so that Badajoz will be red another time?"
Since reading this history, it annoys me that when I visit a dear friend the name of her street is the Calle General Yagüe.

So I think this is definitely a case where the name should be changed. No war criminal should be commemorated in this way. However, when I have spoken about this, the consensus is that today no one remembers him, and that changing the name would drag up old memories that would be better buried. So now you know why the decade following Franco’s death is known as the age of amnesia!

And while I agree that it is not right that these men should be remembered with honour, by removing their names, we are not just allowing society to forget the perpetrators of evil deeds, we are also allowing the deeds themselves to disappear from our collective memories. A knowledge of history means we do not make the same mistakes again!

Cities the world over commemorate their great and their good in the names of their streets. In my travels through France, my curiosity of French history was fuelled by reading street names and wondering who the heck these people were. Every town has a “Place de Gaulle”, a boulevard de Carnot or Victor Hugo, and a Rue Gambetta.

Madrid is no different, although much of its history is contained in the names of its Metro stations as well. Any visitor will soon find streets or plazas named for great artists, writers, musicians, scientists, saints and of course, politicians.

But sometimes I think the people charged with choosing the names get stuck on a theme. In my friend’s area, not only is the notorious Yagüe commemorated, but generals Orgaz, Cabrera, Ramirez, Varela and Peron. Evita would be pleased!

Margarita means daisy
If we move southwest from the centre and go to Carabanchel, all the streets are named for birds. It’s a great way of improving your Spanish ornithological vocabulary. Up in Las Moralejes the Spanish learner can swot up on horticultural terms as they use the names of flowers and herbs.

Salvia is sage and Petunia is, er, Petunia

Any visitor taking the metro from the airport will pass through the Mar de Cristal station. Ascend to the surface and you will find yourself in the barrio of Hortaleza and adrift in the middle of the Caspian, Bering, Mediterranean, Atlantic, Aral, Negro (black), Adriatic, Japanese, Baltic, Caribbean, Coral and Cantabria seas. Feeling seasick? It gets worse: Down in the Colonia de San Pablo every South American river flows though its streets.

And where I live they decided to name each calle or avenidia after cities in other countries – SO LONG AS THEY BEGIN WITH THE LETTER B. So we have the Avenidas de Bruselas, Bonn and Brasilia, The calles of Bristol, Bern, Bremen, Biarritz, Berlin and Brescia. It dates the barrio that Bonn is honoured as an Avenue and Berlin is just a street. Surely today, it would be the other way about.

In some places, the naming of places has become clever or decorative. The Plaza de Dali uses the artist’s own unrecognizable signature on the plate and the many tiled plaques seen around the city can be interesting as well as pretty. Regard for instance my favourite, naturally, at the head of this post, but I challenge anyone to find the actual street!
Plaza de Dali - in his own write.

And sometimes the namers of streets, would they be Calle-ographers(?), provide us with some unintended humour, well, at least to my warped mind. Not far from where I live the streets are named after virgins. Yes, well, the “Cult of the Virgin” as religious historians call it, has been important in Christian society since the middle ages. So in one barrio no less than seventeen streets bear the name of one virgin or another: de la Pena, de la Paz, de la Roca Trav, de la Nieves, de Loreto, de Nuria, de Sonsoles, del Espino, del Fresnedo ….. I could go on!
And where are all these virgins? Where is this bastion to chaste maidenhood?
In the Barrio De Concepción.
That’s immaculate!


  1. Street names are being changed in Hawai'i as well to the frustration of those whose ancestors are being dumped.

  2. "the namers of streets, would they be Calle-ographers?"

    Or in the case of the one named after Dalí


  3. Calle San Ricardo...not that litte alleyway behind the old Post Office building on Puerta del Sol? Surely there are nicer "Ricardos" out there!

  4. There's 12 streets called after my namesakes. Only 1 with a pretty street sign, however. Very well done for recognising it. Most Madillenos don't know it exists.