For seven months in Minneapolis, we gave away our things. Items with memories attached, once gone—are quickly forgotten. Gifting two thousand books I thought represented me, I felt more free than I had in decades. And yet, in our tiny apartment in Portugal, what did we do? Start collecting. Rocks and shells filled counter spaces. On the last day, we took them back to the beach and made a peace sign. We knew high tide would wash away all memories of our beach art. Still, we hoped the sentiment of our creation would not disappear but spread.
One of the Minneapolis books I gave away was Carolyn Forché’s Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, poems that recorded humanity’s ugliest moments. In Spain, and Morocco I think about that book. I have spent a lifetime being against forgetting, especially histories of suffering and resistance. Yet in Cadiz, Spain, in Tangier, Morocco, and now in Madrid, with eyes and heart on Gaza, my mind is full of questions about the value of remembering. My lack of clarity has made this hard to write.
On our way to Cádiz, we spent a day in Sevilla, passing massive ornate cathedrals built on wide plazas, connected by narrow winding ancient streets; making our way to the old Jewish Quarter. During the 800 years when North African Muslim Arabs (Moors) ruled Iberia, Jews experienced religious tolerance. After the Christian Reconquest, in the 13th century, Jews were segregated, hemmed in by walls like those we walk around. In 1492 all Muslims and Jews were expelled unless they converted. The Christians built cathedrals on top of synagogues and mosques. In Sevilla, the floors and some walls of the Jewish houses of worship still remain. Foolishly, I thought I might be able to purchase a menorah here. There were hundreds of souvenir shops selling plates, fans, tiles, and Christian paraphernalia, but nothing Jewish.
Getting off the train in Cádiz, we joined a stream of tourists entering the historic district. In the port, we met a cruise ship unloading and our stream became a river. Cádiz has been a tourist destination for at least 2,000 years. Romans took pilgrimages here to see where the giant god Hercules was buried. His statue lays flat near the Roman Coliseum.
Today the giant gods of Cadiz are cruise ships bringing a new infusion of tourist dollars daily. Only the noses of cruisers fit in the harbor. When I looked up at one sniffing the edge of the port, I felt like a doll living in a doll city.
Cadiz advertises itself as the oldest in Europe, founded by Phoenicians, invaded by Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Moors, and Christians. Jutting out to the sea, it has been an international port for centuries. Columbus’ second and fourth voyages to the Americas began here. Slavers filled ships with people in chains and began the deadly middle passage across the Atlantic from here. Armies launched and returned home from European wars over territory and battles of conquest in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. In 1895 Spain’s foot soldiers sailed to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines to put down independence struggles and returned here to feasts, medals, marches, and memorials to the dead. In the 1920s Spain launched its conquest invasion of Morocco from Cádiz.
None of this terror is remembered in public history sites. Boats filled with goods coming to and from the Americas still begin and end their voyages at the Punto de Americas, off the street they still call the Avenue of Discovery. In the Plaza de San Juan de Dios, where we lived, a plaque erected in 1993, next to the Cathedral, noted that Columbus worshiped here and then brought “evangelica y cultura” to the Americas.
In 1993 I was in graduate school at the University of Minnesota, studying Latin American History. Many historical revisions, supported by grants to mark the 500th anniversary of the Columbus voyage, were published that year, focused on slavery, conquest, the genocidal decimation of Indigenous people, the violent suppression of Native cultures and religions, the history of resistance and resilience, and history before 1492, of diverse cultures and religions in the Americas, dating back thousands of years. I was lucky to work with mentors who embraced this effort to remember and tell history from American Indigenous and African perspectives. However one of my professors, a historian of Spain, protested the new narratives.
In 2023, a pact to forget settler colonialism continues in Spain. Developers, supported by the extreme right Partido Popular, recently built a history theme park in Toledo that erases conquest, remembers discovery, spreads the myth of an equal exchange between Spain and the Americas, and presents Christianity as a gift to Native America.
In Cádiz, I was hopeful we might see exhibits Against Forgetting at the Museo de Iberoamerica, situated in a gorgeous spot overlooking the coast, in a building that once was a jail. There was a temporary art exhibit on the origin of Capoeira in Brazil. The paper collage images were powerful poems against forgetting, illustrating the chains of slavery, the middle passage, and life on a sugar plantation in Brazil. Beginning and final frames were joyful: martial art/dance as a form of resistance.
The permanent exhibit of the Museum was a disappointment. The former art collection of a wealthy individual was displayed without context, and — in the case of Indigenous artists—without appellation. A painting of sailboats and a Panamanian weaving were set side by side, both displayed as random pretty objects from the “New World.” Most egregious, was the statement about the exhibit embossed on the wall. It talked of the great cultural exchange between Europe and the Americas that Iberia made possible. (!) I was not interested in statues by a local sculpture of nudes and important dudes. The images were probably arresting, but in the context of this museum they seemed like naked bodies covering voices the museum promised to bring us. In another context, I would appreciate this bust of Picasso. Not here.
The Pacto del Olivido, 1975.
December 6 was a holiday; the day in 1978 when a new constitution was promulgated after the death of the fascist dictator, Franco. We were told it is a day for Spaniards to “be proud.” We looked for and found no evidence of celebration in Cádiz. It was a day off, so there were more locals at the beach. I wondered if this lack of ritual was because in 1975, the political parties signed the Pacto del Olivido, the Pact of Forgetting
My first reaction to hearing about the pact to forget was “How regressive!” There were no tribunals, no one was held accountable, no Truth and Reconciliation, no Never Again memorials, just a pact to move forward. But then I thought, what do you do to stop the divisions that keep ordinary people recruited to fight on different sides, from working together on issues that make all their lives better? Elites love divisions among working-class people. Maybe this is one way to not pollute next generations with the choques of their ancestors.
How will the Palestinians and Israelis ever stop perpetuating past trauma if sins of the past are elevated? What is the use of memory without repair?
We marked December 6 by participating in an international webinar sponsored by the Green Olive Project, a group of former combatants from Israel and Palestine, working toward a ceasefire and an end to the Israeli Occupation through non-violent resistance. We heard the testimony of a Palestinian man, a former member of Hamas, who had lost 50 family members since October 7.
Members of the Green Olive Project are committed to forgetting and remembering. They are working to forget to hate each other. They are working to remember the recent and current history of displacement and injustice imposed by the Israeli government on Palestinians so that they can advance an agenda of equitable structural change.
December 8 was also a holiday, a celebration of the Immaculate Conception, the day Mary was conceived and chosen to be the mother of Jesus. We found ourselves at the end of processions blocking the narrow street: youth carrying statues of Mary and singing. Many people took advantage of two national holidays on the 6th and 8th and had a five-day weekend. Spanish tourists took walking tours, stood in line for the best ice cream, drank cervesas grandes in the cafes that line the narrow pedestrian roads of the historic sector.
Most days in Cádiz, we started with plans, lost our way, and ended up with adventures we didn’t know we were looking for. Such it was the day we walked into the Roman amphitheater. We took a seat in the commoner’s section and imagined the comedies and tragedies. From there we toured the Cathedral next door, climbing the winding path to the top of the bell tower. I stood under a bell gaping at the view when the bell tolled. The boom was so strong it caused me and another woman to fall to the ground. Hit by sound. The views were magnificent. At this height, a parrot was perched on the rooftop. David tried to get it to say Hola!
Inside the Catedral, among the paintings and sculptures was a statue of Jesus standing over the planet Earth, protecting all humanity. In the crypt, the floor echoed when we stepped. I could not help but dance to make it bounce.
A painful lesson in Tangier
In Tangier, Morocco, where we spent two nights, we experienced a small bit of trauma worth remembering. We were walking with our guide (friend of a Minneapolis friend), along the tiny winding dark corridors of the historic city when a young boy, maybe 10 or 11, hit us with a metal bar. His aim was perfect, getting me in the back and leaving a gash on David’s forehead. Dave fell to the ground, his glasses bounced off, and his head was bleeding. We acted as though it was an accident though we knew it wasn’t.
Fearing a concussion, David asked our guide to find some ice. He went into a restaurant, but they had none to offer. We stopped at an herbologist next and they put iodine and a band-aid on Dave’s head and dismissed his fears. “It’s just a small cut.” The owner then tried to sell me a skin lotion to get rid of my wrinkles.
The feeling of being hated, especially by a child, for what you represent rather than who you are is of course, painful. We thought about images this child might be seeing of children in Palestine. Or perhaps he is focused instead on our relative wealth and our freedom of movement. We can both afford the $70 ferry round-trip ticket, and our passports allow us to visit places he can only dream about.
His assault gave us a visceral if momentary understanding of the difficulty of getting children caught up in the gravest injustices, to forget—no matter what kind of peace pact adults come up with.
In Madrid, the Museo de Historia de Madrid told its story in paintings from the 17th -19th centuries. There was nothing about this territory before the Reconquista, and nothing from the Franco or post-Franco period, except a contemporary photo exhibit of transportation in the 2020s- buses, subways, taxis. There was also nothing about the economy of an empire, few references to the Americas from where minerals and sugar flowed, into Madrid, out to Britain. Like so many U.S. public history sites, there were plenty of 19th-century battle scenes described in detail and without context. But nothing from Spain’s civil War., a silence that speaks volumes.
Seems the pact to forget turned this history museum into a house of pretty fiction.
Random thoughts about remembering and forgetting.
We forget most things that happen. We are always making conscious and unconscious decisions about what to remember.
When someone we love dies, we begin the process of forgetting the fights, and the irritations, the worst things they did, and remembering the things that will give us strength and comfort as we proceed without them. Sometimes we even create narratives that heal us, mixing truth with a bit of exaggeration and a pinch of fiction. Unless we have been deeply hurt by the person, and during their lifetime there was never a reckoning, I think that kind of forgetting and selective remembering helps us grieve and heal.
The basis of most trauma therapy these days, as I understand it, is to remember so that we can forget. Gone are the days of lobotomies, but also we are encouraged to find new ways of understanding terrifying things, so that they no longer oppress us; so they become stories we don’t have to keep on telling.
I am posting this while in Madrid, looking back on Cádiz, and considering what I would like to remember. I had an earache that whole month. That is not worth remembering. I would have forgotten it already if my ear did not remember now.
I want to remember:
- that first day, when Dave voiced his dream that in Spain there would be a guitar, and on that same day, in the market square, a man sold him one for 25 Euros. My memories of the small apartment without outside windows is sunnier due to the music he made.
- the guitarras and clarinets, the clap tracks and the plaintive voices of musicians playing in the streets of Cádiz.
- Watching people kiss on the Malecon, (coastal walkway) and take selfies, posing like they feel beautiful. Not just lovers, but mothers and daughters, grandparents and grandchildren, and groups of friends. Love rises in a beautiful place.
- Seagulls and the pigeons that accompany our walks.
- Two women with walkers, having a beer together at Café Charlotte overlooking the ocean.
- Hanging our laundry on the rooftop, looking down on the Plaza, and up at the sky at birds figure-eighting the Diario de Cádiz building.
- Doing a couple of swing dances on the pier with a dance group, because we promised ourselves to do things that make us look stupid.
- That day, like so many others when we walked on the beach. David, walking behind me picked up rocks along the way. He carries them in one of the bolsas attached to his belt. They become a manger scene he leaves on the beach. The sun was so powerful, we stripped layer upon layer, from winter to summer wear. We wonder if we could walk to Tarifa, at the bottom of Spain this way, but we are not sure what direction we are walking in. Maybe we’d end up in Portugal instead. We have lunch in a Spanish restaurant without tourists The noise from locals is deafening. Beer is served like water. The paintings on walls are of flower-filled patios. The plato del dia does not break the bank. I enjoy the pineapple for dessert and the olive oil on my salad. The best part is the walk back, with views of the Cathedral and its Mosque domes from the 12th century. As the sun lowers, the people on the beach become silhouettes.
In Madrid, I already forgot whatever it was I did not want to remember about our month in enchanting Cádiz.
(More Cádiz and Tangier memories in Cuatro Cuerpos. More on Madrid in Madrid Magic. )