Last Saturday Mark, our friend Nancy, and I visited Orihuela. That’s a city of about 34,000 people that lies half an hour’s drive from us. Orihuela is an old city; it was well-established by 859CE, when Vikings attacked it, and still remembers its crafty Visigoth king, Theodemir, who negotiated with invading Muslim troops headed by Ibn Musa and managed to retain a degree of sovereignty over his realm. Today, the city has some interesting historical sites, including a ruined Arab castle, a medieval cathedral, and a museum of floats from the Holy Week processions and the parade of Moors and Christians that take place each year.
We bypassed the long-ago sites this visit, though, in order to visit a more contemporary memorial. The neighborhood of San Isidro in Orihuela is home to approximately 200 murals remembering Miguel Hernandez, one of the foremost Spanish poets of the 20th century. The murals all appear on the sides of buildings in the area. Hernandez was born in Orihuela and had only a rudimentary formal education. But his poetry was soon recognized as being both simple and profound, and he moved further into the public eye with his leftist political activity. He became a Communist and was affiliated with the Spanish Republican government.
When the Civil War broke out in 1936, Hernandez joined the opposition to Franco and fought in one of the militias in the war. When Franco triumphed, Hernandez was arrested and sentenced to death. Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and others interceded on his behalf, but the best they could do was a commutation of his sentence to 30 years in prison. His wife Josefina and his sons suffered in poverty during this period. Their first son died as a result of hunger, and Josefina famously wrote to her husband in prison to say that she and their second son were surviving on onions and bread. This letter inspired one of Hernandez’s most famous poems, “Onion Lullaby.” Hernandez contracted tuberculosis in prison and died there in 1942.
Franco died in 1975, and King Juan Carlos I and the Spanish government began the process of moving away from totalitarianism. In 1976, murals honoring Hernandez first appeared on the walls of the houses in San Isidro. This happened despite the intervention of armed police, who tried to stop the painting process. Over the years, the political climate opened up, and Hernandez’s work as a poet and an activist began to be celebrated. Now, Orihuela holds a festival in March to restore the existing murals and add new ones. The festival includes music, dancing, speeches, and, I’m guessing, lots of alcohol. This is Spain, after all.
So that brings us to our visit to the murals. Saturday was hot, but after eating way too many delicious tapas at a local cafe, the three of us clapped on our hats and wandered the neighborhood. We took pictures, exclaimed over various displays, and tried to translate passages quoted on the walls. Some are real works of art. Some are rather amateurish. Some seem kind of random; there’s a tribute to Sojourner Truth near the gas station, for example. But to visit the murals is both sad, because of Hernandez’s fate, and inspiring. One of my favorite murals is the one shown above. This mural appears on the side of a school, and, as you see, the picture is simply lots of hands. The (translated) quotation from Hernandez’s poem is, “Hands are the tools of the soul.” I believe that. I love that.
As an American, it’s interesting to contemplate the process of remembering a dark period in history. We all know about the debates in the USA regarding removing statues honoring Confederates. For its part, Spain is still grappling with the legacy of Franco and the Fascism he brought to this country. There’s a lot of process there, and perhaps that’s for another blog post, after I come to understand more. All I can tell you now, though, is this: the statues and symbols of Franco and his regime are either in museums or gone entirely. Franco isn’t forgotten, but he’s not celebrated, either. In contrast, the murals honoring Miguel Hernandez blaze out in their lovely colors in the Spanish sunshine, inviting visitors to contemplate poetry and politics. And the hands that refurbish and add to these murals? I think like Hernandez thought. I think that they are the tools of the soul.