Hispanidad and Spain’s Black Legend
Prejudiced myths impact Spain much like they do in the U.S.
“Hispanidad is the most important landmark of humanity, in my opinion only comparable with Rome. It is probably the most brilliant era, not of Spain, but of Man, together with the Roman Empire.”
It may be a small, dark comfort to know that the United States is not alone in having a leader prone to making extreme nationalist statements. In his rousing and ambitious campaign announcement speech to Andalucía’s regional Popular Party — one of the two largest parties in Spain — leader Pablo Casado made a number of claims that, while not particularly accurate, reveal much about how nationalism works in Spain and what it has in common with American strains. Casado was talking about Spain’s annual Fiesta Nacional, which brings together a number of celebrations of Spanish history and the state on October 12th — including Columbus Day, National Armed Forces Day, Day of the Spanish Language, and the unofficial Day of Hispanidad, or Hispanic-ness.
Hispanidad is still quite closely associated with the forty-year dictatorship of Francisco Franco that ended with his death in 1975. In the United States displays of militarism and zealous patriotism are more normalized than in Spain, where they are still largely conspicuous and unsettling. Popular opposition to military intervention, for example, has remained strong since the end of the dictatorship: more than ninety percent of Spaniards opposed the invasion of Iraq, to which the country contributed troops and military intelligence.
The most visible event of the national holiday, a military parade through the north of Madrid hosted by the king and attended by politicians and government authorities, therefore comes off as a defiant, deeply conservative affirmation of what it means to be Spanish.
As in the United States, these expressions of national fervor depend on a strong sense of victimization. At the Fiesta Nacional, for example, ever-present was the emphasis on the unity of Spain, which has been threatened by the independence movement in Catalonia this year. I spoke with attendees at the parade, many of whom expressed a sense of attack against their national identity — ranging from internal division in Catalonia and discussions over Franco’s legacy to a general need for order and security.
“What other country, if you think about it, can say that it discovered a new world? That three ships embarked…with capital that was not only Spanish but also privately invested, and were able to change history forever? And, above all, what other nation continues to maintain these linguistic, historical and cultural links with almost one third of the entire world?”
Casado’s vision of Hispanidad — with an appreciative nod to capitalism and private enterprise — pairs with another account of Spanish history, la Leyenda Negra or the “Black Legend.” Both ideas draw from Spain’s “Golden Age” at the height of its empire around the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. While Hispanidad refers to this time as proof of the greatness of the Spanish Empire and its legacy, the Black Legend identifies a tradition of “Hispanophobia” that started with resentment of the empire’s success.
It is true that there is a long tradition of anti-Spanish sentiment in Northern Europe. Its roots are in the Reformation, as the Spanish monarchy expanded its reach in Europe in the 1500s. In 1567 the Hapsburg Netherlands, long under the control of the Holy Roman Empire, revolted against the rule of King Philip II of Spain, whose aggressive counter-Reformation actions were widely unpopular in the Calvinist provinces. Philip II sent the Duke of Alba to suppress political dissent in the region. As governor of the Netherlands, he directed a brutal campaign against the riots, including executing Dutch nobles, pillaging and destroying rebel cities and massacring thousands of civilians and surrendered soldiers.
The Dutch resistance printed and distributed propaganda that emphasized the barbarism and violence of the Spanish Catholics. They also connected the Spanish response in the provinces to their treatment of indigenous people in the Americas, informed by Bartolomé de las Casas’Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (“A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies”). Las Casas’ book reported the atrocities committed by the Spanish in the American colonies, and became enormously popular in the rebelling provinces and throughout Protestant Europe. While banned in Spain following its original publication in 1552, it was translated and reprinted more than thirty times in the Netherlands during the Eighty Years’ War. Dutch artists, inspired by Las Casas’ account, emphasized the innocence and noble savagery of the Indians while illustrating their torture, murder and rumored cannibalism at the hands of the Spanish.
The historian Julián Juderías was the first to theorize the Black Legend in his popular 1914 book, La Leyenda Negra. Juderías sought to defend against what he saw as anti-Spanish bigotry and historical bias by disproving the historical accounts of Spanish atrocities in the Americas and emphasizing the moral and religious value of colonization. He pointed to Las Casas and Northern European propaganda as the source of this Hispanophobia. Central to his argument was the definition of the Black Legend:
“The fantastical tales about our homeland that have emerged in every country, the grotesque descriptions that have been made about the character of the Spanish as individuals and a collective, the denial or at least the systematic ignorance of everything that is favorable and beautiful in the diverse manifestations of our culture and art, the accusations that in every era have been thrown at Spain, based on exaggerated, poorly interpreted or completely false events, and finally, the affirmation…expanded on in the foreign Press that our Homeland constitutes, from the point of view of tolerance, culture and political progress, an unfortunate exception within the group of European nations.”
There are striking parallels between the language used by Juderías and American right-wing politicians like Trump. Both use hyperbole and grandiose verbiage (“The radical democrats have turned into an angry mob” — October 6, regarding the Kavanaugh investigation; to give one of many, many examples) to express and weaponize their victimhood and feeling of wounded superiority.
Hispanidad and the Leyenda Negra were dual concepts constructed and popularized in the early twentieth century, at a time of deep national vulnerability. Spain had just lost the Spanish-American War, and with it the bulk of its remaining colonies — among them Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. The humiliating loss resulted in a moral, social and political crisis. Both narratives from the beginning appealed to and influenced fascist groups in Spain: together they emphasized the country’s cultural supremacy and exceptionalism, while pointing to Hispanophobia as the source of its misfortunes.
The sentiments at the heart of the Black Legend are still pervasive, echoed by Casado and other conservative politicians as well as in pop culture. María Elvira Roca Barea’s Imperiofobia y la leyenda negra (“Imperiophobia and the Black Legend”), for example, has been a best-seller in Spain since 2016 and is currently in its seventeenth edition. Like Juderías’ a century ago, Roca Barea’s book is less notable for its attention to historical detail than for its overarching purpose: to dismantle the Black Legend piece-by-piece and defend the integrity of the Spanish Empire. Imperiophobia, according to Roca Barea, “is a kind of upward racist prejudice, identical in essence to downward racism.”
The logic of the Black Legend inspires a narrative of historical victimization that delegitimizes criticism of Spain and practically necessitates the denial of its less palatable history. For example, the 1987 law that designated Hispanidad as a national holiday claims to celebrate “a period of linguistic and cultural projection beyond the European limits.” It is no coincidence that the law was passed at the height of the Spanish transition from Franco’s dictatorship to democracy. The Black Legend narrative has had real consequences for Spanish national identity, and it is a shame that Spain’s first modern attempt at democratic self-determination has incorporated the whitewashing and erasure of history. Spain still struggles to account for the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain, the nearly four-century long Inquisition and of course the invasion and colonization of the Americas.
Lingering Northern European prejudice may be fanning that flame, the historical roots of which are instructive. Spaniards and other Southern Europeans are often perceived as lazy and primitively Catholic, for example, and therefore fully deserving of their current economic crisis. Coverage of Spain in Northern Europe often focuses on the deficits of Spanish culture. A recent article published in Switzerland (of all places) fervidly called for an end to the Spanish siesta (though only 18 percent of Spaniards still take one), claiming that it is the cause and result of Spaniards’ laziness and subsequent economic hardships. Even popular British daily The Times published an article this year titled “How to be Spanish,” mocking perceived Spanish tardiness, boorishness and indiscretion, which was met with criticism in Spain.
When this kind of prejudice is described as part of an anti-Spanish “legend,” however, there is no space for self-criticism or acknowledgement of historical wrongdoing — much less room for change. Instead, just as in the United States, the consistent narrative of denial and defensiveness allows for misinformation, militarization and xenophobia.
Pablo Casado ended his speech on a vague, even ominous, note: “I believe that we must be very proud of what the flag represents…the pride that it gives us to be able to celebrate this moment — a moment in which our very nation is at risk, put in danger.” It’s a similar idea to Trump’s mantra of “Make America Great Again,” a kind of vigilant defensiveness that depends upon nostalgia for a legendary past. The United States, particularly at the moment, draws from these same dual narratives: classic American exceptionalism paired with a self-righteous defense against American victimization.
Casado’s speech must have resonated in Andalucía, a long stronghold of the Left. In the regional elections that took place this past Sunday, the Socialist party (PSOE) was voted out of the government after holding power for 36 years. Vox, an extreme-right party that advocates for a decidedly Francoist version of Spain, has gained significant influence in the regional parliament with 12 of the 109 seats. It is likely that Vox, until now viewed as a fringe party, will join with the ruling right-wing coalition. In both the United States and Spain — and perhaps for nationalisms around the world — it’s clear that these legends have damaging and far-reaching consequences.
Anna Oakes lives in Madrid and works at the online publication Revista Contexto. She graduated in 2017 from Wesleyan University, where she studied sociology and Latin American studies.