El Valle de los Caídos

©Liza Pennington

What better way to spend a cloudy Sunday than an eerie excursion to El Valle de Los Caídos, the burial site of Francisco Franco?! After studying the Spanish Civil War for the past month and a half, my head has been spinning with information about the dictatorship. It’s always impressed me that historical memory is a field of its own here in Spain, as I am taking a cultural studies class focused on memory and absence. Today we took the long awaited trip to see Franco’s monument, accompanied by an expert in the field, Emilio Silva. Even the car ride there was dreary, as we saw the massive cross appear in the distance, alerting us that we were about to arrive. The cross towers over the landscape, clearly signifying the domination of the dictatorship.
I’ve always known that this is a highly controversial site, but prior to coming to Spain, I didn’t have all the knowledge to form an argument about my stance on Franco. Seeing this monument was definitely an important step in this process. Everything about El Valle de Los Caídos felt odd, from the gift shop with Spanish history merchandise to the overpriced cafeteria to the huge groups of families taking posed photos outside the main building. It was a fascinating anthropological experiment just watching these families, mostly Spanish, and noticing their behavior in the space. We even saw other groups of tourists from outside of Spain. I had previously felt sort of disconnected from the era of the dictatorship since it is not the history of my own country, but what I saw today definitely produced an emotional reaction.
We entered the building through a tiny door in comparison to the massive exterior, and my eyes had to adjust as we began walking down the long corridor. Since the structure was built under a mountain, the otherwise church-like appearance lacks any form of natural light. The lighting instantly set the mood, with large sculptures creating shadows on the walls filled with iconography. At the center of the interior lie two monuments, one to Jose Antonio and the other to Francisco Franco. Seeing Franco’s name in text felt surreal and almost wrong, noticing the bounty of fresh flowers lying on the ground. Each day, new flowers are brought to the site, proving the dedication to honoring Franco. Seeing this made me realize that this site has a religious and spiritual connotation, as people essentially come to worship Franco and his memory. Though the building is not technically a church, it surely feels like one as all the attention is on visiting Franco. We were not allowed to take pictures inside and there was a clear sense of security and severity as guards surrounded the altar and kept a close eye on everyone.
Due to the current discussion about the exhumation of Franco’s body, many Spaniards are coming to El Valle de los Caídos to “say goodbye” to Franco. Many people had a clear look of admiration and dedication about them, looking fondly at his grave. It was a very powerful intercultural experience to take this trip with our mentors from the university, since many of them had never been to the site. It was interesting to hear their reactions, as this history has impacted them in direct ways that it has not impacted me. Many of them noted that the site was nothing like they expected, and far darker and intense than they had imagined. El Valle de los Caídos is definitely a highly controversial site that triggers an emotional reaction, but I am grateful that I got to see the monument that represents such a complex time in Spanish history. I am excited to hear the rest of my peers’ opinions this week in class!

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