Scenes From a Spanish Village

“More than half the Spaniards alive today have no experience of a time before Franco. He is as much a part of those who hate him as he is of those who love him.” An American journalist describes village life in post-Franco Spain.

Half an hour after I arrived in a village I shall call Maura, high in the Sierra Nevada, above Granada, the she-goat of the farm I was staying in, one kilometer outside the village, gave birth to two kids. The event established my relationship with the owners of the farm, who nicknamed me “el matron americano"—the American midhusband.

An American couple had rented part of the farmhouse for two years so that the husband, Paul, could complete a book on the copla flamenca and its influence on the poetry of Lorca. Frasco Ramirez—as I shall call him—who owns “La Joya de Mariano” with his wife, Carmen, happens to be a singer of flamenco and Granadan coplas, as well as one of the most prosperous farmers in Maura.

I had lunch with Paul and Sally on a grassy knoll above the farmhouse which is almost level with the snow peaks across the river canyon. Just as I finished Sally’s fresh quince pie, the she-goat, who was tethered to a tree, rose heavily, bleated once at the sky, and proceeded to drop the first of two kids on the grass.

Sally, a tall blond midwesterner, rose and called to Frasco below, “La chiva está pariendo.” The goat is giving birth. Her voice tumbled across the valley and echoed back from the canyon walls.

The wet mass of vanilla fur emerged quickly and settled on the grass, the small yellow eyes peering cannily, its sticklike legs pushing against the ground. It squirmed and settled once more, heaving quietly as the mother licked and preened its coat.

By the time Frasco. a weathered, bowlegged mountaineer of sixty-seven, had made his way up the slope, the first kid had risen shakily to seek its mother’s milk and the second, a brown and tan one, sat poised on the grass, shaking its head beside the dropped placenta.

Frasco turned over the two kids to examine their genitals. “Macho y hembra. The American has brought us a pair.” He lifted them by the neck like a mother cat and placed them away from the mother, who was still tethered. “The male will make a fine New Year’s dinner. We’ll keep the female.”

Later in the afternoon a truck broke down on the newly graveled driveway, which Frasco and his friend Manuel—the truck’s owner—were resurfacing for next summer’s tourists. The incident put Frasco in a bad temper, and he took it out on the goats. He locked up the two kids in the barn with the other animals, and kicked the mother repeatedly in the butt when she refused to budge from her birthing place.

Next morning Paul took me on a tour of the farm. He first had me drink from one of several underground springs whose clear, sweet water Frasco prizes like vintage wine. The fig, cherry, and pear trees above and below the farmhouse were about finished bearing fruit for the season, but the large gray-green olives were thick with unripe fruit; molding quinces littered the ground, and persimmons hung bright orange from bare branches, like Christmas lights left too long on the tree. A few clusters of sweet green grapes remained on the yellowed vine that scales the balcony outside Paul’s study.

“Last week I could reach up and pull down a bunch,” Paul says. “We have just about everything we need here, except for fresh fish. The fish truck comes up from the coast in the mornings, and we’ll buy a red snapper once a week, or a kilo of anchovies.” He passes me a twig of tiny wrinkled grapes that are halfway toward raisins, and exquisitely sweet.

Paul was born in Brooklyn forty-six years ago, to a Russian Jewish immigrant family. He is a socialist writer and teacher who has withdrawn from his political involvement in the late sixties. “At times I feel like a battle-scarred veteran,” he says, pushing back horn-rimmed glasses under the folds of his woolen navy cap. The blue jeans, high leather boots, and plaid lumber jacket somehow emphasize rather than disguise Paul’s owlish, rabbinical bent. “Right now my only commitment is to healing myself, with Sally’s help, and expanding my consciousness.” And he adds, “When I think of my friends in New York City who are still struggling with wretched poverty and violence I do get a pang of guilt. But it doesn’t last very long. How can it, in this setting?”

I look again at the bend of snow-covered sierra and the snaking river canyon, flanked by fantastic rock formations. The shaly red slopes, dotted with olive, shrubs of rosemary, thyme, and shimmering golden poplar, shape a natural amphitheater around us.

Granada, fifteen miles downriver, is concealed by mountains, but a bank of polluted air hangs above the city.

“A sobering reminder,” Paul says. “I figure we have two years before that smog and the tourists make their way up here. Carmen, Frasco’s wife, is having the foundation laid for a swimming pool, and she has broken up the farmhouse into a kind of rustic condominium. Next summer we’ll take a tent and camp out on the mountains behind the village.”

Equally sobering is the sight of Frasco’s tomato orchard, with thousands of plump green and red fruit rotting on the vine. Tomatoes and string beans are the farm’s chief crops, but this autumn a glut of tomatoes in the area pushed prices down so low that Frasco left nearly half his crop unharvested.

“They lost about 70,000 pesetas ($1250) on the tomatoes this year,” Paul says. “I keep asking Frasco why the farmers don’t truck the produce to market themselves and cut out the middleman, but he just shrugs. ‘Not enough trust,’ he says.

“It’s a peculiar situation. This whole area is divided into small plots of land that are passed on from generation to generation. There are no overlords here, no large landholders to perpetuate feudal traditions, as there are in the plains. Nearly everyone owns his small parcel of fertile land. This part of the country breeds proud, rugged individualists who suspect and distrust each other. Frasco and Carmen look down on poorer farmers and common laborers, and they in turn are resented for their aloofness and avarice.”

Paul gesticulates with his hands as we walk through the tomato vines, which give off a sweetish-sour odor of decomposition. A flock of sheep graze in the neighboring orchard, their bells tinkling in the failing afternoon light. “It really frustrated me when I first arrived, the irony of it. Many of these farms still operate on the barter system. They’ll lend each other tools, burros, and they’ll even harvest crops and slaughter pigs together, but they won’t cooperate to truck their own produce to market and avoid waste like this. And why? Because there is an interlocked balance of grudges, going back to the civil war. No one speaks ill of Franco for fear of being turned in by someone who lost a relative in the war, or who holds you responsible for his wife’s infidelity.”

“Socialism will never come to Maura,” Paul adds, wearily—“at least not in my lifetime. There are too many scores to settle, and the bad blood runs deep.”

The following afternoon, a Sunday, Carmen and Frasco gave a party for their daughters, their grandchildren, and the dapper sons-inlaw, who were visiting from Cordoba. Among the guests was Manuel, Frasco’s friend, whose truck had broken down.

“I was not meant to be a trucker,” he says with a robust laugh. “I was meant for enjoying women and drinking strong wine with my meat.” Manuel likes to tell off-color jokes with garrulous abandon, the same ones again and again, as if endless repetition would grant not only them but himself the small measure of permanence his life seems bent oh denying him.

The crude jokes delight Frasco and the sons-inlaw, who titter discreetly with closed mouths. The daughters are not amused.

“That man never knows when to stop,” grumbles Rosa, the younger daughter, and turns her back on Manuel.

A goat has been killed that afternoon and Carmen has fixed her special stew, with red wine and abundant tomato sauce, in the open fireplace next to the barn, where the flamenco sessions are held every Sunday.

Carmen, who is almost as broad as she is tall, has darting, clever eyes that seem to take in everything and everyone at once. She is constantly in motion as she fusses over the huge bubbling pot and prowls around the room, assigning chores to the younger women, spouting proverbs for our instruction, and cuffing the ears of unruly grandchildren. She was a schoolteacher for many years.

“She drives Sally all the time,” Paul whispers to me in one corner, after Carmen sends her out to fetch water from the spring. “She keeps finding tasks for her to do, even the most menial chores. She is trying to mold Sally into a proper Maureha, and Sally doesn’t yet have enough Spanish to stand up to her. It should get interesting in a month or two, when Sally’s Spanish improves. She led women’s consciousness-raising groups in St. Louis . . .”

Carmen overhears Paul and approaches us with her hands on her broad hips, challengingly.

“What are these Americans whispering about?” she says aloud, leaning on Paul’s stomach and staring directly into his nose.

Paul clears his throat. “Pues nada, Doha Carmen, we were commenting on the rich aroma of your stew.”

“I can imagine,” she says, and shakes her index finger in his face. “I will have to learn another language so I can whisper secrets behind your backs.”

Everyone laughs.

She turns on me a keen, appraising eye. “Who is your friend, and what does he do?”

Paul introduces me as a writer from Central America.

“He doesn’t look Central American,” Carmen says with finality, although she has never set foot outside of Spain. “But he has an honest face. If he writes bad things about us”—she raises one hand in the air—“we will find a way to make them good. We have a saying, ’La letra, con sangre entra'; ‘the word is learned with blood.’”

Carmen’s instinct for control takes in Frasco as well as the two sons-in-law. She never lets Frasco forget that the farm bears the name of her father, and that she married beneath her station. Frasco was fresh out of two years’ service in Franco’s army when they married and he had no money of his own.

When Manuel asks Frasco to sing, Carmen insists he wait until after dinner. His enthusiasm dampened, Frasco sits in sullen silence, slicing pieces of bread with his knife and concentrating on chewing with his few remaining teeth.

The two daughters have hard peasant faces, short hairdos, short city skirts, and leather boots. In other respects they are their mother’s daughters, alternately nagging their soft city husbands and scolding their children.

Rosa’s husband, who sells cars in Cordoba, sits his small daughter on his knee and hums to her the Pink Panther theme, which he learned on television. The older son-in-law, Juan, a traveling salesman, borrows Paul’s guitar and strums some granainas. Frasco looks up, held by the sounds, but he does not join in.

Carmen’s stew is rich and plentiful but the goat meat is tough, and I take my time between servings. Rosa goads me into eating faster. “He doesn’t eat. The American doesn’t eat anything.” 1 stuff my mouth with the gristly stew until thick winy sauce runs down the sides of my mouth, but Rosa keeps on with her shrill voice. “He is not eating. He is not eating at all.”

At last I get the sense of the ritual, and assure Carmen and her daughters that the stew is delicious, and that I eat it slowly to savor it more fully.

After dinner and a break for rosetas, or popcorn, the children are allowed outside, and Frasco finally sings. He is in fine voice, holding the trills and high plaintive notes like a master. His eyes sparkle with wonder at the strength of his unquenched voice and his sturdy lungs.

Suenan las campanas suenan
Cuando se muere una mujer rica
Suenan las campanas suenan
Y el dia que se murid la pobre mare mia
No querian ni doblarle
Siendo mi mare tan buena.
The bells toll, they toll,
When a rich woman dies
The bells toll, they toll,
And the day my poor mother died
They didn’t want to toll them
Though my mother is so good.

We all respond warmly to Frasco’s performance. Manuel embraces him with tears in his eyes, declaring he has never been in better voice. Paul and Juan discuss the technical aspects, dissecting the coplas note by note, comparing Frasco’s execution favorably with previous Sundays’. Even Carmen’s attitude changes from patronizing to proprietary. When he held the final wavering phrase for interminable seconds, Carmen clapped her hands in his face and patted his chest hard, nearly tipping him backward.

“There may be better singers on television,” she tells Paul, “but Frasco is more authentic, you know why? He does not cut off the last verse. It is his chest.” She slaps her own. “And already a man of sixty-seven. I keep telling him, he should be on television.”

Frasco ignores Carmen’s praise as he listens in rapt absorption to the playback of his singing on Juan’s tape recorder.

“No está mal,” he says, pushing back his brown stetson and scratching his head. “Not bad for a toothless old goat.”

The following evening Paul and Sally take me on a tour of Maura’s bars, in search of their friend Pepe. There are nine bars in the village, all clustered in the tiny square, and they are packed every single evening, including Sunday, which for most Maurehos is just another workday. Of Maura’s 7000 people, two or three thousand are employed as seasonal workers elsewhere. Those who live here permanently till the fields with antiquated wooden plows and ride their burros home at sunset. In the evening there is little else for them to do but drink with friends or stay home and watch television, if they can afford television.

In Maura’s largest bar—Paul calls it the “middleclass bar” because it serves soft drinks and has television and a jukebox—a group of farmers watch a rerun of the Catholic Mass for King Juan Carlos, which has been held earlier in the week.

They speculate on whether Queen Sofia has her own bedchamber, or whether she and the king sleep in one room.

“In old times,” says one, “the king’s and queen’s chambers were in opposite wings of the palace, so everyone knew when they were sleeping together.”

“I saw pictures of the royal chambers the other day,” says a small, wizened man of about sixty. “I saw it all on color television, in Granada. All I can say is, the queen must be very fat to sleep on that big bed all by herself.”

“The queen grows fat and the king gets skinny,” says the first. “During Franco’s illness Juan Carlos aged a year for every day the old man hung on. Did you see the bags under Juan Carlos’ eyes? He looked spent—”

The older man catches me eavesdropping and raises a finger to his lips, signaling silence with the other hand. The men then begin talking about

crops and the weather.

We found Pepe in a tiny, dimly lit bar crammed to the rafters with empty brown boxes and dusty bottles. The beams of the ceiling sag so low I have to stoop when I stand up, as in a ship’s hold. A half-dozen farmers crowd together and chat in Cezannesque postures, their leathery faces and rumpled clothes blending with the winy tight, the dusty green bottles, and the dun-colored bar counter.

Pepe is a gaunt, proud man of forty-seven, tall for an Andalusian, whose ancestors have lived in the sierra for many generations. He grows tomatoes and keeps some animals in a small orchard outside of Maura, and in winter does construction work to buy clothes for his wife and two children.

He insists on buying the first round of vino tinto, or red wine, which comes to about 35 cents for the four of us, including a tapa of grilled mushrooms. Maura prices generally are about three years behind Granada’s.

For the next hour Paul and Pepe discuss with animated gestures the fine points of Frasco’s performance the previous Sunday. Pepe rarely attends these weekly flamenco sessions, because of an old animosity between him and Frasco. Although Pepe farms his own plot of land like a proper Maureño, he is looked down on by Carmen as a hired laborer.

For his part, Pepe can never forget that Frasco’s was one of the few families in the area that did not suffer deprivations after the civil war, thanks to Carmen’s money. “Frasco is a hardworking farmer,” Pepe admits, “and he sings a copla with feeling; but he is cruel to his animals, and he has never had to cut esparto grass in his entire life. Nonetheless, I could find respect for him in my heart, were it not for his wife, Carmen.”

“But Frasco keeps aloof from Carmen,” Paul speaks up, in Frasco’s defense. “You yourself saw how he turns his back on her when he sings.”

“He may turn his back,” Pepe says, “but he seems content enough to live on her father’s farm, with her father’s money.”

We had dinner with Pepe and his wife, Rosario, that evening, a chicken baked in garlic sauce that felt as tender and smooth to the palate as Carmen’s goat stew was gristly and cloying. A charcoal brazier under the dinner table warmed our legs.

I sensed during the evening the growing friendship between Sally and Rosario, two strong, silent women. Rosario is no taller than Carmen and she is nearly as broad, but her soft brown eyes turn inward except during bursts of excitement, when they blaze like coals.

After dinner we sat around the table and watched the Sunday soccer game on the television, which occupies a place of honor in the unused fireplace. Pepe’s revulsion against consumerism stops short of TV and refrigerator. He ritually inveighs against the trucks and automobiles that are polluting the air, but then grows wide-eyed and excited like a boy when he rides in Paul’s Volkswagen.

During the ten o’clock news King Juan Carlos appeals to the nation to work together to forge a new Spain. He looks impassive and stiff, almost distracted.

With a grunt, Pepe gets up to turn off the set. “Words mean nothing,” he says. “We will wait to see what he does.”

Like Frasco, Pepe served in Franco’s army as a young man. Like Frasco, he never talks about it.

The following day Pepe and Rosario invited us to their small farm. We stopped outside of the village to cut esparto for Sally, who was learning to weave baskets with this versatile mountain grass. Pepe had taught her the pleita, or braid, when they first arrived, and Sally had improved so quickly that she had woven a small lampshade after one week. Pepe moves from shrub to shrub like a goat. In fifteen minutes he has cut and tied three large bundles of prime green esparto while the rest of us, pulling out one blade at a time, have harvested barely a handful.

We made one more stop, at Enrique’s, the leatherworker who was making a shoulder bag for Sally. Enrique had spent five years in Switzerland, where he had driven a taxi and saved money to open a small leather shop. On his return he discovered that most villagers had gone mad for cheap plastic bags, wallets, and purses, and were scorning leather as an old-fashioned extravagance. But Enrique, a soft-spoken, patient man, had persisted, and now many of his old customers were coming back.

“Since the price of oil went up, plastic goods are not that much cheaper,” Enrique says, as he deftly snaps the buckles on Sally’s calf-hide shoulder bag. “And they are discovering that plastics don’t last very long. In Maura, leather is still a bargain.”

I had some moments alone with Enrique, and could not resist asking him how his stay in Switzerland had affected his feelings toward Franco and Spain.

“Look, I am a Franquista, like most of the villagers. I don’t say he was an angel fallen from the sky. I don’t say he was good or bad. He gave to some and took from others, as all rulers have done throughout history. But with Franco, Spain evolved. Under the old monarchy, only the rich ate. Now we can all eat. I realize this is difficult for most foreigners to understand, but Franco was loved in Spain by many many people. More than half the Spaniards alive today have no experience of a time before Franco. He is as much a part of those who hate him as he is of those who love him.”

We got up to Pepe and Rosario’s huerta by late afternoon. There was enough light left for Pepe to feed the animals and take us on a tour of the property. Pepe’s staple is tomatoes, and he, like Frasco, was unable to sell his full crop this fall. To make up his losses he will have to work on construction sites all winter. But he is in cheerful spirits as he shows us his brood of baby rabbits, his goat, which is pregnant for the first time, and his two fat hogs. The bigger one will be killed for Christmas, and the men of the family will take part in pulling out the intestines and preparing blood sausages.

Pepe leads us to the underground spring that irrigates his orchard. “The best water in the world,.” he says, like a squire displaying his private wine cellar, “and it never never dries up.”

We drink our fill, wash, and then fan out to gather persimmons, quinces, walnuts, and chestnuts from the slopes above the orchard. When we get back Rosario has a fire going in the old barn that Pepe has converted into a common room.

We throw in the chestnuts and sit around the wood fire to watch them roast.

With the fresh esparto Sally starts a braid that will turn into her first full-sized basket. Pepe corrects her opening twists by guiding her hand with one finger.

Paul plays some soft granainas on his guitar. His playing has improved dramatically in the three months since he came to Granada, and his Andalusian dialect is rich with proverbs and local idiom.

I sample a ripe persimmon, splitting it open with both hands and burying my teeth in the sweet, pulpy flesh.

“Next month, at Christmas, we will have a fiesta,” Rosario says, “and we shall dance and play the zambomba.

A zambomba, she explains, is a drum made of clay, goat hide, and reed bamboo. She illustrates the sound it makes by grabbing a broom and churning the handle against the door with great gusto. The energy of this small, square-shouldered woman continually astounds me. She speaks seldom, but her words carry force and conviction, like the proverbs Carmen is fond of reciting.

One reason Sally feels so close to Rosario, I realize, is that she does not try to pressure her into conforming to Maura’s standards of womanhood. Rosario accepts Sally as a representative of another culture, and thinks her no less feminine because of it.

Even so, I sense that Pepe and Rosario exert a profound influence on Sally and Paul, infecting them with the rhythm of their lives, their rootedness, their attachment to ritual and the seasons.

The sun sank behind the sierra and a shadow fell across the room, suddenly, as if a blind had been drawn.

“Se fue el sol: otro dia,” Rosario says. “The sun is gone: another day.” She cracks chestnuts with her teeth and passes them around.

Paul plays seguidillas and granainas by the firelight until at last Pepe is drawn in, accompanying him in a gravelly baritone. It is more like a low, Moorish wail than full-throated flamenco, but the sound of the guitar and the feeling in Pepe’s voice fill the room.

Afterward, Pepe sighs. “I would not trade places with anyone. Here I am my own king. I have my family, my animals, a good orchard, and my personal guitarist to play for me. What more can a man want?”

A loud knock at the door and the black goat enters the room, bleating.

Pepe laughs and slaps Paul’s shoulder. “She has come to hear you play. She doesn’t like it that you stopped.”

“No, hombre,” says Paul. “It is your singing. She has never heard you sing before.”

“It is neither one,” Rosario says, with certainty. “The goat is pregnant, and she wants to warm herself by the fire. She is due in January.” Smiling, she then turns to Sally. “What about you?”

Startled, Sally looks up from her weaving and blushes.

“See?” Paul says, “you have raised the color to her cheeks. Even Carmen could not do that.”

“And you, Pablo, are looking flushed yourself,” Rosario says, “like a village groom.”