General Francisco Franco is out — and Rosa Parks might be in. That’s the current trend in Spain, where several city governments are using laws designed to remove symbols of Franco’s dictatorship as a way to correct the gender imbalance among street names around the country.
Though Franco died in 1975, many streets and squares still bear his and his associates’ names, surviving under a policy of forgiving and forgetting the crimes committed during his rule. Now, they’re finally being swept away, and a clutch of major cities are using the opportunity to commemorate more women, who currently lend their names to just 5 percent of Spain’s streets. The changes might rattle some traditionalists, and also annoy Spain’s lingering fascist sympathizers, but they also seem long overdue. So why now?
The simple reason is that Spain’s political map has changed radically since the 2015 elections, at least at the municipal level. After decades of see-sawing between the right wing Popular Party and the center-left Socialist Party, many Spanish voters opted for a host of smaller left wing parties that gather together under the umbrella of the Podemos party. Podemos-linked coalitions have taken power in many key cities, including Madrid and Barcelona, and they aren’t turning a blind eye to reminders of Spain’s bloody 20th century dictatorship.
The law that they are invoking to remove Francoist names, however, isn’t new. The Historical Memory Law, which calls (among many other things) for the removal of Francoist symbols from public spaces, was passed under a socialist government in 2007. It went unenforced in many places, and was widely criticized as an unnecessary opening of wounds that many thought were finally healing.
Last year’s swing toward the left (at the local level, at least) put the issue back on the agenda. Accordingly, the Madrid suburb of El Pardo is finally saying goodbye to the Plaza del Caudillo (“Leader Square”—using a term invariably associated with Franco) and reverting to its simpler old name, Plaza Mayor. Elsewhere a street named after General Andrés Saliquet, a leader of a 1936 coup against Spain’s republican government, will be renamed Calle de Soledad Cazorla, named after Spain’s first public prosecutor specializing in gender violence.
While street names are a key place to commemorate important figures in Spain, the scales are overwhelmingly tipped toward men. The women who are featured are typically saints or nuns, providing a skewed picture of women’s role in national life. An article from El Diario, for example, found 137 Madrid streets named after apparitions of the Virgin Mary (such as Our Lady of the Pillar) and 125 named after female saints, but only one named after a female teacher. As Professor Patricia Arias Chachero says in that article, “It’s almost as if the situation is the practical confirmation of the popular saying—that a woman’s place is not in the street, but in the house.”
Some cities have been trying to remedy this imbalance for a while. In 2005, for example, Córdoba mandated that 50 percent of all new street names commemorate women. This year, the tide seems to be turning faster. The northern city of León just invited the public to choose from a list of women to be honored, with Rosa Parks, Frida Kahlo, Jane Austen and the mathematician and philosopher Hypatia all in the running. The most popular choice was Ángela Ruiz Robles, an inventor and León native whose 1949-patented Enciclopedia Mecánica is widely considered the first prototype for the electronic book reader.
Meanwhile, Valencia has ruled that four out of five newly named streets must bear the names of women. One district is already renaming eight avenues, with the public choosing from a list of women including Marie Curie, Rosa Luxemburg and writer Carmen Martín Gaite. The cities of Bilbao, Oviedo and Cádiz are also set to follow suit—Cádiz arguably needs the change more than most, having just eight streets with female names, all of them saints or madonnas.
The changes are still far from settled. The memory of Franco’s Spain has always been a sticky subject, and it has opened afresh recently as a site of conflict. On the one hand, time is running out for survivors of Francoist terror seeking to locate and excavate the mass graves in which many of their relatives lie. To give an example of the scale of enforced forgetting, by 2010 only two of the 104 mass graves in the province of Seville had been uncovered. Even the last resting place of the poet-playwright Federico García Lorca hasn’t yet been discovered, although it’s presumed to be among 4,000 unexcavated corpses of Republican sympathizers dumped in ditches outside the city of Granada. Coming in tandem with this sense of urgency, the increasing distance of time between Franco’s death and the present has made exploring his rule and legacy somewhat less explosive for campaigners.
Meanwhile, as Europe swings toward the extreme right, supporters of Franco’s rule have become more open and vocal as well. Last weekend, for example, Madrid witnessed a demonstration from the pro-Franco neo-fascist group Fuerza Nueva, where participants gave Hitler salutes and a counter-protester was violently assaulted. It also witnessed another demonstration from left-wing protestors who feel that the de-Francoization process isn’t going fast enough.
A fight over street names is thus a fight over Spain’s recent past, of what is and isn’t worthy of public, state-supported celebration. It’s understandable that the debate is heated, given the decades of bad blood, but it’s hard to find much to protest in the shift away from Francoists and toward women. After all, would you rather live in a street named after someone who promoted violence against democracy, like General Saliquet? Or would you prefer that your street was named after someone who worked to fight violence and punish its perpetrators, like Soledad Cazorla?