In view of Día de la Hispanidad (Columbus Day), Spanish historians Laura Lara and María Lara authorized America Reads Spanish to air the following interview about mysteries and unexpected events that changed the course of the nation or empire’s History.
These topics are discussed in their new book, Breviario de Historia de España. Desde Atapuerca hasta la era de la globalización (A Summary of Spain’s History. From Atapuerca to the Era of Globalization) (EDAF), and are talked about in their interview on Spanish television channel La 2.
Both Laura and María have PhDs in philosophy, bachelor’s degrees in history, are recipients of the National Award for Excellence in Academic Performance in history, and the First Award from the University of Alcalá. Both are professors at the Madrid Open University (UDIMA). As writers, they aim to combine historic truth with the beauty of the written word, for which they have received numerous accolades, including the Algaba Award and the “Ciudad de Valeria” Historic Novel Award.
María Lara is a professor of modern history and anthropology. She has worked as a Fellow at Harvard University and a social sciences researcher at l'École des Hautes Études, on top of the field work she has undertaken in Greece, Italy, and Argentina. Laura is a professor of contemporary history and has also conducted research at l’École in Paris, along with various international academic and literary trips to Bulgaria, Greece, and Argentina.
Both are experts and authoritative voices in Spanish History, and combine university teaching with research and media communication. Since 2013, they have collaborated with RTVE’s La 2 on TVE, and in summer of this year, they took part in a morning program on national radio called Spanish Women to Remember. They derive great pleasure from researching, writing, and sharing their intellectual ventures with the reading public and in front of the microphone. This is clear in their new book, which presents a History of Spain that is accessible to all; they remark that knowing more about the country’s history helps one “to live with optimism.”
1. Was the Neanderthal as surly as they say?
MARÍA: Around 800,000 or 900,000 years ago, Homo antecessor lived in Atapuerca, in Burgos. Our new book is named after this place: A Summary of Spain’s History. From Atapuerca to the Era of Globalization. It was an era in which the hominids were practically universal. The site was discovered by accident at the end of the 19th century when a group of filled-in caves from the Pleistocene epoch was found during the construction of a railway line. In 1992, skull no.5 was found in Sima de los Huesos (Chasm of Bones); it would later be baptised Miguelón, after Spanish cyclist Miguel Induráin who was in the midst of a cycling tour at the time. The Homo antecessor, a tall, strong being with ancient facial features and a smaller brain, is considered the oldest hominid species in Europe, even older than the Neanderthal. Archaeologists have traditionally placed the Homo sapiens sapiens as the first specimen capable of abstract thought, as seen in the cave drawings in Altamira from 36,000 years ago. Nonetheless, in the Shanidar cave in Iraq, there is evidence that the elderly and sick were looked after by their Neanderthal relatives until the end of their lives, and jewellery made with eagle claws has been discovered on a Neanderthal site in Croatia. The fact that they wanted to make gifts shows that their basic needs were already covered and, who knows, they might have even already been in love.
2. When was the first electoral propaganda organized in Spain?
LAURA: Cornelio Balbo was a publicist from Cadiz who utilized his skills in leading the campaign that elevated Julius Caesar to the head of the Roman Empire; he gave him advice, took care of his image, and recommended political moves. Balbo was rich thanks to his garum (fermented fish pâté) factories, which were located mainly in the Strait of Gibraltar. From Cadiz (then known as Gadir), Cornelius made it to Rome, where he helped Cicero, defending him against those who vetoed him for being provincial, from the province of Hispania. Cornelio Balbo managed thus to become the first Roman consul born outside the “Eternal City.”
3. Did the popes force Urraca of Castile to divorce Alfonso of Aragón?
That’s correct. Marital separation did not exist in the Middle Ages, but Pope Pascal II authorized the divorce. They had been forced into the marriage. In 1085, Urraca ’s father, Alfonso VI, conquered Toledo, but it was a very difficult time; he was at war with the Almoravids and then, in 1108, his only son Sancho Alfónsez died in the Battle of Uclés. Sancho was a mixed-race prince, as his mother was refugee Muslim princess Zaida.
Blighted by disease and sadness, Alfonso VI passed away in 1109, but not before ordering the marriage of his daughter Urraca, who was widowed and with two children, to the monarch of Aragon, Alfonso I the Battler, who was a good soldier and had a monk’s mindset. The betrothed were not given any say in the matter, and so after a lot of tension that threatened the stability of the four kingdoms (Castile and León belonged to Urraca, and Aragon and Navarre to Alfonso), the pope allowed them a divorce to let the Christians rest.
4. Is it true that the first Thanksgiving was Spanish, not Anglo-Saxon?
MARÍA: It actually took place in Florida in the summer of 1565, when Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded St. Augustine. On the last Thursday of the month, Thanksgiving Day is celebrated in the United States with a family dinner. In my time as a Fellow at the RCC at Harvard University, I spent Thanksgiving in Cambridge and had the opportunity to experience this emotional holiday first-hand, which is an emblem of American culture.
LAURA: Its official origin can be traced back to Plymouth (Massachusetts) in 1621, when a group of English Puritans celebrated the end of the harvest by sharing their food with the natives.
But more than half a century before, the Asturian admiral had exchanged food with his Saturiwa allies, whom he had defended from attacks by the French. It happened one month after the foundation of St. Augustine, the first continuously inhabited city in North America.
5. What was the first account of travel in the United States?
LAURA: Shipwrecks (1542), by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. In this work, the Andalusian explorer narrates the vicissitudes of the four survivors of Pánfilo de Narváez’s expedition to Florida in 1527. For 8 years, they walked through jungles and deserts from Florida to New Spain, crossing the southwestern United States and northern Mexico on foot. They lived among the Native Americans as slaves and healers, and Álvar found fame for extracting an arrow from the heart of an indigenous chief. The Jerez de la Frontera native managed to escape being thrown in the cauldron by praying, because his Hail Marys were interpreted by the local population as shamanic rituals. He was the first European to describe the Iguazu Falls and navigate down the Paraguay River. He invented a new way of conquering; not with weapons, but with dialogue.
6. Who inspired the most fear in the hearts of children during the Spanish Golden Age?
LAURA: The English privateer Francis Drake.
In 1586, King Philip II put together a fleet of 130 ships and 27,000 men to defend Spanish positions in Flanders and, at the same time, hinder the expansionist urges of the United Kingdom. At that time, his sister-in-law Elizabeth I of England sat on the throne, with Drake as her right-hand man. In 1588, atmospheric forces were on England’s side, and the Spanish Armada failed in its purposes. From that moment on, Anglophobia began to increase in Spain. Drake was portrayed as a monster, both in Lope de Vega’s comedies and to children in everyday life. An interesting fact is that potatoes arrived in Ireland aboard the defeated galleons.
7. Was the Las Meninas painting miraculously saved from the flames?
MARÍA: An anonymous hand threw Velázquez's painting through a window of the Royal Alcázar of Madrid when, on Christmas Eve of 1734, a fire broke out in the room of the painter Jean Ranc. The portrait of Infanta Margaret Theresa and her ladies-in-waiting, which is currently housed at the Prado, was thrown onto the street along with the painting Equestrian Portrait of Charles V by Titian.
LAURA: It was in that accident, which occurred during the reign of Phillip V (the first Bourbon in Spain), that the La Pelegrina pearl was lost, and was later said to have been purchased by Richard Burton for his wife Elizabeth Taylor at an auction. The remains of the Alcázar of Madrid would become the site for the erection of the Royal Palace, the largest in Western Europe.
MARÍA: The Spanish language is spoken today by more than 572 million people worldwide. In the United States, there are already 43 million native Spanish speakers, almost equivalent to the entire population of Spain, which has 46 million inhabitants in total. Spain was the greatest empire ever dreamt, and the myth continues with its language, heritage and culture.
Click below to read the interview in its original language