New Books, Creative Maps, and Literary Art for 2021… plus my optimistic(!) 2020 re-cap

In 2020 I had the lofty goal of posting something new to the blog each month — and while I started out strong in January and February… for obvious global-pandemic-related reasons that pattern did not hold up! I managed 5 posts the entire year, but in re-reading what I wrote, I realized that each of these fairly detailed new additions helped me work out some new teaching ideas and research projects, while giving me a chance to share my most recent publication. So, here’s a short 2020 recap — that I’m now realizing is actually not depressing (!!!) and has made me feel a bit more accomplished despite a really demoralizing year — followed by a few of my 2021 plans.

My actually-not-depressing 2020 re-cap:

Tierra de mujeres (Land of Women) and the Myth of an “Empty Spain” — Here I discuss my favorite book from the previous year – María Sánchez‘s Tierra de mujeres, on women in rural Spain and how they are/are not represented in or by contemporary feminism. As an aside, it seems the Kindle version of this book is only $6.99 right now via Amazon (affiliate link).

Spanish Women’s Literature and Feminism for the L2 classroom: Tsunami, Miradas feministas (2019) — This post presents my take on 4 chapters from the excellent collection of essays (and one short story) by contemporary Spanish women writers, Tsunami. Miradas feministas. I present them in the context of their use in the L2 Literature or Culture classroom for intermediate to advanced students.

MAY 2020:
Farming, Gardening, and Female Labor: Carmen de Burgos’ “La mujer agricultora” (1903) — Continuing to be inspired by María Sánchez and Tierra de mujeres, I came across early 20th-century articles on women in agriculture by Carmen de Burgos, whose writing on motherhood, women’s fashion, and feminism I have been reading and researching for years. I had not necessarily noticed this topic before, and I began exploring her discussions of rural women, or women in agricultural communities, in light of both Sánchez’s 2019 essay and my own work on first-wave Spanish feminism.

Mapping Madrid through Art, Literature, and Creative Cartography — Returning to the classroom for a strange semester of hyflex instruction prompted me to reconsider the types of projects and assignments I’d want my students to engage with and complete. Since I LOVE MAPS, I experimented with assigning cartographic narratives and ended up with some great results. I’ll post about these soon (in Jan/Feb), especially as I continue working with a student who was awarded funding to continue and expand her project on Carmen de Burgos’s La rampa through the Spring.

Don Quijote, the Graphic Novel, and Snapchat: Alternative Assessments in the L2 Literature Classroom — This is a “blog-post-version” of the key ideas presented in my most recent article, published with HISPANIA in September, “Snapping the Quijote: Examining L2 Literature, Social Media, and Digital Storytelling through a Cervantine Lens.”. I highlight connections between the Graphic Novel, Semiotics, and Snapchat, to explain my alternative assessment.

My optimistic plans for a fabulous 2021 – a preview:

For the most immediate future, I’m especially excited to teach my “Pop Culture & Don Quijote de la Mancha” senior seminar again this Spring, as I’ve made some updates based on what worked well and what was missing in the first iteration of the course, and also based on some new movies and media that have since become available. My class will be MUCH bigger this time around — 20 students — and I’m still plotting out the types of projects I’ll assign. The first time around we made Snapchat Essays and a course blog; I’m going to continue with Snapchat because it’s a fun and relevant connection to the Quijote, believe it or not (see my article), but I’m still working through a few ideas. As this will again be a hyflex course, during a semester without a Spring Break and in which students (all of us!) will certainly be dealing with unexpected obstacles due to Covid-quarantine-closures, etc…

ALMÁCIGA, un vivero de palabras de nuestro medio rural,
by María Sánchez (2020):

This beautifully illustrated book was published in September 2020 as a follow-up, in a sense, to María Sánchez‘s Tierra de mujeres (2019); it’s also her third book (her first was a collection of poetry in 2017). The gorgeous, somewhat surreal illustrations are by Cristina Jiménez, a graphic designer and illustrator based in Pamplona, Navarra, Spain. I’m planning a longer post on this book as I finish it up this week; but Sánchez’s main goal is to collect and preserve the unique vocabulary and expressions from Spain’s rural regions. The first half connects language to identity, noting all that is lost when we lose fundamental aspects of language like context-specific vocabulary and regional dialects or idioms. The Kindle version of this book is also only $6.99 today (there must be a New Year’s special?) — but I highly recommend the colorful, printed hardback version for the illustrations (free shipping with Book Depository).


My Fall 2020 seminar was titled “Mapping Madrid in the Silver Age (1900-36)” and, while I had taught a similar version in Fall 2019 (“Gender and the City”), I modified this hyflex update to include only two full-length novels (La rampa and La Venus mecánica) and additional secondary and historical readings. I also limited the focus to the representation of the city and its geography, or the “narrative cartography” of each. Check out the course hashtag for a sample of resources and topics we discussed: #MappingMadridKSU. I experimented with an open-ended, creative final project based on the creation of a “cartographic narrative.” Students designed a map, of some sort, that would communicate their understanding of a key theme in the novel, or in the course. The results were excellent (2 samples above, and a post to come), especially under the semester’s strange conditions. I’m looking forward to refining this project for a “normal” semester based on what my students did well and what I can do better in terms of design and research guidance. At the very least, the chaos of 2020 teaching gave me an excuse to experiment with new ways of evaluating student progress and learning. I’m now working on developing and implementing my own Ungradingphilosophy — I’m currently reading the fantastic collection of essays, Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) (West Virginia UP, 2020), and I cannot recommend it enough. Grab your copy before Spring ’21 starts!!!!


My summer students – all high school teachers – had fun learning about alternative, less theoretical ways to incorporate art into their language classes.

In July 2020 I taught two three-week intensive courses for the MA Program offered by Southern Oregon University’s Summer Language Institute — they were supposed to have been IN Guanajuato, Mexico, and I had built my courses around that setting. The shift to teaching these location-based, immersion courses exclusively online — alone in Kansas rather than alongside colleagues and long-time friends in Mexico — was a huge disappointment, to say the least… and it ended up being a lot of extra work. However, #SilverLining, I really really enjoyed teaching these courses to a student population of High School teachers, and basing content on (1) Art and (2) Teaching Art (& Literature). I taught a 3-credit seminar, “Visual Cultures of Spain and Mexico: Transatlantic Art & Architecture,” and a 2-credit accompanying workshop, “From Maps to Snaps: Incorporating Art into Language Teaching”. I’ve now decided to teach an intermediate-level Transatlantic Art course for my K-State undergraduates in Fall 2021, and I’m excited to approach this level of cultural content from a different angle (art instead of literature); after all, I myself only began to appreciate literature through art, if I’m honest, and I noticed that my summer students were more enthusiastic about certain literary texts when they read them alongside the Art that was the “main” content for each day (I was tricky with the literature!). I’ll be posting a few of my favorite assignments and readings from the summer art course over the next few months.

But for now, I plan to rest up during the remaining weeks of winter break so that I have the energy — and optimism! — I know I’ll need to make these projects successful.

What are you most looking forward to in 2021, and was there anything sort-of-not-so-bad about your 2020? 😉

Posted in Art, Feminism, Language, Literature, Pedagogy, Spain | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Don Quijote, the Graphic Novel, and Snapchat: Alternative Assessments in the L2 Literature Classroom

For this post, I’m sharing details of my most recent article, “Snapping the Quijote: Examining L2 Literature, Social Media, and Digital Storytelling through a Cervantine Lens”, which was published in September 2020 in Hispania (vol. 103, no. 2, pp. 323-39). You can read the abstract and view the accompanying images here, access full article via Project Muse, or email me if you’d like a copy.

Snapping the Quijote

In the Spring (2018) I taught a course rather outside my general area of teaching and research expertise: our department’s Cervantes’ seminar on Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th-century novel, Don Quijote de la Mancha (1605, 1615). Half of the experience was challenging, productive, and fun… the other half was overwhelming! While Golden Age Theater and Prose was my secondary area of study during graduate school, since becoming a professor I had spent minimal time teaching and researching in those areas — only informally, here on my blog about Cervantes, the Quijote, and the Golden Age in general. To try to make the course — and a very long 400-year-old novel —  more “relevant” to students (and also a bit less daunting for me to teach!), I wanted to take a non-traditional approach and experiment with some creative assignments and projects. I decided to start my modifications by doing with a Pop Culture theme to the course, titling it Pop Culture and Cervantes’ Don Quijote de la Mancha. In addition to the full-length novel (Tom Lathrop’s Legacy edition) for the main close-readings and discussions, I included the following supplementary materials: the graphic novel, The Complete Don Quijote (by Rob Davis), to aid in full comprehension of the original novel and pique students’ interest right away, while also opening discussions on issues of translation, interpretation, and representation; select films sharing certain narrative elements or modes of characterization relevant to the Quijote (like Into the Wild; ToyStory; and Stranger than Fiction; adaptations of the tale for different audiences and with different goals (from the musical Man of la Manchato the children’s program Wishbone); and carefully selected critical articles (there are SO many!). You can download my syllabus at the end of this post and on my teaching page. I’m excited to be teachign this course again, with new modifications, in the Spring of 2021.

syllabus picture

Pop Culture and Cervantes’ Don Quijote de la Mancha (SPAN 732, Kansas State University)

I won’t go into detail about the course content in this post, but I will lay out the plans for the “alternative research and narrative project” that I created for the course… based on Snapchat… and which formed the basis of my article. Given the 2-year lag between this project (Jan-May 2018) and the final publication (Sept. 2020), there are certainly some things that may now be modified in terms of which social media applications may be the most popular or appropriate with students. For example, while Snapchat was SUPER popular in January 2018, and was one of the only platforms with a “STORIES” feature, now, in 2020, TikTok offers a constant barrage of mini-narratives, both Facebook and Instagram offer “stories,” and it remains to be seen if Instagram or TikTok will fully eclipse Snapchat in popularity. In any case, I anticipated this, to some degree, and framed my project and article within a semiotic view of literature and communications. As such, my rationale and the L2 Literature pedagogical strategies I propose are applicable to a range of social media and mobile applications beyond Snapchat and should remain relevant for…a few more months…?!? #Technology. Essentially, I view the new changes and new additions to our (social) media landscapes as further evidence that alternative assessments and non-traditional approach to L2 literature are not only “relevant,” but more essential and urgent than ever. Or at least that’s my version of optimism in 2020.

Quijote plus Snapchat

A visual of my experiment… since one of the goals was to communicate and represent complex ideas regarding Spanish literature, culture, and history, with both words AND images.

To explain what prompted my decision to use Snapchat as an alternative narrative project, I’ll return to the graphic novel. Because I was assigning the graphic novel — in ENGLISH — to complement the reading of the full-length Spanish novel, I wanted to make sure that students read it critically and considered the way in which images and text, as well as translation, functioned together to transmit the story to an English-speaking audience who may or may not be familiar with Cervantes’ original novel. As we read the graphic novel alongside the Quijote every week, the main questions I wanted students to consider were:

  • What visual strategies were used to communicate the story (plot) and themes?
  • What literary strategies or techniques could they identify?
  • What were the strengths and weaknesses of the English translation (vocabulary, figurative speech or expressions, omissions, etc.)?
  • What were the strengths and weaknesses of adapting these chapters of Don Quijote to the graphic novel ?

It was important to create questions like these in order to ensure that students didn’t simply focus on plot or read the graphic novel as quickly as possible as a substitute for the “literary” novel. I also wanted them to consider the genre of the graphic novel as something more than “comic books,” children’s/YA literature,”\ or frivolous entertainment. To do this, I assigned select chapters from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art — Chapter 2: The Vocabulary of Comics, and Chapter 6: Show and Tell…. since it was during my initial reading of McCloud’s book prior to the spring semester that I began thinking about Snapchat and general smartphone communications, whether via apps or text messages, for their literary potential. The below image from McCloud’s book should illustrate why, as the illustrated icons and symbols immediately bring to mind today’s emojis:


A page from chapter 2 of McCloud’s Understanding Comics, “The Vocabulary of Comics”.

Below are a few lightly-edited excerpts from my article – again, you can access the full text in Hispania here.

On the graphic novel and semiotics:

In only a few pages, McCloud presents the complexity and variety of icons through which humans communicate, from the pictorial to the non-pictorial (26-30), or words, which he terms “the ultimate abstraction” (47). In fact, McCloud’s elaborations of the intricacies of graphic novel design and narrative structure connect perfectly to our modern forms of interpersonal communication and private or public storytelling through social media. Despite being written in 1992, these pages are replete with images of symbols, sketches, and simple drawings that resemble, on first glance, much of our current modes of twenty-first-century communication that allow, even encourage the combination of pictorial and textual icons (email, messaging apps like WhatsApp and GroupMe, and social media like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, to name a few). Almost prophetically, McCloud ends this chapter by observing: “Ours is an increasingly symbol-oriented culture. As the twenty-first century approaches, visual iconography may finally help us realize a form of universal communication” (58). Indeed, my students immediately connected these pages to the communicative value of a simple emoji, the popularity of which Marcel Danesi (2017), in The Semiotics of Emoji, cites as an “incipient paradigm shift in how people perceive writing, literacy, and communication today” (4). McCloud’s sixth chapter, “Show and Tell,” only amplified this real-world connection for students by focusing on how it is precisely the combination of both words and pictures together that allows us to tell more complex stories (152). McCloud frames this discussion by noting that, in the lengthy course of human history, the written word has only recently been elevated or privileged over pictorial or visual modes of communication like drawings, images, and simple demonstrative gestures (141-45). Suddenly, my students began to see their most frequent modes of informal communication as having not only academic, but literary relevance. (p. 326)


Blog header for the course website, Quijote Snaps at

This semiotic approach to the graphic novel is a perfect segue to Snapchat, and McCloud’s book allowed me to bring the app into the classroom as a way of increasing student engagement while illustrating innovative narrative structures in both traditional and popular print media. Snapchat relies on a mix of visual imagery and text, including photo-editing features like filters, color manipulation, and facial recognition masks; stickers, emojis, and geotags; cartoons and Bitmojis; short captions that can be written in a variety of colors or fonts; hashtags; and even animation and video features. But the most exciting part about Snapchat (and now Instagram and Facebook) for the purposes of my Quijote course were the “Story” features. Snapchat’s “Stories” allow users to combine a series of “Snaps” (singular images or short videos) to create a narrative of their lives during a 24-hour period, whether it be during the school day, over a weekend, or on a study abroad trip. The concepts of telling one’s own story (history) or sharing a narrative (story) with others are key to the Quijote, and the dual-meaning of the Spanish word historia (story and history) offers an additional dimension to the examination and creation of narratives. Nearly every character in the novel either recounts their own historia, has their historia told by another individual (often with discrepancies and from several viewpoints), or listens to historias told by others for informational or entertainment purposes. Evaluating Snapchat in this Quixotic context, we might consider that students actively practice strategies associated with literature and literary analysis each and every day when they use the app: they create a point of view, perform the role of narrator or narratee, construct a tone, emphasize a setting, or develop a unique narrative structure with common features or symbols. In all likelihood, the vast majority of students had never considered their social media usage to be literary, or even remotely akin to literary production or interpretation. (p. 326-27)

On Narrative and Storytelling:

Recognizing Snapchat’s potential for composing and storytelling, by way of assembling textual and visual narrative devices that will be read by others, offers the perfect bridge to a literature course centered on a novel featuring so many complex personal narratives and multiple viewpoints (see Cascardi; Allen, “Style”). Although a 17th-century novel and a 21st-century mobile application may appear antithetical, they are linked by their narrative capacities and their appeal to individuals, on both creative and receptive levels. As Jonathan Gottschall has stated, “humans are creatures of story, so story touches nearly every aspect of our lives” (15). []As I began to research Snapchat in the langauge classroom, I found very little to go on, given the newnew off the application in 2018]. However, in terms of its narrative capacity, Jill Walker Rettberg (2016) has demonstrated Snapchat’s narrative (or storytelling) capabilities by using the app’s Stories feature to create her own Snapchat Research Stories – which she shares on YouTube – that examine and explain concepts like narratology, phatic communication, and visual storytelling in social media. (p. 327)

While Rettberg (in a chapter on Snapchat in Appified: Culture in the age of Apps, 2018) acknowledges that Snapchat’s “ephemerality” and association with playful filters popular with teens may lead researchers to view the app as “frivolous, mundane, [or] boring” and thus not take it seriously, she also rightly points out that Snapchat has led to “reemphasizing social connections… [and] opening up new forms of storytelling and narration” (190-91). Rettberg also describes the app and its stories feature as “a conversation not an archive” (192), echoing the way in which many literature professors like myself encourage students to consider the research process. As they perform close-readings of literature, explore secondary sources of criticism or Spanish cultural history, and document their key findings, students begin to enter a scholarly conversation about the primary text. In this sense, Snapchat fits perfectly within the goals of an L2 literature course because it allows users to become a part of a broader conversation with others through narrative techniques dependent on the creative combination of semiotic tools, or linguistic and pictorial icons. Moreover, the app has enormous potential to help students unpack literature in new ways by analyzing it through the frame of Snapchat Stories, which we may in fact classify as a sort of twenty-first-century “literary genre” in which most students are well versed, invested, and engaged. From both semiotic and narratological perspectives, Snapchat not only overlaps on thematic and structural levels with Don Quijote as a literary narrative, but with the theory and design of popular graphic novels and pictorial modes of communication. In fact, in light of the theories informing the graphic novel, my course’s emphasis on popular culture, and the centrality of storytelling to the Quijote, the Snapchat interface suddenly became the perfect portable graphic-novel-creating-tool. (p. 327-28)

Assignments and tasks:

I had observed in previous semesters a “medium-mismatch” among students in introductory, intermediate, and even advanced L2 literature courses. By this I mean that there is a gap, or sometimes a complete disconnect, between how I expect students to express and demonstrate critical thought and textual analysis, and how, or where, they already practice these skills, often unconsciously. (p. 329)

My Quijote seminar’s final project included two types of Snapchat-based essays. First, each student wrote four short “Snap Essays” (one Snap with a 350-500-word essay), in which they were required to cite the original novel and one or two secondary sources, such as academic articles or monographs (citing the graphic novel was optional). Additionally, each student also wrote two “Snap Stories” (between four and eight connected Snaps with a 1000-1200-word essay), in which they were required to cite the original novel, and two to five secondary sources. One of these “Stories” was composed individually and the other in a small group of three. Given that each student created four unique “Snap Essays” and two different “Snap Stories,” they ended up researching and writing about six different themes or episodes of the Quijote rather than focusing on only one broad research topic. Thus, students worked to develop six unique thesis-based arguments, supported with textual citations and secondary sources, which they represented both visually (Snaps) and in writing (analytic essay). In reality, the four short “Snap Essays”, combined with the mid-length “Snap Stories,” made their total written output range from 3400 words at minimum, to 4400 words at maximum. This is the equivalent of about 10-14 double-spaced pages, which is on par with the expectations for traditional research papers at this level. Also like a traditional research paper, the combined total of secondary sources was 6-12 (1-2 per Snap Essay; 2-4 per Snap Story). At the end of the term, all essays would be posted to a collaborative, public course blog. The relatively short length of each “Snap Essay” (350-500 words), combined with the visual component of the “Snap,” lent to ideal blog posts that were both attractive and readable for a general audience beyond the professor and classmates. (p. 330)

You can view most of my students shorter and longer projects on the course blog,, and I detail the pros and cons of this experiment in the article. Here is one example:


Concluding thoughts:

“Given the rapid and technologically-advanced innovations that have affected modes of written communication and their global implications over the past three decades, I propose that L2 literature faculty reimagine traditional courses not merely in terms of content, but of assessments – even, and especially, if that reexamination challenges our ideas of what literary or academic scholarship does or should look like. Many professors have indeed documented their successful efforts in connecting literature and its historical era to contemporary issues and cultural production that are familiar to students, especially when teaching such a complex, fun, and engaging text like the Quijote (Burningham; Castillo; Miñana; Parr and Vollendorf; Simerka and Weimer). Additionally, the field of Digital Humanities is booming with qualitative and quantitative software offering alternative modes of interpreting, analyzing, and presenting research on literary texts. Yet the culminating assessment, or the traditional research paper, tends to remain a touchstone of many L2 literature courses – even those with non-traditional thematic approaches. This, despite the fact that in our current “Internet Age” (Danesi), the term paper is no longer the only type of assessment that might coincide with the objectives we establish for today’s students, the majority of whom want to easily and readily relate linguistic skills and cultural knowledge to their daily lives and future careers. When McCloud laments that comics are viewed as a recent invention (despite pictorial communication being centuries old) and thus excluded from serious literary discussions, he states that the art of comics simply “suffers the curse of all new media. The curse of being judged by the standards of the old” (151). While the move away from a traditional academic research or conference paper may initially appear to represent a bowing to requests from students for “easier” assignments, or a fueling of their resistance to engage with serious scholarship and literature, this Snapchat project demonstrates that it is possible to emphasize the same linguistic and literary skills in another medium. Analyzing, synthesizing, providing evidence for one’s ideas and interpretations, articulating a precise thesis or guiding argument, writing explanations of textual, literary, or visual icons… all of these skills can – and should – be adapted to the twenty-first century. By (re)examining and adapting traditional practices, L2 literature instructors will not only increase engagement and demonstrate the relevance of literary analysis skills to students’ lives, but also foster appreciation for the study of classical literary texts for their insights into the past and their potentially universal values, which are often present in today’s cultural productions.” (p. 336)

Have you tried alternative assessments or final projects in your L2 courses, whether language or literature? What has worked well, or perhaps is still a work-in-progress? Share your experiences in the comments!

Course materials/resources:

Novel: Don Quijote. Miguel de Cervantes. Ed. Tom Lathrop. 10th Legacy Edition. European Masterpieces / Cervantes & Co. 2012.

Graphic novel: The Complete Don Quijote, illustrated by Rob Davis. SelfMadeHero, 2013. English edition.

Comics Theory: Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Scott McCloud. William Morrow, 1994. (1st Harper Perennial edition, 2001).

Syllabus – Pop Culture and Cervantes’ Don Quijote de la Mancha (Dr. Rebecca Bender, Kansas State University): SPN 732_Don Quijote_Syllabus_BLOG

Additional articles/select bibliograhy:

Danesi, Marcel. The Semiotics of Emoji. The Rise of Visual Language in the Age of the Internet. Bloomsbury, 2019.

McRoberts, Sarah, Haiwei Ma, Andrew Hall, and Svetlana Yarosh. “Share First, Save Later: Performance of Self through Snapchat Stories.” CHI 2017 – Proceedings of the 2017 ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems: Explore, Innovate, Inspire, vol. 2017 (May), pp. 6902-6911.

Pomerantz, Anne, and Nancy D. Bell. “Learning to Play, Playing to Learn: FL Learners as Multicompetent Language Users.” Applied Linguistics, vol. 28, no. 4, 2007, pp. 556-78. Doi: 10.1093/applin/amm044.

Rettberg, Jill Walker. Seeing Ourselves Through Technology. How We Use Selfies, Blogs and Wearable Devices to See and Shape Ourselves. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Open Access.

—. “Snapchat Research Stories.” YouTube, 1 Nov. 2017. Accessed 15 Jan. 2019.

Wargo, Jon M. “Spatial Stories with Nomadic Narrators: Affect, Snapchat, and Feeling Embodiment in Youth Mobile Composing.” Journal of Language and Literacy Education, vol. 11, no. 1, 2015, pp. 47-64.

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Mapping Madrid through Art, Literature, and Creative Cartography

Since this fall semester is clearly “unprecedented”, unpredictable, and a whole host of adjectives that are pretty much ALL stress-inducing, I am taking the opportunity to experiment in my senior-seminar on 20th-century Spain. Last fall I taught a similar course with a focus on “Gender & the City”, but this fall I’m only using two of the same name novels — Carmen de Burgos’ La rampa (1917) and José Díaz Fernández’s La Venus mecánica (1929) — and focusing more on the city of Madrid and the narrative cartography presented by and within these texts. I’ve re-titled the course “Mapping Madrid in La Edad de Plata (1898-1936)”, and I’m maintaining a course hashtag to keep track of the articles, images, and maps we find and explore each week. You can check that out and follow it here: #MappingMadridKSU. My students’ final project will entail a creative cartographic interpretation of one of the literary texts (or a portion of it), or of a cultural or historical theme that they decide to explore through the literature or through our discussions of secondary historical or cultural readings in class. I’m still plotting out the details, but at the same time, I’m planning to allow a lot or room to be creative. Since this project is inherently interdisciplinary, I’m hoping this freedom will encourage them to make connections with a topic that relates to their own interests, their other academic majors, and their individual learning styles and talents. This is important, given that the final few weeks of the semester will be fully online, so, in theory (!), the more invested and interested they are in their project, the better they will plan their time and work independently.

As an example of a creative, thematic interpretation of urban geography, I found this map of central Madrid that associates movies with certain locations in the city, as an example of how maps can create “narratives” and overlap aesthetically with literature. Map published in “Cinemanía”, August 2019. Image via Behance.

To start out our this semester of hyflex instruction — a semester which we had to begin a full week earlier than originally anticipated — I wanted to ease into the idea of how to think beyond a literary text, how to experiment and incorporate creativity our analyses, and how to be uncomfortable with not knowing how to proceed. Creative endeavors, after all, take time — as does reading and writing, which we (professors AND students) too often forget. In any case, I had my class look at some examples of artistic or non-traditional maps that “re-draw” the world in a short Gallery-Article in El Pais, and I assigned them a quick YouTube video about play and the importance of creativity in 21st-century learning, Yesmin Kunter’s “Let’s Play”. In our second full class, I split them into three (socially-distanced and masked!) groups and tasked them with creating a “cartographic representation of Rafael Alberti‘s 1937 poem, “Romance de la defensa de Madrid”. They only had about 30-35 minutes to read the poem and represent it — which really wasn’t enough time to make a super-detailed map — but this would be a fun activity to repeat in a full 50–minute class period after having assigned students the poem to read and analyze for homework. In any case, they seemed to have fun with it and it was a good way to review and re-visit some literary/poetic terminology during the first week of class without making things too stressful or piling on too many “figuras retóricas”. After all, masked, socially-distanced, hyflex instruction with extra cleaning supplies all over the room is stressful enough for everyone. At the end of this post, I’ve attached a PDF of the poem-mapping-activity, which contains the poem, a super-quick guide to analyzing it (reminders of what to look for), and a breakdown of the elements involved in creating a “cartographic narrative,” which I adapted from an excellent (but way too detailed for the second-class-of-the-semester) article on “El mapa y la comunicación cartográfica“. The main principles are to (1) “collect data”, which I view as essentially performing a literary analysis of a text; (2) organize and manipulate this data to plan a design; (3) visualize the shape, scale, and borders of the map; (4) interpret your data to create a ‘narrative’. We’ll be returning to selections of this article as work on projects progresses…. In the meantime, below are the maps they produced in this short activity. One group clearly had an art major; another was very detail-oriented; and another preferred to personify the city (at least they got a nice review and will now remember prosopopeya).

Only one week after beginning my class with this poetry-mapping activity — which required students to draft a cartographic illustration of a poem commemorating the bombing of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War — I came across an article on my Twitter feed with the title, “Cuando Madrid Fue Guernica“. It’s an excellent discussion of the areas in Madrid that were destroyed by — and protected from — aerial attacks during the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39. The articles discusses the “Plano de Madrid Bombardeado”, a map that was created during 2018-19 to represent the areas of the city that suffered the most vicious aerial attacks. As my readers know, I’m somewhat obsessed with maps, and I had actually first learned about and even downloaded this wartime map from a 2019 article, “El mapa que le devuelve a Madrid su identidad de ciudad bombardeada“. Both of these articles provide detailed historical and archival information, as well as quotes and comments from the map’s creators, Enrique Bordes and Luis de Sobrón, both professors of Architecture at the Polytechnic University in Madrid (UPM). With this project, Bordes and de Sobrón bring to light the ways in which Madrid’s urban identity has been (re)made throughout the 20th century. Specifically, when the Civil War ended in 1939, the new Francoist Regime was intent on presenting the Spanish capital as a glorious, victorious urban center. Yet Madrid’s previous Civil War era identity — based on a fierce and enduring resistance that resulted from becoming the first major European city to be strategically bombed in wartime attacks (the Spanish Civil War preceded World War II) — was all but erased. The effort to cover up or eliminate the historical and cultural significance of Civil War destruction wrought upon a stubbornly resistant capital city is yet another piece of to be added back into the puzzle of Spain’s fractured historical memory.

A high-quality image of the map (a copy of which I’ve included below) can be downloaded via the Madrid Bombardeado website. This site is open access, although is currently undergoing a few updates to come of its planned features before it will be fully interactive. In the meantime, it’s still an excellent resource and would be especially useful in Spanish culture or literature courses dealing with the Spanish Civil War, either in learning about its historical moment of the 1930s or its elusive, ongoing, and even haunting presence throughout 20th-century Spain, its modern history, and much of contemporary Spanish cultural productions (books, films, human rights projects, documentaries, art and photography exhibits, television programming, etc.).

Plano de Madrid Bombardeado (image via El Salto Diario)

Professors de Sobrón and Bordes created this visual, cartographic narrative because they realized that so many people were surprised to learn that Madrid was so heavily attacked and destroyed during the Spanish Civil War. While nearly everyone knows about the bombing of Guernica/Gernika in 1937 — immortalized by Picasso in what may arguably be his greatest work — the intense bombings of Madrid that begin in 1936 had largely disappeared from collective historical memory. Their mapping project is a “Map of Memory,” which aims to fill in those gaps in historical knowledge and consciousness so that Spanish citizens, visitors, and tourists in Madrid are aware of the capital city’s more complex history. To collect information, they relied on four principal sources: (1) photography and photo-reports from the 1936-39 era, (2) documentation from Madrid’s Committee of Reform, Reconstruction, and Sanitation (CRRS), (3) records from fire departments, and (4) memories of architects who were among the city’s population. Professor Bordes emphasized that during this research process, he himself was continuously surprised by the magnitude of the bombings and destruction to the city. Anecdotally, from various sources, it has been said that “Madrid was Guernica”, meaning that Picasso may have actually consulted reports, documentation, photographs, and eye-witness accounts from attacks on the heavily-populated Madrid, since in the small Basque town of Guernica/Gernika, in all likelihood, there would have been very few journalists present the precise day of the surprise attack.

Full scale of Picasso’s “Guernica”, where it is currently on display in Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofia. It had been in New York from the 1940s-70s, before being returned to Spain in 1981, several years after Franco’s death. Image via Pablo Picasso [dot] org.

It is certainly true that Picasso’s Guernica has ensured that a particularly cruel tragedy of the Spanish Civil War has not and will likely never be forgotten. In fact, Guernica is one of the most popular works of art used in Spanish language, literature, and culture classes throughout the US, and nearly 100% of my students are familiar with it before seeing in my class — even if they do not know the precise history or the massive scale of the work. Because it is so recognizable, I try to use it make connections with lesser-known texts and histories. In a few of my previous Spanish Literature and Culture classes, I had used Guernica in combination with Vicente Aleixandre‘s poem, “Oda a los niños de Madrid muertos por la metralla”. I posted a few years ago about a class activity (which I have since gradually modified) involving the juxtaposition of that particular poem with Picasso’s famous mural here: Picasso’s Guernica and Aleixandre’s Oda: The Spanish Civil War in Art and Poetry. But while the history of this small Basque town of Gernika/Guernica lives on in painting, the bombings of Madrid appear seomwhat more frequently in literature, and especially in poetry. The attacks on the city were in fact memorialized and lamented by numerous poets throughout the Spanish-speaking world, within and outside of Spain. While I have so far incorporated Alberti‘s “Romance” and Aleixandre’s “Oda” into my classes, they are just two examples and both were written by Spaniards. Importantly, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda also penned a poetic memoir to the destruction suffered by the city in 1936 with “Explico algunas cosas“, and Mexican writer Octavo Paz offered Mexico’s support of the Spanish Republic in his 1936 poem “¡No pasarán!,” which bears the title of the oft-repeated phrase that became the fighting hymn, the slogan of strength and resistance throughout the city of Madrid during the war years.

A street banner proclaiming Madrid’s slogan of resistance, “No pasarán – El fascismo quiere conquistar Madrid, Madrid será la tumba del fascismo” — “They shall not pass. Fascism aims to conquer Madrid, Madrid will be the ‘tomb of fascism’, or ‘fascism’s grave’. Image via Wikipedia.

*To be clear*, I don’t meant to imply that there is no artwork commemorating the bombing of Madrid. There are certainly powerful photographs, paintings, and other forms of visual art that pay homage to Madrid’s violent past, but none have reached the same level of renown as Picasso’s Guernica. Horacio Ferrer’s Madrid 1937, Aviones negros, also in the Museo Reina Sofia, is a great example. Painted in an entirely different style than the more abstract, cubist mural, Ferrer’s painting also displays women and children fleeing in fear as the destruction caused by aerial attacks is clearly apparent in the background. This painting was even presented at the same international exhibition as Guernica, the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris International Exhibition. There are many more examples, but I suppose I will save those for another post, especially given that — like their poetic or literary counterparts — these artistic rendition of “Madrid Bombardeado” span international borders, coming from throughout the Spanish-speaking world and beyond.

“Madrid 1937, Aviones negros” (Black Aeroplanes)” by Horacio Ferrer, 1937. Image via Museo Reina Sofia.

What other Madrid-Maps do I need to explore? Do you have any favorites? I’m anxious to get my hands on Madrid in the Novels of Benito Perez Galdos next… though I was hoping to pick up a copy on my next trip to Spain rather than have to pay double for international shipping (#SpanishProfessorMath). But with continued Covid travel restrictions, it looks like I might just have to accept that extra fee.


CLASS ACTIVITY: “Romance de la defensa de Madrid” by Rafael Alberti (1937) — Poem, Analysis, Mapping activity as PDF:

Luna S., María Cecilia. “¡No pasarán!: La fuerza de la resistencia madrileña en el poema de Octavio Paz.” Revista Palimpsesto, vol. X, no. 14, jul-dic, 2018, pp. 82-91. Open Access via Universidad de Santiago de Chile here.

Olaya, Víctor. Sistemas de Informacion Geografica. Capítulo 5, Visualización: “El mapa y la comunicacion cartografica“. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016.

Posted in History, Spain, Spanish Civil War | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Farming, Gardening, and Female Labor: Carmen de Burgos’ “La mujer agricultora” (1903)

Now that the crazy and unpredictable Spring 2020 Covid19-semester is finally over, and since I’ll now be spending my entire summer in Kansas rather than in Spain and Mexico, I am working to shift my focus back to writing and research for the month of June. Starting with a blog post seemed like a much easier and more enjoyable way for me to get back into writing-mode than diving straight into an academic article… although I still spent many hours finalizing this short, informal post. Based on a few things I’ve been reading and thinking about over the past few weeks, and to continue with my first two posts of 2020 on recent publications on contemporary Spanish feminism and women in rural Spain, I wanted to discuss an excerpt from another fabulous set of books I brought home from Spain last summer: Carmen de Burgos. Colombine. Periodista Universal, edited by Concepción Nuñez Rey and published by the Consejería Cultural, Junta de Andalucía in late 2018. These two volumes are an invaluable resource to scholars not only of Carmen de Burgos or first-wave Spanish feminism, but of early 20th-century Spanish literature and culture more broadly. In them, Nuñez Rey has compiled more than 10,000(!) essays and newspaper articles that Burgos, often under her pseudonym “Colombine,” wrote for popular Madrid-based print media between 1900 and her death in 1932. Both volumes together — an astounding 1400+ pages — cost only 20 euros via Tiendas Culturales de Andalucia; 10 euros extra to ship internationally to the US (which is still a bargain $33 at the current exchange rate).


The covers of Volumes I and II. Image mine.

These volumes represent an enormous amount of labor on the part of Concepción Nuñez Rey, professor of Spanish Language and Literature at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid, who spent more than two years compiling and organizing the essays, information, and commentary they contain. Volume I presents an introductory biography on Carmen de Burgos with a discussion of the historical context within which she was writing. Following is the chronological organization of articles that she published between 1900-1914, with topics ranging from women’s rights and early feminist activity (women’s education, suffrage, factory work, divorce) to broader societal problems (illness and hygiene, prisons, death penalty, education) to her international travels (France, Italy, Argentina, Germany) and involvement in various literary and intellectual circles. Volume II covers 1914-1932, and includes topics related to World War I, her extensive travels to Portugal and the Americas (Cuba, Mexico, and Chile), her increasingly more progressive feminism, and her support of the Spanish Second Republic. Again, there are over 10,000 essays included in these volumes and, given Burgos’ prolific publication record on an almost innumerable array of topics, they contain many lesser-known, niche articles that were previously difficult to procure or even locate in databases. Essays are organized chronologically, and Nuñez Rey has grouped them together under broad themes, providing short introductions to each section that contextualize Burgos’ professional activities and personal life at the time.


page 146 of Carmen de Burgos: Colombine. Periodista Universal (Volume I), image mine.

For this post, I want to highlight a 1903 essay — see image above — that caught my attention given my recent interest in and appreciation for Maria Sanchez’s essay-narrative on women in rural Spain, or “España Vaciada” (Empty Spain), which I blogged about in January and integrated into my Spanish Culture course in April. Burgos’ essay, “La mujer agricultora,” or “The Female Farmer,” published June 20, 1903 in the Diario Universal, is only about 2-pages in length (pp. 146-48, Volume I) and touches upon several issues that Sánchez brings to light in 2019 concerning women’s labor, rural vs. urban living, and depopulation of the Spanish countryside. The title of the essay and much of its contents also reminded me of several pieces of art from this time period, so I thought juxtaposing some of Burgos’ ideas with a few early 20th-century Spanish paintings would further contextualize and expand the scope of her concerns on women and agricultural labor. While there are, unsurprisingly, a few comments that are problematic or essentialist to today’s 21st-century reader — like her generalizations about women’s labor or disposition based on biology or “nature,” and even phrases that could stem from late 19th-century eugenics discourses (fortificar la raza, evolución, hereditario) —  much of what Burgos argues in this short article pertains to her consistent concern with educating women and affording them a legitimate, compensated, and safe place in Spanish society where they have agency to express their own interests and talents and to choose their own life or career path. The driving force of her essay is that Spain should promote and provide an “agricultural” education for women, just as in England there are institutes dedicated to the study of Agriculture and Horticulture.

mujer cabra_El pais

“Mujer con cabra” [Woman with goat] by Maruja Mallo (1929). Image via El País.

I first thought of Maruja Mallo’s 1929 painting, “Woman with goat” (above) when Burgos discusses the physicality of agricultural labor and societal perceptions of whether women’s bodies could or should perform this labor. This painting, and others by Mallo, has been praised for its depiction of a physically strong woman moving freely and independently outside the confines of the home. While interpretations and analyses of this work are vast, for the sake of this post I’m focusing on those that highlight a new, alternative representation of femininity based on strength and independence. Combined with its clearly rural setting, this painting becomes — in my mind — an excellent representation of Burgos’ argument in support of outdoor activities and labor for women, as well as her anticipation and rejection of patriarchal critiques that will center on men’s desire for women’s bodies and appearances to remain “traditionally feminine”.  In the quote below, Burgos cites the bicycle as justification for women’s abilities to engage in physical, outdoor labor, a reference that may seem comical today, but that is well in line with early 20th-century views — and fears — of the bicycle as a promoter and symbol of (dangerous or erotic!) female agency. This is the reference that prompted me to think of Mallo’s “Mujer con cabra.”

  • El trabajo agrícola favorece la salud del individuo más que los trabajos industriales y puramente intelectuales. Esto, que es verdad para el hombre, lo es también para la mujer; pero no todos lo aceptan. Se dice que estos trabajos son demasiado fuertes para la mujer. Sin embargo, este argumento pierde fuerza desde que las mujeres aprenden a montar en bicicleta.” (p. 147) Agricultural labor favors the health of the individual more than industrial or purely intellectual labor. This, which is true for men, is also true for women; but not everyone accepts it. They say that these jobs are too physically demanding for women. However, this argument has lost strength since women have learned to ride bicycles.

Similarly, Mallo’s later paintings, Canto de espigas and Sorpresa del trigo (both below) — from a 1936-39 series she titled La religión del trabajo, of The Religion of Work — celebrate agricultural labor in the rural Spanish countryside, and they feature strong women as the central focus. In her article (below), Burgos speaks of the beneficial effects of rural labor on the healthy and physicality of both men and women. She also acknowledges that “those concerned with aesthetics” will argue against educating women in Agricultural and Horticultural labors given their fear that they will lose their harmonious figure, grace, and charm… a transformation that Mallo’s paintings, produced thirty years later, clearly celebrate rather than critique.

Mallo_Canto de espigas_1939-ReinaSofia

“Canto de espigas” [Song of Wheat] by Maruja Mallo, 1939. Imag via Museo Reina Sofia.

  • “Los estéticos son los que gritan más alto contra la mujer agricultora. Dicen que estos trabajos destruirían las líneas armoniosas de su cuerpo, altarían sus proporciones y la privarían de la gracia y el encanto…” (p. 147)  Those concerned with aesthetics are the ones who argue most loudly against the female farmer. They say that these jobs would destroy the harmonious lines of her body, that they would alter her proportions and strip her of her grace and charm…
  • “Se puede asegurar que los trabajos agrícolas son lo mejor y más sano de los ejercicios físicos, dan fuerza y salud a los cuerpos anémicos por la vida debilitante de las grandes ciudades. Los ejercicios de jardinería al aire libre son excelentes para curar las neurastenias femeninas.” (p. 146) It’s possible to claim that agricultural jobs are the best and healthiest of physical activities, giving strength and health to bodies made anemic by the debilitating life of the largest cities. Gardening and outdoor activities are excellent for curing women’s neurasthenia (nervousness).

Mallo_Sorpresa del trigo_1936

“Sorpresa del trigo” [Surprise of the wheat] by Maruja Mallo (1936). Image via Reddit.

Importantly, much of Burgos’ argument hinges on the contrast between the urban and rural environments. In the above, second quote she blames the “debilitating” nature of cities for creating unhealthy, “anemic” bodies. Similarly, in the below excerpt, she lauds work in the countryside for having the potential to save women from becoming “victims” of the “factories and vices” of the cities. Her descriptions of women’s urban labor made me immediately think of the tobacco, or cigar factories. While they provided well-paid manual labor for working-class women — known as cigarrerras — the job came with extremely long hours and significant long-term health concerns from the crowded, enclosed, and dirty interior spaces. The below paintings of Seville’s “Fábrica Real de Tobacos” by Gonzálo Bilbao Martínez, capture this atmosphere… clearly the antithesis of the colorful countryside depicted in Mallo’s “Mujer con cabra.”

  • “Para la mujer, por mucho que las feministas pretendan ser en todo iguales, no sirven los trabajos de fuerza; pero sería conveniente que se dedicasen a los que les son propios, cultivando los campos y robando víctimas a los talleres y a los vicios de las grandes ciudades. Esto en cuanto a las obreras; en cuanto a las damas, los quehaceres agrícolas pueden resultar a la vez agradables, sanos y útiles.” (p. 147)  For women, as much as feminists strive to be equal in everything, jobs that depend on strength do not serve them; but it would be convenient if they were to dedicate themselves to those jobs that best suit them, cultivating the fields and stealing victims from the factories and vices of the great cities. This for female laborers; regarding upper-class women, agricultural chores can be pleasant, healthy, and useful at the same time.

BilbaoMartinez_Las Cigarreras de Sevilla_1915-BellasArtes

“Las cigarreras de Seville” [Women cigar makers in Seville] by Gonzalo Bilbao Martinez (1915), Image via Bellas Artes, Argentina.

BilbaoMartinez_Las Cigarreras_1910-BellasArtes

“Las Cigarreras” [The women cigar makers] by Gonzalo Bilbao Martinez (1910), Image via Bellas Artes, Argentina.

Finally, the last paragraphs of “La mujer agricultora” center on the description of and praise for the Swanley School of Horticulture in England. She discusses the training offered at this “Horticultural College” or Gardening School, and how it had grown and transformed from an Institution for men to one in which women became the majority. I have not yet done much research into this school and its evolution to confirm Burgos’ description, although this 2003 article, “Horticultural Education in England, 1900-40: Middle-Class Women and Private Gardening Schools” (by Anne Meredith) discusses the college as being “for women.” Regardless, in 1903 Burgos was clearly aware of and admired the education this college offered women, and she lamented the fact that Spain did not have such opportunities. She ends with a discussion of gardening, which she appears to view as a more appropriate activity for middle- and upper-class women, in private residences or public gardens. This immediately made me think of the paintings and home of Joaquín Sorolla, as I visited his former residence (now a museum) a few years ago in Madrid. The Sorolla Museum boasts amazing gardens in the midst of the city, in addition to a diverse collection of the artist’s paintings. Below is his portrait of his wife, Clotilde, in their private gardens — which again contrasts dramatically, this time in terms of social and economic class — with Mallo’s painting of the woman with a goat.


“Clotilde en el jardín” [Clotilde in the garden] by Joaquín Sorolla (1919). Image via El Diario.

Below are a few of Burgos’ comments on women’s purported proclivity for gardening:

  • “En un principio el Colegio [Swanley] era solo para hombres, después fueron admitidas las mujeres, que hoy forman la mayoría de la población escolar, y,  pese a la vanidad masculina, trabajan mejor que los hombres y demuestran mas aptitudes para los trabajos agrícolas.” (p. 148)  At first, horticulture schools were only for men, later women were admitted, such that today women form the majority of the academic population and, despite masculine vanity, they work better than men and show greater aptitude for agricultural labor.
  • “En la jardinería, los dedos hábiles y el cuidado de la mujer dan resultados excelentes. El amor de la mujer por las flores ha sido siempre proverbial, y ellas cultivan con paciencia, con esmero, con algo de cariño maternal.” (p. 148)  In gardening, women’s skilled fingers and care lead to excellent results. Women’s love for flowers has always been well-known, and they cultivate with patience, with great care, and with a bit of maternal affection.

Sorolla_Wife and Daughters in Garden

My Wife and Daughters in the Garden by Joaquín Sorolla (1910).

  • “En Swanley, las alumnas cuidan también de los animales domésticos, y cada una tiene un cuadrito de tierra que puede cultivar a su gusto, dando libre curso a la fantasía individual. Un diploma y un certificado coronan los estudios, y al salir del Colegio, la mayor parte de ellas entran como jardineras en las casas particulares, y otras como guardias de los jardines públicos. De este modo se abre una nueva carrera a la mujer, productiva y buena para las obreras, y donde las grandes damas pueden hacer mucho bien desarrollando la agricultura y las industrias que a ella van unidas.” (p. 148)  In Swanley, the female students also care for domestic animals, and each one has a small portion of land that they can cultivate as they like, given free rein to their individual fantasy. A diploma and a certificate mark the end of their studies and, upon leaving the institute, a great many find work as gardeners in private homes, others as caretakers of public gardens. In this way, a new career is open to women, one that is productive and good for female workers, and where exceptional women may do a great deal to further develop agriculture and the industries connected to it.

As the above excerpt reveals, Burgos considered gardening to be a job or career particularly suited to women, and one that could afford them a potential income. This is most striking to me, even radical for the time, as gardening or the care for private gardens would have most likely fallen under the category of women’s work — that is, unpaid labor performed by a wife or mother, or poorly paid labor performed by a maid. There would be exceptions of course, but we can look to the Sorolla gardens as an example. In searching for the paintings I came across this article in Spanish on Sorolla’s gardens as works of art, within his (painted) works of art. The article discusses his love for his gardens and the care he took of them… yet only at the end acknowledges that his wife, Clotilde, also spend a great amount of time ensuring the gardens were a beautiful, thriving oasis in the city center. Sorolla was an especially prolific painter and he traveled away from home considerably, so I would wager that Clotilde was far more involved in or responsible for the “art of the gardens” than some histories may recount.


“El jardin de la casa” [The House Garden] by Joaquín Sorolla. Sorolla’s house is now the “Casa-Museo Sorolla” in central Madrid.

It seems my first post-pandemic attempt at blogging ended up being quite lengthy and has clearly given me a lot to think about. Hopefully this means I’m back in writing- and research-mode for Monday (*fingers crossed*). Ending this post with so many beautiful paintings of Spanish gardens and recalling my trip to the Sorolla Museum is making me especially nostalgic for Madrid — where I should be right NOW… with fifteen students! Unfortunately, my study abroad program was cancelled this summer and I’ll have to wait until next year. In the meantime, I’ll end with this lovely picture from one of my many walks through Retiro Park during last year’s trip.


La Rosaleda, Retiro Park, Madrid (May 2019). Image mine.

What other early 20th-century paintings or texts connect women to gardening or farming? Do they acknowledge or ignore… celebrate or critique women’s engagement with these activities in rural or urban spheres?  Share them in the comments!



Meredith, Anne. “Horticultural Education in England, 1900-40: Middle-Class Women and Private Gardening Schools“. Garden History, vol. 31, no. 1, Spring, 2003, pp. 67-89. JSTOR:

Nuñez Rey, Concepción. Carmen de Burgos. Colombine. Periodista Universal. Junta de Andalucía, Consejería Cultural, 2018. Available via Tiendas Culturales de Andalucía (20 euros + shipping).

Sánchez, María. Tierra de mujeres: Una mirada íntima y familiar al mundo rural. Seix Barral, 2019.

Posted in Art, First-wave spanish feminism, History, Literature, Spain, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Spanish Women’s Literature and Feminism for the L2 classroom: Tsunami, Miradas feministas (2019)

Since I last wrote about my favorite book from 2019, I thought it made sense to move on to one of my other top reads, which was another one of the MANY books I carried home after spending most of my summer in Spain. This one in particular holds so much potential for use in my undergraduate Spanish literature and culture classes, and as I think about this for the 2020-21 academic year, I thought sharing some details might help out my fellow Spanish professors looking for new ideas. Tsunami, Miradas Feministas (first image below) is a collection of 10 feminist essays edited and compiled by Marta Sanz and published in early 2019… well, it’s actually 9 essays, several viñetas (cartoons/comics by Flavita Banana), one piece of narrative fiction (Sara Mesa‘s contribution, which opens the volume), plus Sanz’s Prologue. The book also contains an essay from María Sánchez, the author of Tierra de mujeres, aka, my favorite book of 2019 (last image below).


One of the reasons I really enjoyed this book has to do with the inclusion of a variety of voices from different generations (the contributors were born over a 30-year span, between 1958-1989). But also, as I mentioned above, I think it will be useful in my future Spanish literature/culture courses because, when selecting readings for these intermediate-level content-courses, I often struggle to find materials written in Spanish at a level appropriate for my students (whose L2 skills can range, in a single class, from intermediate-low/mid/high to advanced-low/mid/high). Academic articles tend to be too specialized, detailed, and dense for their language skills, expertise, and levels of interest in the intricacies of feminist theory or Spanish cultural history. But the essays in Tsunami offer a great balance, as they are written more for a general audience (rather than an academic one), and they range from about 10-15 pages each.


Image via Sexto Piso

In May (2019) Tsunami’s contributors gathered together in Madrid for a promotional event. When I learned of the event in Madrid, I had just purchased and begun reading the book, and I planned to attend the presentation with a few students, since my summer study abroad program would begin at the end of the month. But on the day of the event, we had several(!) issues with transportation and were unable to arrive back to the city from our day trip to Segovia in time. As disappointed as I was, I was excited to learn that the entire session and interviews were recorded and made available on YouTube via Espacio Fundación Telefónica Madrid. Together with Tsunami, this video will be an especially useful teaching tool to complement selected readings — even if I only choose to assign one or two chapters. My students have recently seemed to appreciate out-of-class listening/viewing assignments that give them a break from traditional daily readings and allow them to work on oral comprehension skills. The full video is below, and it’s organized very well to give each speaker/writer a chance to discuss their views on or experiences with feminism, and to elaborate on the ideas they each present in Tsunami.

In this post I’ll briefly highlight 4 chapters from the book that I found to have the greatest potential for students studying Spanish in the US (in my case, at a large state institution). The essays in Tsunami all deal with issues related to feminism and women’s lived experiences in Spain, from the latter half of the 20th-century through today. Each woman reflects on her past experiences with feminism (or anti-feminism; patriarchal or machista cultures, policies, and institutions), on current feminist debates, and/or on the feminist movement in Spain right now. Rather than summarize the content of each chapter (many Spanish blogs have already done so; this review via ‘Explicaciones no pedidas’ is quite thorough, as is (somewhat surprisingly) El pais‘s discussion of Queen Letizia’s summer reading — Tsunami)… so in this post I thought I’d select a single excerpt from the essays I wanted to highlight.

“La amabilidad” (Kindness) by Sara Mesa (b. 1976)


Sara Mesa. Image via Zenda Libros.

Sara Mesa opens the volume with a short story, a first-person narrative that relates three moments in the life of a young woman and single mother. The story is organized in three parts, breaking with traditional chronological narratives to present events by year, beginning with 2001, then reverting to 1998 and 1999. This would be a great text to use in an intermediate or even advanced literature course. One of my favorite descriptions has to do with the pregnant protagonist’s trip to the doctor, and would serve as a great example of #Mansplaining for students to identify in a Spanish-language context:Los embarazos no se cuentan por meces, dice ahora. Hace tiempo que no se cuentan por meses, y añade: lo correcto es contarlos por semanas, lo correcto y lo preciso, cómo es que ell aún no sabe esto, ¿no se lo han explicado?” / Pregnancies are not counted by months, he says now. It’s been awhile since they’ve not been counted by months, and he adds: the correct thing to do is count them by weeks, the correct and the precise way, how is it that she still doesn’t know that, haven’t they explained it to her? (p. 31). In an advanced literature course, students could also read this interview with Sara Mesa, where she discusses her recent preference for somewhat biased narrators where, while not completely crafting an internal discourse (some aspects of the character still escape the reader), she nonetheless focuses almost exclusively on one particular protagonist and how they protagonist experience and contemplate the world.

“A tí no te va a pasar” (It won’t happen to you) by Laura Freixas (b. 1958)

Evident by its title, Laura Freixas’ Tsunami-essay connects thematically to her most recent book, an autobiographical narrative published in 2019, A mi no me iba a pasar (It wasn’t going to happen to me). In this essay she traces the development of much of her feminist thought by speaking of her grandmother, her mother, and then of herself. She describes her grandmother as una mujer sometida que sabía que la rebelión era imposible” / a subdued woman who knew that rebellion was impossible (p. 46) and her mother as a woman who disliked — even hated — being relegated to the home and domestic tasks, but nevertheless promoted those same values to her daughter: Era terrible ver a mi madre furiosa contra un estado de cosas tan injusto… y ordenándome que me sometiera a él” / It was terrible to see my mother so furious with the unfair state of things… yet ordering me so submit myself to this state as well (p. 52). The irony inherent in the fact that many women perpetuate patriarchal and machista values, even encouraging their continuation in their daughters, is not lost on Freixas, but she treats it less with irritation and more with a with with a mix of light humor and empathy. This essay would work well in a course on Spanish Women’s Literature or Feminist thought, or even on 20th century Spanish culture, focusing on gender roles or the Franco era. Moreover, in the above viceo, Freixas discusses the power and appeal of autobiographical feminist narratives.


Freixas goes on to describe how her mother encouraged her to study — as she had also studied — so that the same thing would not happen to her daughter that happen to her (pp. 53-54); and yet years later, Freixas finds herself highly educated, with a professional career, a husband, and two children… slowly transforming into a housewife and mother… and a writer in her “ratos libres” (free moments) (p. 61). Her essay — and her book — explore a question she now asks herself : Ahora me pregunto qué parte de responsabilidad tuve yo en ese proceso” / Now I ask myself what portion of responsibility I had in that process (p. 61). Her meditations and reflections on this question are personal, but also provocative. I say this not exactly because of their “radical” nature, but rather for Freixas’ willingness to explore and revisit some of the purportedly essentialist qualities attributed to women (caretaking, motherhood, creating a home) with an open and empathetic mind. She ends her essay — and speaks in the video — of “un secreto… un algo...” / a secret, a something (p. 63) that women like about that traditional female role (“que nos gustaba”). I’ll leave my comments here, or for another blog post (!), especially because I have yet to read Freixas’ full-length book, but I’m sure many readers familiar with feminist thought (in the US especially) can recognize the controversial nature of such a hypothesis. A mi no me iba a pasar is on my reading list this summer.

“La forastera” (The Stranger) by María Sánchez (b. 1989)

It turns out the word forastera“foreigner, outsider, stranger” — in the title actually refers (#Spoiler) to the author herself, which I was not anticipating as I began to read this chapter but was made clear on the final page (p. 96).

Maria Sanchez_vozdegalicia

Image via La Voz de Galicia (

Sánchez’s essay is divided into six short sections — the second simply containing a single line: verses of poetry by Portuguese writer Maria Gabriela Llansol, translated from Portuguese to Spanish: Es mi propia casa, pero creo que vine a visitar a alguien / It is my own home, but I believe I came to visit someone” (p. 88). In this chapter, Sánchez’s reflections on returning to her rural home after studying in the city and becoming a veterinarian who now splits her time and work between rural and urban spaces, are both honest and poetic. The sense of being a stranger in your own home will surely resonate with many First Generation students — especially here in Kansas. For this reason, I think this essay – or even selections of its 1-2 page “chapters” would be ideal to use not only in Spanish literature or culture courses, but in intermediate Conversation and, possibly, even grammar courses (as a way to introduce literature and prepare students for mid-level content courses). The sixth and final part of Sanchez’s essay discusses feminism, specifically describing it as “una bofetada muy necesaria en mi vida. Una mano decidida a quitarme la venda que llevaba en el rostro, y que no sólo tapaba la vista, sino la voz y el oído / a very necessary ‘slap in the face’ in my life. A hand determined to remove the blindfold I wore on my face, and that not only covered my sight, but my voice and my hearing (p. 94). The self-reflection, at times self-criticism, and overall accountability to the women in her family and home community are evident in her prose, and Sánchez’s writing makes this essay (and her book, Tierra de mujeres) a refreshing

“María Pandora” by Nuria Barrios (b. 1962)

Barrios’ essay would be a great addition to a course on 20th-century Spain — history, culture, or literature — as it presents Barrios’ reflections on her Catholic Education during the later years of the Franco dictatorship.

nuria barrios_Spainsnews

Nuria Barrios, whose newest novel (2020) is Todo arde (Everything burns), publishe by Alfaguara. Image via Spain’s News.

The essay opens making it clear that the control of the church, and especially of Catholic nuns, in adolescent education will be objects of critique: “Fui a un colegio de monjas de los dos a los dieciséis años. Cuando salí era agnóstica y feminista” / I went to a Catholic school run by nuns from 2 to 16 years of age. WHen I left I was agnostic and feminist (p. 149). She descsribes how the school was segregated by gender to such an extreme that even Jesus Christ was absent — only the Virgin Mary. As a result, she grew up surrounded almost exclusively by women, learning that her role, and that of all women, was to serve, to obey, and to remain quiet, in complete submission to men. Like the nuns, they were nearly invisible. Yet a core feature of this gendered indoctrination during adolescence — what Barrios calls “aquel puritanismo militante” / that militant puritanism (p. 154) — was how women learned to perceive their own bodies and sexualities. For Barrios, the results of learning to think this way during such an impresionable age can be, and are, dangerous: “El puritanismo es una violencia soterrada. Es dificil medir las consecuencias de imponer a adolescentes esa forma rigida y artificisiosa de contemplar la vida” / Puritanism is a hidden violence. It’s difficult to measure the consequences of imposing on teenagers this rigid and artificial form of considering life. (p. 155).

Madonna and Child_Murillo-wikiart

Madonna and child, by Spanish Barroque painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1650). Image via Wikipedia.

Barrios goes on to explore how difficult it is to overcome or to become free of such ingrained cultural ideologies; how leaving a school does not mean one has successfully left them behind or escaped; how traditional, even unconscious ideas regarding masculinity (ex: authority, complexity) and femininity (ex: frivolity, domesticity) continue to inform — “contaminate” — what we read or consume, and how women’s vs. men’s cultural productions, especially literature, are interpreted and valued. I appreciated Barrios’ final discussion about her personal experience as a female writer in Spain, and about the continued and even growing need for women’s solidarity in Spain today, particularly in light of increasing resistance to feminist projects by parties like Vox and the PP (p. 165). For its consistent and coherent connection of Franco-era gender ideology to the present (current events), this essay would work well in a variety of intermediate Spanish culture, history, or literature courses.

What are some Spanish readings — not from textbooks! —  that are accessible to Spanish-language (L2) undergraduate students, especially in the US? What have you used successfully in your courses… or simply enjoyed reading yourself?


Sanz, Marta, ed. Tsunami. Miradas Feministas. Sexto Piso, 2019.

Freixas, Laura. A mi no me iba a pasar. Ediciones B, 2019.

Sánchez, Maria. Tierra de mujeres. Seix Barral, 2019.

Posted in Feminism, Literature, Spain, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Tierra de mujeres (Land of Women) and the Myth of an “Empty Spain”

Somehow I only managed to write 4 blog posts in 2019; and with all the “end-of-the-year” reflections and round-ups going around, I started to feel like I hadn’t really accomplished much. But when I sat down to think about Jan-Dec 2019, I realized that, although I felt especially busy and at times a bit behind, I was in fact very productive during this crazy-busy year. The accomplishment of which I am most proud is that I took a group of 10 students to Spain for nearly 5 weeks, on a program that I developed with the Instituto de Lengua y Cultura Españolas (ILCE) at Pamplona’s Universidad de Navarra and Kansas State’s Education Abroad offices. Taking students to Spain for a study abroad program had always been one of my main long-terms goals as a Spanish professor, and the fact that I designed and directed what will now be an annual program at my university is even more satisfying. You can read about this new Pamplona-based program here, and see a daily recap on the @KStateSpanish Instagram account (follow us!) via the hashtag #KSUSummerSpain2019 — scroll to the bottom to start at day 1.


With a group of K-State students in San Sebastian, after hiking up the paths to Monte Igueldo.

In any case, between May-July I spent 9 total weeks in Spain; 2 prior to the program, 5 leading the program, and 2 final weeks after the program ended. This extra time allowed me to work on a few research projects and acquire new materials for use in my courses. I spent a lot of time in a lot of bookstores, and I came home with an extra bag that was pretty much all books. Below are four of my favorites from my summer reading — all published in 2019. I purchased 2 or 3 of them from two of my favorite bookstores in Madrid, “Librería Mujeres,” just off the Plaza Mayor on c/San Cristobal, and “Mujeres & Companía, la Librería” near Ópera on c/Unión. I’ve included publisher information and Amazon links to each book at the end of this post, and I’ll discuss each of them at some point on the blog in 2020.


For now, I want to use this post to highlight what was my favorite read of 2019 — the book on the far right in my picture above — Tierra de mujeres: Una mirada íntima y familiar al mundo rural / Land of Women: An Intimate and Familiar Portrait of the Rural Community (Seix Barral 2019), by María Sánchez. Sánchez is a Spanish veterinarian and writer who grew up in a family of (male) veterinarians on a farm in rural Andalucía (Córdoba). She was born in 1989, which makes her a strong new voice within the younger, millennial generation. While there is not yet an English translation of her book, I found a general description which I’ll excerpt below (edit, 2020: via Pontas Agency, although the directly link appears to no longer active):

Interweaving family stories with reflections on science and literature, and some of the conflicts that plague the countryside (depopulation and the erasure of entire villages, exploitation of natural resources, inadequate environmental policies and poor working conditions), Land of Women arrives to fill a gap in the debate on feminism and rural literature. It also seeks to offer a realistic vision of country life, away from the bucolic postcards created in the big cities, and to underline the danger of losing knowledge passed down through generations.

Below is a sort of “Trailer” for the book, created by the publisher, Seix Barral:

Starting at the video’s 22-second mark, Sánchez’s words highlight the differences between rural men and women that the book explores. But her essay is not limited to simply defining or reflecting on rural men’s and women’s respective responsibilities or labors. Instead, she focuses on the differences in how others perceive, understand, and value men’s vs. women’s contributions. This includes her own perception, as a child and now as an adult — a rural veterinarian and the first woman in her family to practice the profession. Her words in the video (roughly translated to English) state: “As a young girl, I admired the men in my family. They were the voice (voz) and the arm (brazo) of the home. I wanted to be like them” (22-28 sec); “The women were a bit like ghosts that wandered through the house, doing and undoing. They were invisible” (29-34 sec). Early in Tierra de mujeres she explores this contradiction, asking herself why the women in her home did not have an important place among her role models or guides… Why, as a child, did she never (actively) aspire to be like the women in her family? (pp. 35-36). Her book delves into this question and the various cultural forces that prompt both her unequal valuation of “gendered” labor and her current questioning of traditional practices and mindsets that lead to this inequality, or imbalance, admitting that she does so with a mix of anger and guilt (“la rabia y la culpa”) (p. 36).

Tierra de mujeres_Seix barrel

Image via Seix Barral.

Though a young voice in Spanish literature, Sánchez has written several recent editorials for or given interviews to various online Spanish newspapers and journals/revistas. The Objective provides an excellent overview of her latest book, mixing the review with excerpts of a conversational interview with the author (full Spanish article here). A key idea the article presents — and that occupies Chapter 4 of Tierra de mujeres — is Sánchez’s distinction between “La España vacía” [empty] and “vaciada” [emptied]. For Sánchez, the first, now quite common phrase used to describe the dwindling rural population — “La España vacía, Empty Spain” — implies that there is nothing there in these spaces, in these pueblos, in these rural communities. A better phrase, she believes, is “La España vaciada, Emptied Spain,” which implies that there was something that is no longer there and, despite its absence, one can recognize that it did indeed exist, that it was an occupied, full, and lived-in space, and that it is not entirely gone. It was — and still could be — not only filled with people, but of a culture, a heritage, and an intense relationship between the environment, the territory, and the individual.


A scene from rural Navarra, Spain (in the north). Sánchez is from the south, which is quite different geographically. Image mine (2019).

I paraphrased the interview above, but Chapter 4 of Tierra de mujeres, “La España vaciada,” (pp. 83-100) delves into this issue in detail.  Here, Sánchez takes issue with how the media tends to portray this “Emptied Spain” in either a negative light — as a vacant land of ghost towns — or as a romanticized, nostalgic fantasy; a fiction. As she states, in some sense, today “el medio rural está de moda” (rural spaces are trendy right now) (p. 94). But they are portrayed as an idyllic escape or a restful oasis to which overworked city dwellers may flee for rest and recuperation. Rarely do we hear the real stories of those (young) individuals who have chosen to stay and make their living on the ranch or with their craftsmanship. Correspondingly, rarely are appropriate means of assistance or acceptable services provided to these communities that would help them flourish. Instead, rural spaces are treated paternalistically, as if they need to be rescued or saved institutions or individuals who are outsiders. But, Sánchez argues, they do not need saved, but rather recognized — their voices heard, their stories told, and their spaces occupied by those who live there, by those who come from there; not by those who come from cities or elsewhere. She discusses this issue further in a 2019 interview, “Llevar las instituciones a los pueblos sería solo una tirita” (Taking institutions to rural towns would simply be a band-aid), lamenting the fact that the notion of “Empty Spain” has become so prevalent, that even rural families encourage their children to leave for the cities because “no hay nada” (there is nothing) in their small, rural communities.


A rural landscape outside of Pamplona, northern Spain. Image mine.

What I appreciate about Sánchez’s writing and perspective is her ability to advocate for recognition of women’s traditional roles in a rural environment, both of which have fallen outside the purview of so-called progressive modernity and 20th- and 21st-century feminism, while never rejecting feminism for purportedly overlooking these rural women and their contributions. As she points out, it was precisely feminism that led her question the “narratives” she had learned, and it was feminism that led her to write this book, a text that ultimately reclaims the lives and stories of the women in her family and rural community (p. 39). In today’s world (and media landscape) where “traditional” and “progressive” ideas are becoming increasingly polarized in public discourse, and in which one viewpoint tends to demonize or reject the other, this is a refreshing and necessary approach to breaching such a divide through a single, particular issue (el medio rural). The second half of Tierra de mujeres contains chapters dedicated to Sánchez’s great-grandmother, her grandmother, and her mother. As such, it tells their stories and foregrounds these women’s “invisible narratives“, all of which form, for Sánchez, “Mi narrativa invisible. Las mujeres de mi casa” (My invisible story. The women of my home) (p. 41). Sánchez also discussed this idea late in 2018, prior to the publication of her book, in El Diario: Mujeres y medio rural: otra narrativa es posible.

I perceived numerous parallels in Sánchez’s essay to my goals in writing about Spanish motherhood (a “traditional” role) in the context of “progressive” first-wave feminist activity — similarities that I’m still trying to work through. So those will come up in a few future posts, as I use the blog to synthesize the content and share my thoughts on some of the newest books I’m reading… and to feel productive while I have such a heavy teaching load this year by writing informally and featuring some of my favorite pictures from summer in Spain.  OK, one 2020 post down! Time to finish my Spring syllabuses for Tuesday!

What were your favorite books from 2019?


RESOURCES (listed below as they appear in the above image from left to right):

Sanz, Marta (ed). Tsunami: Miradas Feministas. Sexto Piso, 2019.

Labari, Nuria. La mujer madre del mundo. Penguin Random House, 2019.

Vivas, Esther. Mamá desobediente. Una mirada feminista a la maternidad. Capitán Swing, 2019.

Sánchez, María. Tierra de mujeres: Una mirada íntima y familiar al mundo rural. Seix Barral, 2019.

Posted in Feminism, Literature, Spain, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

María Victoria de la Fuente Alonso’s Scenes of Sleep in Galicia

When I was in Spain in the summer of 2018, one of my friends welcomed me to her home in Pontevedra, where I stayed for a few days to explore this region of Galicia for the first time. She was eager to show me her city’s museum, El Museo de Pontevedra, and I was especially impressed with the art collection. Comprised of largely Galician (Gallego) artists, I discovered several new Spanish/Galician painters whose works I had not seen or read about before. One of my favorite paintings (below) was by María Victoria de la Fuente Alonso (1927-2009), who was born in Vigo. I was struck by the contrasting dark-neutral shades of grays and browns used for the background and the child’s carriage with the bright white, impressionist-style representation of the child sleeping. I found the painting both beautiful and disturbing, as the dark shades and stark barren, somewhat foggy landscape give it an extremely somber, almost eerie appearance. In fact, when I first saw it, my reflex was to turn away, as I thought the child was dead (!).


“Maria dorme / Maria sleeps” (1965), Maria Victoria de la Fuente Alonso. Image mine taken at Museo de Pontevedra.

A similar aesthetic can be seen below in the painting of Fuente Alonso’s mother — the vaguely sketched features marked with heavy brush strokes, the almost excessive use of white paint for the skin, and the gray-brown, almost hollow eyes make this another painting that screams at the viewer to give it a second look. Evocative expressionist details, which were a key feature of Fuente Alonso’s paintings, are especially evident in this portrait. But at the same time, the neutral palette of grays, browns, and whites both tones down the painting’s potential to communicate any extreme emotion and quells the emotional response of the viewer.


“Retrato da miña nai / Portrait of my mother” (1967?), Maria Victoria de la Fuente Alonso. Image mine taken at Museo de Pontevedra.

It’s taken me over a year to get to posting these images, and in my search for more information on María Victoria de la Fuente Alonso I was surprised to find very little. In fact, very few of her paintings are even available online — only a few still-lifes and landscape paintings are featured on the website of the Galician institution, Afundación: Obra Social ABANCA, and its galleries. I was unable to find any additional details or information regarding these four paintings, and I could not even find higher quality images than these four photos I took at the Museo de Pontevedra in July, 2018. I’m grateful that the museum allowed photography, as I left there with a wealth of new ideas and resources to incorporate into my courses on Spanish Culture or Literature, and also with beautiful images of Fuente Alonso’s impressive work that I can share here on the blog. The above paintings of “sleep”, both from the 1960s, would pair nicely with a course on postwar literature (literatura de la posguerra), especially with women’s literature (Carmen Martin Gaite and Carmen Laforet, for example). Below, I especially love the contrast of muted greens and violets, the balance of the objects and open space, and the somewhat Victorian style evoked by, “The Cat in the Armchair”, which is much less eerie that the first two portraits above.


“O gato na cadeira de brazos / The Cat in the Armchair” (1986), Maria Victoria de la Fuente Alonso. Image mine taken at Museo de Pontevedra.

Finally, the below photograph I took of one of Fuente Alonso’s later works (2003), and the meta-artistic element is what caught my attention. I’ve been teaching a course at K-State on AP Spanish Literature for the past four years (which prepares grad students and undergrad Spanish/Education majors to teach high school AP Spanish Literature), and one of the six key themes of the AP Exam is “Literary Creation,” or “Metaficción“. This concept is visible in many traditional texts, like Don Quijote and Lazarillo de Tormes, but it is especially highlighted with the Latin American Boom of the 20th century — Borges, Cortazar, Fuentes, etc. The AP Exam also encourages and requires text-image comparisons — which I think is fantastic — and the below painting offers a new take on some of the more recognizable masterpieces I have seen appear on the exam preparation materials (Velazquez, Dali, M.C. Escher, etc.). It’s also a work by a woman, and female-authored texts are still sadly underrepresented on the AP Literature list, even in 2019. For example, Fuente Alonso’s “Tribute to Leonardo. Painting is a mental thing” (below) would pair nicely with Julia de Burgos’ poem, “A Julia de Burgos,” which also deals with women’s literary creation.


“Homenaxe a Leonardo. La pintura es cosa mental / Tribute a Leonardo. Painting is a mental thing” (2003), Maria Victoria de la Fuente Alonso. Image mine, taken at Museo de Pontevedra.

After spending time searching internet blogs, Google scholar, and my library’s databases, the most “extensive” information I could find on Fuente Alonso was still just the short biography from the Afundación website, which is only available in Spanish and Galician/Gallego. I’m translating (adapting) excerpts below so that there is at least SOME information about this unique painter available in English… I also really appreciate the detailed, almost literary descriptions of Fuente Alonso’s painting style. I do, however, plan to check out a few REAL BOOKS from my library or Interlibrary loan in the next few weeks — likely not until winter break — as the Afundación website does provide a bibliography that includes books on Galician painting that I have not consulted.

BIOGRAPHY: “[Born in Vigo, the] Daughter and granddaughter of great architects, Maria de la Fuente Alonso lived in an artistic environment from her infancy, which undoubtedly influenced her personality an interests. From 1945, she would spend long periods of time in Madrid, where she worked in the studio of the painter Julio Moises, which was an excellent learning experience for in terms of her working with color and precise lines in drawing. In 1953 she began to participate in art collectives, traveling to Paris in 1955 to discover masters of cubism like Picasso, Bracque, and Gris. She expanded her traveling to the Netherlands, studying Rembrandt and Verner, and then through Italy to learn about Sironi and Morandi. Her interest in mural painting led her to complete some important large-scale works that helped her discover her own personal artistic expression, largely through expressionism. In 1961 she won the Critics Prize (premio de la Crítica) for her individual exhibition in Madrid’s Ateneo, which confirmed her as one of the greatest female Spanish painters of her era. She continued her travels and in 1964 she married the painter Máximo de Pablo, and she won several national prizes in the following years. In the late 1960s she left Madrid and moved to Levante, a small town of salt lakes and fisherman, although she continued periodically visiting Madrid and her native city of Vigo, where she would exhibit her work. [continued below…]

Fuente Alonso_Afundacion_landscape

“El ocaso / The sunset” (1989), Maria Victoria de la Fuente Alonso. Image via Afundación.

[continued… ] ARTISTIC PRODUCTION: [Maria Victoria Fuente Alonso’s] work appears in numerous museums in Galicia and Spain, Europe and the Americas. She created effervescent scenes, with objects that were both concretely determined, yet also so interconnected that they appear almost gelatinous. Atmosphere… objects… everything is fused and confused in an ambiance of golds, ochres [dark yellows], and softened carmines. Her inventive portraits demonstrate a formidably disciplined drawing (clear lines), yet at the same time a great deal of freedom. This technique of hers is vital, exquisite, and truly masterful. Perhaps the most outstanding of her works are the Still Lifes, which have been elevated to the category of “imagined landscapes.” There is nothing more transparent than her glass windows, almost immaterial; yet also nothing more authentic that her fruits, which almost seem to dissolve themselves in their own juices. Despite all this, softness never really appears. On the contrary, in Maria Victoria de la Fuente’s paintings everything is energetic, firm, and expansive, even the expressionist moods. This painter from Vigo is, without a doubt, one of the greatest of contemporary Spanish painters.”

[The above translation/adaptation from Spanish to English is mine].

Fuente Alonso_La nevada_1972 via Afundacion

“La nevada” / The snowfall” (1972), Maria Victoria de la Fuente Alonso. Image via Afundación.

What other little-known (Spanish) painters have you come across in museums? What are some of the smaller, more local museums (in Spain) that have most impressed you? I’m always looking for new places to visit!


Bibliografia de pintura gallega / Bibliography of Galician Painting


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1900s Madrid, in Narrative and a High-Resolution Map

This fall semester I’m teaching three literature classes at K-State, one of which is a seminar I based on a few of my past and current research projects related to early 20th-century Spanish literature. The texts are attentive to the representation of gender and sexuality in urban spaces, and the course is titled Gender & the City in 20th-century Spain. It is anchored by three main novels: La rampa (1917) (The Ramp) by Carmen de Burgos; La trampa del arenal (1923) (The Sandtrap) by Margarita Nelken; and La Venus mecánica (1929) (The Mechanical Venus) by José Díaz Fernández. As we approach midterm, my students just finished La rampa. While we have been discussing  specific representations of gender and urban spaces within the text, I have also been encouraging them to seek out images (photos, sketches, art) that capture the city and its appearance at the height of Spanish modernity, roughly the 1890s-1930s. Of course finding and studying images from this era is important for anyone, it is especially essential for students born in the late 1990s and early 2000s (yikes!). Given that they are reading lengthier narratives full of complex, uncommon, or even antiquated vocabulary in what, for nearly every one of my students in Kansas is their second language, images become fundamental to the mental processing and visualization of a city without motor vehicles, paved roads, or electronic signage.

1930_Madrid_Puerta del sol

Puerta del sol – Madrid, 1930

I am always seeking out new images as I prepare for each class, and in my search last week I found one of my favorite things – A NEW MAP! If you’ve followed blog over the past year or two, you’ll know how much I love traditional, interpretative, creative, and vintage maps. The map I discovered this past week is a high-resolution image of 1902 Madrid, and it’s available free online via the Bibliotheque Nacional de France. The Plano de Madrid y pueblos colindantes al empezar el siglo xx (Map of Madrid and adjacent towns at the beginning of the 20th century), by Facundo Cañada Lopez, is not only a fantastic resource to use in a course like the one I’m currently teaching on urban novels set in 1900s Madrid, but would be useful for courses or research on Spanish Culture or History more generally. This post will be relatively short, as I’m really only writing it as another excuse to spend time playing with the map and put off writing an exam… (!) Although I’m sure I have a few readers who will appreciate a new cartographic resource.

Behold, THE MAP:

Plano de Madrid_Canada Lopez 1902_BNF

The quality of this map is exceptional, particularly if you take time to zoom in on specific regions or places, although at times it may be a bit slow to load all details clearly. But it’s worth the wait! For example, below is an example (screenshot) of the detailed depiction of Madrid’s central zone, between the Royal Palace and Puerta del Sol. You can see the irregular shape of Puerta del Sol to the right; the large hexagonal appearance of the Teatro Real just to the right of the Royal Palace and Plaza de Oriente (top left); and the Plaza Mayor appears to be drawn with its former green central space included.

Plano de Madrid_Palacio-PlazaMayor-PuertaSol

Details of the 1902 map, from the Royal Palace (left/west) to Puerta del Sol (right/east)… with the Plaza Mayor in the center. Screencap of central Madrid, image mine, via BNF.

One of the references in La rampa that led me to find this map was when the characters are taking a carriage ride during Carnaval along the Paseo de la Castellana (the main boulevard connecting north and south Madrid). To indicate the direction in which they are traveling, Burgos’ narrator makes reference to the Hipódromo (Racetrack). I began searching for an image and a bit of the history regarding this location — the Hipódromo de la Castellana — as I had a hard time imagining precisely where it would have been located and what it may have looked like… especially because the novel’s description implies it was on the outskirts of the city; and the “outskirts” of Madrid during the 1920s are very different than those of the 2010s. Below is the description in the novel, followed by the image of the Hipódromo at the “top” of the Paseo de la Castellana:

“El coche… avanzaba hacia el Hipódromo por una avenida amplia y silenciosa, casi sin urbanizar, que tenía algo del aspecto de las carreteras que se abren a la entrada de los pueblos muy lejanos de Madrid.” (Burgos, La rampa, 85)

[The carriage… advanced towards the Racetrack on a wide and silent boulevard, almost without urban development, that seemed a bit like the main roads that open up into the entrance of small towns very faraway from Madrid.]

Plano de Madrid_Hipodromo-Castellana

Details of the 1902 map, from the old Hipodromo (Racetrack) near what is today the Nuevos Ministerios zone; the Paseo de la Castellana runs north/south, connecting this northern part of the city to the central locations south of it, like the Prado Museum and Atocha Station. Screencap of northen 1920s Madrid, image mine, via BNF.

According to Susan Larson, in the footnotes she provides as editor of La rampa, The Paseo de la Castellana, unlike the chaotic and narrow streets of Madrid’s traditional and historic city center, was a wide, open boulevard that passed by more modern, organized city blocks. In the late 19th- and early 20th centuries, it became Madrid’s main societal artery, crossing the north and south of the city and serving as a symbol of scientific progress and rationality (in La rampa, p. 90).  The Hipódromo, built in 1887, and its surrounding spaces, were frequented by the high aristocracy of the early 20th century, until 1932 when the structure was demolished to construct los Nuevos Ministerios, a complex of new Government Buildings and a rail station that would link (via the underground track) Atocha and this new station to facilitate the city’s expansion to the North.

Hipodromo de la Castellana, Madrid 1902

Upper class madrileños enjoying an afternoon outside the Racetrack in the 1910-20s..

The second image and piece of urban history (below) I found after a student had asked about references in the text to the capitalized words “Humanidad” and “Agencia”. In the novel, these terms refer to issues surrounding health, hygiene, and illness, and are juxtaposed with reference to a “Clínica”, which was beyond the economic means and capabilities of the characters in this chapter. In my search for additional information, I came upon the Real Sanatorio de Guardarrama, which opened in 1917 – the same year in which La rampa was published. Below is one of the advertisements. Through both image and text, it boasts a rural, peaceful, and natural location to would improve patients’ health with this new institution, “the first and only of its kind in Spain”: “1700 meters above sea level; great dryness in the atmosphere; many hours of sun.” This is, of course, precisely the antithesis of rapidly modernizing urban spaces like Madrid, full of crowded neighborhoods, constant construction and development projects, and high rates of illness and mortality (infant, maternal, and illness-related).

Real Sanatorio del Guadarrama_1917

Image via Historia Urbana de Madrid (blogspot).

The information I found on this second health-related topic has been of particular interest to me because of its connection to medical history, and (quasi)medical institutions, which have been central and recurring themes in my research on early 20th-century pregnancy and motherhood. It also reminded me of when I visited the purportedly haunted Sanatorio Duran, a Tuberculosis clinic built at about the same time in the early 20th-century (1915-18), high in the mountains of Costa Rica, with a group of K-State students on a study abroad trip in January 2018. It was one of the students’ favorite sites (mostly for the photo opportunities, the “ghost-hunting” excitement, and the possibility of capturing a ghost with their cameras!), and mine (for the beautiful tiles and old medical equipment, sadly decaying).

I’ll be writing more about my Gender & the City seminar in the next few months, especially because my class is working on an exciting Digital Humanities project that combines mapping, storytelling, and Snapchat(!), as an alternative to the traditional “literature term paper.” I’m excited to see how these #DH projects will turn out, though it has definitely been a lot of work to organize for the first time. We’re using Northwestern University’s Knightlab storytelling tools, which makes the organization and production of the project run smoothly, even for those with limited tech abilities. My forthcoming article with Hispania is based on my Snapchat-experiment when I taught our Don Quijote seminar here at K-State, and I argue for a re-structuring and re-imagining of second-language (L2) Literature courses and assessments in mid- and upper-level literature courses, which tend to remain core components of most university foreign language curricula. I’ll be blogging about that project in the next few weeks as I learn more details about its forthcoming publication date.

What are some “urban novels” that you recommend, in either Spanish or English? What are some other Madrid-based novels – or short stories – from the early 20th-century that could fit into a future iteration of my Gender & the City course? 


Burgos, Carmen de. La rampa. 1917. Stockcero. 2006.

Larson, Susan. “Introducción.”. La rampa, by Carmen de Burgos (1917). Stockcero, 2006, pp. vii-xxvi.


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A Century of Gastronomic Maps: From Ramón to Barcelona’s Feria to Iberica

As I’ve mentioned several times before, I’m very much a map nerd — I LOVE reading maps, finding creative interpretations of cities and spaces to display in my office (like my literary map of Madrid and my caricatured map of Mexico), and exploring how the geography and physicality of a space relates to its appearance or representation in art and literature. This past summer (2018) I found an over-sized color copy of the 1656 Teixeira map of Madrid, and I finally re-organized my office over winter break to display it behind my desk. I bought it for only about 8 euros at a kiosk in the Plaza Santa Barbara, if I recall correctly, and with my Madrid and Mexico maps, it really ties the room together…!


My beloved trio of maps #OfficeDecor

Over a year ago now, as I was researching silver age illustrations and kiosk literature cover designs for a project on Carmen de Burgos, I came across a “gastronomic map” created by Ramón Gomez de la Serna that was featured in one of Burgos’ cookbooks, Nueva cocina práctica (1925). The map, below, carries the title, “Mapa gastronómico-humorístico,” or “Humorous gastronomic map,” and it instantly set me on a quest for more information.

Ramón’s map as it appears on the pages of Burgos’ 1925 Nueva cocina practica. Image mine (screenshot), via the Biblioteca Nacional de Espana. Ingram’s article (p. 80) contains a cleaner image courtesy of Madrid’s Hemeroteca Municipal

First, I found Rebecca Ingram’s article, “Mapping and Mocking: Spanish Cuisine and Ramón Gómez de la Serna’s “El primer mapa gastronómico de España” (pdf), which explores the map and Ramon’s somewhat ironic commentary on it within the social and historical context of 1920s Spain. As it turns out, the map that I had “discovered” in Burgos’ cookbook was not the first iteration, nor was it the first time Ramon’s cartographic artwork had appeared in print. Ingram explains that it had been published a year before, in 1924, when Ramón penned a column for the satirical weekly journal Buen humor, which ran for a decade between 1921-31. Below is the “original” version of the map, which is very similar to the clear copy that appeared in Burgos’ cookbook (above). While the map reflects regional specialties that in some cases are still popular today — Madrid’s traditional stew, el cocido madrileño; Galicia’s traditional soup, el pote gallego; Segovia’s chorizo de Cantimpalo; cheese from Burgos; and Avila’s pastries, las yemas de Santa Teresa — their placement and inclusion on the map does not necessarily indicate that they were the most popular or commonly consumed dishes or delicacies of their day.

RGS_mapa gastronomico humoristico_1924_periodico

Ramon’s original “Gastronomic map” and editorial, published in “Buen Humor,” 1924. Image via El español.

While maps purport to offer a reflection of a geographical area with as much scientific and technical accuracy as possible, Ingram observes that Ramón’s humorous creation points out the inherent subjectivity of maps as authoritative, official documents (84). In her article, she analyzes the short narrative text that Ramon penned to accompany his map, in which he creates a fictional, traveling mapmaker and several local Spanish interlocutors. Through his comic tale of an ill-informed mapmaker’s trip through Spain, together with his abstract and arbitrary depiction of Spanish geography (poor scale; selection of cities and towns; inclusion of Portugal), Ingram interprets Ramon’s project as a critique not only of “official” or “authoritative” cartography — and gastronomy — but of the legitimacy of the skills and qualifications of those who create such images and narratives (88-89). She even links this critique to the Spanish national project, arguing that the map (visual) and the vignette (text) together communicate that “Spain’s attempt to disguise itself as a nation sufficiently modernized that a national gastronomy can be meaningful is unmasked by Ramón’s description of the bumbling cartógrafo [mapmaker] (94). Ingram’s article is an exceptional close-reading of Ramón’s text and his cartographic creation, and in fact would be useful to use in an advanced seminar on Spanish culture or literature. It may also serve as a model for students as to how maps, or other official displays (museums, exhibitions, monuments) may be examined and analyzed precisely for the narratives that they convey — either directly or implicitly — and how these narratives may be interpreted by different viewers. In fact, I’m now considering using a few excerpts of the article in my pre-departure readings for my study abroad program in Spain this summer.

I’ll conclude this post with a few more “mapas gastronomicos” that I found during my light research for this blog post… one of which merits a bit more research in the future, and others that are mostly for fun! The first is a map that appeared as part of a fold-able pamphlet created for the 12th Official International Trade Fair in Barcelona, June 10-25, 1944:

Mapa gastronomico_Feria Barcelona-1944

Image via Vivanco

According to the Museo Fundación Vivanco, where the map and the entire booklet are displayed, the back of this colored map-booklet contains 20 blue-framed text boxes, each of which highlights a recipe from the “various ancient regions of Spain, from Asturias to Navarra.” In the center is the map title, Mapa Gastronómico de España. Platos de sus regiones” (Gastronomic Map of Spain. Dishes from its regions), accompanied by the logo of Barcelona’s Trade Fair and the crest of the old Franco Regime (el escudo del Antiguo Régimen Franquista). I’ve included a few extra images below, taken from Vivanco’s Museum page dedicated to the map:

mapa gastronomico_title_1944 Feria

mapa gastronomico_recetas_1944 Feria

The “fun” maps below show the continued popular appeal of both national gastronomy and creative cartography, and I found the following selections via Twitter and a simple Google Image search for “mapa gastronomico.” In this era of Instagram, Twitter, and other forms of (social) media that aim to communicate information in the fastest, most visually appealing or digestible (pun intended!) way possible, the gastronomic map is extremely relevant for promoting national and local economies in terms of tourism. For example, Iberica’s advertisement for Spanish Foods in the UK is visually appealing and also loosely based on the gastronomy-geography connection: Pulpo (squid, octopus) covers Galicia; Queso manchego (Manchego cheese) appears over the La Mancha region; and aceitunas (olives) make up Andalucia:

food map Spain_Iberica 2016

Similarly, an interactive map can be found over at CartoVision, a blog dedicated to “viewing the world through the perspective of maps,” that places specialty dishes over the region to which they are most closely associated. The screenshot is below, but you can visit the interactive map here to click on each part, prompting a pop-up box containing the name of the region and the dish.

map_interactive gastronomy

Image via

And for the last example, you can watch this “relaxing” YouTube video that assembles beautiful regional foods into colorful culinary map-sculptures — including Spain, Italy, and Greece. But I wouldn’t watch on an empty stomach… you’ll surely want to pour a glass of wine and make a tapas platter right away!

What are some creative or unique MAPS that you’ve seen lately? Have you used MAPS in a literature or culture course for purposes other than to illustrate geography? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Ingram, Rebecca. “Mapping and Mocking: Spanish Cuisine and Ramón Gómez de la Serna’s “El primer mapa gastronómico de España”. Cincinnati Romance Review, vol. 33, 2012. Link to PDF.

El Espanol‘s Spanish post (2017) about Ingram’s article, Ramon’s map, and Spanish gastronomy: “El primer mapa gastronomico de Espana: Los hitos culinarios segun el gusto de 1924“.

Posted in History, Literature, Spain | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Body, Blood, and Soul of Spanish Modernity: review of Life Embodied

It’s been quite awhile since I’ve been able to find the time to put up a new post! Aside from a few weeks during my summer trip to Spain where I managed to write about two fantastic new books (A New History of Iberian Feminisms and a collection of essays on Carmen de Burgos) and the amazing exhibitions on Fashion and Sorolla’s paintings in Madrid, essentially the entirety of 2018 was defined by extensive teaching responsibilities and “pedagogical experiments” — and not only in Kansas, but in Costa Rica, Canada, and Pamplona! I taught seven classes, including a 2-week service-learning trip to Costa Rica, our program’s advanced Don Quijote seminar (yikes!), and a graduate class on teaching AP Spanish Literature and Culture. I also designed a new 5-week summer study abroad program for K-State students, “Spain Today: Madrid, Pamplona, Barcelona,” which was approved for its first year this May-June, 2019. So while I haven’t been able to keep up with my blogging or academic reading as much as I wanted to, I had a very productive year and I’m excited to return to Spain this summer… with students!

That being said, I’m ALSO looking forward to having a bit more time to work on my own research, and especially to reading some of the fantastic new books that have been published over the past year. I’m particularly excited to have finally been able to make time to begin reading the book I’ll discuss here, written by Dr. Nicolás Fernández-Medina who, full disclosure, was my dedicated advisor during my PhD studies at Penn State University. His new book, Life Embodied: The Promise of Vital Force in Spanish Modernity, was published in 2018 with McGill-Queen’s University Press. This meticulously researched, innovative examination of Spanish modernity offers an intellectually stimulating look at many of the themes that most fascinate me in terms of my own research on maternidad (pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood): medical history; the physicality of the body’s blood, organs, and flesh; the uncertain boundaries between life and death; and the complexities of the substance and forces that comprise the “lived body”. Below, I’ll excerpt a few of my favorite parts of this book to add to my collection of somewhat informal and (hopefully) visually appealing, accessible academic book reviews (see others here, here, and here).


Image via McGill-Queen’s University Press

Although the premise of this book — the exploration of vital force throughout Spanish modernity — is extremely complex, rooted in or informed by both philosophical discourses and scientific theories, Fernández-Medina makes the terms very clear in his preface. “Vital force, he states, is “the immanent energy that promotes the processes of life and growth in the body and in nature” (xiii). It is “what makes life life,” as he succinctly describes it on his website. In the book’s thorough Introduction (3-40), Fernández-Medina first positions Spain within broader European historiography, reminding readers that previous notions of Early Modern or Enlightenment-era Spanish science and culture as intolerant, too religiously conservative, or even ignorant have been debunked; instead, “the assimilation of scientific knowledge and the resistance to authority” was diverse and often mutually dependent (4-5). He presents vital force as a “transnational phenomenon” in Europe from roughly 1770-1830 as the sciences expended, particularly because “the enigma of vital force disclosed new relations between the creative and analytical” (28). Finally, drawing on Foucault, Fernández-Medina connects vital force to the modern subject, and especially to the “elusive and compelling” concept of modernity (34), itself fraught with “paradoxical tensions” (35) and the “impossibility of truth” (40). Rather that attempt to elaborate “a theory of (Spanish) modernity through the lens of vital force,” Fernández-Medina instead specifies one of the inquiries that frames his book: To what extent can the question of vital force in Spain… shed new light on the practices of self-constitution that were part and parcel of modernity? (34). By examining literature that imagined or theorized the locus of vital force within the body, Fernández-Medina ultimately argues that in Spain, examining the limits of vital force “proved to be a most formidable mode of critique in that it forced reason to reflect upon itself… [and] afforded momentary, yet profound, glimpses of the concrete, living body that transgressed the normative margins of authority and power” (40).

Anatomy of human body_Juan Valverde de Amusco_Rome-1559_via US National Library of Medicina

“Anatomia del corpo humano” (1559, Rome), Juan Valverde de Amusco. A flayed cadaver holds his skin in one hand and a dissecting knife in the other. The skin’s distorted face has the appearance of a ghost or a cloud, suggesting that spirit has been separated from, or peeled off of, the fleshy inner man. Image via US National Library of Medicine.

After the Introduction, Life Embodied is divided into three sections:

  • Part I: Blood, Circulation, and the Soul, containing Chapters 1-2, focuses primarily on the 17th-century, the point of departure for the book given the “marked expansion of theories of vital force” that were both “notoriously inconsistent” and characterized by their fusion of ancient and modern thought (3).
  • Part II: Political Reform and the Order of Nature, containing Chapter 3-4,  examines vital force in the 18th century, especially in terms of Spain’s “medical revolution”  in the early 1770s (121-22) and as a proposed bridge between Enlightenment and Romantic thought (194).
  •  Part III: From Neo-Hippocratism to the Avant-Garde, containing Chapters 5-6, traces the question of vital force through the late 19th-century spread of “romantic science, industrial development, technological progress, and the emergence of positivism and evolutionism” (199) to early 20th-century rise of the modernist movement and its “disenchantment with science and intellectual culture” (234).

The first chapter I want to discuss is Chapter 1, “The Heart of the Matter: Remapping the Body Economy in Juan de Cabriada’s Philosophical Medico-Chemical Letter (43-79), which begins in the 17th century with Cabriada’s “Carta filosofica-medico-chymica” (1687). Astoundingly, this letter was written when the physician was a mere 22 years old! For Fernández-Medina, this letter represents one of the most significant medical treatises on vital force, which also “boldly announced ‘modern medicine’ in the court” of late 17th-century Madrid (11).  The central claim is the bold assertion that “the body, in all its wondrous complexity and mystery, is not vitalized by the soul” (78) – a clearly subversive postulation in 17th-century Spain. Instead, Cabriada attributes the force of life to that which is produced when blood circulates through the heart and nourishes the body. The letter, then, challenged traditional beliefs by making the body the locus of inquiry, while at the same time pointing towards the liberating possibilities of new science (79).

Throat and heart_Jacques Fabien Gautier d'Agoty_1745

Throat and Heart, Anatomy of the Visceras, Dissected. By Jacques Fabien Gautier d’Agoty, 1745.

I particularly appreciated the twenty fantastic illustrations in Fernández-Medina’s book, many of which prompted me to seek out additional visual connections via art, media, and online archives. For example, Chapter 2, “Cartesianism and Its Discontents: Marcelino Boix y Moliner, Martín Martínez, and Diego de Torres Villaroel” (80-116), contains illustrations of the human heart from Martín Martínez’s The Complete Anatomy of Man, published in 1728. Sparking my curiously about the details of this 18th-century publication, I quickly found the fascinating and intricately detailed cover art (below), featuring a medical theater framed by a human bodies — one of flesh and blood, another of the skeleton — that effectively foreground both the layered complexities of the body’s materiality and the tenuous boundaries between life and death. This illustration also connects well to Fernández-Medina’s discussion of Martínez’s Skeptical Medicine and Modern Surgery (1722), in which the physician and philosopher voices concerns regarding “the implications and shortcomings of Descartes’ medical philosophy,” particularly that “Cartesian anatomy had not resolved any of the major difficulties facing the medical profession concerning vital force and the body-soul nexus” but rather “generated more confusion” (93). By examining Descartes’ reception in Spain, and the re-evaluation of the body’s vital force in the writings of Martinez (and Boix and Moliner to open the chapter), Chapter 2 demonstrates that these varied reappraisals of vital force had profound impacts on the direction of Spanish medicine in the 18th-century, making the body-soul nexus a topic of great relevance in medical literature in Spain throughout the Enlightenment.

martin martinez_anatomia completa_cover

Cover of Martín Martínez’s (1684-1734) Anatomía completa del hombre (Complete anatomy of man), published in 1728. The image, Amphiteatrum matritense by Matías de Irala, depicts an anatomy lesson in the Anfiteatro of Madrid’s General Hospital. Image via Wikipedia.

And of course since I always like to connect complex academic topics to contemporary pop culture(!), I wanted to highlight the concept of the operating theater — a space where medical students and other spectators could watch surgeons perform surgery — that is the focal point of the 18th-century Complete Anatomy of Man cover design. The Theater/Amphitheater setting is especially fascinating to me due to the way in which its function and appearance in late 19th- and early 20th-century medicine has been documented in paintings and photography of the era. But more recently it was meticulously represented in the 2014-15 television series The Knick, about the fictional Knickerbocker hospital in 1900s New York City. This series effectively demonstrates how much was still unknown about the human body, even a “mere” century ago (the importance of blood types, for example), and experimental surgical procedures often ended in the “shocking” death of the patient on the operating table. If medical history interests you from a less-academic perspective, you should absolutely check out this unique series.


A scene inside the operating theater (amphitheater) created for the two-season series “The Knick” (2014-15), starring Clive Owen. Image via LA Weekly.

Finally, the last chapter of the book before the conclusion, Chapter 6, “Degeneration, Regeneration, Corporealization: What the Lived Body Can Do According to Miguel de Unamuno, Pio Baroja, and Ramón Gómez de la Serna” (232-95), examines the Spanish modernist era, particularly how its disenchantment with science and intellectual culture and even “chaotic revolt against positivism” prompted a reaffirmation of the body and its creative powers, or a “more holistic conception of the body… as a lived body” (234-35). This sixth chapter examines these three modernist writers — also Avant-garde, in the case of Ramón — as a way of appreciating how the lived body, full health and vitality or conversely degenerate or infirm,  “laid the groundwork for new critical paradigms of subjectivity that propelled modernist aesthetics in Spain” (236). The discussion of a curious series of essays written by Unamuno in 1886 — “The Influence of Gymnastics on Building Character” — was particularly illuminating for me, first because their title and topic are so far-removed from what I had come to associate with the preoccupations and philosophy of the author of San Manuel Bueno, mártir and El sentimeinto trágico de la vida. Secondly, Fernández-Medina convincingly connects these articles to the personal journey of the author, from “physical debility” in his youth to the “invigorating courage and general salubriousness” of early adulthood (242). The biographical connection demonstrates the possibility of transforming the self by consciously cultivating and managing “the body’s innermost vital force” (243). For me, the implications of Unamuno’s writings on the physicality of the human body, “The Influence of Gymnastics on Building Character,” balance the abstract, philosophical musings for which he is perhaps most well-known. In other words, as Fernández-Medina states, they set up “the framework for the dynamic kinship… between body and soul that will frame his later theorizations” (245-46). This illustration accompanying this section of the book shows an 1875 Bilbao gymnasium, and when I looked into these types of images online I found an amazing cover from one of the first Spanish Physical Education journals – I particularly love the lion accompanying the shirtless man in his quest to perfect his physical form!


Source: Xavier Torrebadella i Flix’s article 2012 article, “Las primeras revistas profesionales y científicas de la educación física española” — PDF link at the end of this post.

Overall, Life Embodied has prompted me to think more deeply about where my own work on maternity and childbirth intersects with medical history and philosophical questions of life and life-giving forces. One of the limitations, which Fernández-Medina acknowledges in his Preface, is the lack of attention given to female intellectuals or artists, or the general underrepresentation of women (xx). While it is true that women did not participate in or have the opportunities to enter intellectual culture in the same ways as men, and that women’s writing was not necessarily produced or preserved in universities, libraries, or archives, many of the “remarkable texts about medicine women, women healers, nursing, midwifery, and women’s prominent role in folk medicine and homeopathy” that were beyond the critical parameters Fernández-Medina established for his book could add to the centuries-long exploration of the body and its “vital force” (though conservative author Ángela Grassi is included for her 1876 novel, El copo de nieve / The Snowflake, 217-22). Most of the texts analyzed ignore the sex or gender associated with the human body. On the one hand, we might presume this to offer an abstract and therefore possibly “universal” understanding of the human body and soul that transcends gendered specificities. Yet on the other, particularly as I see it in terms of explaining the force (or forces) that propels, creates, or defines “life,” the lack of attention these (almost all male) writers and intellectuals gave to the female body — a body capable of gestating and birthing a new human being, or a new human life — reflects the interpretation of the human body “through the dominant male culture of patriarchy,” a limitation that Fernández-Medina also directly acknowledges (xx).

Anatomical figure_Jacques-Fabien Gautier DAgoty_1765_Wellcome

Anatomical figures of the maternal body. By Jacques-Fabien Gautier d’Agoty, 1765. Images via Wellcome Collection.

In sum, Life Embodied‘s innovative approach to Spanish modernity, the modern subject, and the complexity of the (in)material forces that create and sustain human life, offers scholars of Spanish Literature, Culture, and/or Philosophy new points of entry into such vast, theoretical, and interdisciplinary subjects as the body, vital force, and modernity. It also introduces readers like myself, whose research tends to fall more within the realms of historical and cultural studies, to a wide variety of new texts that offer deeper philosophical insight and prompt further investigation into the artistic and literary production of their era. As an example I’ll end with another piece of late 19th-century realist artwork I discovered when preparing this post and exploring representations of medicine and the human body in literature and art, especially while reading the final chapters on the 19th-20th centuries: Spanish painter Luis Jiménez Aranda’s “La sala del hospital” (1889).

What are some of your book — or art, photography, or gallery — recommendations in terms of medical history and the theorization of the human body?

Luis Jimenez y Aranda_Sala del hospital_1889_wikimedia

“La sala del hospital en la visita del médico en jefe” by Luis Jiménez Aranda (1889). Displayed in the Mueso de Bellas Artes de Sevilla. Image via Wikimedia.


Fernández-Medina, Nicolás. Life Embodied. The Promise of Vital Force in Spanish Modernity. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018.

Fernández-Medina, Nicolás, and Maria Truglio, eds. Modernism and the Avant-garde Body in Spain and Italy. Routledge, 2016.

Torrebadella i Flix, Xavier. “Las primeras revistas profesionales y científicas de la educación física española / The First Spanish Physical Education Professional and Scientific Journals (1882-1936)”. Apunts. Educación Física y Deportes, no. 109, Jul-Sept., 2012, pp. 11-24. DOI: 10.5672/ – PDF

Image galleries:

Dream Anatomy Catalogue. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Bethesda, MD.

The Wellcome Collection of Images (artwork and photographs that reflect the cultural and historical contexts of health and medicine). Free Museum and Library. London.

Wellcome Collection on Instagram. Bio: “The free museum and library that aims to challenge how we all think and feel about health by connecting science, medicine, life and art.”

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