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.

About Dr. Rebecca Bender

Spanish professor
This entry was posted in Feminism, Literature, Spain, Women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. Christine Micancin says:

    Thank you so much for sharing! Your work is interesting and it is so refreshing to get new literature and current topics right to my inbox. I use your blog for inspiration and then adapt your work for teaching high school Spanish IV. Muchisimas gracias. Besos xx

    • rebeccambs says:

      Gracias a ti! I’m happy you have been able to adapt some of these themes and “literary” materials to HS, that’s a big goal of mine. It’s so important to generate student interest in literature and reading, so they aren’t scared or nervous to take those content courses (culture, history, literature) when the get to the university… and so they WANT to take them, or at least want to learn more on their own. Abrazos de KS 🙂

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