I happened to be traveling in Europe in 1975 when, as luck or fate or sheer coincidence would have it, I found myself in Barcelona, Spain, in the last week of the year. Generalissimo Francisco Franco had died just the month before and already the cobwebs were being shaken free at great speed. Franco’s designated heir, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, had been blown sky-high by an assassination squad of ETA in 1973, and no interim replacement had been named. Therefore, Prince Juan Carlos was set to take over the reins with no Falangist presence behind the throne. The Prince, or so conventional wisdom indicated, was little more than a playboy/puppet. He was soon to be revealed as a man of unguessed-at depths, with more than just a beginner’s knack at diplomacy, as well as being unusually adept at juggling extremist pressure-groups from both ends of the spectrum.
Shortly before crossing the border from France I had picked up a newspaper in Perpignan and read with disbelief the rumor that the 38-year old edict outlawing the Spanish Communist Party might be rescinded. At any rate, members of the Party were going to be allowed back into the country unmolested. Feelings were clearly and not surprisingly running high in Spain and I had time to glance at another article which quoted a city official in Valencia, historically a hotbed of fascist sentiment, as acknowledging that any old Communists who made their presence known in his town would certainly not be arrested. His remarks seemed to indicate that Party-members would be dealt with in some other more sinister and extrajudicial manner.
But now it was time to get on board the train to the border and the tedium and exhaustion involved made short work of my curiosity as to what lay ahead in Barcelona. While the rest of Europe (up to the Warsaw Pact borders, of course) had long ago regularized their railway lines, the isolation that Spain had largely brought on itself during the Fascist years of quarantine meant that the rail gauges were ancient and unsuitable for anything built since say, the late 1940s. The French train stopped within sight of the border crossings and the wait to get off was an eternity. Then came the further wait (eternity squared) while we formed up into lines and shuffled across the border on foot, luggage in one hand, passports and other identifying papers in the other, each blast of dusty wind threatening to scatter the platform with our legal “selves”. At last we tumbled aboard, packed from tip to caboose. The train set off at a slow, torpor-inducing pace which never did pick up (at one point a young girl pointed to a group of butterflies just outside the window, a swirl of orange and white which was clearly traveling faster than we were). It was midday when we slid into the city’s northernmost station, a beautiful structure of rusted metal forming the overarching skeleton, the transparent flesh between the iron ribs formed of bottle-green glass that threw everything into strange shadows, as though we were all underwater.
Barcelona, like Venice or Marseilles, hits any first-time visitor with a double-whammy. Visually stunning and smelling to high heaven. I’d smelled worse, however, and the excitement of at last being in the birthplace of the anarchist movement more than made up for any Yanqui squeamishness. As with every other city I visited on that trip, I managed to get lost within minutes of leaving the train station (on a few occasions I even got lost in the train station itself!) The natives however, proved incredibly helpful, and having just come from a fair period in France (which I love, despite Herself), the friendliness and lack of linguistic snobbery was a joy to be relished.
I spent the rest of the day doing the usual touristy walkabout, turning down any streets that looked interesting, trying to puzzle out the plaques on statues in the various parks that appeared at regular intervals, avoiding fellow Americans (or, to be fair, perhaps we were avoiding each other, although it seemed to be the Italians and Germans who went in for camera-necklaces and Bermuda shorts) and stopping each hour for a cup of coffee or one of those so-tiny-they’re-almost-an-insult glasses of beer the Catalonians seem to love. At one of these stops I was the only customer and so decided to inflict my New World Spanish on the thumb-twiddling waiters. Mostly the ping-pong chit-chat of: your city is very beautiful / why thank you, and where did you learn Spanish, my friend? / and so on. Eventually I decided to ask a political question, hoping my dense but harmless foreigner’s face would provide me relative cover should I cause offense. I asked about the Communist Party. Was it true they were coming back from exile? I knew there were still a large number of aging expats just over the border in France, not to mention the thousands scattered throughout Latin America. One of the waiters laughed and said: coming back? They’re already here! If you want to see a real live Communist then go to Las Ramblas tonight and watch the parade.
And so I did. Not for the thrill of seeing a real live Communist, as I’d already had that privilege many times over. But these particular Communists, the men and women who had battled for their lives and their class against the Fascists, who had risked everything and lost it all so long ago, who had earned the euphemistic title of “premature anti-fascists” to spare the feelings and the pride of those who’d found it more expedient to stand by while Europe tottered on the edge of hell. What possible word or sign could any bystander convey to measure out the debt, the respect, and the honor they had earned?
Las Ramblas is best described as a narrower, more domesticated version of Les Champs d’Elysee in Paris or La Reforma in Mexico City. To stroll it is to be floating in the bloodstream of the city, the sound of its traffic on either side the central esplanade the sound of a heart beating. I’d seen it in daylight and it was alternately loud, cozy, dirty, beautiful, sordid, delicate, and thoroughly alive. If it was possible, it seemed even more so at night, with the fairy lights, red, white, blue, and green, blinking on and off of the kiosks which presented themselves every dozen yards or so, these lights in turn reflected off the storefront windows on either side. I walked around for a little bit, turning over postcards and magazines, bought a small paper cup of ice and a violet-colored soda of some sort (a cross between a Big Red and grape juice) and then came the tap on the shoulder. I turned around to find myself facing a steel-helmeted young man, wearing the uniform of the provincial police. “Por favor, senor, si puede pasar al otro lado de la calle?” I nodded, and did as I was invited to do, leaving the esplanade and joining the gathering crowds on the sidewalk. A couple of students near me whispered and gestured behind us. In an alley a few feet away one could see the hood of a military jeep, and could just make out the shapes of soldiers, the gleam of light on rifles. I stood on tiptoe and strained to see across the way to the other side. Soldiers in every alley, silently shifting in loose formation. No one in the crowd around me seemed terribly concerned and this being Barcelona, perhaps times had changed enough that even the military was eager to see some change, any kind of change. A man in a business suit, with a girlfriend half my age came and stood beside me and offered me a comradely cigarette. A few more minutes passed, the street noises audibly died down and the central esplanade was now entirely empty. And then we heard it, two, three blocks away. The workers’ anthem, La Internacional. As though we were at church or some place equally sacred, the business man dropped his cigarette and stubbed it out on the sidewalk and I followed suit. The singing grew louder as it neared and here and there, individuals on the sidewalks on either side began to sing as well. I’ve heard the anthem sung in various places and at various times but the words themselves, in any of their many versions, failed me. By now most of the crowd was singing, loud enough certainly but with a stateliness, a sad sincerity that made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. I did my bit and hummed along and then, turning with the crowd towards the left, I saw them. A crowd of hundreds, many with their fists raised in the workers’ salute, saluted back by the crowd as they came level with us. And in the front ranks, twenty old men and three old women. Twenty little old men and women. None of them looked over five feet tall, and they could have been brothers and sisters with their windbreakers and pullovers and sturdy walking shoes and berets. And man, did they look tough. And beautiful. Linked arm in arm, staring straight ahead, a lifetime of struggle behind them, the fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers of the future. Their legacy was us. I joined the others and showed my respect with a clenched fist. Venceremos.