San Juan de Ortega to Burgos is a 25km walk through small towns—Agés, Atapuerca, Villalval, Cardenuela de Riopico, Orbaneja, Villafria—on the way to Burgos. The largest city on our walk, Burgos has more than 350,000 residents, their modern lives coexisting with castle walls and the French gothic Cathedral of St. Mary. Burgos has a rich history; a few keystrokes and I found myself reading about El Cid, born nearby in 1043; Columbus’s visit to see Queen Isabel after his second voyage in 1497; and how Burgos was Franco’s operations center during the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939.
Near Atapuerca, the oldest discovered human remains dating to 750,000 years ago were found in a shaft known as ‘the Pit of Bones’. And then there are more recent bones, from more recent tragedies.
Back when we were planning this trip, I ordered a book called Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and its Silent Past by Giles Tremlett—something to orient me in place and time, something that wouldn’t scrub clean the country’s history like a tourist pamphlet. It wasn’t an easy read, beginning with a description of a mass grave dating to the Civil War/Franco era being exhumed. In fact, it’s estimated there are more than 2,000 of these mass graves dotted around the countryside, and it’s only within the last decade that there is national interest in having them opened, the bones examined, atrocities confronted. Franco was in power until 1975 after all—not such a very long time ago.
It’s easier not to dig up the past—literally.
I’ve heard this argument a lot recently. Maybe you have too, unless you’re smarter than me and don’t peek at the comments section of any media site. Why are we talking about something that happened hundreds of years ago, something that has no possible connection to my own life?
The problem is that if you don’t delve into the past, if you don’t look it head on and say, this is what happened, this is how horrible it was—you’re diminishing the past. It becomes easy to gloss over it, to rewrite a rosier version of history in which neither your ancestors then nor yourself today can bear any guilt.
It’s simply easier to sweep it under the rug.
Yesterday was a fun blog post (aliens! abandoned air strips in the middle of nowhere!), and today is something different.
In my real-life journey, I decided I would enroll in some kind of class this month, something that would take my mind off the fact that I wasn’t sweating buckets each day as I walked across Spain and fortifying myself with a bottle of rioja each night. At about the same time I was looking through some course options online, George Floyd was laying on the ground, an officer’s knee pressed to his neck, pleading for his life. A movement started, one that feels different this time, and I decided in my own scared, tentative way that I was going to peel back the corner of the rug and peek underneath.
I started working my way through this Justice in June document (seriously, click the link. I’m doing the 10 minutes a day version, although it often leads me down other rabbit holes of research and it’s easy to lose an hour or two), and started saving the recommendations for books and podcasts and movies and articles, and it ended up that this was the class I was taking: a self-paced study of America’s racial past (and present).
It’s been bleak and sobering.
I’m a fairly educated, fairly well-read person, and what I’ve been discovering is the history that wasn’t taught to me, not by teachers or textbooks or lived experience. Ten days into this self-study, I’m reeling from the impact of things I didn’t know—or knew, but in a dim way, like suspecting there’s dirt under the rug but not doing anything about it.
Redlining: the practice of keeping black people out of white communities, supported by the US government and real estate firms, banks and local and state governments. This was not just in the South. It was not a post-Civil War practice that died out sometime in the late 1800s. This happened all over the US. It happened in Iowa, in Maryland, in Berkeley. It was state-sponsored segregation as well as economic discrimination that prevented people of color from achieving that most basic of ideals, praised generation after generation by white America: the American dream.
It’s not pleasant to confront these things. It’s easier to think racism was a few horrible dudes in white hoods rather than a system that has oppressed some and elevated others.
Today, I went down a Civil War rabbit hole, which meant cuddling on my bed next to my rat terrier and listening my way through the episodes of UnCivil. (It’s an excellent podcast, and it’s worth your time, too.) It helps to debunk the most pervasive of American myths, ones that those random people in the comments section are still promoting: the Lost Cause narrative, the myth of slaves serving (willingly) in the Confederate army to protect their own enslavement, the revisionism of “states’ rights,” the truth about the statues to Civil War generals.
I can understand why people in Spain haven’t wanted to dig up the graves.
I understand wanting to close the history book or turn off the podcast. It's hard to process information, to understand the way that lives--yes, mine too--have been shaped by this invisible hand.
It’s nicer to romanticize the past, to give it a vintage filter and crop out the ugliness.
But it’s always going to be there.
And at some point--now feels like that point—it needs to come to light.
Paula Treick DeBoard