Who are the Spanish People?

Don Harris | April 2011

My wife Ruth and I always have fun when we share a meal with Fermín and Aixa Rodríguez. Fermín is a master olive oil taster, who provides La Tienda with our favorite blended extra virgin olive oil. Along with their cute little daughter Sofía, they live in the hilltop city of Priego de Córdoba, high above the family owned olive groves. It is one of the dramatic White Towns of Andalucía -- just an hour away from another spectacular structure perched on a hill: the medieval castle of Alcalá la Real. 

This spring we joined them for tapas in a café next to an old church, on the edge of what used to be the Moorish neighborhood many generations ago. As she has many times before, vivacious Aixa, laughingly described herself as a ‘Jewish Muslim Berber.’ She married her Christian husband in the same church where their baby was baptized! That afternoon the four of us adults watched their joyful four-year old Sofia darting around the fountain of tumbling water in the plaza. Worries about lineage did not cross our minds. We were friends.

Many of us find it interesting to trace back our roots, often getting engrossed in the study of our genealogy. Here in the United States it is of particular interest since, other than the indigenous people, all of us have come from somewhere else. We bound together as Americans, regardless of our ancestry.

But over in Europe, and especially Spain, with its complex history of competing cultures, the question of who is Spanish has always been a real one. When our son Christopher was born in Rota he received an elaborate birth certificate proclaiming him hijo de la raza -- son of the race -- which of course was absurd. Chris does not have a drop of Spanish blood, and some of his ancestors from Holland, Ulster and Yorkshire might have waged war against Charles V and his son Philip II. 

However this kind of a birth certificate was issued by the local government to honor its historical past, because for hundreds and hundreds of years the Christian inhabitants of Spain coveted their identity as la raza, the pure race, which in reality boiled down to a distinction based on the enemy’s religion. From 711 AD, when the invading armies of Muslim Berbers crossed from Africa to the Iberian Peninsula, until the 16th century, there was always a tension between Moor and Christian. During the 700-year long war of religious struggle, the Reconquista, friend or foe was defined by his faith. Even then, it was not that clear cut. The hero El Cid fought for both Christian and Moor.

Always in the mix were the Sephardic – Spanish Jews, (Sephardic is the Hebrew word for ‘Spanish’) some of whose families had lived in the area since Roman times. They use a uniquely Sephardic style of liturgy and otherwise define themselves in terms of the Jewish customs and traditions which originated in the Iberian Peninsula. There was a large Sephardic presence in holy Toledo, which at various times was either the Arian Visigoth, Muslim or the Catholic capital. The families of two towering 15th century Spanish mystics, Santa Teresa of Avila and San Juan de la Cruz, are said to have some Sephardic roots.

Alfonso X el Sabio (1221-1284) was known as a learned man. When he was crowned King of Castilla y León in 1252, he became one of the most significant intellectual leaders in Spanish history as he fostered discourse among Christian, Jewish and Islamic intellectuals. He wanted the scientific writings and the works of Aristotle to be available to his court and when he learned that the wisdom of classical Greece was only available in Arabic translation, he commissioned the Jewish scholars of Toledo to translate the Arabic documents. 

In an interesting twist, I read that Sephardic scholars chose to translate the Arabic into Castilian, the vernacular, rather than Latin, because they had no love for the Roman church! So in Spain, Greek knowledge was translated by Muslim scribes and in turn by Sephardic scholars so that it would be available to Christian Europe. The writings became the source of much of the early scientific knowledge, and through Aristotle became the basis of Catholic theology.

Alternatively, let us take a look at another confusing event in Spain. At one time Córdoba was the most advanced city in Europe, as well as one of the jewels of Islam. In 784 AD, the caliph began building a magnificent mosque, on the site of St. Vincent’s Visigoth Church (which in turn was built on a pagan temple, centuries before). The mosque was an architectural wonder modeled after the great mosque of Damascus, perhaps one of the two or three most famous buildings of Muslim worship. 

More than four hundred years later, in 1236, Fernando III conquered the city, and was so impressed by the mosque that he had religious leaders ritually cleanse the area, and then declared it a cathedral. Since then, it has been the seat of hundreds of archbishops. The current archbishop insists that the structure be referred to as a cathedral, since the building has not been a mosque for almost 800 years. Nevertheless, if you approach it from the neighboring Jewish quarter, your eyes will see a mosque. 

So which is it, mosque or church? In my eyes, it is a magnificent example of Islamic architecture, reflecting the richness of the Moorish faith at its zenith. At the same time, with the later addition of a Gothic church within, it is a monument to the Christian faith. Christian and Moorish, it is located adjacent to what was once a flourishing Sephardic community, where lived Maimonides, one of the greatest Torah scholars and physicians of the Middle Ages. Once again, we have an expression of the complex tapestry of Spain: in this case pagan, Visigothic, Islamic, Sephardic and Christian. 

But a more poignant story is the one that was related to me by José Manuel, who is the tenth generation of a family that produces turrón, the essential Spanish Christmas confection made of almonds and honey, whose recipe was undoubtedly brought from the Middle East by the Moors. He wrote:

Dear Donald:

I have been gathering some information, about a side of my family background – the sephardies. My grandmother, on my father’s side, was from Toledo. Her name was Sagrario, named for Nuestra Señora de Sagrario, the patrona of Toledo. I spent some time with my grandparents, living in their house during my high school years. I learnt that her ancestors were Jews and that was known by neighbours and people around her hometown. But as with many others, she was raised as a Catholic and taught to behave like that. The family attended service at Santa María la Blanca, which I believe was an ancient Synagogue [whose architects were Mudéjar -- Muslims under Christian rule.]

My grandmother was the only one of her sisters and brother to marry, and the eldest. The family left Toledo, and her father became secretary of the judge in Madrid. During summers, she was sent to her relatives, and she told me that an aunt taught her to cook the plates the family cooked for special occasions. 

Her aunt also taught her some of the family Sephardic background and traditions, but her father never wanted her to practice any of the traditions, especially when he was transferred to a new destination in Jijona. He wanted a ‘clean’ image as the new secretary of the judge in such a small town, adopting the role expected for the family.

Many years later when she was married to my grandfather, a turrón manufacturer, she started making old Sephardic pastries learned from her aunt and selling them in the store of the factory. She made: 
1. Empanadillas of marzipan (She called them ‘half moon’) filled with sweet potato paste.
2. Empanadillas of marzipan filled with egg yolk paste.
3. Balls of marzipan with pine nuts.
4. Pastries with sweet potatoes and pumpkin paste.

My grandfather never said no to those new products, and they sold well. She was responsible for the women in the factory, and she told them how to make some of those products. She would make baked marzipan with the form of the Star of David, but never for the store, just she would take the paste from the factory and bake the figures at home.

Once when I was staying with my grandparents I saw her lighting a candle, it was Friday night, her husband was not at home and the windows curtains where shut down. I asked what she was doing and she said – "Nothing, just remembering." That is all I can tell you. Her youngest brother Luís is 94 years old, but when I ask him anything about Jews background, he says that "past is past" and that he is a good Catholic and does not want to say anything else. I do not know if any of this might be useful for you.

Un Abrazo, José Manuel

I find it sad that Jew, Christian and Muslim found it hard to live in harmony at one time or another (even as they do today). We humans seem to have to struggle to get along with one another. It is easy to focus on the dark side. However, is it not more constructive to highlight the good: the day-to-day life of humble people away from the headlines, who quietly learned to get along with one another and fashion a new culture? Speaking as a Christian, one of my favorite blessings is this one: "Life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of others, so be swift to love, and make haste to be kind. Go in peace." 

Many years ago, I read a fascinating book by Americo Castro, The Spaniards: An Introduction to Their History. It was controversial at the time because the scholar maintained that the true Spaniard only came into being as an amalgam of three cultures. The people before them had no common identity.

The richness and depth of the Spanish history, the hundreds of years when competing cultures learned from one another, has produced a unique people whose culture draws from the strengths of Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The result of the peculiar Spanish experience is a fascinating fusion: one of warmth, hospitality and strong family ties.

¡Feliz Pascua! (The Spanish word for both Easter and Passover!)