Victimhood in Madrid: How best to remember city’s fallen

Spain’s past is full of anguish from terrorist attacks to war.

By Kelsey Dedels

MADRID – How and even whether to remember an event most people would rather forget is a riddle facing municipal governments from New York to London to Madrid.

In this capital city, which recently marked the 10th anniversary of the terrorist train bombings of March 2004, like many others, the politics of memory are complicated.

“I think that when something happens, we think about it only for a little time,” said Jorge Alguilar, a retired businessman and native of Madrid. “There are always many things going on in the city. For example, the coronation. We celebrated, but we move on. I think that is how it should be even with bad things that happen.”

Ten years ago, 191 people were killed when members of Al-Qaeda bombed four commuter trains. Madrid has memorialized the dead primarily with two public monuments, one at the Atocha train station where the bombings took place and another, a botanical memorial, in Retiro Park just across the street from the Atocha terminal.

Different expressions of anguish are carved into the walls
of the memorial in different languages.
(Photograph by Chris Scott)

Some Madrileños believe the city could and perhaps should do more to commemorate the victims.

“I think that you should remember [the bombings] with some building or a monument, but this one can’t be understood unless someone tells you from the outside,” said Madrid native Rafael Garcia, referring to the official monument the Atocha metro station. “You don’t know what it is. I almost walked right around it.”

Called El Monumento en Recuerdo de las Víctimas del 11-M, or the Monument in Memory of the Victims of the 11-M, located at the Atocha station, consists of a large rotunda emitting light onto expressions of anguish carved into the walls. It is a dark, minimalist space, with a simple row of benches for seating, and a silent security guard is always present.

Visitors could be excused for thinking they should not feel comfortable in such a place.

“I was on my way to work that day and heard about it on the radio,” Garcia said. “I couldn’t believe what had happened. It is something that you never want to hear, and I hoped and prayed I didn’t know anyone on those trains.”

“La luz dedica un momento del día cada persona ausente”
translated to English means “The light devotes a time of
day to each person absent.”
(Photograph by Chris Scott)

From outside the train station, the 11-M monument, which cost $6 million and took two and a half years to complete, pushes up to the sky in the form of a cylinder positioned in the middle of a busy roundabout. There is little about the column to draw attention to itself as a memorial to such a tragic event.

“Maybe it is what the government wants,” Garcia said. “Maybe it was built this way so that people, like me, walk completely by it. Maybe the government wants us to forget.”

Others disagree.

“I think [the memorial] is enough,” said William Guerrero, a Madrid resident and college student. “It shows how sad people were, with the expressions on [the rotunda]. The bombings happened so long ago, but I think it’s nice for the families that were affected to have something to look at.”

Alguilar echoed Guerrero’s sentiments.

Because it’s been a decade since the tragic events, “I think the [monument] does enough to remember,” he said.

Forest of Remembrance

In Retiro Park, located within easy walking distance from the Atocha station, there are 191 trees planted in the Bosque del Recuerdo, or Forest of Remembrance, in honor of the victims in the train bombings.

The Forest of Remembrance guides visitors with a spiral path to the top of a small hill that overlooks the memorial. It is a simple, even quiet reminder of the victims that lost their lives.

“It is important to not forget what happened because it is this part of our history in Spain,” said Marisa Serrano, a native of Madrid. “I think that the Forest [in Retiro] makes people remember.”

The entrance to the memorial says: “In honor and gratitude
to all the victims of terrorism whose memories live on and
constantly enrich our daily lives.”
(Photograph by Kelsey Dedels)

The memorial’s entrance is engraved with these words: “In honor and gratitude to all the victims of terrorism whose memories live on and constantly enrich our daily lives.”

Tucked away from the playgrounds and the busier parts of Retiro, the memorial invites visitors to sit on its many benches perched opposite the official monument in the Atocha station.

“It is a little memorial. It’s something,” said Luís Antonio, a Madrid resident who frequents the park. “But is it sufficient? I don’t know. I don’t think so. It is a big memory, those bombings.”

Serrano said “maybe more could be done [for the victims], but what we have is enough, I think.”

Two memorials so geographically close but visually so different are “enough,” said college student Alejandro Carrillo. “If there were [memorials] like that for everyone that died, it would be too many. It was a sad time, but we should move forward.”

The Valley of the Fallen

A similar question regarding how to remember is prompted by the geography and politics of another of greater Madrid’s monuments to tragedies in its past – the Valley of the Fallen, or the Valle de los Caidos – a monument to and tomb of the dead of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), a controversial topic even today. And while there are names there of some of the soldiers who fought in the war, many are missing. In fact, according to an article in The Guardian newspaper, no Republican names can be found at the site, which is also a tomb of the war dead.

“They should at least write the names [of the soldiers],” said high school student Miguel Lazcaro. “But they did that because they considered them enemies so they just used them as slaves. They would have killed them if they didn’t work.”

The expressions are easily seen when standing in the dark room.
(Photograph by Chris Scott)

The many Republican and nationalist soldiers are buried at the Valley of the Fallen alongside Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who had the site built, and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Spanish Falange party and also a former dictator.

“It would be better if there were names on the walls or something to commemorate” the soldiers, said Carlos Benedicto, a high schoolteacher in Madrid. “But something that I really don’t like is that the two dictators are buried there.”

Whether the complex of the Valley of the Fallen should even exist is a matter of vigorous public debate, according to one of Spain’s leading newspaper’s, El País.

“People are trying to convince the family of the dictator to actually try and get rid of [the memorial] because, really, Spain is the only country that has a sign of a dictatorship actually there and prevailing and visible by tourists and people,” said Rohan Kamrani, a high school student from Madrid. “I think it is really unfair and not correct because you wouldn’t want a Hitler statue in Germany.”

Moving Forward

Madrid’s history is rich, a fact illustrated by its many plazas, monuments and museums. What is commemorated and what forgotten or otherwise erased from public view can tell visitors much about the city.

Visitors have the opportunity to sit on benches and reflect.
(Photograph by Kelsey Dedels)

“The decision to be able to either represent an event or something in a monument or even name a plaza after someone has a reason to it or logic to it that is one of official public memory,” said Professor Jonathan D. Snyder, a visiting scholar at New York University and an adjunct professor of Spanish literature and culture. “We see the residue of how those named places, those monuments, have been relegated through a form of official memory about that event. Therefore it is tied up in a question of national history.”

Snyder said it is instructive to look at how Madrid’s government, or any city’s government, has decided to commemorate or forget events, whether to consign them to public memory and commemoration or not. For both the train bombings and the Franco era, Madrid sends mixed messages.

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