When you hear the term “lost generation” you automatically think of the young men and women who came of age during World War I and whose lives were never the same following the modern day atrocities that took place during that time. Although you equate 20th century authors such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald with this connotation, I think the term lost generation is more appropriate to describe the Spanish men and women whose lives were forever stunted by the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Elderly men and women now, modern day fantasmas (ghosts).
During my semester abroad in Spain, I lived with a nice but slightly reserved Spanish host family in the southern city of Seville. Prior to leaving for the Iberian Peninsula, the only details I knew of the people I would be living with for five months were their names and their street address.
After a three day orientation in which all program participants stayed at a hotel in the city center, my roommate Lisa and I took a cab across the Guadalquivir River to the Triana section. Lisa, who was a bit more confident in her Spanish abilities, pressed the buzon to announce that we had arrived. Trudging up the four flights of steps with entirely too much luggage, we were met at the doorway by a woman Estrella who was under five feet tall and seemed so fragile that it appeared a cool breeze could knock her over. Upon being ushered in with her words that gave off an incredibly heavy Andalusian accent, we were greeted by Miguel. Miguel was not our host father but rather our host brother, although he had not been included in our host family “dossier.”
Miguel had severe Down’s syndrome. I’m not sure how Lisa was feeling at this exact moment, but I admit I was a little taken aback, more to do with the fact that I had never been told about him. I could see that both Estrella and Miguel looked weary and tense awaiting our reactions to him. I was most struck that while Miguel spoke and had the mannerisms of a small child, he was severely bald and had age lines all over his face. Our host father on the other hand, Diego, was the complete opposite of his son and wife. Always making jokes, slightly sarcastic, he certainly livened up a room with his entrance.
As the semester wore on, I would become accustomed to how everyday life transpired. From day one it was apparent that Estrella was Miguel’s sole caregiver, whether it involved serving his meals, getting him dressed, or bathing him. In the five months that I lived in their home, I never saw Diego help with Miguel at all, except to provide commentary and talk. Diego was the one who did the shopping. Although in the United States one usually equates grocery shopping with the female, in Spain, Diego was the one to do it. And once a day Estrella and Miguel went out for a walk, but only during the siesta, when the streets would be less crowded with people and cars. My heart sank for both Miguel and Estrella when during Semana Santa (Holy Week), they could not go outside at all, for there were constantly pasos (parades) taking place at all hours during the day, causing a chaotic mess on the streets.
I never knew how old Estrella and Diego were but I figured they had to be somewhere around the age of my grandparents, mid to upper seventies. Which means the “best years of their lives” would have been taken from them during the ruthless and oppressive dictatorship of Francisco Franco that lasted for more than thirty years. They would have seen a brutal civil war tear apart their country and then find themselves closed off to the rest of the world for decades. Although there were times when I couldn’t believe some of the things that both Diego and Estrella said but I had to remind myself that not only were they from a different time, they were from an era in which time had stopped. And when it finally began again, all those years had been forever lost. (One time I mentioned to Estrella that I had studied abroad in South Korea and she responded with that she hoped I never dated un chino as she considered them an “ugly race.” (Un chino being the word for a Chinese person, although I’m sure Estrella used that to refer to all people of East Asian ethnicity).
What saddened me the most was Miguel. In the United States much progress has been made for children and adults with severe physical and mental disabilities. There are special schools for them and teachers with specialized training; no one is “left behind” anymore. I’m pretty sure Miguel never went to school, never interacted with anyone beyond his immediate family and a neighbor. Although today there is still a stigma attached to people with disabilities in modern, developed countries, Miguel’s life behind the closed door of his family’s apartment almost seemed as if it was to keep other people from seeing him.
Francisco Franco took the lives of many people but it is the modern day fantasmas, whose lives were changed and destroyed the most. Freedom of speech was suppressed. Opponents to his autocratic rule were imprisoned, some being sent to concentration camps that existed throughout Spain. Educated professionals fled the country from his rule resulting in a shortage of doctors, educators, and other academic personnel there. Spain was also cut off from the rest of the world during Franco’s reign. He purposely kept Spain isolated from the international community as he did not want his country’s men and women to see how people lived in a free world. These men and women still feel the effects of his rule more than thirty years after his death.