The politics of remembering in autobiographical writing

This essay focuses on the autobiography—He de tener libertad (I Must Have Liberty)—of one of Spain’s greatest, most unrecognised political figures: Isabel Oyarzábal de Palencia. Written in December 2013, it explores the theme of remembering, a topic I studied for during a Modern Languages module at University of Exeter. In the text, what Oyarzábal de Palencia does not remember, or chooses not to, is just as significant—if not more so—than what she actually does.

Contexts are charged politically. […] [T]he politics of remembering—what is recollected and what is obscured—is central to the cultural production of knowledge about the past, and thus to the terms of an individual’s self-knowledge” (Smith & Watson). Discuss in relation to He de tener libertad.”

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Isabel Oyarzábal de Palencia

In Reading Autobiography, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson examine the political tension surrounding the act of remembering. First citing autobiographical narratives in Eastern and Western Germany helping to negotiate “different versions of national memory” (24), they argue how an ideological struggle exists “over who is authorised to remember and what they are authorised to remember, [and] over what is forgotten, both personally and collectively” (24). In the discussion of this subject, though autobiographical narratives in post-Cold War Germany are undoubtedly relevant, there is one political figure whose autobiography—He de tener libertad (I Must Have Liberty)—has almost been forgotten amongst modern-day critics of autobiographical writing. Described as “la gran feminista española” (Capdevilla-Argüelles 19), Isabel Oyarzábal de Palencia defied the social conventions of her patriarchal Spain to become a respected actress, a successful journalist, and her country’s very first female ambassador: an international figurehead for the Spanish suffrage movement. Written in Mexico City, where Oyarzábal de Palencia remained in exile until her death in 1974, He de tener libertad is a “retrato exhaustivo de toda una época” (Capdevilla-Argüelles 20), an alternative narrative to the Franco regime’s “mythic historiography” (Herzberger 36). Using Smith and Watson’s Reading Autobiography as a primary source of reference, this essay focuses on act of remembering in He de tener libertad: how what Oyarzábal de Palencia does—and does not—recall contributes to the cultural production of knowledge about the past throughout her lifetime.


Mexico City, circa 1900

With Spain traditionally being a conservative country (almost to the extent of being antiquated), patriarchal authority was an influential socio-cultural force in the Malágan community in which Oyarzábal de Palencia was raised—although her own parents, especially her Scottish-born mother, were comparatively liberal. Whilst a young woman, she remembers how “un amigo le comentó a mi padre delante de mí que mis piernas consituían una tentación y que debería cubrirlas” (75). Feeling the pressure to conform to patriarchal convention, she also writes: “[la] falta de libertad y el constante cotilleo me ahogaban” (90). Towards the end of the 19th century, however, strongly influenced by the Spanish-American War (1898) in which Spain lost its last colony in the Pacific (Cuba), patriarchal authority in Spain was diminishing. During the war, after originally thinking “España iba a ganar” (74), Oyarzábal de Palencia recalls how there were “reyertas calleteras” and “las calles principales de la ciudad [estaban], llenas de moribunds tumbados en el suelo” (74). Along with her memories of openly tolerated sexism in her patriarchal society, this morbid description of the aftermath of the Spanish-American War on Spanish soil provides an insight into the reality of the country, banishing all notions of grandiose surrounding what remained of the imperialistic the Spanish Empire. As Smith and Watson write, they are memories that can “be productively read against the ideological grain” (25): her account of Spanish-American War thus subverts the Spanish government’s “myth-generating mechanisms” (Herzberger 38) Instead of asserting “continuity between the glories of an imperial Catholic Spain and the […] present” (Herzberger 35), which is precisely what the Franco regime attempted to achieve following the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), Oyarzábal de Palencia depicts a country questioning patriarchal authority. As she remembers one old woman proclaiming following the uprising in Morocco, “¿Por qué nos quitan a nuestros hijos? […] ¿Por qué tenemos que quitarles su tierra [?]” (130).


Spanish soldiers during the country’s Guerra Civil

In El aprendizaje del feminismo histórico en España, Mary Nash discusses the construction of gender identity with Spanish women, arguing “la maternidad […] es un factor decisivo en la construción social imaginaria de la noción de género” (5). Indeed, at one moment in He de tener libertad, Oyarzábal de Palencia remembers how maternity was so admired in Spain “que una mujer puede dar el pecho despreoucupadamente en público aunque no exponga ni una pulgada de su cuello o de su tobillo el resto del tiempo” (51). Evidently, for Spanish women in 19th and early 20th century, maternity and the domestic sphere were inextricable with the concept of femininity. For Oyarzábal de Palencia, however, correlating with Judith Butler’s “assertion that gender is performative” (Smith 214), such a definition of femininity was too dogmatic, demonstrated when she recounts: “Un día [Cefe] me dijo que dejase de trabajar después de que nos casásemos […]: jamás abandonaría todo aquello que había luchado tanto por conseguir” (125). Searching for “más libertad” (63), Oyarzábal de Palencia clearly recognises how “sociocultural structures are always partial rather than total [and] thus there is always the chance of changing the rules” (Smith 57). Certainly, her appointment as the Swedish ambassador of the Second Republic (1931-1939) manifests a successful liberation from the patriarchal definition of femininity, thus making Oyarzábal de Palencia one the very women she describes in Carmen Becomes a Citizen, “striving to direct the ideals of and all towards a higher moral standing” (188). Through her critique of the patriarchal concept of femininity, then, and her subsequent rejection of it, Oyarzábal de Palencia gives a subjective account of the “struggle for existence” (Oyarzábal de Palencia 183) of Spanish women, a struggle that was linked inseparably with the modernisation of Spain as a democratic nation.  This account subsequently allows one to recognise fully the “papel decisivo” (Capdevilla-Argüelles 9) Oyarzábal de Palencia played throughout her lifetime in the struggle of Spanish women against their “tremenda presión social” (Benítez), which echoes David K. Herzberger’s argument of “a subjective life that is always bound up with the past, with history” (40).


Colegio de Málaga, circa 1880

To express the act of remembering, Oyarzábal de Palencia uses what Smith and Watson classify as the narrating I, “a persona of the historical person who wants to tell […] a story about the self” (72). With Oyarzábal de Palencia, her general persona is a modern-minded, independence-seeking woman: “una mujer seria,” as the Spanish poet Rafael Cansinos-Asséns writes, “una intectual” (qtd. in Capdevilla-Argüelles 25). However, behind the narrated I lies historical I, “the person […] whose life is far more dispersed than the story that is being told of it” (Smith 73). In Oyarzábal de Palencia’s own domestic sphere, despite the anti-authoritarian persona of her narrating I, the historical version of herself is actually a woman who often conformed to the patriarchal definition of femininity. As Nuria Capdevilla-Argüelles says, “aunque [Oyarzábal de Palencia] trabaja, también cocina, decora, apoya a su marido, cría a unos ninos” (26) Consequently, in He de tener libertad, there are aspects of Oyarzábal de Palencia’s domestic sphere that the narrating I obscures—particularly with the infidelity of her husband, Cefe. When discussing the woman with whom Cefe has an affair, for example, Oyarzábal de Palencia simply describes her as “una mujer hermosa” (165), and Cefe’s confession is confined to just two words: “confesó todo” (167). With her writing: “La memoria posee una inmensa capacidad de reavivir el dolor aun cuando la causa de ese dolor ya no exista” (165), Oyarzábal de Palencia seems to be avoiding an in-depth examination of her own emotions. Although one can understand this aversion, Oyarzábal de Palencia inadvertently creates a distance between her historical self and her narrating I—a distance that highlights what has been obscured in He de tener libertad. Consequently, by choosing not to “constitute [the affair fully] through recollection for the reader” (Smith 73), Oyarzábal de Palencia’s anti-authoritarian persona highlights the control of the narrating I over the narrated I, “the protagonist of the narrative” (73), providing an insight into Spanish politics during Oyarzábal de Palencia’s lifetime—yet equally obscuring key aspects of her private life. Despite the issues arising from its subjectivity, however, the narrating I remains the most significant aspect to He de tener libertad: autobiographical narratives—a central aspect to understanding and examining the past—would not exist without it.

Works Cited:

Benítez, Enrique. Isabel Oyarzábal: Una mujer ejemplar. Málaga: LaOpinión de Málaga, 2010. Web. 23 Dec. 2013. <;.

Capdevilla-Argüelles, Nuria. Introducción: He de tener libertad. Madrid: Horas y HORAS, 2010. 9-28. Print.

Herzberger, David K. Narrating the past: History and the Novel of Memory in Postwar Spain. N.p.: Modern Language Association, n.d. JSTOR. Web. 22 Dec. 2014. <http:/>.

Nash, Mary. El aprendizaje del feminismo histórico en España. N.p.: nodo50, n.d. Web. 23 Dec. 2013. <;.

—. Carmen Becomes a Citizen. Vol. 226. N.p.: The North American Review, 1928. 183-88. 2 vols. JSTOR. Web. 23 Dec. 2014. <;.

Oyarzábal de Palencia, Isabel. He de tener libertad. Trans.

Nuria Capdevila-Argüelles. Madrid: Horas y HORAS, 2010. Print.

Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Second ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. N. pag. Print.


Compluntense III

Taken kneeling down, I like the depth and contrast of light in this photo.

Taken kneeling down for an alternate view, I like the depth and contrast of light in this photo, stemming from the setting Sun.


Compluntense II

State-funded systems, such as Universidad Cumpluntense Madrid, have suffered under the austerity of the Spanish government...

State-funded systems, such as Universidad Cumpluntense Madrid, have suffered under the Spanish government’s austerity.


Las Ventas

Las Ventas

Taken inside a Lebanese restaurant, this image has depth, contrast and character – three things that every good photo has.


Cibeles II

Cibeles II

This is the second of three images I took of Cibeles – and probably the second best, but I hope you enjoy it nonetheless.


Ronald Reagan, First Inaugural Address

The two paragraphs below are taken from Ronald Reagan’s Inaugural Address, dating back to Tuesday, January 20th, 1981. Though the speech may have taken place more than thirty years ago, does its message not seem pertinent with regard to the unstable economic situation in Europe and the United States?

“For decades, we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children’s future for the temporary convenience of the present. To continue this long trend is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural, political, and economic upheavals.

You and I, as individuals, can, by borrowing, live beyond our means, but for only a limited period of time. Why, then, should we think that collectively, as a nation, we are not bound by that same limitation?”

It appears that ‘we, the people’, to quote Reagan, are headed for ‘tremendous social, cultural, political and economic upheavals’, then. However, with Greece, Italy and Spain floundering financially (and the United States shouldering a debt of over two trillion), it seems the process – a frightening, crippling one – has already begun, and nobody knows when it will end…

The Unwitting Activist

Alberto Casillas and me – the map immediately gave me away as a tourist.

In central Madrid, just a few hundred metres away from the Palacio de los Cortes, Alberto Casillas stands quietly outside Café Prado. Dressed in his uniform – a white shirt, black tie and badly-fitted black trousers – he stares into the stream of traffic that flits past him on the opposing street. The mob of photographers that encircled the entrance to the café a few nights before have gone; so have the scores of protestors that packed tightly inside it, sheltering from riot police behind Alberto’s outstretched arms. After guarding them for about half an hour, Alberto’s defiance against the local authorities that night made him an inadvertent hero among the protestors, encapsulating their insurgent spirit. ‘I told the police they could not enter,’ he informed the Huffington Post, who uploaded a video of his valorous behaviour, ‘because there were a lot of people inside and because we are all human beings.’ He added, ‘I do not want to go against the law, but if they entered (into the café) there would have been a massacre. There were children and everything.’

Having worked at the Café Prado for the past three years, Alberto has witnessed personally how the protests of the 15-M movement, described a few months after its inception as ‘small’ and ‘inarticulate,’ have allowed the political group to become an influential societal force. By harnessing the unifying power of social media sites, its leaders have been able to summon large numbers of people to protest in the Spanish capital, most of which were initially peaceful. On May 18th 2011, the BBC reported that ‘about 2,000 young people’ gathered in Puerta de Sol, one of the largest squares in the city, for a ‘peaceful protest’ over Spain’s high unemployment rate, the highest in Europe. With the ‘crowd singing songs, playing games and debating,’ the general ambience of the protest was cheerful, perhaps even festive. Now the tone is changing though: caused by Spain’s unstable fiscal situation, a more radical form of political activism has emerged among the most recent protests in the Spanish capital. ‘Society is now on the precipice of it starting to break,’ declares Alberto Casillas. ‘You can see it in people’s faces, the sadness and powerlessness. It is the image of fear, all you see is fear, fear, fear.’

On September 25th 2012, the day that lead to Alberto pleading the police to stop their violence, the 25-S movement, an offspring of 15-M, attempted to occupy the Palacio de los Cortes with the bold intention of forcing ‘the dismissal of the government.’ Unlike all previous protests of 15-M, the atmosphere was sombre and frighteningly serious. ‘We believe that the current situation has exceeded all tolerable limits,’ their manifesto claims, ‘and we are victims of an unprecedented attack from the economic powers.’ Hunting in packs of two or three, the police seemed to choose their victims indeterminately in the brutal violence that ensued. They beat both innocent spectators and suspected protestors, leaving some of them sprawled helplessly on the floor. (One man, after being knocked unconscious by one of the riot police, was also left paralyzed). ‘I see a policeman shouting with a gun in his hand,’ writes Jesus G. Pastor on The Huffington Post ‘I see a disarmed citizen pleading, knelt down and defenceless,’ and ‘I see a victim that protests because they need things to change and they want to believe it is possible.’ Alberto Casillas even compared the police’s behaviour to that of Venezuela’s, whose members have been described as ‘a law unto themselves.’ ‘I lived in Venezuela for 25 years and I saw this type [of behaviour] there, he says. ‘Now I’m also seeing it here [in Spain].’

At the Council of the Americas conference in New York the following day, Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister, addressed the nation, praising the country’s silent citizens who did not protest the previous evening, who simply accept the hardships his government imposes upon them. ‘You do not see them, but they are there,’ he said. ‘They are the majority of the 47 million people that live in Spain,’ and ‘they are people that suffer, shouldering enormous difficulties.’ During his visit to the United States, one that had the intention of recuperating some of Spain’s economic credibility, he also declared: ‘the perception of Spain does not correspond with the reality.’ However, in what is most likely an attempt to appease the world’s media, is it not the Spanish government that creates a false impression of its current situation? Jorge Fernández Díaz, the Minister for Home Affairs, described the police’s behaviour on September 25th as ‘magnificent’ and ‘splendid,’ despite the videos recorded by protestors and spectators that firmly suggest otherwise. Conrado Escobar, a spokesman for the same ministerial department, also said the police were ‘brilliant’ and ‘exemplary.’ By failing to reflect the truth of events that evening, these statements do not unify the Spanish public to its government; they simply push them even further away. However, regardless of whether they are silent or not, the majority of Spanish citizens have already been pushed too far by their government. Let us hope that the actions of Alberto Casillas, a man who prevented police from attacking their fellow citizens, do not foreshadow what awaits Spain.

Published on The Student Journals

Retiro Park, Madrid

Look past the man and between the trees: you can see a glimpse of the famous: La Puerta de Alcalá.


Retiro Park, Madrid

The woman sat between the two men hardly seems interested, does she? I like this photo: it has some character.


Retiro Park, Madrid

If I were I were to name this photo, I would call it: Las Cotillas. During this time of day (1900), the contrast is great.