Old Spanish stereotypes making a comeback

Writers and academics say the crisis and corruption are reviving negative clichés about Spain

An Osborne bull advertising board in a sunflower field in Andalusia.
An Osborne bull advertising board in a sunflower field in Andalusia.Javier Barbancho / EL PAÍS

“The trumpet of fame is just as long as infamy’s,” says Aurora Egido, writer and academic, to describe her gloom at the way Spain is seen at home and abroad. More than five years of crisis and a succession of corruption scandals have confirmed long-held views about a country supposedly run by incompetents, swindlers, bunglers and opportunists, and a population that is more interested in bullfighting, fiestas, siestas and soccer than hard work.

But as Tom Burns, a former correspondent for the Financial Times, points out in his 2000 book Hispanomanía, there is a grain of truth in the clichés that foreign writers and travelers who have visited Spain over the centuries have created, from George Sand and Richard Ford, to George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway: “They were looking for an ideal, and that prompted them to flee the progress and civilization of their countries,” he wrote. “They were looking for adventure, and in many ways, Spain represented this.”

Many writers, academics, historians and sociologists blame foreign writers for the clichés about Spain

What Burns finds surprising is that Spaniards have largely bought into these perceptions, making them their own. Take the slogan adopted by the Spanish tourism board back in the 1960s, “Spain is different,” which is attributed to early-19th-century US traveler Richard Ford. “This can be interpreted in two ways,” says Burns: “On the one hand, the landscape, beaches, bullfighting, bravura, flamenco and a way of life that is very different to that in the rest of Europe; and on the other, a reference to a political system different to the democracies of its neighbors, which made the slogan a kind of shield.” It was trotted out again recently by Madrid’s Mayor, Ana Botella, during her unsuccessful presentation for Madrid’s bid to host the 2020 Olympics last year.

Many writers, academics, historians and sociologists blame foreign writers steeped in the traditions of the Romantic movement for many of the clichés about Spain, but not Salvador Giner, head of the Institute of Catalan Studies, who says Spaniards have “invented” a parallel world for themselves that swings between tendencies toward embellishment, drama, and equanimity.

The government is doing all it can to undermine and attack culture”

Aurora Egido says that this can be traced back to the 19th century, “when a cult of death began to emerge, despite the festive atmosphere of the baroque period.”

Recent years have seen renewed efforts to brand Spain internationally. But as Egido and Ginier point out, to do this, the government has once again resorted to soft-power assets such as soccer, food and wine, sunshine and a supposed easygoing lifestyle, as well as trying to recruit leading figures from the arts scene.

Furthermore, Javier Marías, one of the country’s best-known writers, accuses the government of hypocrisy: “What sense does it make to try to involve leading figures from the arts when the government is doing all it can to undermine and attack culture?”

As happened in the past, developed countries in Europe are blaming us for the situation”

Fernando Garcés and Jordi Vicente, authors of Tópicos de España (Clichés of Spain), say the crisis and interminable corruption cases are in serious danger of overshadowing the achievements of the last 40 years: “After the death of Franco, the country began to grow economically, as well as becoming more self-confident, and there were many notable successes: the 1982 World Cup and the 1992 Olympics, along with other sporting victories,” say the pair. “But the current economic crisis has put these achievements in doubt. As has happened in the past, the more developed countries in Europe are blaming us for the situation, along with Portugal, Greece and Italy. And so the old stereotypes of incompetence and laziness are dragged out,” they add.

Garcés also says that while corruption is a very real problem, Spaniards have also earned respect and praise from around the world for their response to the problems of the last decade: “The 15-M [popular protest] movement reflected a population that is aware of what is going on, and that is fighting for its dignity and for justice.”

Egido suggests that dark forces are at work in Spain: “There are those who are happy that turbulent times have returned. Why? Because there are sections of Spanish society that never liked that image of progress and modernity, of honesty and creativity, and who can now say that they were right all along: it’s something that echoes down through the centuries.”