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Fall 2007 | Our History: Lorca's Spain

Fall 2007 | Our History: Lorca's Spain

Spain's greatest gay poet still colors the grand Andalusian town where he lived and died.

Every August 19 in Viznar, a small agricultural town surrounded by olive trees just outside Granada, Spain, people come from miles around for an all-night celebration of the life and spirit of Federico Garcia Lorca. A stone cross bedecked with flowers, notes, and small gifts marks the presumed burial spot of the gay poet, artist, composer, and playwright, one of the country's greatest icons. It was here in 1936, early in the Spanish Civil War, that the beloved Lorca and his fellow victims who had been executed by Fascist Falangists for their liberal views were tossed into a mass grave, marking one of the darkest days in the country's history.

The party, though it's at a grave site, is not a sad one. Gypsies from Granada's flamenco district of Sacromonte come to sing the passionate songs that Federico Garcia Lorca loved. Good Spanish wine flows. People sit on the grass and picnic together, and everyone talks about Federico as if he were a living friend and not someone who had died decades ago.

Lorca was born not far from here, in the farming village of Fuente Vaqueros, in 1898, and spent much of his life in nearby Granada. The region -- Spain's lushest and most fertile river valley, the Vega -- inspired a lifelong passion in Lorca. "The blue mountains of the Vega look down, but distant and remote, as if they didn't want their rocks to reach this far where all kinds of fruit flower in the plush, rich earth," he wrote.

He moved with his landowner family to the ancient Christian-Muslim city of Granada in 1909. Like many of his generation growing up in conservative, ultra-Catholic Spain, Lorca was tortured by his homosexuality, and this emotion shades much of his writing. He eventually found solace in his close friendships with members of Spain's avant-garde, including Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel, but was never lucky in romantic love. "Why is the flesh love?" Lorca wrote in 1918. "I don't know…I can only say that if my heart bleeds, it is because of that. If my eyes cry it is because of that."

Since his death, artists such as Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and Bob Dylan have made pilgrimages to Lorca's Granada summer home, La Huerta de San Vicente, now a museum, to pay homage to this touchstone of lyrical modernism. Journeying to Granada today in search of the spirit of Lorca not only reveals layers of Spanish politics and history uncomfortably close to the present day (the Law of Social Danger, criminalizing homosexuality, was officially repealed only in 1995), but it also brings to vivid life the openness to the pleasures of life and to the beauties of the Spanish landscape that illuminates all of the poet's sensual lyrics. "His law was a law of love," says Laura Garcia Lorca de los Rios, director of the Fundacion Federico Garcia Lorca, who also happens to be the poet's niece. "I would encourage visitors to explore the joyous spirit of his life, his entire humanity, not just the martyrdom of his death."

Exploring the streets of Granada with Manuel Fernandez Rodriguez, an official Granada tour guide with a passion for Lorca, you smell, hear, taste, and feel sensations embodied in his poems: the taste of local olives at a tapas bar on a winding street near the cathedral; a glass of homemade palo cortado sherry poured from the tap of a wine barrel in an ancient bar; the sound of footsteps down the alleys along an ancient Arab caravansary.

"Granada is not pictorial," the poet wrote, "just as a river is not architectural. Everything flows, plays, and escapes. It is poetic, musical. A city of fugues." This evanescence, the feeling of fleeting histories, moods, is apparent everywhere but mostly in the heart of the city, where one can walk down a tiny lantern-hung alleyway constructed for Arab silk merchants and come out the other end confronted by the modern facade of a Yellow Rat Bastard shop.

Manuel points out a small restaurant, El Rincon de Lorca, at the end of a narrow street. Inside, the maitre d' stands beside a mahogany table laden with lilies and says, "This is the room Federico was taken from in '36 before he was shot. Back then it was a private house."

The sound of laughter and clinking glasses contrast with its tragic past. In the dark and elegant dining room, the spirit of Lorca hovers closely.

Outside, Manuel guides you around the streets Lorca walked as a student at the nearby law academy. He quotes poems that sometimes bring him close to tears and then Manuel speaks of Lorca's inner identification as a gay man who empathizes with all of Granada's marginalized people -- its Jews, gypsies, and blacks -- people who gave Granada a feeling of exotic otherness, even while being subsumed by Castilian culture. "This man had a soul," Manuel says. "Such a soul."

In the evening Lorca pilgrims go up into the Sacromonte, the poplar-dotted hills where gypsies traditionally lived and danced flamenco in caves. The flamenco evenings, although chock-a-block with tourists, still evoke the spirit of duende (or dark genius) so important to Lorca. You can walk or take a bus up the cobblestoned roads of the Alhambra Hill to toast Federico with a drink at the Hotel Alhambra Palace. This grand old luxuriously appointed hotel has stunning views of the Alhambra, Granada's famously stunning Moorish palace and fortress complex. Lorca often dined with friends at the hotel and put on puppet shows in the theater that still stands inside the establishment.

Finally, for an intense and moving experience focused entirely on Federico's various early residences outside the city, you can join a local full-day Lorca bus tour that travels to the major house museums and finally to the grave site of the poet and his fellow dissidents. The tour begins at La Huerta de San Vicente, the summer house of the poet and his family, which in his day was on the outskirts of the city, in the fertile Vega. It was surrounded by orange and olive trees and silent except for the sounds of the cicadas or an occasional crowing rooster.

Today, the house museum stands in the Garcia Lorca Park, a somewhat overmanicured but pretty pastoral oasis. The first thing you see inside is Lorca's piano, in a small room surrounded by drawings and paintings by friends such as Dali. Photos show the poet and his mother seated on the same comfy turn-of-the-century sofa that sits in the anteroom. In the quiet room, where almost everything is where it was placed in Lorca's day, it is if he has just gotten up -- inspired to write or play something at the piano or maybe to wander around the olive groves outside.

The next stop, through a landscape that is still largely agricultural but punctuated by the urban sprawl of Granada -- shopping malls and prefab apartments -- is the birthplace museum. The house at Fuente Vaqueros is a small and smoky place that smells like wood preservative but is, like all the house museums, much as it was in Lorca's day. A large and elegant black brass bed in which the poet was born sits next to his small childhood cradle, evidence of the bourgeois comfort that Lorca eventually repudiated.

In the town of Valderrubbio, the family's summer residence during part of Lorca's youth, the home is larger and lovelier. Elegant, high-ceilinged rooms are decorated with local ceramics. On the walls hang chiaroscuro photographs of the poet's young and handsome face, not yet burdened with the knowledge that his "difference" made him a social outcast. Lorca's guitar sits silent in his small and neat bedroom. A framed black-and-white print of Jesus carrying the cross hangs above the bed.

The tour's next stops, Alfacar and Viznar, the villages where the poet was shot and buried, respectively, bring the print's image into stark context. In Alfacar the guide points out the olive tree (still standing) by which Lorca and others stood when Fascist militia executed them. ("I shot him twice in the ass because he was gay," one of them was reputed to say). The men brought the bodies downriver to a mass grave nearby in Viznar, the site of the August 19 revels.

The grave site is marked by a stone tablet. Roughly translated it says, "Lorca is all of us." The rustling olive trees, the silence that holds sway here, and the dark spirit of duende that pervades the warm, still air are all evidence that the genius of Federico Garcia Lorca is still very much alive both in the lush landscape that nurtured him and the lives of the people for whom he will always be, simply, Federico.

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