Five remnants of Francisco Franco’s Rule Still Visible in Spain Today

by Emily Kellner

As Americans, our knowledge of Spanish history is generally limited.  Our public education system typically teaches us about Ferdinand, Isabella and the Inquisition; Columbus and the New World; and Cortés, Pizarro and the “discovery” of the Incas and Mayans.  Fast-forwarding half of a millennium, history class discussions of World War II and the European fascists focus mainly on Hitler and Mussolini, dedicating little attention to Spain’s Francisco Franco.

Aviles Street, Spain

The Spanish fascist dictator held his country in an oppressive, ultra-nationalist state for nearly 40 years, from 1936 until his death in 1975. Although he has now been out of power for approximately as long as he ruled, it was not until 2007 that Spain passed a controversial law, formally condemning the Francoist regime.  Still today, there is not a national consensus on how to view, remember, and move on from this difficult era.

Regardless, there are still many physical and cultural remnants of the Fascist dictatorship that permeate daily life in Spain.  Here are five to look for as you visit the beautiful Iberian nation:

1. The Time Zone

One of the most oft-mentioned aspects of Spanish daily life in guidebooks is the local eating schedule: Spaniards eat their biggest meal of the day around 2:00 or 3:00 pm, and then eat dinner, a lighter meal, around 9:00 or 10:00 pm.  While some neighboring countries also practice slightly later mealtimes than those to which most Americans are accustomed, Spain’s timetable is a direct reflection of a decision that Franco made in 1942. 

Prior to that year, the country was in its rightful time zone, Western European Time (a.k.a. Greenwich Mean Time), along with its peninsular neighbor to the west, Portugal, and the United Kingdom, which is located northeast of Spain.  Thus, it makes sense that Spain, sitting between these two countries, would share their clock.  However, in the middle of World War II, in an attempt to be more like his German and Italian allies, Franco joined their time zone, pushing Spain one hour later than its global position dictates.  Despite some efforts since, it has never been changed back.  

So, when Spaniards eat lunch at 2:00 pm and dinner at 9:00 pm, they’re simply following what the sun’s placement in the sky is telling their bodies – lunch is around what “feels like” 1:00 pm, when the sun is high in the sky, and dinner is at the internal hour of 8:00 pm, when this sun is somewhere in the process of setting, depending on the time of year.

Village in Spain

2. The Menú del Día

One of the best ways to taste some of Spain’s finest gastronomy for a more-than-reasonable price is the menú del día (daily menu), a fixed-price weekday lunch option available at most restaurants across the country, usually for around 10€ (though it can be as low as 7€ in rural areas and as high as 20€ or more in gourmet urban restaurants).  For this modest price, diners enjoy a two- or three-course meal, often with bread, a drink, and dessert or coffee, and it’s rarely a downgrade from restaurants’ regular menu fare.  While no doubt a favorite of locals as well, the menú is an excellent option for hungry tourists hoping to enjoy high-quality Spanish food without breaking the bank.

These fixed-price delicacies date back to a Franco-era policy started in the early 1960s that required restaurants to offer an affordable and filling lunch option for the country’s laborers.  While many of the dictator’s other policies were oppressive and have since been overturned, this one doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.

3. Spaniards’ English Skills

With English as the unofficial global language, large Spanish cities boast multilingual signage and staff at tourist hotspots.  Nonetheless, many Spaniards are the first to admit that their country is not known for strong English abilities.  (It is worth noting that this trend is starting to reverse, as the government pours money into bilingual schools, and many individuals attend language academies and hire private tutors to improve their job prospects in a time of economic crisis). 

However, the historic lack of English ability as compared to other European nations can be traced back to a decision made by Spain’s former fascist dictator; linguistic policy was one of the many arenas in which he wielded his nationalist power.  In addition to outlawing all secondary Spanish languages (Basque, Galician, Catalan and Valencian, among others) and making French the primary foreign language taught in schools, he ordered that all foreign movies and TV shows be dubbed, rather than transmitted in their original versions with Spanish subtitles.  This was nationalistically symbolic, and it also allowed the government to easily alter scripts, most famously changing a line in Casablanca to realign one character’s loyalty with the Spanish Nationalists.  

Although many Spaniards show an interest in learning English and actively seek out original versions of movies and TV shows, mass media has yet to catch up, as it continues to use dubbing in place of subtitles. This systematic lack of exposure to native English pronunciation contributes to the nation’s overall English level.

Plaza De España Seville Spain

4. Spanish Names

Tourists with some Spanish language background likely pick up that Sr., Sra., and Srta., are short for Señor (Mr.), Señora (Mrs.) and Señorita (Ms.), respectively. However, many are stumped by Ma, another abbreviation that appears in conjunction with a great deal of names, especially of men and women in their 40’s through 70’s.  These mysterious two letters are short for María, the Spanish version of Mary, and their prevalence is yet another relic from the Franco era.

As a nation comprised primarily of Catholics, many Spaniards give their children biblical names; however, the number of Marías born while the dictator was in power is significantly higher than the number who have been born since.  During his rule, Franco required all children born to be given either Christian names (such as Jesús or María) or traditionally Spanish names (like Laura or Antonio).  Since double names are common in Spain, many girls were given names that started with María and were followed by others, such as María Elena, María del Carmen, or María de la Soledad.  Women with these names frequently either drop the María altogether and go by the second name, or use composite nicknames such as Maricarmen and Marisol.  Boys, too, were given María-laden names, such as José María, though many drop the reference to the Virgin in daily use.  On official documents, however, the María is still included, or it is replaced with the elusive Ma.

5. The Valley of the Fallen (El Valle de los Caídos)

Perhaps the most literal and tangible remnant of Franco’s regime is the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen) monument in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, located about 35 miles northwest of Madrid.  The site consists of a 500-foot cross, a monastery and a church.  Commissioned by Franco himself in 1940, it was supposedly meant to commemorate the lives lost on both sides of the Spanish Civil War, yet many believe it was actually designed as a celebration of Nationalist victory, an idea whose irony only increases when taking into account that the monument was built by Republican prisoners.  The Valley of the Fallen remains cloaked in controversy to this day, fueled by an unequal percentage of bodies from both sides of the war buried at the site, the confusion and heartache caused by the exhumation and relocation of bodies into and among mass graves, and the presence of Franco’s remains.  A closer examination of these controversies is best kept for another venue, but suffice it to say that The Valley of the Fallen is an important part of Spanish history and is worthy of a visit, albeit with a critical eye.