I’ve been to the village of Tardajos three times (10km west of the centre of Burgos), in 2016, 2018 and 2022, and if you’ve walked the Camino Francés, you’ve certainly passed through it too. When I was there in 2018 I noticed something that surprised me; the name of the principal street was Calle General Yagüe. If you want to know what kind of person Juan Yagüe was (1891–1952), let’s just say it’s never heartening to hear ‘Butcher of…’ put in front of a name, and in the Spanish Civil War the ‘Butcher of Badajoz’ was one of the Francoists’ most competent field commanders, and one of their most brutal too. When I returned to Tardajos in 2022, the name had been changed to Avenida de España (Google Maps still has its old name, although the street view images have been updated).
This time around I had enough Spanish to inquire about the change, and it was a pattern that I found replicated in subsequent small villages and towns, where (I’m told) the names of places that commemorated Francoists had been changed by regional or central government. Another 40km west, outside of Itero de la Vega, an old man told me that three streets in the village named for Generals Franco, Mola and Calderón had all been renamed (Itero de la Vega is so small I doubted if there were even three streets in it). When I asked him his opinion on the changes, he was opposed saying that there had been no local consultation and it felt like someone had come into his house and told him they didn’t like where he had put the bed and that he had to move it. Anger at lack of consultation was a sentiment repeated elsewhere, but none of the people I talked to seemed to have questioned whether locals were asked if they wanted their street names changed in the 1940s! I suspect that many were quite comfortable with their Francoist past.
While all this has much to tell us about the politics of remembering and forgetting in post-Franco Spain, it also touches on something deeper – the power of names. The right to name is a precious privilege, guarded jealously and intimately associated with ownership and control, for example in western societies your parents’ right to name you or your right to name your children is considered almost sacrosanct. The ability to name places is an exercise in control and also controls the social, communal and historical narrative that goes with them. Keith Basso in his famous book on places and placenames of the Western Apache in Arizona, brilliantly summed this up in its title – Wisdom sits in Places.
Given the number of small towns that have a ‘Calle Camino de Santiago’ (or some such), most of which are certainly modern coinings, I can’t help but wonder how many of them obliterate Francoist names that no longer suit the ecumenical image that the Camino is intended to portray?