SYA Reflections: Andover from Abroad

Ava Ratcliff ’21 is currently participating in SYA (School Year Abroad) Spain, a year-long study-abroad program Andover founded with Phillips Exeter Academy and St. Paul’s in 1964. According to the program’s website, SYA Spain students live with a host family in Zaragoza, Spain, taking courses with SYA while immersing themselves in the local culture. In this monthly column, Ratcliff offers her insights on studying away from Andover for an entire year.

Last year, my Spanish class spent a term learning about the regime of fascist dictator Francisco Franco in Spain. Later, we studied Basque and Cataluñan separatist movements. In the classroom, these events felt far away, inconceivable. This month, however, I experienced the effects of both in real life during protests in Barcelona and the exhumation of Franco.

On October 14, the Spanish Supreme Court sentenced nine Catalan separatists and government officials to up to 13 years in prison on charges of sedition because of the illegal referendum they facilitated in 2017. Those sentenced included the former Cataluñan vice president, and the foreign, labor, and interior ministers (the former president was not sentenced because he fled the country in 2017). For the five days following the sentence’s announcement, protests raged throughout Barcelona, injuring more than 600 people and causing closures at the airport and various streets.

Although I saw the protests on the news, I felt secure in Zaragoza, which is two hours northwest of Barcelona in the autonomous community of Áragon. However, when a friend I was meeting for dinner was late, I realized the movement had come in Zaragoza. When my friend finally arrived, she told me that she had been searched by the police, who had blocked off the streets for a protest in support of Cataluña and a counter-protest happening in the city center. Luckily, the protests in Zaragoza turned out to be nonviolent—in a global context, where many protesters have faced extreme levels of police violence, my friend and I are lucky. Still, the idea of walking home past rubber bullets and tear gas, which had been used in Barcelona the night before, felt too close to home.

The second piece of Spanish history I was lucky to see first-hand was the exhumation and reinterment of Francisco Franco. When Franco died in 1975, he was buried in the Valle de los Caidos, an enormous basilica outside of Madrid built specially for him and 33,000 soldiers who died in the Spanish Civil War. Although he did not die in combat like the tomb’s other inhabitants, he remained with them for decades. However, on October 24, Franco was exhumed and reinterred in a small cemetery to the north of the Valle de los Caidos where his wife is buried.

While my Spanish family celebrated the removal of this milestone in the fight against facism by sending me memes about the dictator and watching the Spanish satire show “El Intermedio,” the cultural significance of Franco’s exhumation shouldn’t be discounted. The president of the government, Pedro Sánchez, has taken a clear step to show that the fascism of the twentieth century is no longer welcome in Spain. Furthermore, by reinterring Franco in a family plot, Sánchez has reinforced the importance of remembering the mistakes of the past without glorifying them.

Being able to witness first-hand the same stories I had learned about in Spanish class has been one of the most powerful parts of SYA. When I first arrived in Spain, cultural differences made me feel like I was living in a world like “The Truman Show.” Nevertheless, seeing the stories I learned about in my spanish class play out before my eyes grounded me in the present. They reminded me that I came to Spain to be a participant in life, not an observer in a classroom.