Today we present a piece from author Sandie Holguín. Her recently released book Flamenco Nation explores how Flamenco dance became tied to Spain’s national identity. In this personal essay, Sandie details her journey of writing and researching the book, and the challenges of writing about a topic distant in regard to both geography and time.
If, as L.P. Hartley once said and historians like to quote, “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” what happens when a scholar grapples with the history of a foreign country? Can an outsider twice-removed by time and place contribute meaningfully to a discussion of that place’s past? These are questions I have wrestled with over the years while trying to write about the history of Spain, especially about ephemeral cultural phenomena. My questions are really no different from those that underrepresented communities ask when mainstream historians write about marginalized groups, and yet as a historian, I have to believe that one can engage in historical analysis about people, places, and times far removed from one’s own experience—otherwise, why does anybody practice history? Still, there seem to be greater barriers to understanding a culture and its past when the country, society, and language are not part of your cultural patrimony. Overcoming those barriers, or at least recognizing how to maneuver around them, requires experience in historical practice, patience, a willingness to listen, and the help of insiders.
When I began to imagine a cultural history of flamenco in Spain, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount that had been written on the subject, especially by people who were experts on the art form. Many scholars and flamenco aficionados could easily rattle off the names of performers, songs, rhythmic styles, and situate them in their places of origin. What could I, a North American with no background in music, have to say about something that seemed ubiquitous in Spanish culture (or at least in the culture that was presented to the world outside of Spain)? The only way for me to enter this study was to think in structural terms. How did cultural forms in various countries come to be dominant? For example, were there similar processes that made the tango popular in Argentina, the samba in Brazil, jazz in the United states, and flamenco in Spain? The answer was yes. Of course how those processes differed from country to country is what makes for engaging historical analysis. My grounding in nationalism studies and cultural history made it possible for me to begin to write something meaningful about flamenco and its role in Spanish history, despite the challenges present when speaking about a culture that is not one’s own.
The work of writing a history about a foreign country is fraught with danger, however. Language might be the primary one. If one is not a native speaker, then one cannot always attend to the nuances of humor, metaphor, or slang. And although a place’s culture (or multiple cultures) may have changed over time, one imagines—wrongly, no doubt—that one’s own historical culture is accessible in a way that a foreign country’s historical culture might not be. Immersing oneself in the country’s native scholarship and culture helps to soften these barriers, but having friends and colleagues from that place help even more because they aid in cross-cultural translation and, sometimes, just literal translation.
I have begun to view the distance in time and space as an advantage to understand Spanish history. Outsider status has granted me certain insights that might be harder to gain by those immersed within Spain’s many cultures, only because I am less personally invested in the national narratives that unfold in my research and writing and because I am at a remove from such horrors as Spain’s civil war and dictatorship. The anxiety I feel about “not getting it right” is mitigated by the knowledge that I am trying to listen both analytically and empathetically to the voices of the past to make sense of them. It is this journey toward cross-cultural, cross-temporal understanding that guides my work and gives me hope—however misguided—that the study of history can be used to understand our shared humanity, despite our many cultural differences.
Sandie Holguín is an associate professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, where she teaches European cultural and intellectual history and European feminist thought and gender studies. She specializes in Spanish history and is the author of Creating Spaniards: Culture and National Identity in Republican Spain.