España Vuelta: Una Mirada en El Espejo

By: Juan Ortega of FIU


As a Cuban American, I always felt a connection to a tiny island I had never lived in floating in the ocean 90 miles away. I had listened to the stories my grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents, cousins, and more would share telling of a life that sounded so beautiful before they sought refuge in the United States. My entire identity revolved around those stories. The beauty of Cuba, painted in my mind with the most vibrant colors and high tempo sounds, was something only hyperbole could do justice to. Known as the “Pearl of the Antilles,” Cuba was an almost unimaginable paradise. However, while these stories built a bridge to a country I never knew, they also set firm foundations for myself as an American.

These stories told of how the U.S. was a land of promise and opportunity, of equality and justice. If Cuba was the heaven my family once knew, the United States of America was the haven they now loved. I felt that I was being raised in the best country in the world, one without fault and only goodness. Furthermore, as a Catholic, I felt that if the U.S. was this perfect of a country, it must have been the beacon on a hill for morality internationally. America was goodness.

As I aged, I took a particular interest to history and politics, and slowly reality revealed itself to me. No country is perfect. No culture is perfect. Nothing is fully good. From slavery to colonialism to racism to sexism, homophobia, genocide, war, famine, etc. I could only accept that humanity was flawed. Yet there always seemed to be a distance from it all. Colonialism was a European concept. Slavery was an Eastern invention. War did not happen in the United States. I remained immature in thought and idea for quite some time only for the veil to be ripped away. If I was going to claim heritage from Cuba, a land I never set foot in, it was only appropriate to claim heritage from Spain, where it all began. My reality, my identity, was going to be finally challenged. What were these cultures I so proudly claimed to be a part of?

Madrid: Races


Immediately stepping into Spain, I could see that perhaps America and Spain were not as different as I had previously thought. I strolled the streets, lost in the labyrinth of Madrid’s streets, hugged by the colorful homes that hid upcoming turns and corners. It was like walking through a fairy tale or a movie. However, while the beauty of Spain captured my attention at every second, one thing was completely swept under the radar for some reason: the people. More specifically, people of color in Madrid seemed to be shadows of a bustling, primarily white city. Furthermore, many seemed to be relegated to the lower parts of society. This became even more plainly apparent when we entered Puerta del Sol.

(Photo by: Giselle Lopez)

The geographical center of the city, all roads in the city lead to the Kilometre Zero plaque in front of the Casa de Correos. Here Madrid is celebrated through multiple cultural and historical displays. At the center of the plaza, a monument to King Carlos III looms over the pedestrians below, recognizing the pivotal role he played in developing Madrid from an undeveloped stretch of land to the city it has become today. To the right also stands a statue of Madrid’s symbol, titled “El Oso y El Madroño,” which depicts a bear eating from a strawberry tree. Here is where the Spanish banded together to attempt an expulsion of French troops from the country when Napoleon Bonaparte led his conquests across Europe in the early 1800s. Here is where Francisco Franco had prisoners jailed and “accidentally” killed for resisting his regime. The history of Madrid lives here. Madrid comes to life here.

Just below the pomp and circumstances of the plaza, the people go about their days just trying to survive. Northern African migrants sell knockoff merchandise, and Middle Eastern gypsies beg for money. Costumed characters roam around for pictures, hiding the faces of the poor who find themselves desperately involved in organized crime to feed their families. However, their plights go unnoticed. The locals pass them by everyday without batting an eye. Tourists interact with them almost as though it is something to experience while abroad. All I could be reminded of was Time Square in New York, a city center widely considered to be the amalgamation of America. Immigrants and the poor share these same plights in the U.S., doing what needs to be done to get by. I wondered, “If America is seen as an international leader, how can this be the reality for so many Spaniards?” only to realize the answer. While abroad I kept up to date with the news in America, and realized that coverage on the Mexican children being held in cages at the border was being reported in Spain, as well. If we were an example morally, then Spain was following relatively well.

Sevilla: Religion

Santa Maria de la Sede

The question of my identity continued to linger in my mind has we left Madrid and headed south, to Sevilla. This city was very different from Madrid. In terms of size, Sevilla was much smaller, less grand. However, its beauty exuded in different ways. The quaint, close quartered buildings zigzagged, while cars zipped through on the brick roads. Stores were tight rooms with not much space for shoppers, and restaurants were long and narrow since width was not an option among the cluster of apartments and hotels. Then in the city center stood the enormous Santa Maria de la Sede Cathedral. This building told the stories of multiple societies and thousands of years of history. A Catholic structure, the cathedral incorporates La Giralda, a former Islamic minaret converted into a bell tower. At the base of it, the foundation is made of stones laid during the Roman eras. Secular, Islamic, and Christian, the cathedral incorporates multiple cultures. The outside still has the plaza of orange trees with narrow, shallow grids of water formerly used by Muslims before entering the site of the mosque that once stood there. The outer walls tell the Biblical stories with Islamic artwork surrounding depictions of Jesus and His disciples. Gargoyles stand guard against evil and sin with La Giralda playing the same role it was built to play but for a different audience. In some ways, it was beautiful to see so many cultures coexisting and respecting the beauty of one another. In other ways it seemed ironic.

Just a few blocks away, the Guadalquivir River, the fifth longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, flows. At its mouth stands the Torre del Oro, or Tower of Gold in English. While only one tower stands, there was once an identical tower on the other side of the river; these towers served the purpose of collecting taxes from ships returning from the Americas and Africa. Here Native Americans were brought for exhibition and Africans were brought for slavery. Once passed the towers, they were brought to the steps of the cathedral for sale, an ironic lack of respect for other cultures and colors in a building that encompasses diversity as its foundation.

As a Catholic, I could not wrap my head around this idea, especially because the carving above the entrance to the cathedral’s walled plaza is of Jesus expelling the merchants from the temple. In the Bible, this story depicts merchants selling livestock, but in Spanish history it was slave traders selling people as if they were livestock. Catholicism was used by the Spanish to help justify colonization, stating that it was the duty of the Catholics to evangelize and help bring the Native Americans to the Church. Furthermore, it was stated that the Natives were too primitive to govern themselves, and it was the duty of the Spaniards to govern them simply out of moral obligation.

This bastardization of the religion I was taught struck me. The United States is regularly referred to as a Judeo-Christian country, insinuating that the laws and overall character of the U.S. stem from Christian teachings. It gave me chills thinking that entire civilizations were decimated for greed and power all under the name of God.

Furthermore, it brought up an interesting thought to my mind. In Cuba, the concept of racism is not one that is widely discussed or examined. That is because racism is taught to have ended when Fidel Castro came into power and the Revolution won since the main tenants of the Revolution were economic and social equality. Discussing racism would be a questioning of the effectiveness of the Revolution, which is not socially acceptable. Therefore, race relations on the island have remained widely unchanged since the 1950s because they go unchallenged. This was absolutely jaw dropping to me when I first learned this because slavery and colonization have forever changed and tainted race relations. However, the way to at least try to improve it is to have open dialogue in order to find where failures can be rectified. Moments of history, like the one on the steps of the cathedral, are typically not discussed in Spain. This made me realize how much of history is likely sugarcoated and how little progress can be made with that happening. Religion and quotes from the Bible played a massive role in the justification of abusing people. The Church has tried to mend ties with oppressed individuals and victims of colonization over the centuries, even if it has not been a perfect effort. However, we as everyday Catholics or just people in general seemingly tend to avoid the knowledge and discussion of what happened in the past. That wanting of ignorance will only spread ignorance.

Barcelona: Independence


Continuing to face the ugly sides of history of groups I proudly claimed being a part of, we boarded a train for Barcelona. That six hour train ride gave me more than enough time to reflect on what I had experienced so far. Little did I know I would continue to be rattled by the things I continued to learn. Pulling into the train station, there was already a difference. The language of Catalan was everywhere, whether it was on the signs around the station or just people speaking to one another. Catalonian flags waved proudly above public buildings, and locals draped the flags from their balconies. This was no longer Spain. This was Catalonia. There was a strong national identity in Barcelona but not one that I expected to encounter. The citizens here did not claim to be Spanish; in fact, they strongly rejected that identity if anything. They wanted to be free. They wanted independence.

I found it inspiring that an area with a different national identity still wanted to break free and self govern. I could understand its lack of popularity worldwide since Spain is an ally to many Western countries, but I respected the people for striving for something more. However, I then found it odd. The United States was the catalyst for the Age of Revolution that helped kick off the beginning of the end to colonialism. Yet when a nation that shares the same ideals as us wants freedom we do not support them. I knew that it was not such a simplistic answer, but it was a recurring thought in my mind.

We strolled Barcelona, seeing the Catalonian pride everywhere. From the Tibidabo at the top of the mountains, with Jesus’s hands outstretched; to the Sagrada Familia, which to its own extent mirrored a mountain; to the beaches of the coast, packed with proud Catalonians; Barcelona was a world on its own, separated by ocean and mountain from the rest of Spain.

In the Eixample, the more modern part of the city, a small, almost hidden treasure laid nestled in the buildings. La Palau de la Música Catalana, open in 1908 and designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, the building is meant to resemble natural elements, incorporating nature into its design. A huge chandelier lit by sunlight hangs into the music hall, designed to look like the sun itself. The pillars resemble trees, supporting the roof above. The windows are stained glass, giving the impression of a flower garden. Against the back wall of the stage, fifteen muses sprout from the wall, each with a different clothing and hair design to represent the diversity of music played in that room. This is one of the crowning jewels of Barcelona. It has been preserved for generations to come by the UNESCO World Heritage Site, as have multiple monuments to Christopher Columbus.

I found that extremely odd, as while the muses celebrate diversity, Christopher Columbus is widely seen to be a figure harkening back to colonization and slavery in the eyes of many Americans. La Palau de la Música Catalana invites multiculturalism, but many feel Columbus actually repels it. I took solace in at least one thing: the United States has been making strides in removing monuments, murals, or other offensive symbols from the public and moving them into museums.


America has an ongoing discussion about race and religion, and while it many times gets ugly, at least there is a discussion happening. There are many changes to be made and many faults to be righted. Yet there is still a search for the common goal and creed of justice and equality. The acknowledgment that we have not yet reached that goal is crucial to progress. Traveling Spain only made my identity more clear to me. I was no less American, Cuban, or Catholic. However, it provided a more holistic, worldly view of the histories that created me. I learned to accept that I am not responsible of the sins for those that came before me, but I responsible for fixing the wrongs they may have created in order to leave a future more beautiful than the past. As someone that wants to pursue a career in politics, this trip taught me the range of influence and impact that the United States has, the effect that history plays in our current culture, and the fact that progress can only be made if one looks directly into the ugly history many have tried so long to hide. So I thank you, Spain, for teaching me more about who I am than I had ever known. Thank you, Spain, for forcing me to question what I had been taught in order to form an opinion of my own. Thank you, Spain, for being a part of the mosaic of my being that I once rejected but now embrace. Thank you, Spain, for being una mirada en el espejo.

Juan Ortega: España As Texts 2019

by Juan Ortega of FIU

Juan Ortega is a double major in Political Science and History. He is currently playing to law school. His dream job is to be President of the United States. He would also like to travel to Australia—just has to get rich first.

Madrid As Text

“Culture Clash”

By Juan Ortega of FIU in Madrid, España

Photograph by Juan Ortega

Madrid: the heart of Spain. What was once an irrelevant, poor, forgotten city now stands as the capital of the country. The soul of Spain is a fusion of Italian, French, and ancient Roman influences. The culture of Spain is largely a generic European culture. The aspects unique to Spain are typically adopted and adapted from the cultures that came before. The Jews and the Muslims that thrived in the Iberian Peninsula and then were expelled left their marks on. Madrid became the melting pot of the nation. Except these cultures have not necessarily melted together, as they have actually become pieces in a larger cubist painting. The architecture, art, and literature of Spain is almost forcibly Spanish. El Greco, which translates to “The Greek”, was not a Spanish native but the country adopted his style and claimed it to be their own. Federico Garcia Lorca changed poetry in the country by looking back into Spain instead of outside of its borders, like most other poets. The multiculturalism of the country creates a Spanish culture that is an amalgamation of those that came before and those that coexisted with Spain.

However, there is a stark similarity to the culture of Spain today and that of centuries ago: race. When walking down the intersecting roads of Madrid, one cannot avoid seeing the homeless faces. These faces, while ranging in age and story, rarely range in race. Black and Middle Eastern Spaniards try to make a living selling toys, clothes, or simply begging for food and money, yet the population walks on by. Gypsies and street vendors always look over their shoulders for the sight of a police office approaching.

The culture of Spain is one that struggles to address and deal with race relations. From the imperialist conquests of los conquistadors to the everyday avoidance of contact between fellow citizens, there is a seemingly understood hierarchy. Just as the Spaniards made painstakingly clear what each mixture of race was called, there still seems to be a belief in those old fashioned thoughts.

Toledo As Text

“A City on a Hill”

By Juan Ortega of FIU in Toledo, España

Photograph by Professor John William Bailly

Toledo is a land lost in time trapped in the middle of nowhere. A small labyrinth surrounded by the walls meant to protect it from invaders, no one can deny the layers of history built into the city. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity neighbor one another, coexisting and taking influences from one another. From the keyhole archways to the towering gothic cathedral that looms over the city, it is a city that by all historical accounts should not exist in the fashion it does. As one climbs the mountains around the city, it becomes clear that while each part of the city is gorgeous, it’s entirety is a work of art. 

The rocks themselves become a kind of metaphor for the city. The rocks and thorns that outline the trails are risk for injury and discomfort, much like the risk for conflict and eradication between that the three religions that have existed for centuries. However, Toledo is different. Toledo is a literal and metaphorical city on a hill. Gorgeous from the outside and exciting from within. The city take the conflict of culture clashes Spain has dealt with and transforms it into a beautiful example of what could be. There is no denying that the history of Toledo is far from fault, but taking the city at face value one can imagine a world where all coexist regardless of religion or creed.

Granada As Text

“Somewhere in Paradise”

By Juan Ortega of FIU in Granada, España

Photograph by Juan Ortega

A square rising to the heavens from the earth slowly transforms into a star. The spinning ceiling finds itself forming a circle: the symbol of perfection. In this circle lies a lote tree symbolizing what paradise awaits us after death. However, paradise is the Alhambra. It’s gardens, manicured and sculpted, bring the concept of what Heaven is down to the human realm. Meanwhile, the reflection pools mirror the skies above, calm and still. Also, the domes, grand in their scale and ambiance, attempt to give even the slightest impression of Allah’s greatness. And while it is believed that nothing can match His true glory, the structure comes close. Serving as a palace, a fortress, and a mosque, religion meets opulence all with the purpose of bringing glory to God. This is a contrast from all I have ever known. Cathedrals are grand but with a different purpose; it was all meant to display power here on Earth. Something seemed more pure in the representation of it all. The words in the poems that lined the walls all sounded familiar, like they could have been a passage straight from the Bible. This was an artwork and style so foreign to me but it’s inspiration strangely familiar. Having never seen Islamic art, I expected to be confused or lost, but I understood every purpose and meaning behind the smallest details. Catholicism and Islam pray to the same God, have some of the same texts, and teach the same tenets. However, the history of their relationship to one another is wrought with war and violence. How could two things that are so similar be at odds with one another? The Alhambra poses as massive Islamic being that exists in Spain and was preserved partly thanks to an American. It’s words are Muslim but could be Christian if they were said without context. There I realized that while the culture that built this was distinct and different from any culture I have ever known, it’s focus on solely religion, instead of politics, invited the formation of a community in its walls. There I felt like I was in paradise.

Sevilla As Text

“Pain of Spain”

By Juan Ortega of FIU in Sevilla, España

Photograph by Lauren Batista




The story of Spain begins. The woman, dressed in black slowly approaches the stage. The man, seated at the edge of his seat let’s out a mournful cry that echoes throughout the patio. The guitarist rapidly speeds up the tempo. The woman takes off in a rapid combination of stomps, hand movements, head turns, and spins, unraveling her hair from strictly slicked back to a mess. Her pain is evident. “Allah!” the man yells. Like an angel, she glides across the stage. Like an eagle, she snaps her long, talon-like fingers. Like an ox, she breaks out storming from one corner to the other. And like a lion, she roars her pain to the audience. The pain of a history wrought with oppression, colonialism, racism, and division becomes clear in only movement. A dance originating from the gypsies, an ethic and cultural group forced into the shadows, takes center stage to tell the story of the oppressing group. Dark, dreadful, distressing, the woman takes the role of the protagonist for a story so multifaceted and dynamic even Picasso would struggle to frame it. Who is she? Is she a Native American losing her home? Is she a Muslim or a Jew being expelled from it? Is she a Republican watching it burn? Only one thing is clear. She is Spain. Yet even in all this agony there is beauty. Never once does she seem weak. She controls the stage, her rage, and her survival. Her story is somehow foreign but relatable because it stretches across time. Whether a Spanish citizen by choice or by force, the unifying factor is their humanity. She stomps and pauses. As she looks back, she sees what has been only to realize that the present is not much different. Spanish remains a country split on identity: who wants to remain and who wants to leave. The answers of questions past and present will continue to remain confusing for the foreseeable future. But who knows, perhaps the answers will come through Sevilla, as all things once did.

Sitges As Text

“‘Home’ Away from Home”

By Juan Ortega of FIU in Sitges, España

Photograph by Juan Ortega

As I marveled at all the priceless art pieces, my thoughts traveled a mile a minute. Anchoring artifacts from Italy lay side by side with original Picasso’s which neighbored Goya’s and so on. If I was not overwhelmed enough already, it would be impossible to ignore the fact that the building that housed these works was a masterpiece in and of itself. The waves lapping below with a beautiful blue sky mirroring the ocean back, I was back in Miami. I was home. Yet I could not be home. In Miami sat artifacts and art pieces that could take even the most decorated art historian or critic’s breath away. However, that art sits in a foreign room in a foreign house on foreign land. That art is displayed in a cold, spaced out museum in Chicago. It was taken from its native land in because of a dark and clouded mind. But so goes the history of Spain does it not?

The country has taken, stolen, and exhibited countless items through its imperialist conquests. Even humans were shipped across the Atlantic to be ogled at, treated as exhibited themselves. Their cultures robbed and their histories bastardized, Spain has destroyed works of art. Catalonia claims this same victimhood as the civilizations whose cultures were manipulated by Spain. But so goes the history of Catalonia does it not?

It reaped the same benefits of Christoper Columbus’s expeditions. It grew in wealth from being by the sea, as a welcoming place for goods and trophies from abroad. The independence it sought came from a relatively new fervor following Franco’s regime.

So maybe Sitges is not so different from Miami. I am as much at home here as the artifacts taken to Spain and displayed on these walls.

Barcelona As Text

“I give you…”

By Juan Ortega of FIU in Barcelona, España

Photograph by Juan Ortega

At the peak of Tibidabo, over looking Barcelona, one can see a timeline. Below lies a city hugged by the mountains and the sea, cut off from the rest of Spain, a sentiment that runs deep here. One can see a history of a poor, nothing town that sprouted from the ground as hopeful individuals came looking for work. Look a little further and one can see those who were better off looking to the mountains for refuge from the common worker, building mansions to shadow their tiny homes and factories. Also there, one can see Gaudí painting the hill side with architecture never before seen, blending in with nature but ever so distinctly his man made creation. To the center of the city one can see Sagrada Familia erupting from the ground, a personal letter written for God from Gaudí and mailed to Him by the people of Barcelona. Still continuing, one can see a statue of Christoper Columbus peering over the streets, a constant reminder and celebration of Spain’s tainted past. One can see the beaches where millions have fled to trying desperately to cross the Mediterranean Sea from war torn regions searching for a new and better life. One can see the flag of Catalonia flying seemingly everywhere, defying Spanish identity and rule and constantly declaring sovereignty over the city. One sees Catalonia.

And here it lies, all at the base of Tibidabo. Translated, the word “Tibidabo” means “I give you.” Jesus stands overhead, arms spread open as if to say, “I give you Barcelona.” What do I do with it? Do I live it? Do I experience it? Do I dare? I do. I finish my first Catalonia as Text and walk into Barcelona.

XC Monserrat As Text

“A View On War”

By Juan Ortega of FIU in Monserrat, España

The trails were quiet in Monserrat, with only the crackling of leaves beneath my feet to tell me this was reality. Trees shot up from the ground to immense heights, shrouding me in their branches. The path continued leading upwards and upwards, almost like a staircase to heaven. Here the history of Spain, Africa, Catholicism, and Islam clashed and melded. Here legends were created, myths were born, and miracles were spoken of. The Black Madonna, found in one of the many caves of these mountains by its emission of light according to tradition, sat in the monastery below. Ever upwards, more caves, which were told to have held dragons tamed by the Moors and used for battle, stayed mouth open waiting to be explored. Here the Spanish pushed back the Moors in the Reconquest of Spain. All of this on the mountains said to have been cut with saws by angels. I got to be at the top of the world.

The world so small below me, everything came into a clearer perspective, ironically. These mountains held stories of war and propaganda. How stupid that fighting seemed from up here. Who could fight with a view like this?

American Political Identity as Influenced by Spain

By Juan Ortega

Studying abroad in Spain with Professor John William Bailly

Propaganda promoting American imperialism

What is the United States of America? One may think of words such as “capitalist”, “democratic”, “equal”, etc. to define the idea of the United States. Documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution would likely pop into the thinker’s mind. However, all of these ideologies that frame the concept of America stem from Europe. While many may think these are adaptations of British ideas, they would be incorrect. These came from Spain.

Politically speaking, the United States adopted multiple ideas from Spanish influence. Politics is a wide umbrella of topics that can be broken down into the main three factors that keep a country prospering, functioning, and secure: economics, legislation, and military. Of these topics, the United States of America has grown to become the superpower it is today in part due to Spanish creations. From capitalism to human rights to guerrilla warfare, the United States has adopted multiple Spanish-born ideas to help grow and spread its interests.

Christopher Columbus founding the Americas, starting Spanish colonialism


The founding of the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492 started the race for colonies amongst multiple European states. Funded by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, Columbus’s claim of the Americas for Spain provided an immediate increase in raw materials for production and manufacturing of finished goods to be sold around the world. This was the birth of colonialism.

Colonialism was a direct result of the economic ideology of the time: mercantilism. This concept described global wealth as finite. Currency was backed by precious metals, meaning that all the wealth in the world was limited to the amount of precious metal that existed. Therefore, the economy was a zero sum game. It was the goal of all European countries to accumulate as much of the wealth as possible.

In order to accumulate such wealth, countries had to produce finished goods that would be desirable for buyers both inside and outside the country. However, this was a constant balancing act because it was believed that if imports outweighed exports that would mean wealth was leaving the country. It was the constant goal to have exports far surpass imports, meaning a country would need more colonies for even more raw materials.

New York Stock Exchange

It was a race to basically conquer the world, and Spain had the lead. Inspired by the Spanish, the Portuguese began its search for colonies as well. Portugal began to fight for pieces of South America, setting up colonies in what is today Brazil. It also began setting up colonies in Africa along the southwestern and southeastern coasts since merchants would have to traverse around the entire continent to reach Asia, and these ports were prime real estate for resupplying. Fighting between the two countries, both ruled by Catholic monarchs, broke out, forcing the intervention of the Church. Born in Spain himself, Pope Alexander VI produced the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the globe in two halves. Spain was given ownership of all land discovered and undiscovered 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, and Portugal was given claim to the land east of the line. This would not be the first time religion interfered in political matters, but that will be elaborated on later.

Capitalism was inspired by this European search to concentrate wealth. English thinkers Adam Smith, James Steuart, and David Ricardo were the ones that primarily formed the concept of capitalism by arguing against many practices of mercantilism. For example, the governments that did follow mercantilism would practice many protectionist policies in order to avoid over importation, as mentioned earlier. In order to ensure that wealth was not escaping the country heavy tariffs would be placed on foreign products; therefore, people would be forced to buy from sellers within their own countries. The products that were not sold would then be stored away or destroyed. These thinkers argued towards a global economy in which multiple national economies would buy and sell from one another and rely on credit instead of precious metals. Mercantilism would go on to evolve into capitalism, and while the concept was formalized by English thinkers, it came as a result of Spanish expansionism.

Capitalism has since become a centralized theme in American culture. A lack of regulations on big businesses comes from the concept of laissez faire, translating to “hands off”, that limits government intervention in the free market. Even the concept of the free market itself stems from the goal of trying to accumulate as much wealth as possible. However, now wealth is seen is unlimited.

Bartolome de las Casas and Native Americans

Legislation: HUMAN RIGHTS

Part of the discussion revolving around human rights actually stems from the aforementioned involvement of the Catholic Church in Spanish politics. While colonialism helped to boom the Spanish economy, the discovery of Native Americans introduced a very peculiar situation. Since the Natives lived on what was claimed to be Spanish territory would they be subjects to the crown? Were they human? Were they equals?

The treatment of Native Americans was from then on one of brutality, rape, murder, and slavery. Natives were overwhelmed by well-armed and well-organized conquistadors using weapons never before seen by the Natives and completely incomparable to the spears and bows and arrows the Natives used. Furthermore, aside from soldiers being sent to the New World, priests were also sent to begin evangelization.

First, to justify colonialism in the New World to Spaniards that questioned its morality, King Ferdinand, Queen Isabella, and the legal jurists argued that the Spanish had the right to exploration since the world was created by God for man’s use. Furthermore, the Spanish had the right to evangelize, and finding an entire population that had yet to hear of Catholicism meant more followers for Christ. The Spanish also had the right to protect themselves against the Natives; if the Natives should attack them or reject the faith, the Spanish rationalized that armed conflict would then be justified. Therefore, it would be a righteous war. These rights were granted to the Spanish simply on the basis of their humanity as children of God.

To justify the treatment of Native Americans back in Spain, the government argued that the Natives were lacking the truth of God’s Will, and it was the Spanish’s responsibility to God as a Catholic nation to spread the Good News. Missionaries were set up all throughout the Americas, with forced conversions becoming common. Torture and cruelty were the norm to force Native Americans to give up their own gods, rituals, and beliefs for acceptance of monotheism and the Catholic dogma. However, the introduction of Catholicism to the Natives would actually help in their eventual legal protection.

Civil Rights March in 1963

Some members of the Church, such as Dominican friar Bartolome de las Casas, began writing to the king regarding the conditions the Native Americans were being subjected to. His writings became some of Spanish society’s first encounters with the harsh realities of what was happening in the Americas. Another member of the Church, theologian and philosopher Francisco de Vitoria, began to write on the concept of natural law as a reaction to de las Casas’s leters. Natural law states that each human being is born with an innate moral compass, with an understanding of what is right and what is wrong. During the 1500s, when de las Casas and de Vitoria were writing, it was understood that this moral understanding was ordained by God. De Vitoria states that since Native Americans were taught Catholicism, there is an acceptance that they, too, are human beings. Furthermore, by their very nature as humans and their ability to perceive morality and immorality, they are also children of God. Therefore, they are equals to the Spanish. His writings helped to push King Charles II to create the New Laws of the Indies of 1542.

This legislation went on to grant Native Americans Spanish citizenship as well as protections from unequal treatment. The Natives were to be taxed and paid fairly. Most importantly, the law abolished slavery of Native Americans. If a Spaniard in the New World did want to hold a Native as a slave they would have to present their case in Spain, which was far too expense and too long a travel for many to justify holding enslaved Natives. The encomienda system was also abolished. This system stated that when conquistadors conquered an area, the land was to be split amongst them. The Natives that resided on the portion of land given to a conquistador were then under his jurisdiction. While this was introduced partly to help with evangelization, it became a type of quasi-slavery.

This legislation was extremely unpopular in the New World and was not fully enforced due to the fact that colonies had a certain sense of autonomy allowed to them by geographical distance. However, this is widely considered to be the first piece of human rights legislation. The discussions meant to justify Spanish colonialism and those meant to protect Native Americans became some of the first discussions ever regarding the rights guaranteed to a human being simply on the basis of their existence. This is no way crediting Spain or the Catholic Church with progressive ideals. Following the passing of this legislation, Spain began to import African slaves. Therefore, one cannot seriously say that Spain or the Catholic Church were leaders in this field. However, this legislation helped to implement the idea into the social psyche, which would eventually grow with abolitionists calling for an end to slavery. This legislation was extremely unpopular in the New World and was not fully enforced due to the fact that colonies had a certain sense of autonomy allowed to them by geographical distance. However, this is widely considered to be the first piece of human rights legislation. The discussions meant to justify Spanish colonialism and those meant to protect Native Americans became some of the first discussions ever regarding the rights guaranteed to a human being simply on the basis of their existence.

These concepts find themselves ingrained in the American Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution, which list a people’s right to recreate a functioning government should their government fail, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc. The ideal of innate human rights has become integral to the American identity, as oppressed groups have used these documents to argue against segregation, inequality, etc. throughout generations. The belief in human rights led to documents like the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the U.S., and later the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to secure legal protection for people of color. While America does have a history of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination, the centrality of human rights in the founding documents has pushed the country constantly forward, always progressing.

Guerrilla warfare being used in the Peninsular War


While the techniques behind guerrilla warfare have been used for centuries, the formalization of the informal warfare was done by Spain. Following Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power in France at the end of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars broke out across Europe. These conflicts came from Napoleon’s quest to conquer all of Europe. The French army under his guidance was seemingly unstoppable, defeating large, organized army after large, organized army on the battlefield. However, the French’s biggest rivals came from small, disorganized armed militias. The Peninsular War began in 1807, when Napoleon’s Grand Armée invaded the Iberian Peninsula. As the French marched across the peninsula, small Spanish militias would hide in the brush, over hills, and behind buildings along their path. Then, when the time was right, they would rain down bullets on the French and quickly retreat.

These surprise attacks were not the norm of for European warfare at the time that saw two organized armies meeting at a location, lining up, and firing at one another until one army retreated or surrendered. The militiamen that fought using this tactic became known as “guerrilleros”, which roughly translates to irregular fighters. Guerrilla warfare was so effective that it eventually pushed the French out of Spain, and Napoleon referred to the constant losses in Spain as the “Spanish ulcer”.

Guerrilla warfare is largely associated with rebellions and resistance groups that are under armed or underfunded. American interventionist policies following World War II have actually led to a rise in American support of guerrilla warfare. Throughout the Cold War and even today, with conflicts such as the Syrian Civil War, the United States has provided weapons, ammunition, and basic training to rebels. This training largely focuses on guerrilla style tactics since most rebel fighters are not trained professionals. The optics of guerrilla warfare has actually helped to spread American interests in a region and justify direct intervention: a poorly organized group of everyday citizens trying to fight off the big bad enemy. This type of imagery has, on more than one occasion, been used to help garner sympathy from American citizens to boost war morale.


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