Spain’s ghosts: The Spanish Civil War

Author Ana M. Afzali is shown with her book on Gonzalo Pando Rivero and his role in the Spanish Civil War. Afzali has a Ph.D. from UCLA and is a Spanish professor at Citrus College. Contributed Photo

Ana M Afzali, Ph.D., an expert on Spain, details the fascinating story of a fallen hero in her latest book

By Ben Marcus

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” 

– George Santayana, “The Life of Reason,” 1905.

Because in 1983, he spent a couple months surfing Mundaka and partying in Guernica, Your Humble Narrator has an ongoing interest in Spain, the Basque Country, Guernica, the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway and all things España. When he met Ana Afzali at Zinque, he had jibes and questions about Generalissimo Francisco Franco, Islamic symmetry and her book on the Spanish Civil War.

For the longer, vividly illustrated, Guernicolorized Writer’s Cut of this interview, go to:

To communicate with the author:

The Google translation of your book description on Amazon explains: “The biography of the Republican commander Gonzalo Pando Rivero offers an intimate and detailed approach to the life of the doctor who changed the scalpel for the shotgun that fateful day in July 1936 after the Franco military uprising that started the Spanish Civil War … With this study, the historian Ana Afzali offers us the itinerary of a great character of the Civil War who fought until the end for democracy in Spain with such important figures in history as Dolores Ibárruri, Enrique Líster, José Miaja, Santiago Álvarez, Ernest Hemingway and Gerda Taro.”

Interesting that a doctor would change the scalpel for the shotgun. Do Spanish doctors have a Hippocratic oath? “First do no harm.” 

Gonzalo Pando started realizing very early on in his life how the working class was being mistreated by landowners, and he was a true defender of democracy. Before the war he saved lives. When the war broke out he tried to save democracy and human rights and he gave his life in the process.

The book has been published in Spain and it is available on Amazon. I am currently working in the English edition and in search of the right publisher for it.

While surfing Mundaka in 1983, we had a couple wild nights in Guernica — kind of like the painting. When Mundaka went flat I wanted to do a quick trip to Madrid and the Prado to see Picasso’s painting. I jokingly told the Basque girls I was going to Madrid to spit on Franco’s grave. They got all excited and said, “Yes! That’s what we do!” I was kidding. They weren’t.

Franco did a lot of terrible things in Spain during the war and later during his almost four-decade dictatorship. He also empowered the Catholic Church to do a lot of terrible acts, like steal newborn babies from their mothers to give them for adoption to right-wing families. It is now coming to light that the Catholic Church took advantage of its situation and priests sexually abused thousands of children with impunity. The cases are now coming to light, and I am glad for that. I hope victims receive the reparation and apology they deserve.

Franco was buried for a long time in the Valley of the Fallen. The Valley of the Fallen is no longer his shrine, thank God.

So you are a medievalist and earned your doctorate at UCLA and you are now a professor, correct?

Yes, I have been a professor in the Spanish Department at Citrus College since 1997. It is my second home; I love working there and students challenge me and help me keep current. 

I have also been cooperating with the Smithsonian, and I lecture for Smithsonian Journeys in Spain when my calendar permits. I am an expert on Spain and on the history of the Camino de Santiago, where my family goes back over 300 years. I have lectured on this topic all over Spain, Portugal, and the U.S.

When we spoke a few days ago you said that you gave a presentation about your book, among other places, in Madrid, to an audience composed mostly of military personnel and generals. I’m sure the book was pro-Republican and anti-Fascist. Is there still a loud, violent right wing in Spain?

I had a warm reception at the Military Historical Library of Madrid. I am very proud of our military and within it you will find people with very diverse political views.

I think democracy is more delicate than most people think. The tragedy of the Spanish Civil War showed that. This makes my work relevant today. Our democracy is in trouble under the current political landscape.

How was the reception of your book in Spain?

Exceptional. There were also many articles published there about this project. I was interviewed, among other people, by Pablo Iglesias, the ex-vice Prime Minister of Spain. During that interview, he agreed with me that history is easy to forget and that this story should be told on the big screen as the world is about to repeat the mistakes of the past. 

What is the most surprising aspect of your book about the Spanish Civil War to American and Spanish readers alike, and what would you like to see happen with it?

Most people think that fascism was defeated for the first time during World War II when, in reality, this happened during the battle of Trijueque in Guadalajara in Spain, in 1937. This battle was won by my great uncle, Gonzalo Pando Rivero. In the book I published never-before-seen pictures of him with his soldiers and other generals taken shortly after that victory. They look like a scene out of a movie. Even Netflix has shown interest in this story. I would love to see socially conscious producers like Steven Spielberg show interest in this story and bring it to the big screen.

Are they as obnoxious and wrong in Spain as the right wing in America?

You are asking me to give you my political views. I have stated this many times and I will repeat it now: I am a historian. My work is not political. I simply document what I have learned of our past so that it does not repeat itself in the future.

Your book and the subject matter are scarily relevant to today. Do you think America is as divided now as Spain was in the 1930s?

Yes, I do. I was actually thinking about how similar the political landscape was in Spain just before the Spanish Civil War as it was in the U.S. when I was writing this book in 2021. When I turned the TV on, I saw in horror how the U.S. Capitol was under attack, it was Jan. 6.

There is more ignorance in the world and more powerful weapons today. Democracy is not as strong as we think, we must protect it.

Civil war book cover 4 19 2024
This book on a key figure in the Spanish Civil War was written by Ana M. Afzalie, Ph.D., whose planning to put out an English version of the book. Contributed Photo