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Lots of talk but no words

Spain is debating whether to add lyrics to its national anthem. Navigating the thicket of politics and regionalism is proving difficult.

September 14, 2007|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

OROEL, SPAIN — When Spanish schoolchildren sing their national anthem, they particularly love the line about Generalissimo Francisco Franco and his "white rear end."

OK, so those aren't the real lyrics. Because there aren't any.

Spain is one of the few countries that have a wordless national anthem. Popular culture, including the bawdy ballad that children famously sing to the anthem's melody, has tried to fill the void.

But now, putting words to the music has become the latest friction in a conflict over how to express Spanish identity at a time of increasingly polarized politics and heightened regional divisions, and when it seems the old tensions of the left-right civil war are being revived.

Alejandro Blanco, president of Spain's Olympic Committee, recently took up the cause. He was tired of watching Spanish athletes win international competitions and mount the victory podium only to remain tight-lipped as their national anthem was played.

Or, perhaps worse, they'd hum and mouth noises, a kind of na-na-nanana, at what should be a moment of supreme patriotism and glory.

"Spanish sportsmen want to feel as proud as the French, the English," Blanco said as he launched a competition for the public to submit lyrics. Sports, he reasoned, could be a unifying force.

But in a country with strong regional loyalties and a history of intense political divisions, agreeing on a set of words that pleases (or at least doesn't offend) the majority of Spain's citizens could prove impossible.

Domingo Murillo, a 76-year-old retired airplane manufacturer, is a prime example of why the project is likely to be so difficult.

On one late-summer evening of family celebration in this far corner of northern Spain, before a table heavy with the region's meats, pates and maroon-colored wines, Murillo rose to sing a patriotic anthem.

Voice choked with emotion as he sang the old traditional song, he serenaded the Pyrenees, "the thing that unites us." His song ignored borders and followed the land, the rivers and the snow-capped peaks.

"Montañas Pirineos," he intoned, "sois mi amor." Pyrenees mountains, you are my love.

"Nada es mas grande que mi patria, nada es mas bello que mi amistad." Nothing is greater than my homeland, nothing is more beautiful than my friendship.

For Murillo, the poetry about these mountains means more than any other anthem.

"I don't know the Spanish national anthem," he said. "Those symbols are not important to me."

Whether it's those kinds of regional affections, or raw political differences, the debate over the anthem is dividing public opinion.

The main opposition Popular Party, from the right wing, complains that the Socialist government ignores and belittles symbols of patriotism in the name of progress and in its eagerness to curry favor with Spain's diverse regions, from the Basque country and Galicia to Catalonia and Andalucia.

The government counters that the Popular Party wants to own patriotism and appropriate its symbols, from the flag to the coat of arms, for partisan purposes.

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The national anthem began as a military march in the mid-18th century, endorsed by King Charles III. Known first as "The Grenadier March" and later "The Royal March," the symphonic and rather uplifting melody continued in use -- wordlessly -- for generations until becoming caught up in the Spanish Civil War.

In 1931, the left-leaning Second Republic chose a different, less militaristic anthem. After Fascist Gen. Francisco Franco toppled the elected government in a bloody coup in 1936, touching off three years of fratricidal war, he reverted to the original anthem -- and added lyrics that exalted Spain's "victory" and "resurgence."

The words were seen by many Spaniards as heavy-handed, certainly a reminder of a dark period, and were dropped after Franco's death in 1975 as the country began its transition to democracy.

Now Blanco, of the Olympic Committee, has become the latest of a long string of aspiring sponsors of lyricists.

The Popular Party seized on Blanco's initiative, welcoming it and promising to set up a parliamentary committee that would ultimately approve the lyrics. A commercial television network, Telecinco, joined in, inviting proposals from viewers. Hundreds of people responded, and in blogs and newspaper columns, debate raged over whether it wouldn't be better to leave well enough alone.

The case of Murillo, the man enamored of the Pyrenees, may be extreme: The civil war drove his family from Spain, over the mountain range and into exile in southern France. So his attachment to national symbols might be more tenuous than most. But his ambivalence is echoed throughout this fragmented, diverse country.

"Putting words to the anthem now would be false -- like wearing a hairpiece," said Eva Higueras, 23, a computer science student from Getafe, a suburb of Madrid. " The anthem is emotional the way it is, and it's not going to be more so if words are added."

Alejandro Martin, 28, of Malaga, also opposes adding lyrics.

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