My Argentine grandparents spoke often and fondly of their visits to Spain; traveling to “la Madre Patria” was like going home to them.
A popular sobriquet for Spain in Latin America, “la Madre Patria” supposedly holds no ideological meaning, but how do you untangle religious symbolism when it’s such a big part of culture and identity?
Abuela was not especially devout, and yet she always had prayer cards in her purse to share with loved ones. She didn’t go to church on Sundays, but she made regular pilgrimages to Buenos Aires’ Basilica of Luján, home to the patron saint of Argentina. She even carried me there as a baby, on a transatlantic trip that I repeated with my children.
So perhaps it should come as no surprise that when I too made the pilgrimage to la Madre Patria, on a visit to Spain’s Costa Brava region, my tours often began at churches.
At the center of the ancient citadel city of Girona, I followed a trail of rose petals from a recent wedding along the 89 steps leading to the Catedral de Girona, renowned for the moral tales found in its12th century marble sculptures.
Next door, at the Church of Sant Feliu, a plaque tells of an annual celebration, on October 29th and continuing until All Saints Day, that brings the townsfolk of Girona to cover the floor of the Chapel of St. Narcissus with blessed cotton, in hopes that the saint will relieve ear pain.
Nearby, in the Call, the Jewish quarter of Girona, exhibits in some of Girona’s oldest medieval buildings of The Museum of the History of the Jews, educate the faithful and the curious about the cabala and the turbulent relationship between Christians and Jews in Catalonia. But they also invite the public to attend cross-cultural music, theater, and dance events.
On a daytrip to Vall de Núria in the Pyrenees, we passed massive sculptures representing the Stations of the Cross across a mountain landscape that in winter is dotted with passing skiers.
And in the chapel dedicated to Saint Gil, we saw a family writing notes that would be added to the stack found at the foot of a wooden stature of the Virgin, presumably expressing gratitude. It seems that in Catelonia, a remedy for infertility is for a wife to pray before the cross while placing her head in a pot as her husband rings St. Gil’s bell. Judging by the stack of thank you notes this is a very popular and effective cure!
What these religious centers share is a thriving sense that worship is a breathing, living part of daily life. When the cathedral bells ring, citizens can’t help but hear those bells even if they don’t use them to set their watches and plan their days.
Likewise, Latin Americans might not be thinking of the religious connotation behind “la Madre Patria,” but that doesn’t mean that religious meaning isn’t at the heart of the nickname.