Ellos realizarán mis sueños. ¿En cuál de los tres se verterá el caudal que les dejo flotando en el aire? Eso lo verá el mundo, y yo, yo habré sido su madre.
My sons will realize my dreams. From which of the three will pour forth the stream I leave floating in the air for them? He will see the world and I; I will have been his mother.
(Amanda Junquera Un hueco en la luz)
I will never forget the first time I stared up at the names on the vaulted ceiling of the reading room of the National Spanish Library in the capital city of Madrid. Cervantes. Calderón. Quevedo. The names of dozens of illustrious Spanish writers that any knowledgeable student of Spanish literature would immediately recognize lined the high ceilings. Unsurprisingly, all of the great canonical writers whose names I could see from my vantage point were men. The legacies of these male writers, playwrights, and poets exude literary tradition and consecrate the large room of numbered desks, known as pupitres, where dozens of scholars from across Spain and around the globe pour over texts from centuries past. I could already tell that it would be challenging to find female authored works in the collection, and I began a search that led me to Amanda Junquera’s 1947 short story collection Un hueco en la luz (A Gap in the Light).
For as much as I love archives and libraries, the National Spanish Library asserts its importance so loudly that it takes many visits for the sense of wonder it provokes to lessen in intensity. Visitors must pass through a set of gates off of the Recoletos boulevard and ascend a large staircase flanked by statues of famous Spanish kings and writers to enter the building. The arrival process, however, is not quite as glamorous. All potential readers must procure a series of documents with personal information and institutional affiliation to request a library card to access the collection. Upon entry, a visitor will receive a “reader” sticker with the appropriate gendered noun, “lectora” in my case. Even my laptop has a special sticker with a barcode to keep track of the electronics I bring inside the library. All visitors must pass several rounds of security screening and carry around a clear plastic bag of essential belongings as if one were attempting to do duty free shopping at an airport security checkpoint.
Regrettably, readers cannot visit the stacks directly and must rely on library staff to retrieve all books requested online. To this end, the librarians have truly thought of everything. Each desk comes with a special light alerting readers that a librarian has retrieved another coveted tome for their perusal. There is even a pile of cushions at the circulation desk for those whose chairs require a bit of extra padding. At age twenty-three, I scoffed at the notion of adding an extra cushion until I was assigned a desk whose chair sunk to the ground so much that I dutifully retrieved a cushion and moved on with my work.
Entering the hallowed halls of the National Spanish Library always feels as though I can sense the beating heart of Spanish literature marching on through the centuries. Nevertheless, it is not an institution designed for someone like me, a Latina Ph.D. Candidate in Iberian Studies from the United States. I inhabit this academic institution as a product of Spain’s colonial and diasporic histories. Women were unable to access the national library for much of its history and many cafés that were sites of famous social gatherings called tertulias barred women entry. Nearly a century after a group of modern female pioneers (las modernas) broke new ground in the Spanish artistic scene, I pass through thresholds my foremothers could not. Armed with this knowledge, I do not take my library card for granted. As the only fluent Spanish speaker in my family, I relish in the ability to read any Castilian Spanish text of my choosing. I started with the classics: Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quijote, Federico García Lorca’s “Romancero Gitano”, and Camilo José Cela’s La familia de Pascual Duarte. Each new text piqued my curiosity and I often wonder if any of my Mexican or Spanish ancestors ever read the canonical literature that I studied in college. Without tangible family heirlooms of my cultural and linguistic heritage, I treasure Spanish literature just as much as one of my ancestors coveted her college textbooks from the philosophy degree she obtained in Mexico around the turn of the twentieth century.
When I arrived in Madrid in 2016 for my first research trip as an undergraduate, entering the reading room was an unexpected homecoming. During that first trip, I spent an evening pouring over literary criticism about the work of Nobel laureate poet Vicente Aleixandre (1898-1984) whose poems I have analyzed and translated since 2015. My mind raced as I quickly typed notes on my laptop and made connections between the articles and books I was reading about his poetry. Above all, I was reading works by and about the twentieth century Spanish poets who I study in a space meant for thoughtful contemplation and research. It was simply delightful. Of course, even the most impressive of archives will eventually exhaust a researcher. During my research trips, I read and take notes for hours on end, unable to eat or drink inside most areas of the library. This part of archival research is a necessary hassle for protecting old and rare books, a reminder of the fragility of printed paper and the written word. Most days, I will spend a few hours at the library and hop on the metro around 1:30 PM to grab lunch. The afternoon is mine to explore Madrid and its many used bookstores, but my thoughts never stray far from my work.
While conducting my undergraduate research on Vicente Aleixandre’s 1944 poetry collection Sombra del paraíso (Shadow of Paradise), I noticed a problem that many other scholars and writers have encountered and written about before. The literary canon of the famed “Generation of 1927”, part of Spain’s Silver Age of Spanish literature (1898-1939), primarily features ten upper-class male poets. The naming of the “Generation of 1927” hearkens back to the December 1927 gathering at the Atheneum of Seville for the homage in honor of the three hundredth anniversary of the death of baroque poet Luis de Góngora. According to literary lore and the participants themselves, this event sparked the beginning of lifelong friendships and artistic collaborations between ten male poets and united them as a literary generation. As the canon expands, many anthologies of twentieth century Spanish literature still prioritize works by male writers, citing a dearth of simultaneous female artistic production. Editors of anthologies only make exceptions for Ernestina de Champourcín, María Teresa Leon, and Concha Méndez, all of whom were married to established male poets and were accomplished in their own right.
At their essence, literary canons are stories about storytellers. How did these storytellers come to be? What inspired their writing and who worked alongside them? Scholars and readers have great respect for writers and texts deemed canonical and those writers are often celebrated in acts of homage on significant anniversaries to celebrate their literary accomplishments. Libraries and archives have historically based their collections on the most popular and prolific writers of their time, which inevitably leads to a lack works by women and other minorities. Amanda Junquera’s short story collection Un hueco en la luz is precisely the type of female authored text that refuses to hide its brilliance yet has largely been forgotten in favor of male authored texts.
My archival search for works by “las Sinsombrero”, the pioneering female contemporaries of the men of the “Generation of 1927”, was both methodical and serendipitous. I had a list of women whose work I was most interested in, but my main goal has always been to find traces of the lives they lived regardless of their publication record. I wanted them to tell me about their frustrations and accomplishments in their own words, either spoken by the writer herself or through a character. My desire to know what it was like to come of age as a woman in the early twentieth century who experienced women’s suffrage and legalized divorce in the 1930s followed by four decades of authoritarian repression, drives my research. As I combed through online archives and library databases in preparation for my trip to Spain, I imagined finding a text that would breathe life into bygone decades and symbolize female persistence. During my summer research trip in 2019, I found the book I didn’t know I was looking for.
Scholars now have a renewed interested in Amanda Junquera (1898-1986) due to her relationship with Carmen Conde (1907-1996), the first woman inducted into the Royal Spanish Academy in 1979. Amanda Junquera is primarily known for her translation work, and she published her short story collection titled Un hueco en la luz under the pseudonym Isabel de Ambía. In fact, library catalogs continue to credit her writing to her pseudonym, an authorial ghost in the machine. The short story collection was published only once in 1947 in a print run of a thousand copies plus twelve signed copies. As is the case for many women writers, the lack of material documentation pertaining to her life and work would have erased Junquera’s legacy were it not for Conde’s extensive personal archive now stored at her namesake Patronato Carmen Conde-Antonio Oliver in Cartagena, Spain. Although I have not found records of the months Junquera spent writing her stories, I can’t help but imagine Junquera presenting her newest story to a group of other women writers who gathered in Velintonia 5, the apartment she shared with Conde after her husband’s death. Their upstairs apartment neighbored Velintonia 3, the home of Vicente Aleixandre and his sister Conchita and site of many gatherings of writers for over half a century. I fear that the happenings of the so-called “Academia de Brujas” (“Witches’ Academy”) in Velintonia 5 will be lost to time but have no doubt that the sisterhood shared by the writers sustained Junquera and Conde as they wrote during years marked by uncertainty and violence.
Many of the short stories in the collection do not bare obvious traces of the life of a middle-aged Spanish woman with both a husband and female life partner, yet she deftly depicts a patriarchal society that she undoubtedly knew first-hand. Joaquín de Entrambasaguas, the Spanish literary historian who wrote the prologue, lauds her ability to convey the emotions and rhythms of daily life through her carefully crafted sentences. Junquera ultimately shows her readers the beautiful imperfections of Spanish womanhood through her female protagonists. When I began reading the first story at my pupitre in the reading room, I did not expect to be transported to a rainy day in Paris instead of the sunny streets of Madrid just outside the library. Instead, I found myself part of a crowd on the banks of the Seine River near the Notre Dame as men pull a drowned man out of the water in “Un ahogado en el Seno” (“A Drowned Man in the Seine”). What could a story like that tell me about the experiences of a woman living through the most oppressive and violent years of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship during the 1940s? Of course, between her own creative license and the fact that censors had to have approved the book, Junquera didn’t have to tell me anything.
As I continued reading the stories in the collection, I realized that Junquera was not holding anything back, but rather that her female characters lived stifled lives. I wasn’t reading the work of a writer trying to hide the world around her; I was experiencing life through the eyes of those who had no option but female abnegation and isolation. During the dictatorship (1939-1975), women were expected to be the “ángel del hogar”, the “angel of the home” who cleans, cooks, and tends to the family without so much as a complaint. In “Tía Adelina es así” (“Aunt Adelina Is Like That”), Aunt Adelina tasks herself with sewing each niece a beautiful wedding dress. Young Luisa complains about partaking in the tradition, unaware of how much it means to her aunt to sew her a wedding dress. On one level, Aunt Adelina creates a physical manifestation of her love for her nieces with each dress made with fine material. She also takes pleasure in imagining each niece’s bright future as she sews. Aunt Adelina lives vicariously through her nieces, and she spends a moment alone relishing in the tactile pleasure of the beautiful dress. In that moment the character doubles in two, both the gray-haired aunt and blushing bride, two women defined by their social circumstances. The aging aunt gives in to her desires and she puts the dress on, envisioning the social possibilities a life lived in the company of another. Instead, the spinstress must live through her nieces and her heart flutters when she receives the news that her youngest niece will wed, thus closing a chapter in both their lives.
Junquera isn’t a writer of grand gestures and tales of human triumph for the sake of topping a bestseller list. The copy of the book in the National Spanish Library does not have a stamped list in the back detailing when it was last checked out, but I would be surprised if it is requested much, if at all. Surprisingly, the book was published by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and must have generated some interest at the time of publication. Her stories show a quiet sort of female survival of a world glimpsed through “A Gap in the Light”. Even Joaquín de Entrambasaguas found her titular story the most compelling in the collection for her character development and approach to female introspection. He also dared to suggest that it is one of the best stories of its time and representative of Junquera’s work. If the book received so much praise for its talented author, why has it lived for so many years in hibernation in the National Spanish Library? Perhaps the first-person narrator of her titular story knew all along why her legacy would be nothing were it not for the men in her life.
I return to my epigraph to reflect on the meaning of the words written by a melancholic mother suffering from a mental breakdown. In this story, the reader can visualize Alicia’s confined world through the light she glimpses through the curtains pictured on the front cover of the collection. She receives a letter from Virginia, a despondent friend living in isolation in a sanatorium. Virginia bemoans the fact that she leaves no legacy to posterity because she has no children. Without them she is sterile and rendered invisible, shut out from productive society. Alicia is far luckier as a mother of three sons, yet she too considers her fate. As she says in the final line of “A Gap in the Light”, her sons will see the world and achieve what she only dreams of. After all, a good “ángel del hogar” must educate her sons so they can have successful careers. Although Alicia and Junquera’s other protagonists seem hopeless, they have only lost hope for finding their own sort of happy ending as agents of their own destinies. Instead, Junquera and her protagonists await a future where younger generations can travel freely across borders, in their own communities, and have free reign over their own minds.
The time is right for Un hueco en la luz to reemerge, basking in the light of a democratic nation with women’s suffrage, marriage equality, and strong activist networks fighting against gender-based violence. Can the book finally leave the National Spanish Library and travel to commercial bookstores and magazine kiosks? Through Amanda Junquera and her fellow pioneers, I have not just found a research topic but a calling to realize the dreams they deferred. I never expected to find such a poignant representation of early twentieth century Spanish womanhood and it would not be right for me to try to “rescue her” from the oblivion of the literary canon. Junquera’s work and the myriad of other stories, novels, autobiographies, and poems by her contemporaries speak for themselves as testaments to female determination against adversity. I cherish these works because they show raw human emotion without self-aggrandizing language. They have made me a better writer and taught me lessons that the male protagonists of some of the most well-studied texts could not. Junquera may have pointed to a small gap in the light, but there are bright stars to explore beyond the cover of her book. With renewed determination, I settle into my chair at pupitre 119, complete with an extra cushion. I turn on the small desk light, my “gap in the light”, and begin writing.
Junquera, Amanda. Un hueco en la luz. Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1947.
Angela Acosta is an emerging bilingual Latina poet and scholar. She won the 2015 Rhina P. Espaillat Award from West Chester University and her work has appeared in The Blue Moth, Pluma, MacroMicroCosm, and mOthertongue. She is currently completing her Ph.D. in Iberian Studies at The Ohio State University and resides in Columbus, Ohio.