In Poet in Spain, a new volume of translations of Federico García Lorca’s poetry by Sarah Arvio, we see a wide-ranging exhibition of Lorca’s curiosity about marginalized groups—from his fascination with 14th-century Persian poetry in The Tamarit Divan to his idealization of Andalusia’s Romani history in Gypsy Ballads. “I think that being from Granada inclines me toward a sympathetic understanding of persecuted peoples. Of gypsies, of blacks, of Jews, … of Moors, which we all carry inside,” he said in an interview in 1931.
Statements like these sometimes sit uncomfortably in the minds of contemporary readers for good reason. Lorca’s earnest interest in race as a subject can sometimes seem misguided, its simultaneous fixation on the essence, victimhood, and grandeur of other racial identities troubling. Such criticisms certainly have some truth to them. But it’s also true that Lorca’s poetry turned a sharp lens on Spain’s cultural diversity at a moment when Francisco Franco’s regime would soon push for ethnic and regional identities to be subsumed under a single idea of Spanishness. Whether revisiting Lorca’s views on race was Arvio’s main intention in composing this new volume, it’s hard to say. But her selection, deliberately or not, records the beginning, middle, and end of his poetic excavation of an alternative, multiethnic Spanish history.