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Chen Xiangwei, married to a Chinese citizen and father of 3 Spanish children, decided to name the youngest of his children Franco Chen. “It is a tribute so that people remember Franco, so that something changes in Spain. “I want my son to do something important, like what Franco did to improve Spain,” says Chen.
Chen assures that all the Francoist objects in the store are "donations from people who are fond of him." Even Carmen Martínez-Bordiú herself, the dictator's 'granddaughter', has brought him some of those 'relics'.
Customers at Bar Oliva in Madrid, where the spirit of the Franco dictatorship lives on.Credit...Samuel Aranda for The New York Times
By Patrick Kingsley
March 17, 2019
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MADRID — Step into Bar Oliva, a cafe in a southern suburb of Madrid, and you step back 44 years.
Gen. Francisco Franco, the far-right dictator, died in 1975, but his spirit lives on at the bar, where portraits of him hang from the walls, his bust stands behind the counter, his face peers from the labels of wine bottles and a map of his victorious campaign during the Spanish Civil War droops above a table.
“Franco presente!” a sign beside the door declares. “Franco is here.”
And so are the far right.
The flag of a disbanded far-right party is draped above the television. Several customers say they’ll vote in the coming general election for Vox, a xenophobic party that is likely to become the first far-right group in four decades to enter the Spanish Parliament.
And the bar is one of 12 marked on a map of fascist-friendly establishments in Spain that is being circulated among Vox supporters.
“People come from across Spain to see this place,” the owner said on a recent Saturday night. “They come to the Valley of the Fallen,” the memorial west of Madrid where Franco was buried, he said.
“And then they come to me,” added the owner, Xianwei Chen.
Mr. Chen, as his name might suggest, is something of a surprise. The owner of a bar festooned with Spanish flags and frequented by xenophobes is, in fact, Chinese. And this is an irony not lost on his regulars.
Franco images adorn Bar Oliva, which is one of 12 bars marked on a map of fascist-friendly establishments in Spain.Credit...Samuel Aranda for The New York Times
“We used to joke to him,” said Jesús López, a 51-year-old truck driver. “If Franco was still alive, he would kill you.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Chen has done his best to ready himself for a Franquist resurrection.
He has played host to Franco’s descendants at the bar; a group photograph of the meeting hangs on the wall opposite the civil war map. Until his neighbors complained, he flew the flag of Franco-era Spain from his apartment balcony, which overlooks the cafe’s southern front.
His 4-year-old son, meanwhile, is named Franco-Xi.
Though Franco banned all independent political parties and trade unions, censored all newspapers and oversaw the deaths of hundreds of thousands of captured opponents after his coup in 1936, Mr. Chen finds much to admire in the former dictator.
“People say that in Franco’s time, people had no freedom — but it was a different time,” said Mr. Chen, 41, by way of breezy explanation. “Look, thanks to Franco, Spain was not involved in the Second World War. Thanks to Franco, Spain has social security. And he built the reservoirs, without any other country’s help.”
Mr. Chen’s path to Francophilia has been an unlikely one. Born in China, he spent more than half his life in Qingtian, a coastal county near Shanghai that has sent hundreds of thousands of emigrants to Italy and Spain.
In 1999, Mr. Chen joined them, beginning work at a Spanish plastics manufacturer run by a cousin. Gradually he moved into the hospitality business and, in 2010, bought Bar Oliva.
Bar Oliva sits at a major crossroads in Madrid and is accepted as part of the fabric of the neighborhood despite Franco’s heavy-handed tactics in exerting control.Credit...Samuel Aranda for The New York Times
To start with, he ran it as a regular bar. But after learning more about Franco, and liking what he learned, Mr. Chen decided in 2013 to turn the place into a monument to him. His goal was, in part, to rehabilitate the Caudillo’s reputation.
“People talk a lot about Franco,” Mr. Chen said, “but they don’t know him.”
To Franco’s critics, Mr. Chen is right — but not for the reasons he intended.
Many Spaniards have yet to acknowledge Franco’s brutality properly, said Antonio Maestre, a prominent leftist journalist. Bar Oliva, positioned on a major crossroads and accepted as part of the fabric of the local community, is a symptom of that failure.
In a country where Franco’s name has been removed from many street signs, and his statue pulled from most public spaces, Bar Oliva can be framed as an oddity.
But it is equally emblematic of a Spain in which Franquist politicians were allowed to retain prominent roles in public life, and Franco-era crimes remain not only unpunished but unacknowledged.
Despite efforts to disinter Franco’s body, his grave continues to be a site of pilgrimage, while thousands of his victims remain in unmarked mass graves.
Xianwei Chen, who was born in China, decided in 2013 to turn Bar Oliva into a monument to Franco.Credit...Samuel Aranda for The New York Times
The bar’s “mere existence,” said Mr. Maestre, highlights the “total acceptance of this culture of exaltation of the dictatorship” within contemporary Spanish society.
The revulsion of a family of leftists who walked into the bar by mistake suggests this acceptance is not universal, though.
“It’s the first time I’ve come here, and it’s the last time I’ll come here,” said Valeria Martínez, a gardener sharing some Spanish ham with her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend. “We’re just staying for the ham.”
But the attendance of 12 uniformed police officers at the bar that night, unconcerned by what their presence suggested about their political preferences, seemed to underscore Mr. Maestre’s wider point.
The officers, who left their cars parked illegally outside, came in and out of the bar all evening, seemingly using it as a kind of common room. The 23 police and army caps hanging above the counter — all donated to Mr. Chen by serving officers, he said — showed that their attendance was no aberration.
And in general, business seems to be up, Mr. Chen said. The rise of Vox, and the Catalan secession crisis, has drawn more customers to his pub, he reckoned.
“A lot of people who had this nationalist feeling inside them have lost their fear,” he said. “They’re not scared of expressing themselves.” Follow Patrick Kingsley on Twitter: @PatrickKingsley.
José Bautista contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in print on , Section A, Page 4 of the New York edition with the headline: At This ‘Fascist-Friendly’ Bar, Franco’s Spirit Bewitches. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe