During my visit to Madrid, I made it a point to visit the basilica of Nuestra Señora de Atocha. Most historians believe that this was the final resting place of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas before his death in 1566. When I arrived to the basilica with my family, I was pleased to be greeted by the following plaque:
Yet as we made our way into the basilica, I began to have the sneaking suspicion that there would not be much more devoted to Las Casas. The receptionist at the front desk confirmed this. I asked her if they had a tomb or shrine for Las Casas and she informed me that they did not. She said that the original basilica had been destroyed during the Spanish Civil War and the only remaining structure of it was the bell tower that was now part of the adjoining school. The new basilica was built in 1951. Some people were not even sure if Las Casas was even buried at the original site but have argued that his body may have been laid to rest in Valladolid. This was disheartening, especially for someone shaped by Catholic spirituality; no statues, no stained glass image, not even a painting commemorating the “Apostle of the Indies” (from what I could see). I left the basilica feeling quite dissatisfied and with more questions than answers regarding his death.
A few days later, however, I experienced something that has now given me concrete evidence that Las Casas is not only in Madrid, but alive and well! Just outside the Plaza Mayor, I caught glimpse of someone in front of a market speaking with a group of friends who looked strikingly familiar. I stopped my wife and we stared for a minute or so. Then it dawned on me, that guy looks just like Carlos Santos, the actor who plays Las Casas in “También la lluvia.” My wife finally persuaded me to go see if it was really him since I was too embarrassed at first to approach him. As I made my way up to the group and they saw me, they opened up the conversation. I apologized for interrupting and asked the familiar-looking guy if he was an actor. He nodded. I then asked if he was Las Casas in the recent Spanish film. Again, he smiled and nodded. With a big smile on my face, I told him that I was writing my dissertation on Las Casas at which point he opened his arms and greeted me as if we had been friends for years. He then proceeded to tell me, quite proudly, that everything the movie says about Las Casas and his conversion was true. I agreed and thanked him for contributing to such a remarkable and moving film.
Carlos Santos was very amicable and gracious. He had no idea how much this strange occurrence would mean to a Ph.D. candidate who is also a lover of good films. I could now leave Madrid feeling much more pleased about the fate of Las Casas. Providence really does have a sense of humor.