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Sancho Panza: Redeeming the man of the people

By Santiago Real de Azúa

We didn’t need the 400th anniversary of the classic Spanish novel Don Quixote of La Mancha (first published in 1605) to realize that there is no justice in this world or to notice that the title character’s loyal squire, Sancho Panza, never gets any good press. The commemorations that have been going on all year long have only underscored these painful basic truths.

Amid the torrent of articles, lectures, conferences, recordings and movies devoted to the Knight of the Sorrowful Face, little or no attention has been paid to his self-sacrificing squire, whose stubby silhouette seems to have been completely eclipsed by his master’s long shadow.

This is not a new phenomenon. It has always been easier and more enticing to extol Don Quixote’s magnanimous idealism, his insane undertakings and his faithful devotion to his abstract love than to value his pedestrian consort, with his quirks and worldly concerns, his proverb-driven reasoning, and his flesh-and-bones family (“I want to go back to my house and my wife and children, for with them, at least, I’ll talk and speak all I want… it’s a hard thing… when a man searches his whole life”).

There’s something unfair and simplistic in this tendency to place all the exalted virtues on Don Quixote’s side. Readers should remember that in order for those virtues to develop and flourish, they had to be balanced by a contrasting and even opposite personality.

The contrasts have also been exaggerated. Don Quixote is portrayed alternatively as platonic, liberal, brave, a dreamer, left-winger, altruistic and generous, a sort of Saint Francis of Assisi in arms but ultimately harmless. His squire is—state your preference—materialistic, right-winger, cowardly, crude, ignorant and self-centered. But if we look at Sancho closely, is that really accurate? We should also raise another more topical question already posed in this magazine about Don Quixote: what can Sancho Panza teach us 400 years after having ridden off with his penniless lord? And specifically—since like Don Quixote, Sancho is everywhere—what propitious lessons can institutions like the IDB and the World Bank draw from his story as they transition to new leadership?

This is not as absurd a proposition as it might seem. While we all have a little Don Quixote and a little Sancho Panza in us, we have to admit that we have more Sancho than Quixote (although we would never dare admit it in public) and that we are more likely to bump into Sanchos than Quixotes on the streets of our cities and in the hallways of our offices. Besides, since you can’t have one without the other, it is only fair to consider the squire, who will ultimately provide us with hearty and edifying entertainment, which in and of itself should be more than enough justification for the exercise.

For those of us who are immersed in a world of statistics, abstractions and models, Sancho Panza offers a refreshing return to the world of the common man, completely devoid of bookish culture, with his loves, fears, respect, revolts and small ambitions. He evolves over the course of the novel, but never stops being a down-to-earth person, with the concerns of a peasant deeply attached to his lineage and his land, who worries about their protection and survival, and not about fate of Mankind. Through Sancho, Miguel de Cervantes is telling us to appreciate and respect the daily, earthly toils of ordinary human beings. He is also encouraging us to understand the realm of want and need, of limits and constraints, as opposed to Don Quixote’s boundless realm of free will and imagination.

If Don Quixote can inspire us to take action (as well he should), Sancho Panza represents the population we serve, because he embodies the masses we seek to reach and whose welfare and development we seek to further. In this respect the first virtue we can detect in the loyal squire is his refreshing humanity: he is infinitely closer to us lowly mortals than his visionary master. The world ultimately has more squires in it than knights. And as in any great novel and in life itself, things aren’t as simple as they may seem: behind the congenial character with the squat physique, short on brains and vulgar in the broadest sense of the word, there are more layers, insights and lessons than a first reading of the novel might reveal.

While Don Quixote pursues glory, justice and the love of his hypothetical Dulcinea, Sancho seems incapable of such lofty heights. Yet when it comes to helping and loving his neighbor, he is heads above his master. He takes care of Don Quixote in concrete ways, just as he looks after his family (Tereza Panza and his two children), his neighbors, his animals and his land, not with declamations or fits of madness, but with specific gestures and a willingness to oblige. It is sometimes easier, Cervantes seems to be telling us, to pursue a grand but unrealistic idea than to help our neighbors in their often modest aspirations. He also reminds us that shooting for the stars can sometimes be at odds with doing the right thing or with common sense, and that small concrete gestures can change people’s lives more than grandiose designs.

Sancho has often been labeled a coward because of his reluctance to embark upon adventuresome battles. But isn’t it sometimes wiser to avoid doomed combat than to jump into a pointless fray? Is it not presumptuous and condescending to label a coward the man of the people who from personal experience has learned to fear the powerful and the promises of earthly paradise and simply cares more about his little plot of land and the people who live on it? Where is the line that separates boldness from recklessness, bravery from blindness, cowardice from prudence? Cervantes teaches us that it’s never straight, but zigzags, as Don Quixote himself learns in the flesh from assorted beatings and clubbings. Or, as Sancho puts it, “withdrawing is not running away, and waiting is not sensible when danger outweighs hope, and wise men know to save something for tomorrow and not risk everything in a single day.”

Though poor, humble and modest, throughout his life Sancho demonstrates an enviable capacity to enjoy life that we don’t find in his master, a freshness and willingness to accept even the worst misfortunes with good cheer. The spread he lays out may be simple, but how he enjoys an olla podrida stew or some ordinary red wine! Sancho knows how to laugh and does so about everything, with loud guffaws, starting with himself (“I don’t care what they say about me”), not to mention his venerable lord and master, who when he realizes he’s being mocked often trounces the irreverent squire. The moral of the story is that to enjoy life, you have to take it as it comes and not take yourself too seriously.

However, let’s not fall into the trap of romanticizing Sancho as the ideal man of the people who never makes any mistakes. He is human, perhaps more so than his master, and therefore vulnerable and weak. Few passages in the book illustrate this side of Sancho better than his fleeting experience as a leader when he becomes Governor of Barataria, a charge he accepts out of vanity and with no qualifications to speak of. He lets himself be dazzled by outward signs of power before realizing that leadership is not his calling (although he doesn’t dislike it or do it all wrong, proving the enormous value of common sense and regular intuition: “By some chance aren’t those of us who are governors and judges men of flesh and blood, too, and don’t we need to have time to rest, or do they think we’re made of marble?”). In the end, Sancho learns that he prefers being with his family to handling complicated court intrigues.

Ultimately, Sancho Panza’s life strikes us as a great lesson in practical wisdom, urging us to value the concrete, to save a place for simple pleasures and basic joys, to both respect and fear the attributes of power. Above all, the novel is a hymn to Sancho’s faithfulness, towards himself (except for a moment, Sancho never forgets who he is), his family and his master, whom he serves with almost tender devotion (“There’s nothing of the scoundrel in him,” Sancho says of Don Quixote, who’s “as innocent as a baby; he doesn’t know how to harm anybody, he can only do good to everybody, and there’s no malice in him… and because he’s simple I love him with all my heart and couldn’t leave him no matter how many crazy things he does.”). Don Quixote may be presented as more worthy of admiration, but Sancho is more lovable because we know he’s closer to what we are. Without him, we wouldn’t have Don Quixote or any quixotic adventures.

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