DISCLAIMER: I don’t often write about politics, and have never done it on the blog. But considering the current political turmoil, I have more people asking me if they should cancel their trip to Barcelona out of safety concerns, than those asking me for the best places to brunch. (BTW–do not cancel your plans to come to Barcelona.) I wanted to share my personal experience and opinion and hopefully help others understand or even identify with my experience. That being said, everything said here is my personal account of the current state of events in Barcelona. I do not presume to understand the personal experience of anyone else, and I am constantly looking for more insight on the issue. I hope that you will comment constructively and hopefully shed light on the issue from a different angle.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about nationality. As Americans, nationality is something which comes naturally to us and almost without question. We are taught from a young age that America is beautiful, America is powerful, and America is the sum of its parts. We sing the national anthem before every sporting event, we say the Pledge of Allegiance with our hand on our heart every day before school, we are taught that the flag cannot touch the ground, we drink the American Dream with our breakfast cereal every morning. We are comprised of 50 different states stretching over almost 10 million square kilometers of land, inhabited by 323 million people. We are the backwoods of northern Wisconsin, the Great Plains of the Dakotas, the peaks of the Rocky Mountains, the skyscrapers of New York City…we are literally everything “from sea to shining sea”. We are Native American, Irish, Swedish, German, Italian, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Japanese, Hmong, Korean, Black, Middle Eastern and a million and one combinations of them all. We are different. So different, in fact, that sometimes we don’t know how to overcome our own prejudices. At the same time, though, there is one important thing that binds us, one thing we all have in common. We can all identify as American. One nation, under God. (or god, if you will).
In eight years abroad, this is perhaps the greatest difference I’ve found between Spain and The United States.
Spain is a country comprised of 15 autonomous communities and 2 autonomous cities. It has one of the most decentralized governments in all of Europe, meaning that the autonomous communities are largely in charge of their own affairs. It has five co-official languages aside from Spanish. It has a population of 47 million, and a size of about 500,000 km2 (about 200,000 km2 less than the state of Texas). Unlike the United States, their population is by and large very homogeneous. (If you ask a Spanish person about their heritage, they will not say, “Well I am 75% German, 10% Swedish, 15% Irish, and a dash of Scottish.” They will say, “My mom is from Sevilla and my dad is from Cordoba.”) Spain boasts some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and dramatic coastlines, snowy mountain tops, sandy deserts. It is third in the world for UNESCO world heritage sites, and every single region is dripping in a distinct culture, architecture, and gastronomy. To top it all off, they can claim world class athletes like Mireia Belmonte, Rafa Nadal, Fernando Alonso, not to mention an incredible soccer team poised to take on the world cup this summer. These facts alone might lead you to believe that being proud to be Spanish would come easily to every Spanish citizen.
You would be wrong.
Here, if you fly the Spanish flag, sing the national anthem, or act proud to be Spanish in any other way, you could be seen as a fascist. If Catalan slips out of your mouth, you are an independista, if you are from the Basque country, you are a terrorist, and if you are from Andalucia you are labelled lazy.
Pero..porqué? For starters, Spain is a country whose “birth” could be heavily disputed. Spain’s oldest city, Cádiz, is claimed to have been established by Phoenicians in 1104 BC. From way the hell back then to present day, Spain has been conquered and reconquered by just about everybody. The Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Moors, the Catholics (and with them other kingdoms in Europe), not to mention the huge influence of the Jewish populations, and even Vikings in some parts of Spain. I am completely glazing over thousands of years of history and probably omitting important civilizations, but my point is that a lot of people, cultures, and religions shaped the country for centuries. Adding to this, Spain as we know it, free and modern Spain, did not truly exist until about 40 years ago.
After just telling you that Spain’s first city was established over a thousand years before Christ, (Europe’s oldest city, by the way), how the hell, you might ask, could I possibly believe that modern Spain has only existed for 40 years? Because, (omitting the brief years of the Second Spanish Republic from 1923-1931) until 1978, Spain was not a democratic republic. And from 1939 to 1978 it was under the authoritarian rule of dictator General Francisco Franco. And this, my friend, is where shit got complicated, and where a lot of the current situation in Catalonia grew deep roots.
As with most authoritarian dictators, Franco was a narcissistic psychopath. During his rule, anything that was even questionably “not Spanish” was punishable by kidnapping, torture, and death. Anyone heard speaking any one of the five co-official languages I mentioned earlier, (Euskera, Galician, Catalan, Aranese or Valencian), was considered a threat to the state and simply, “taken care of”. It is estimated that during his time in office, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children were murdered, many of whom were simply never found. Due to its Republican strongholds before Franco came to power, Catalonia in particular suffered during his rule and has deep scars to this day. This makes the fact that Catalans, Basques, Galicians, and Valencians were able to conserve their language through two decades of extreme repression, nothing short of awe inspiring. It also makes it easier to understand why independence movements would emerge from these populations that for so long, were repressed under an iron thumb.
What I attempt to do with this extremely simplified and summarized history of Spain is put into context the current situation in Catalonia. Spain is a country whose architecture, food, culture, and language has been molded and remolded by every nearly major civilization in history. It should be no wonder that over the centuries different areas with distinct languages and traditions, progressed and developed and started to feel much less Spanish and much more Basque, Galician, or in this case, Catalan. During Franco’s rule their people were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered for simply uttering, “adeu” at the local bakery. Despite all of this, they maintained their language and their traditions and now they are peacefully, albeit unconstitutionally, asking for the chance to be their own country. And for the record, I think they have every right to decide, all of them, freely and legally. But if and when they are finally given the free and legal referendum, I respectfully hope they decide against it.
When I came back from Spain the first time, people would ask me what it was like, and I found myself repeating the phrase I abhorred in so many other study abroad veterans, “I don’t know it just…changed me.”
And it had. And eight years later it continues to, every single day. At this very moment if I turn my head forty-five degrees to the right or left, I can see three generations laughing, talking, and genuinely enjoying each others’ company side by side. Everyone walked here, everyone will walk home. Maybe they will even get groceries on the way back, or stop at the post office. Perhaps stop by a friend’s house just to say hi. Because that happens here. People look at each other, they talk to each other, they get a beer after work, not because its Friday happy hour, but because a cold beer with friends sounds really fucking good.
For me, this is Spain. Its working to live and not living to work. Spain is watching the sun paint colors you never knew existed across the Atlantic Ocean in Cádiz as you finish your tapa de cazón en adobo. Spain is sitting on the wall in the Plaza de San Nicolas and telling your best friend that one day your future husband will ask you to marry him as you stare at the Alhambra. Spain is standing in front of the tombs of the Catholic kings in Granada and watching the history of the world unfold before you. Spain is starting the night at 2am and having un mollete con tomate before you go home to sleep at eight o’clock the next day. It’s the rocky virgin coves of Almería and the white sand beaches of Las Islas Cíes. It’s listening to the pilgrim’s mass and embracing Saint James in Santiago de Compostela. It is walking into the mosque that gives birth to a cathedral in Cordoba. It is waiting until you can get in for free to El Prado, and deciding to just have a picnic in Retiro instead. Spain is sitting in Parc Guell with a Moritz and your journal and feeling as if Gaudi himself could appear at any moment. Its dripping romesco sauce on your shirt as you eat your first calçot, its dodging sparks as you watch your first correfoc. Spain is understanding that a barbecue starts at 12 and ends no earlier than one in the morning. Spain is stumbling upon a fish market at midnight in a small town in Asturias and translating for your family the experiences of three generations of fisherman. Spain is eating grilled squid after washing off the salt from the turquoise waters of Menorca. Spain is getting lost in the streets of Cadaqués and tracing the footsteps of Salvador Dalí. It is a weekend spent camping on the Costa Brava with nothing more than food, friends, and cold beer. Spain is learning new words from your best friend from the Basque country, and how to say a guy is creepy in Catalan. Spain is trying grilled octopus in San Sebastian and finding out it is the best meal of your life. Spain is hearing flamenco pound in your ears for the first time, watching your first Sevillanas, getting drunk on your first rebujito, and surviving the hangover it leaves you with. It is is being picked up at your study abroad hotel by a 70-year-old Sevillan woman who you can barely understand and having her call you mija the first time you meet. Spain is talking to a boy on the beach with a watermelon full of sangria and never looking back.
This is Spain, it all its essence. A country that is striking in its differences and diversity and would not be the same without each and every one of its parts.
But tonight I go to sleep knowing that tomorrow this country that had me so fully enamored with each of its beautifully imperfect puzzle pieces, might wake up and find itself with one piece less. And it is not this thought in itself that gives me pause. It is what will happen afterwards. I already feel we have reached a point of no return, and I don’t honestly know that Spain will or could ever be, the same as it was before October 1st, 2017. People are polarized, they are scared. We look at each other and wonder the same thing, “which side are you on?” And history tells us that as soon as we label each other as “us” and “them” there’s no turning back.
Here’s the thing. I’m American. I know my nationality, and most days, I don’t question it. I don’t have much of a say in this high stakes game, and I can guarantee that neither Puigdemont nor Rajoy give two mierdas what I have to say. But if they did, here’s what it would be.
Despite the hashtags we put on Instagram, we are scared, sí, tenim por. We don’t know what the future holds, and we don’t trust anyone to see us through to the other side. We see banks and companies leaving, politicians who don’t know how to communicate, and once friendly neighbors who have suddenly become silent in the hallway. Something must be done. Spain is watching, the world is watching. And everyone, no matter how they identify or what they want, is only thinking one thing.
Not like this.