I often tell my students as they prepare to attend college to be ready, if they meet students from Hispano America, to hear very strong opinions expressed about the United States. This often catches young people by surprise as they have gone about their everyday lives and given very little thought to Bolovia, Perú, Nicaragua, or the Dominican Republic and therefore, in many ways, have not only a curiosity to learn more, but an open-mindedness as to what to think. It is for that reason that the strident nature of these opinions, good or bad, from outsiders can seem capricious and perhaps ill-informed.
The difference of which I try to make them aware is that people in these places spend a great deal of their thought energy on us: “When the United States sneezes, South America gets a cold.” We are the gigante del norte. I recently began watching the film Neruda and within minutes of the credits our role in Chilean politics was being woven in as a driver of the action. Leaving aside how some Facebook posts and, perhaps doubtfully, revealing the contents of actual DNC emails constitutes “hacking” an election, the irony of “Americans” (After all who else lives in this hemisphere?) being indignant over this sort of tampering with our precious democracy…that’s the democracy that gave us the Donald and Hillary as our two options…is precious.
In any case, it was this same lack of understanding of the disparity in mutual awareness which can exist which blind-sided me as I arrived first in the Mountain West, and then in Spain. Utahans in particular, and the young people from the rest of the United States all congregated in Provo all seemed to have a resentment for New York and Massachusetts which was not only palpable, but openly and proudly expressed. These, of course, were Mormons, and so what I was to learn was the right wing bent of the church was a major player in this anti-East Coast sentiment. Since so many of the people I met were Californians their anti Left Coast feeling were tempered by pride of place.
It really surprised me though when this attitude extended to Spain. When I first arrived it was within a decade of Franco’s death, and within months of the attempted coup by the military of Spain’s democratically elected left wing government. The backwardness was inescapable. Not only were even national monuments not maintained in prominent cities, whole blocks of towns were abandoned, mules still plodded down cobblestone streets, the airport in Sevilla looked like someone had put a rolly-polly baggage claim carousel into a mud hut, and the toilets were ribbed ceramic floors with holes to aim for.
For all of that the culture was strong, healthy, and proud. Everyday life had a vim and vigor which radiated from it constantly, the houses and streets were solid and dignified, the people energetic and solid. And the young men from the United States were, apart from platitudes about “loving the people”, universally dismissive of their host country; the cars and the streets were small, families living in apartments, not homes, recreation consisting of meeting friends at the Plaza Alta, and not riding jet skis on Lake Powell (pronounced “paal”) or riding ATV’s across some desert moonscape.
I was all in for Spain. It was poor, but outside the tiny apartments was a full elaboration of a lifestyle I had only glimpsed in neighborhoods in my hometown. If I was confused about anything it was the gaps in city streets, areas that seemed almost burned out, the lack of care with regard to some elements of public space like city parks and rubbish strewn lots, and a really run down transportation infrastructure. I’ve been back many times over the years; a semester during my undergraduate studies, three summers in Madrid to earn my Master’s Degree, 10 trips with high schoolers, and my honeymoon. Four of those trips were after the collapse of the real estate bubble in 2007, including the 9 days for my honeymoon in 2015. What I read is that the economy in Spain has been terrible; young people struggling to find work, various sectors of the economy withering away, the social safety net fraying. I’m sure there’s truth in all of that, but what I see is a place that has combined a solid ancient culture with modernity in such a way that life is a joy to live, and there is beauty, man made and natural, all around.
When I see the vacant lots, the empty buildings, and the decaying asphalt of the parking lagoons in my hometown I remember what Spain looked like in 1983 and I think, perhaps we can do it too. Spain will never again be the center of an empire which spreads across Europe and the Americas, but it doesn’t need that to be a wonderful place to live, to love, and to die. Springfield will never again be among the most prosperous of cities in the United States, nor does it have to be in order to be provide what people most need to be happy: beauty, meaning, and community.