My family’s obsession with genealogy has made me aware that my ancestors come almost exclusively from the north of Europe; England, Wales, Denmark, Holland, and Germany. I do have one distant ancestor from Toledo in Spain. When I first found out that I was to be sent to Spain as a teenage missionary for the LDS church I managed to find certain similarities between Seville (“Sevilla la maravilla”) and my hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts; a river city past its prime with a large, working class Catholic population.
Given that most of the other Mormon missionaries in the region were from suburbs in the American west I did experience quite a bit less culture shock than they. I had seen older Italian women all dressed in black in the South End. Most of my missionary companions interpreted the tradition of dressing “de luto” as ugly and pessimistic, they saw the practice of dumping a bucket of water on the sidewalk in the evening to clean and to cool it as idiotic, the habit of honking the horn when approaching an intersection in daytime as stupid and annoying. A bucket of water is cheap air conditioning, narrow streets demand communication with drivers on cross streets through sound during the day, and different cultures have different expectations when confronting mortality.
I was a much better student than I was a teacher while in Spain. I’m sure it’s not too surprising to my missionary companions that Spain was more successful at converting me to a firmer belief in urban living than I was in converting Spaniards to Mormonism. My road to atheism may have begun shortly before my time in Spain, but the disrespect my companions had for the local culture heightened my awareness of inconsistencies in their general critique of religious dogma. My favorite example of that came from the mocking disdain these Mormon teens would express about the story of the Virgin of Fatima. How moronic to believe that three children would witness some sort of celestial apparition out in the woods somewhere! Of course, these same young men started every conversation with non-members of the church with the story of a fourteen year old boy seeing God the Father and Jesus Christ in a sacred grove of trees. One could be true, and the other false of course, (I’m unconvinced by both) but the only real difference between the two is the ratio of children to heavenly beings.
I began to look at all of the differences I saw betwixt and between life in Spain and the United States with a very open mind. I noticed how families in Spain lived quite happily in very dense, urban areas, how their children gained incremental autonomy, how their teens had both greater freedom and at the same time, closer connections to older people, and most significantly, how they spent a much larger portion of their lives in the public realm. People would walk…every day. They would walk to walk. They would walk down streets where all the stores were closed just to see other people walking down the same street doing the same thing: “Vamos a dar una vuelta por allí”
I could see how this could work in my hometown. After I got married and had my first child my wife and I moved to a large condominium in the heart of the downtown. This happened just as the Dukakis “Massachusetts Miracle” was crashing down and we were able to buy one of the largest units in the complex (my old high school) for about 30% of the original asking price. Most of the other buyers at the emergency auction of the properties were singles, “dincs” (double income no children) or empty nesters looking to downsize. The smaller units were cheaper and carried with them smaller association payments. We were the only people with children looking to buy a unit at the entire event.
We ended up with 2,000 square feet between the unit itself and a “hobby room”, which became our daughters’ play room, as well as a little storage space in the basement, and an indoor parking space. We exchanged the indoor parking space for one outside for a cash payment which covered a good portion of our condo fees. My Ford Fiesta looked stupid next to the BMWs and Mercedes anyway! The girls would go to elementary school a block away at the brand new Milton Bradley School, they would study piano and sing for the children’s choir at the Community Music School, take classes at the Springfield Museums, take out books at the children’s room at the library, and play on the grass in the Quadrangle…all seconds away from our place at Classical.
Can you guess which one is my daughter?
What I began to notice, in the era after cars were removed from the Quadrangle but before it was fenced, was that the only other people in the Quadrangle after the library and the museums had closed were Puerto Ricans and Russian speaking immigrants. They too were there just to be there. Their children played while the adults chatted. People sat in different locations, small spaces they had made their own through use, and they would visit one another and converse, while occasionally breaking away and walking around the square. We were interlopers. We would participate only intermittently in the evening activities of the plaza. The improvements to the space, and the illegal* actions of the Springfield Museums over years killed the tradition of families spending warm summer evenings at the Quad, but it showed me one of the “cachorros” of the “León Español” was loose in my city, and that the better angels of their nature could be the key to a renewed and vibrant Springfield.
In part two I’ll discuss the differing views of Hispanic culture as it manifests in Puerto Ricans in Springfield and how the city can encourage and embrace the best aspects of the cultural inheritance of one of the world’s greatest and oldest cultures: Spain.