Making Spain Great Again
This is part of our special feature on Anxiety Culture.
I am now addicted to one particular journal: the Paperways Large Notebook Organizer. I first found one in the La Central located in the very heart of Madrid, though the bookshop was originally founded in Barcelona in 1995. Its redbrick basement is where I read my own poetry for the first time in Madrid, but that was a couple years after I´d made a habit of visiting its bright interior to get my journal fix. I started with the slightly dark yellow one with chicken wire lines, have used a couple of the Kelly green ones, was gifted the rust colored graph paper version after a missed flight to Milan turned into a first date, and have gone through a few of the coal gray variety with the time of day, military style, noted down each page, repeating. I´m on the last page of one of those gray ones now.
I´m a bit embarrassed to have such a want for another as a cheaper legal pad, like James Baldwin used, or even free hotel stationary would serve for writing. However, their French flaps and eccentric lines have drawn me in again. They´ve become a place for me to paste the little scraps of life that I have a magpie-like compulsion to collect: pretty candy wrappers, a losing lottery ticket which contains my lucky number twenty-seven, lone Baraja Española playing cards found randomly in the street to which I ascribe a tarot meaning as the decks are similar enough, pressed flowers I take from walks, etc. There I also collect thoughts:
On the 3rd of October, 2017, I asked myself a question: What does it mean to make yourself tea and get on with retranslating Lorca and trying to practice yoga and meditation while police brutality is going on?
I had returned to Spain in early August, newly married, after a couple months in my native Texas. Because of the media treatment of terror events in the past few years, I´m now asked when I go back if I feel safe ¨over here.¨ It´s difficult to fully express just how much safer I feel here without pulling out the endless charts and statistics about gun and police violence in the U.S. I also stress that with the cost of living and beautiful landscape, my quality of life is unparalleled here. In August and early September we travelled to Guadalest, a little town about an hour´s drive from where we live now in Alicante, and pulled almonds right from the trees to eat. We picked blackberries from brambles and I was able to taste my first apple straight from a tree. We made up a silly and unfair game where we compared, in a beat mock epic poem list, Guadalest to Galveston, where we spent a bit of time over the summer, including a little improvised honeymoon tagging along on a conference trip with my mother. Though we love it and my husband says he could live there, in our game, Guadalest always wins; pristine aquamarine lake—Guadalest: confederate flag bikini—Galveston: pine trees towering over pink and rust colored heather—Guadalest: used syringe in the Goodwill parking lot—Galveston: light green velvet of almond shells cracked on warm rocks—Guadalest…
Exactly two months into our marriage, we watched as Catalonia attempted its 2017 referendum for independence, and I was naïvely shocked at the extent of the militarized police violence. My husband and I had started pulling a daily tarot card just to mark the time, and on October 1st, our August 1st card had repeated: the Queen of Swords, but I failed to find connection. A few hours later, on the 3rd, I continued: What is the appropriate and effective way to rage and make it known that you do not condone police brutality? There is an embarrassment to outrage without action. Faith without works is dead.
No matter what the Spanish constitution does or does not say, it is impossible for me as an American not to be on the side of a peaceful vote, and doubly impossible for me as a black American not to replay the horrors witnessed on recordings from the civil rights movement of people being beaten with batons and punched as they attempt to cast a ballot. It is terrifying that these brutal acts were and are conducted by people hidden by uniforms of the state and that at the worst of times there is no indentifying information visible to tie and individual human to the act. That is, they seem to operate outside of possible justice. It was and still is impossible for me to focus on the larger picture, when so much was happening on the ground and this, some say, is a failing. I copy down a play on Magritte´s non-pipe—a cartoon depicting a storm trooper like policeman beating people attempting to vote which reads:
El feixisme és això
Ça c´est le fascisme
Das ist Faschism
When we returned in August, we had begun a frustrating process of trying to register our marriage and grant me a familial residency. While I had been renewing a student visa connected to teaching each year, this felt more permanent, more intentional. After being bounced back and forth between embassies and foreigner´s offices, we learned what steps to take, but details kept snagging at every turn. All the time, throughout the process, I also felt a strange reluctance, a hang-up about seeking residency. After all, it was not as if Spain was free from the things that made me grateful to have a break from my own country, they simply took place in a language that was not my own and therefore easier to tune out, made it easier to convince myself these things were happening to a lesser degree. With the same breath, I also felt guilt at criticizing a country where I felt I was a guest.
By the time I was trying to untangle these thoughts and take a broader view on the situation, I was already a ways into translating a handful of poems from Lorca´s Poet in New York, along with his slightly self-conscious speech, which he begins by noting that “talking in front of so many people always made it seem like he had come in the wrong door.”
In those first few days of October, I had also met in Madrid with the poet I moved to Spain to translate, Óscar Curieses. We planned to meet in Plaza 2 de Mayo at 10:00 P.M., and when I arrive late, he is on the phone with a friend of his I´d met briefly on New Years Eve of 2013, when I´d made the final decision to move to Spain any way I could manage. This friend had been active in the protests after La Crises and in many of the okupas houses of the city center. His name reminded me of seeing pictures of cars on fire sent by a friend after my return to the U.S. in 2009, after a semester in Madrid studying at the Complutense University. Óscar asked me how I was getting on with our Lorca project. He had just returned from three months in New York, Lorca´s ¨ciudad negra más importante del mundo,¨ and Cuba—working on art and literature projects connected to Paul Auster and then to Lorca.
He´d asked me to retranslate a selection to aid in making a map of the cities that left such an impression on the poet´s work. As I try to come to terms with what I am seeing in the news, Lorca seems to answer me from his essay; ¨Protestaba,¨ he says over and over in response to the way black people are treated in Harlem and of the way he understands how they have come to view themselves. I protested every day, he says. You protested; I want to ask, but how? And how can I protest now in your country? How do you say and show ¨I protest¨ outside of literal, physical protest? He bore witness; he wrote; he tried to bring the world he saw back to his own country for his own countrymen to take and understand. He tried to note his own internalized prejudices and tried to record the way in which he interacted with people. Imagining why a little black girl fell from her bicycle when he looked at her, he dissects his own look, knowing in part it must have silently asked, can a little black girl ride on that apparatus? Is it yours? Where have you stolen it from? I remember being told there are no black elves when playing a Lord of the Rings game and arguing for the role of an elf because of my height. At a glance, we are categorized and told where we do and do not belong.
I had great difficulty in untangling my head about Catalonia. Because I am selfish, and because I had recently fallen in love with the south of Catalonia (with the Ebro Valley and the town once loved by Picasso, Horta de San Joan), I wondered how it would affect me. I wondered how it would affect people who looked like me. I wanted to unequivocally condemn police violence while simultaneously feeling a knee jerk aversion to any movement working under a shared idea of nationalism. In my experience, nationalism had only ever meant a kind of exclusion I feared. At the same time, when the news of independence was kicking off in the mainstream media, I began searching for what inclusion meant to this Catalonia and who would get to be part of this new nation. When does regionalism turn into nationalism? I asked and wondered how the identity of the place could be willing to evolve.
I found one answer in ¨‘We are with you Catalunya’ – the revolt in Spain is bigger than flags and language,¨[i] by Paul Mason. There, he notes:
It was Montserrat Guibernau, visiting professor at Pompeu Fabra University Barcelona and one of the leading academic authorities on 21st-century nationalism, who coined the term “cosmopolitan nationalism”: a sentiment echoed in the last big demonstration before the vote, in Plaça de Catalunya on Friday night, when migrants and refugees were invited on to the stage to join a procession of “typical” members of Catalan society.
This is exactly what I am looking for. It is the attitude my husband described Scotland having during its move for autonomy: this idea that they needed to be independent to be more inclusive.
One month later, I found another answer from Colm Tóibín: ¨Why shouldn’t Catalonia be an independent state within Europe?¨[ii] which I also found comforting as he pointed to Jordi Pujol´s notion of the Catalan citizen. Pujol, who was president of the Catalan government for twenty-three years, winning six elections in a row, defined a Catalan as someone living and working in Catalonia with a view to permanence, thus removing, or at least reducing, the concept of blood or race from Catalan nationalism.¨ Again, this was the spark I wanted to be followed. That they wish to do away with an attitude I find often in Spain, which reminds me of being asked over and over again in Texas where I am from and then, where I am really from. After the attacks in Barcelona in mid-August, I come across a video of a woman more or less my age, Miriam Hatibi,[iii] being interviewed by La Mañana TVE and being asked over and over if she feels integrated in Spain. Despite being born and raised in Barcelona, a fact she had to explain repeatedly to the two presenters. Hatibi was asked about Morocco, a place she has never lived, as though she were from there instead. Attitudes like this were being pushed onto the Madrid centre as a part of the Spanish mentality that Catalonians were seeking to leave behind.
When I first began teaching in Spain, a large majority of my students in my little town in Murcia had roots or family still Morocco. The dynamics down there with their migrant working population communities reminded me, at times, of the dynamic between my native Texas and Mexico to our south. I recall a picnic for a school field trip in 2015 when Mohammed, one of my second graders, recoiled in disgust at the ham sandwich his teacher was eating and was told sternly, We are in Spain, we eat ham, with more vehemence than was necessary to correct a six-year-old. Later, I read about racist campaigns in the South of France to make sure all food for charities included some element of pork to make it unsuitable for immigrants travelling from certain backgrounds. I began to wonder if the new Catalonia would really or could ever leave all that behind.
However, I also read articles by people of color on the ground at the protests, and had a very different impression of how welcome they were. In Irina Illa Pueyo´s ¨Para el Kebab sí… para la Revolución NO¨[iv] she recalls a definite lack of inclusion within a call and response at a protest on October 3rd in Barcelona, where different identities were called out and supported who would make up this movement moving forward: women, grandmothers, workers, people from small towns, antifascists, all of these were cheered as being part of this revolution until they tried shouting out migrants, at which point, she says, their voices were left unanswered.
A student at a private school in Elche said in a debate that, if he were in a position to hire, he would give a job to a Spanish person over a black person. Luckily, before the teacher has to, his classmate corrects him by pointing out that one can be both black and Spanish. It is a commonplace idea, still, that regardless of where you were born or where you are choosing to live, the default image of Spain is dictated by whiteness
To varying degrees, I had already been shaken out of what I had been conditioned to think of as Europe (my Europe, of many years ago, merely consisted of Spain, France, and Italy), which was exclusively a land of cobblestones and markets, wholly free of cars and highways and KFCs and sugary cereals advertised by frightening cartoon animals.
In the past few months, I have begun to translate Inongo-vi-Makomè´s Visión del mundo de un africano desde ¿Edén? and found myself identifying with having had the idea of Europe as some kind of promise land, albeit coming from a different direction. In his introduction, Makomè remembers talking to an older woman in Barcelona who told him, before moving there, she thought white people in Europe didn´t actually die, and that they existed like some species of god. Though I did not have the heavenly picture to this extent, I was hunting for the France of James Baldwin, the Berlin of Audre Lorde, or what England was able to provide briefly for Langston Hughes; I wanted to be a foreigner on my own terms, rather than feeling so foreign in my own country. Knowing gay marriage had been legal in Spain since 2005 also pulled at me as, at the time I moved, I had hopes that my girlfriend left back in Texas would wish to follow me there.
By October 4th I was asking myself: What does Spain stand for? And, thinking of Makomè, A black man in Barcelona—what does he think of this? So, I watch an interview with Makomè and read the comments posted under the video; one person is frustrated that he is speaking in castellano Spanish instead of Catalan, and the other wonders why he does not go back to Africa if he finds so much wrong with Spain, (I am reminded fondly of my middle school days when I was also told to go back to Africa, trying to wrap my mind about returning to a place I have never yet set foot). I remind myself or quote from someone: For to love a country is to criticize it; to want it to be better: to not allow it to be swallowed by fascism or whatever other evil might pervert its ideals.
I found myself rewriting a line from Natasha Tretheway´s poem ¨Pastoral,¨[v] from her Native Guard:
You don’t hate the South? they ask. You don’t hate it?
Because, of course, I continue to love this place.
I looked through my collection here before realizing I must have left the book in Austin. Despite what I am seeing, I want to go through with my residency process. I want to be in Spain now. I note a cold feeling in my gut watching people being thrown down stairs, kicked, pulled by their hair and punched as I do when I see black people murdered and beaten by police—it´s also the uniform and the power—it is not the country in some ways but it is the country… I keep making my residency appointments.
Many of my Spanish acquaintances, though not close friends, surprised me by their apathy in the face of the violence; they were breaking the law, some said, as if this excused a militarized presence and physical violence. I am reminded of voices from home. Some merely wryly noted that both political sides were just as corrupt as the other and that finances were at the root of the whole thing.
I talked to a boy who wanted to practice his English for a fast approaching exam—a friend of a friend of my cousin who first wishes to know if there are really cowboys in my native Texas. He says they only want money and will only just barely admit that there is something seriously wrong with that level of violence in response to a peaceful act of voting, regardless of its symbolic significance.
A friend shows me a new little framed painting he has of Saint Isidore, the patron saint of Madrid, and in his paraphrasing of his bishop´s explanation, Saint Isidore falls asleep, taking the typical Spanish siesta, and angels come down to do all his work for him, it´s just perfect, he tells me, perfect for going a long way in explaining the Spanish mentality for working. I look up the legend myself and find a slightly different version where his co-workers are constantly annoyed with him for showing up to work late, as he is concerned more with impractical prayer, but come to find angels are taking up the slack. At our favorite bar, Freaks, a Spanish woman who spent some time in England explains to me that she is not typical Spanish and then, when I ask what she means, she says, I´m very hard working, she says, trabajadora, more like someone from the North. While I have only had personal experience through half a dozen Spanish public schools at this point, I´ve never found the stereotype to be true for teachers. This idea, though, that Catalunya is simply tired of paying more than its share from people who don´t want to work, is a troubling narrative.
The shadow of fascism (perhaps shadow is too polite a word) still hangs heavy over Spain, and indeed after things begin escalating there is a threatening public message aimed at Puigdemont to the extent that he would end up like Lluis Companys (as I understood it at the time, this meant murdered by the regime, though in revisiting the story later I read that
Come December, I am drawn into the work of the novelist John A. Williams[vi] through an article about how a fictional piece from one of his books was able to be whipped up into a believable plot. Too much of his imaginings, though, stemmed from his experiences of abuse at the hands of his own country, and I was caught at his assessment that it was “The vast silence—the awful, condoning silence that surrounded the affair that fits a groove worn,” …. “The rejection confirms my suspicions, not ever really dead and makes my ‘paranoia’ real and therefore not ‘paranoia’ at all,”…“That is the sad thing, for I always work to lose it.”
This, to me, seemed all too familiar; despite many black American´s struggles in our country, there is also this insistence on joy and a forgotten fact that we do just want to be allowed to love our country and prosper. I realized that I was getting the first strong taste of images that could make me question my choice, to wonder, how do we feel having moved to a country that allows this and how is Spain better than the US?
Learning about La Ley Mordaza, detention centres, imprisoned rappers…
On October 5th, my husband notes Catalan flags in the Scotland fan section during international games. He tells me that on the weather maps, the U.K. always shows Scotland as being much smaller than it really is. Much of the campaign of the naysayers for Scottish Independence focused on proving it could not survive on its own, that it would be too small and weak to sustain itself. The same thread runs through many arguments about Catalonia, using its small size as an argument against independence. My husband says things about the situation, like, “hopefully they will have a better chance than we did when it comes to a formal vote,” and by they, he means Catalonians and by us, he means the people of Scotland after the heartbreak of many at not gaining independence, especially after the shock of Brexit and attempting to come to terms with what that will mean.
One facet of nationalism is a set of shared ideals with which you define what is typical or acceptable, whether or not a place will be self sustaining. Sometime in these past months, we watch a documentary about the sport I still insist on calling soccer. Forever Pure is the story of Israeli soccer club fans who decided to throw themselves into a racist campaign after the team added two Muslim players and eventually led to them leaving. The fans were content to torch their own clubhouse rather than see their team lose their idea of its purity. These sentiments blur together with Les Bleus: Une Autre Histoire de France (Les Bleus: Another History of France) and more stories of teams wanting to maintain a white image. In one clip, a French coach gets in trouble for being caught saying, wistfully, ¨Spain does not have this problem, ¨ meaning the problem of whether or not to include non-white players as they are unapologetically closed off to the possibility.
So, where do we fit as brown people within these conversations? After and during the violence, the red and yellow blocks of the Spanish flag bloomed on balconies. Many are still there. They were and are still advertised in the front of those everything stores most Spanish people call los chinos. The flags are Made in China and their shiny synthetic fabric wicks water away, resists absorption. My poet´s mother, he told me, had changed her whatsapp icon to an image of the Spanish flag, and he had changed his to the circle of yellow stars on a dark blue background that represents the European Union that the U.K. just barely decided it wanted to leave and that the new Catalonia had already expressed a desire to join.
As flags appear on balconies, I recognize a familiar fear from when I saw flags flying in the United States during the last election, where they come to represent something that does not want dark skin or a multitude of languages. In fact—things began to feel far too close to home when at the pro-Spain rallies in Barcelona and Madrid, the fascist salute is seen and some small Fascist rallies spring up throughout various cities, including Murcia, where I spent my first two years. Pro-Spain sentiment quickly turns into a desire for the Franco way and they even adopt the rhetoric of an unfortunate slice of the US by borrowing the phrase in English—Make Spain Great Again—both backward and inward looking. We visit a salt and pepper shaker museum in Guadalest and are delighted by the strange and huge collection, until I spot a pair of confederate flag salt shakers, come to salute me all the way from Georgia.
Perhaps, being an extranjera, being born on another continent, I don´t truly know one way or the other, but I´d like both sides to embrace diversity and recognize it as a strength for a modern nation. I want to live in a place which embraces my concept of modernity.
Further south, where I am now, the Valencia community also has its own strong identity and language, though I´m told they would never try for independence. At an orientation for my new teaching program, children in traditional valenciano dress come out and dance around a may pole, weaving red, orange, yellow, white, pink, green, and gray into a fishlike braid as I did when I was a child in school in downtown Austin, Texas. Though instead of dropping it and leaving it woven, they pause and then begin again in reverse—nervously unweaving all their work until they have freed their pole, and we applaud them. In my journal, I keep asking myself, Where do you want to live and why?
In Madrid, I meet a group of young afro-Spanish students who have formed a kind of black student union on the Complutense University campus. As we share in the group, Kwanzaa,[vii] one woman expresses her frustration at people thinking Spain is ¨not so bad¨ when it comes to the treatment of black people, especially in comparison with the US. The common refrain, she says, is that at least people are not being shot and killed in the streets, though she points out they are dying in detention centres behind closed doors and disproportionally policed. Since moving here, I have had to learn the ways in which things are still uneven, and also come to terms with the fact that the same freedoms of speech are simply not protected here. I ask myself, What do I care about freedom of speech and creative freedom—when remembering the derailment of my plan to visit MACBA and attend the lectures of Paul Preciado as he was censored and fired for a controversial art exhibit. I´d also been following the jailing of musicians for incorporating lyrics which are antagonistic to the monarchy. What does it mean that I come from a country that partially and pridefully bases its identity on escaping the oppression and injustice of a monarchy which uses a system of birthright to decide who has power and the complete and utter freedom from the possibility of hunger or homelessness.
I would like to live in a nation whose notion of itself is outward, rather than inward, looking—which is to say forward, rather than backwards, looking. There should be no notion of a desirable ¨again¨ for any nation yet. There has never yet been a golden age for all that anyone should long for a return to, though I do realize that the people looking back are not wishing for equality for all, I take that now to be my definition of paradise.
My confusion was not just about questioning my choice of country of residence for the first time, but it was the first time I felt real fear: tocar madera que no me pase a mi, I wrote. On a train between Alicante and Valencia in late January, I write about the frost in the fields and thin slips of fog over that. At school, all the teachers are busy planning art projects to put on display for International Peace Day. With one teacher we´ll draw a huge, curling, Klimt-inspired Tree of Life on white butcher paper and have the kids dip their fingers in paint to make a collage of fingerprints. Come mid-February I´ll have my own fingerprinting appointment which will be the final step before receiving my id card which allows me to stay in Spain for at least five more years.
In the midpoint of the first month of 2018, some almond trees had already begun pushing out their white and near-white pink blossoms. They are early. Each day on our drive into work, I note more and more trees following suit in the field, and marvel at how pretty their blossoms are; we are ready for spring to come early: little white prints against their brown skeletons.
Layla Benitez-James is an artist and translator living in Alicante, Spain and serves as the Director of Literary Outreach for the Unamuno Author Series in Madrid. Her poems and translations have appeared in The Acentos Review, Anomaly, Guernica, Waxwing, Revista Kokoro, La Galla Ciencia, and elsewhere. Her audio essays about translation can be found at Asymptote Journal Podcast. Her first chapbook, God Suspected My Heart Was a Geode But He Had to Make Sure was selected by Major Jackson for the 2017 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize and published by Jai-Alai Books in Miami, April 2018.
[ii] Fri 3 Nov 2017 Colm Tóibín: ‘Why shouldn’t Catalonia be an independent state within Europe?’
[iv] Para el Kebab sí… para la Revolución NO by Irina Illa Pueyo
[vi] How a Fictional Racist Plot Made the Headlines and Revealed an American Truth By Merve Emre, December 31, 2017
Published on July 2, 2018.