Sofia Scotti Vuelta: The Social Movements of Spain and the Americas

Sofia Scotti on the streets of El Born (Photo taken by John O’shea)

Social Movements in Spain and the Americas

People often say that studying abroad divides your life into a before and after. Before when you were completely absorbed only with what was happening in the sphere nearest you, in your community, your city, your state, or your country, and an After where you see the world as the interconnected globe that it truly is. Before going to Spain, I rolled my eyes at this kind of talk thinking that I, for one, truly understood the way that the America’s and Spain had influenced one another. Spain had colonized the Americas, left its mark and then left. Simple. It was merely a historical influence in my mind. Something that happened long ago but was no longer relevant let alone continuing. Today, I see the blind spot that I had previously had for the world around me. While the majority of the Americas may have won independence from Spain and other parts of Europe, culturally, the influence still remains and what’s more, the Americas now influence Spain just as much as Spain once influenced the Americas.  Throughout this project I will be focusing specifically on the social movements of Spain and how they were influenced by and continue to influence the Americas. There is no single agreed upon definition for a social movement but most sociologists agree that they are started by large, often informal, groups which try to carry out change for specific social or political purpose (Opp, 2009) (Glasberg & Shannon, 2011). When visiting Cheuca, I was astonished to learn about Spain’s LGBTQ movements and the ways in which they both derived from and preceded gay rights movements in the United States. When walking the streets of Malasaña, I learned of the neighborhoods rebellious past both against French invasion and against the oppressive regime of Franco culminating in the Movida Madrilena, a social movement which both parallels and borrows from the counterculture movements in the United States at the time. In Sevilla, I truly began to grapple with the ways the history of this beautiful Spanish city was written with the blood of Native Americans and built with the labor of slaves exported frequently to the Americas. Finally, in El Born, I saw the ways that the revolutionary movements of the Americas and Cuba in particular informed the Catalan independence movement and, to a further extent the establishment of Modernisme as an assertion of a national identity. While I once saw the social movements of Spain and the Americas as completely separate and informed by different cultures, I now see that the two regions have been interconnected ever since they first made contact and will be for the foreseeable future. 

Chueca and LGBTQ Activism

The Chueca metro station

Barrio Chueca in Madrid has become something of a Mecca for Madrid’s LGBTQ community and it is thanks to this thriving community that the neighborhood has been granted a new life (x). While once Chueca was a community designed to look classic like its European counterparts in Paris and London, it quickly became rundown and shabby looking (x). As a result, the rent became very low and many local shops, bars, and restaurants started to open up there (x).  Many of these bars and clubs in fact were secretly catered specifically to the gay community in a time when being gay was severely penalized (x). The first time that “sodomy laws” were repealed in Spain was in 1822 however the laws changed back to make it illegal under Franco’s regime (x). In 1979, being gay was decriminalized in Spain but things were not yet completely easy for LGBT people (x). There was still a lot of prejudice towards them and many found sanctuary in Chueca which was built from the ground up by LGBT individuals for LGBT individuals (x). Today, Chueca stands as a proud community that celebrates its roots as a sanctuary for LGBT people and as a monument for the gay rights efforts that have occured all throughout Spain culminating in the ability to live freely and openly in a neighborhood created to grant them the safety and community they so desperately needed.

Culturally, Spain has been recognized as one of the most gay friendly countries in the entire world (x). Furthermore, within Spain, Madrid is recognized as being particularly progressive on the LGBTQ rights front and Chueca is where the LGBT community has settled most prominently (x). While the United States didn’t officially federally overturn so called sodomy laws until 2003 (and many states still have laws on the books that criminalize gay behavior even if they aren’t enforced), Spain had long since made gay relationships legal in 1979 (Lawrence v. Texas, 2003) (x). Spain even became one of the first nations to recognize marriage between two people of the same gender in 2005 and today allows transgender people to legally change their gender without having any type of genital surgery (x) (x). Today in fact, Spain allows a lot of rights that the United States still has dragged their feet on such as allowing gay people to give blood (x). In Latin America particularly there is still a lot of stigma around individuals who do not identify as straight or cisgender partially as a result of these nation’s deeply Catholic tradition. There is a certain irony in the way that Spain influenced the Americas, whose native populations often practiced same sex relationships and recognized gender outside of the traditional european binary, to embrace conservative ideals around sexuality and gender while generations later Spain would move onward leaving the the queer communities of the Americas to bear the scars of the wounds that they played a major role in inflicting (x).

LL Bar: a gay bar and drag club in Chueca

One of the most important aspects of Chueca’s culture furthermore, is it’s nightlife. The streets are lined with bars and clubs many of which cater to their gay patrons. In many of these clubs, drag queens perform nightly and though these queens seem right at home in their Madrid style outfits and dances, many of them are acutely aware of the distinctly American history of drag. Though drag is derived from the European style pantomime dances in which men would dress up as women and perform over the top dances in a parody of femininity, drag in its modern format originated in 1960s nightclubs in the United States (Moore, 1994) (Boyd, 2003). Whereas before the early to mid-twentieth century female impersonating dances were somewhat mainstream, they’d started to become associated with the gay community which mean that they became highly stigmatized and pushed into the gay nightclub environment.  (Boyd, 2003). Here, American gay people (particularly gay men and gender non-conforming people) found a way to play with gender and sexuality in a safe and accepting environment (Boyd, 2003).. Today, drag is practiced throughout America and the world in various forms and in Chueca, drag has become a way of celebrating gay culture and having fun pushing the boundaries of gender. While Spain in many ways is more progressive that the United States and the rest of the Americas when it comes to LGBTQ issues, the American fight for tolerance and acceptance through drag has benefitted Spain’s Gay community as well.

Malasaña, French Occupation, and La Movida Madrileña

Chueca’s next door neighbor is a relatively quiet neighborhood known as Malasaña but it’s clean cut look hides a much more colorful history than first impressions would have you believe. Malasaña was known as one of the most rebellious neighborhoods during the French occupation and had a very strong role in fighting against it (x). On the second of May 1808, captains Luis Daoíz and Pedro Velarde, lead a rebellion against Napoleon’s forces in what is now known as the Plaza del Dos de Mayo which lies at the heart of Malasaña (x). They are commemorated for their efforts by a statue placed at the center of the site of their rebellion. The rebellion of the neighborhood is commemorated in fact, even in its name which comes from the fifteen year old seamstress Manuela Malasaña who gave her life fighting for Spain during French occupation (x)

Malasaña was additionally at the epicenter of the Movida Madrileña: a counterculture movement that took place after Franco’s regime and attempted to celebrate freedom of expression, hedonism, and transgression of taboos after the repression of the previous generation (x). It was in many ways like the counterculture movements that took place in the United States a decade before which were widely anti-establishment and also celebrated drugs and sexual liberation even if they did so in a much less cohesive manor than in Madrid (Hirsch, 1993). In fact, while “La Movida” as the locals call it, is a movement that was established independently from the Americas, you would be hard pressed to say that the music and art of the Americas wasn’t a huge influence in it. Since during the Franco regime there was a lot of repression in artistic expression, Madrid was largely cloistered away from the social rebellion that came out of English and American music during the 1960s so when after Franco’s death it became widely available, this music had a profound effect on Madrid’s music scene and even in some ways sparked La Movida (x). Music particularly by punk artists like The Ramones or rock artists like Jimi Hendrix influenced the more New Wave sound that came out of the Movida Madrilena and the rebellion that it embodied (x).

Sevilla, Abolitionism, and Social Justice

Seville Cathedral

You would be hard pressed to find a region of Spain that has historically depended more heavily on the wealth of the Americas than Sevilla. Throughout the city you can find monuments to Christopher Columbus and statues portraying Native Americans holding up the rulers of Sevilla and, symbolically, Spain as a whole. Sevilla contains a degree of self-awareness and unabashed glorification of a gory past that is a bit difficult to swallow while portraying its complex relationship with its predecessors. The Cathedral of Sevilla is one of the main sites that shows the way Sevilla glorifies its past and the atrocities committed by Spain.

Tomb of Christopher Columbus

The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See or Seville Cathedral is the site in which Christopher Columbus’ body lies (x). The tomb is larger than life and held up by statues of four kings representing the four kingdoms of Spain making it very clear the position that he holds in Sevilla’s society (x). His body is literally above all who come into the Cathedral and he is very clearly respected by all the domains of Spain for the wealth that he brought to the region. But all throughout the church there are no mentions of the atrocities that he committed. There is no contextualization for the expense of the wealth that he brought. It makes me wonder whether the people of Sevilla recognize his crimes at all or whether they just gloss over them in their attempt to thank a man that their city owes so much of their glory to. The glorification of Columbus here is problematic to say the least but it is even more so in the fact that there is nothing that commemorates Native Americans in the same way and the things that do commemorate Native people throughout Sevilla often do so in ways that could be considered offensive. One such example of this is the Palacio of San Telmo whose facade shows Native Americans holding up the balcony which illustrates a pretty perverse image of Native people sacrificing their very bodies and livelihoods to support Spanish wealth. These pieces of art show a celebratory approach to colonization that whitewashes the horrific things Spaniards did to Native people.

Another powerful symbol of the ways that Sevilla has built its wealth upon the backs of Native Americans is the sheer amount of gold that is used inside the Seville Cathedral. I don’t think I have ever seen as much gold in my entire life as I have in this single cathedral. It towers over you in its depictions of Jesus’ life, in the artwork, the alters, the chapels, and the monstrance every piece of the church is touch by gold and thus every piece is touched by the Americas where most of this gold came from. While it’s easy to look at the beauty of it and have your breath taken away completely, it is important to critically think about what it really took to get here. How much blood was shed for this cathedral? How many people were enslaved and killed? How many children had their future take away to build this treasure? How can one enter an institution claiming to worship a merciful and almighty god when every piece of it is lined with the evidence of a genocide commited in His name? Colonization took the lives of many and not just in the literal sense. Colonizing people included colonizing their mind and wiping away all hints of their culture by forcing them to assimilate into that of the Spanish. One can make the argument that the Spanish were trying to save the Natives Souls by forcing them to convert but in the process they damaged a culture and people irreversibly. 

Furthermore, Sevilla was a city smack dab in the center of the triangle trade. Before making their way to the Americas, the slaves taken from Africa would be appraised and bought on the steps of the Seville Cathedral (x). While many were exported, slaves also made up about 7% of the population of Sevilla in 1565. Today, people walk past the spot where slaves were sold and over the graves of hundreds of slaves without a second look (x). There is nothing to commemorate them or discusses the sins committed on the steps of a Catholic church. There is only the paving over and forgetting of history. While documents from Spaniards such as Bartolomeo de las Casas dating back to the 1400s indicate that many people were apalled by slavery and called for its end for centuries, the Spanish continued to make a profit off of it and so they continued the practice (x). The Spanish colonies were the last in the world to make slavery illegal with Cuba abolishing slavery in 1866 (x). Sevilla benefited immensely from slavery since they taxed goods coming in throught the ports that were provided by the labor of slaves but they have nothing throughout the city that recognizes this in the same way that they recognize the wealth that they got. 

In conclusion, though Sevilla’s wealth was largely reliant on the labor of people of color they still do not fully recognize the crimes against humanity that were commited to get where they are. Though abolitionism was a large social movement throughout Spain and even today there is a lot of discussion in Spain of the glorification of genocidal historical figures, Sevilla has yet to fully discuss the glorification of its past and to start to remedy it in a productive way.

El Born, Catalan Independence and Modernisme

Barcelona as a whole makes a distinct and conscientious effort to assert its own identity throughout the region as separate from the culture of Spain. Catalan identity permeates each region and El Born is no exception. Its very name comes from the Catalan word bornejar which means “to joust” a sport the region was known for in medieval times (x). The history of El Born goes back centuries and is well preserved in an archaeological site inside what used to be the Mercat del Born, a public market whose design marked the start of the Modernisme movement in Catalan architecture which is also known as either Catalan modernism or Catalan art nouveau (x). Modernisme is a uniquely Catalan movement in art and literature whose purpose was to in part to start creating a Catalan identity in art (x). Like any artistic movement however, it is full of contradictions. For example, modernisme is known for its opposition to religiosity and conservative thought as seen in Santiago Rusiñol’s play “Els Jocs Florals de Canprosa” and yet one of Modernisme’s greatest works is a Catholic church La Sagrada Familia by Antoni Gaudi (x). Mercat del Born is one of the first examples of modernisme architecture and it was built by Cataln architect Antoni Rovira i Trias (x).

When walking throughout El Born I would often see not just the typical Catalan flag which is just a golden flag with four red bars, called the Senyera flag, but a different version with a triangle with a star on it, called the Estelada flag (x) (x). This flag is not the one that is typically accepted as the flag of Catalonia and yet it is flown throughout the region as a sign of protest and want of independence. This version of the flag is derived from Cuba’s and is meant as a direct reference to Cuba’s independence movement from Spain (x).The political leaders of Catalonia even today are looking to American independence movements to win freedom from the same nation that so many nations in America freed themselves from. In some ways, this flag illustrates the complexities and difficulties that come with independence and the ways in which a nation can struggle going forth even after independence is won. Yet, though Barcelona didn’t play the most pivotal role in colonization many people still actively participated in it and in the slave trade (x). Antonio Lopez, for example, was one of Barcelona’s most notorious slave traders and he had a statue up in El Born up until March 2018 when all of the public protest against the glorification of slavery finally culminated in them removing it (x). Though Barcelona has started to grapple with the violence and genocide that occured in its past one would be hard pressed to not notice the fact that statues of Christopher Columbus still stand tall. Catalonia’s independence movement is rife with the inconsistencies that are present in all independence movements. In the United States, we claimed all men to be created equal and still had slaves and in Catalonia they claim to have their history and culture erased by a foreign nation while glorifying a man who perpetuated a genocide that erased culture in an extremely violent way. El Born and Barcelona hold up a mirror to our own nation and can help us understand the ways we can grapple with our own history.

Conclusion

Spain and the Americas have a long, intertwined, and complicated history that is still to be completely understood by the populations of both places. The social movements of each whether they be abolitionism, gay rights movements, colonization, or even art forms have influenced one another for centuries now and will probably continue to influence each other for as long as both nations exist. What we as citizens of these nations need to do is to understand the role that we need to play in carrying forth the past. While we should learn about it we are under no obligation to glorify a past that we determine to be morally bankrupt. None of us is individually responsible for the crimes of our ancestors but we are responsible for the way we respond to those crimes now. Will we continue to make excuses for these people and glorify them in ways their contemporaries would have or will be properly contextualize their actions and move forth with the knowledge that we have learned from their mistakes? These are the questions we face when we talk about internationally connected social movements.

Bibliography

Boyd, N.A. (2003) Wide-Open town. University of California Press.

Glasberg, D.S. & Shannon, D. (2011) Political sociology: Oppression, resistance and the state. United States of America: Pine Forge Press.

Hirsch, E. D. (1993). The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. Houghton Mifflin.

Moore, F. Michael. (1994)Drag!: Male and Female Impersonators on Stage, Screen, and Television: An Illustrated World History. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Company,

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