In hell, in hell, there’s heaven. It’s the words that greet my ears as I land in Madrid after my month away in Italia, words that Frank Ocean sings and words that calm me as I anticipate the next three weeks, the end to my time studying abroad as an undergraduate. This is the land of my great-grandparents, both maternal and paternal, and I am fluent in the language. This will hopefully feel like home, and if anything, a fresh start.
MADRID: NIGHTLIFE SPILLS INTO THE BARRIO
I have analyzed city after city from the perspective of daytime, a viewpoint that illuminates and one that I am fully conscious of, a perspective that is fueled by caffeine and the start of the new day. What if I started with the alternative perspective first? The one that is darkened by a falling sun and a rising moon, the tipsy and intoxicated groups of people my age, or even older, stumbling around in the early hours of the morning across a city they’ve always known, or are just getting to know. A perspective that I witness on my first night in Madrid and one that immediately captures my attention. To be a madrileño, a native and true inhabitant of Madrid, one must accept this calling of the night as routine, a facet of the day that is not odd nor uncalled for. I accept it wholeheartedly.
The influence of America on Madrid’s nightlife is hard to notice at first. With the habit that many Spaniards have throughout the week of eating dinner so late and then staying up to hang out at bars until one, two, maybe even three in the morning, it’s a far cry from the work till we drop culture that pervades America. While I experienced my time in Madrid as someone with relatively little work responsibilities and zero familial responsibilities, I could still feel the difference between the way nightlife is embraced in Madrid as opposed to Miami. Even on a Tuesday night in Madrid, it felt like most of the city was out exploring the town just as midnight was about to strike. Don’t people work or go to school or have lives to tend to?
I later research the reasons behind why Spaniards choose to eat and drink so late into the night and find out that it has less to do with a cultural attitude and more to do with a systematic change in the way time zones are handled in the country. In solidarity with Nazi Germany, General Franco ordered that the country follow the Central European Time, which places Spain one hour later in routine, especially since the country should be following the Greenwich Mean Time. As a result of this shift in 1940, Spaniards have taken to adjusting their entire lives to a timezone that doesn’t rightly fit their geographic location on the planet. Workdays end later, around 8pm or 20h, and thus, socialization is left till the very late hours of the night and into the very early hours of the morning, a habit that is further allowed by the fact that workdays begin around 9am. I’m sure if America was systematically following the timezone that didn’t fit its geography, we would find ourselves socializing in restaurants, bars, clubs, etc. into the early hours of the next day, and on days of the week that aren’t normally regarded as days fitted for going out.
My first night in Madrid begins at El Imperfecto bar that is located on the corner of Calle de las Huertas and one of the many side streets in the barrio. A neon-colored bar that is plastered with movie posters, celebrity headshots, and various bobs and trinkets, my friends and I sit and order a round of mojitos to enjoy as we settle into our home for the next week. There’s an 80s playlist in the background playing the likes of Michael Jackson, Hall & Oates, Madonna, etc. and movie posters on the wall of American classics from Scarface to Pulp Fiction. While the ways in which nightlife throughout the week is embraced differently in Madrid than from my experience in Miami, there’s an Americanization to entertainment that I notice immediately as I take in all the content that’s brimming in this bar. Whether an appeal to American tourists or just an overall love for America and the music, movies, and people it has brought to the rest of the world, it’s clear that America has come back to Spain in the form of pop culture and what has been consumed culturally, a vuelta I notice as the local students next to us in the bar sing along to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.”
A 3am nightcap of hot chocolate and sugar-coated churros at Chocolateria San Ginés.
Barrio de las Letras
Now for the daytime perspective of Madrid, especially this little barrio of the city that was once home to the great Spanish writers and poets of past centuries, from Miguel de Cervantes to Federico García Lorca. Writers that could weave tragedy and comedy together into one work, a dance that reflects the ups and downs of life and how we manage to cope amidst all our troubles, celebrations, sadness, and happiness. As I walk around the Barrio de las Letras, I find myself stepping on golden words and passing handwritten quotes on buildings, phrases once written by great Spanish poets but now converted into a written form of street art.
As a home to these famous Spanish writers and poets, the Barrio de las Letras pays homage to these figures that breathed Spain’s essence into written stories and characters. There seems to be nothing inherently American in this pride for Spanish literature and poetry until I begin looking at the institutions and spaces that soon attracted American writers and poets to Madrid and commenced an exchange of cultures in the form of scenes. One such exchange can be seen in the establishment of Cervecería Alemana which literally translates to “German bar” and was established by German manufacturers in Plaza Santa Ana in the heart of the barrio. As a bar already founded on a mixing of cultures, the mash of identities is furthered by the personalities that would frequent the establishment in the mid-1900s, especially that of American writer Ernest Hemingway.
“Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night. Appointments with a friend are habitually made for after midnight at the cafe.”Ernest Hemingway
I am not unfamiliar with Ernest Hemingway and the many cities he called home throughout his life. From my late grandfather’s love for him as his favorite author to my experience navigating through the Parisian neighborhoods and establishments he would frequent, Hemingway has become more familiar to me than ever before in my life, even though I remember my grandfather continually bringing him up in every other conversation we would have as I was growing up. To walk these cities and see these establishments still standing till this very day is surreal. The very bars and restaurants that fed Hemingway have the ability to feed me today. In both the literal and metaphorical sense, the establishments in the Barrio de las Letras fueled the writing of these authors, as they drank their cafes and beers and looked on at the people of their day milling around the streets within view, gathering up observations and ideas about the yet-to-be-written scenes and characters of their prose and poetry. An exchange of cultures, from America to Germany and into Spain, that has exploded into an unbelievable level of multiculturalism within Madrid’s core, one that I personally witness as my class and I, a group of Miami students with mixed identities, stand in the middle of Plaza de Santa Ana and listen to our French-American professor read a poem of Federico García Lorca to us in both Spanish and the translated English version.
What have we brought to Madrid? We, a collective of American students. We, a collective of my mixed identity as a woman born in South Florida to Cuban parents and grandparents and Spanish great-grandparents. We, a collective of my many personalities as I adapt to the foreign cities I find myself in on my travels. I don’t know if there’s a direct answer to this question. One thing I’m sure of is the inevitable influence that a carrying over of identities and cultures can bring to a city, even a barrio, one that blends ideas and histories together and generates an entirely new hybrid way of being and existing within a space. An influence that I have brought in my time within Madrid and the barrios I’ve explored extensively in the one week I’ve had, and through the conversations I’ve had in within small cafes and the looks I’ve exchanged with strangers on the metro, the vuelta of America to España isn’t finite as I take back my experience of being a madrileña for a week to Miami and Madrid continues to evolve and learn from the many cultures that meet within its city limits.
SEVILLA: IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS
Following a week in a metropolis like Madrid, the small city feel of Sevilla was a complete juxtaposition to the hustle and bustle I had grown accustomed to within my time in Spain thus far. With its colorful walls and painted tilework, Sevilla immediately screamed of character and authenticity.
There was nothing modern about the historic district of Sevilla, which housed our buzzing tired bodies for the next four days of the program. It was walkable and filled with detail, almost too much detail to take in all at once. As I walked around the city on my own one day, I entered neighborhoods that closed in on me gradually with their bright yellow and pink walls. I passed tapas bars that were a dream all on their own. Tintos de verano, bocaditos, sangria with immersed cinnamon sticks. I walked by store after store of flamenco dresses and all the accessories that are necessary for the dance and observed the personality of the city through the physical structures rising around me. This unique sense of architectural character was not one that I saw often in Miami, a metropolis all on its own that is filled with gated communities teeming with cookie cutter homes, and neighborhoods that rarely have a personal essence attached to them. Aside from the art deco buildings that can be found around Miami Beach, this spreading of an architectural authenticity is a rarity in Miami as minimalist, modern design overtakes the city. In the historic district of Sevilla, this minimalist, modern design is completely ignored for the true state of how the city once existed. Most of all, the zeitgeist of historical Sevilla is perfectly captured in the details found within Plaza de España.
“Certainly, Sir, since October 12, 1492, there has not yet been a single day in the history of America of more importance and spiritual significance than today, when the great Ibero-American Exhibition begins.”José Cruz Conde, general commissary of Sevilla’s exposition, to King Alfonso XIII
Completed in 1928 for the Ibero-American Exhibition in 1929, the plaza encircles its visitors with the glory of Spain’s power as a country and colonizing power through various alcoves that present Spanish provinces and the many events that support Spanish nationalism and pride for the motherland. As I walked and analyzed the painted scenes on the tiles of each alcove, I attempted to discern scenes from history that I had learned about in my education. It proved difficult, since I was biased in having learned about Spain from American textbooks and professors and having very little understanding of specific events within the history of Spain, but upon later research, I found out about events like The War of the Bands (pictured above), and their significance to Spain as an empire. Most of all, I witnessed the power that a country can have in distorting history to encourage pride in one’s homeland. Constructed in order to boast about Spain’s legacy and celebrate the decisions of Spanish conquistadors in discovering and colonizing new lands across the globe, the very existence of this beautiful plaza is founded on the Americas and the need that the country felt in boasting about its ability to “breathe” life and knowledge of the Western Hemisphere into existence. You would not be here without us is the core message of Plaza de España, a message that is at first hidden as one takes in the details of the plaza, but maybe that’s the power of the space. Distract with overwhelming beauty and meticulous craftsmanship and before you know it, you’ve been conquered.
Past the depictions on the painted tilework of the plaza were unexpected surprises waiting for any visitor to sort through. Free books, most written in Spanish or translated to a Spanish version, and all for one’s personal choosing. I discovered a phenomenon in the plaza that I had only ever seen within the United States. Little free libraries where one could drop off books that one had finished reading and wished to donate to one’s local community. Inspired by microlibraries that popped up around Oregon in the 1990s, the first official free little library as organized by a non-profit appeared in the early 2000s in the state of Wisconsin. From there, the movement has spread across the United States and from my discovery in the plaza, to even countries across the globe who include books from native authors and translated versions of classics, such as the Spanish translation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick that I found within the Toledo alcove in the plaza.
BARCELONA: A HOMAGE TO DEEPLY ROOTED PAIN
Of the three main cities we resided in Spain, Barcelona felt the most like a home. I’m not sure if it was the beaches or the colorful people I found in my time there, but the city became a haven as I finalized my own rendition of a “Grand Tour.”
Barcelona is real. It immediately catches you with its funky architecture, like Gaudi’s blend of spirituality and nature within public parks and the ever-growing magnitude of La Sagrada Familia, and also throws one off as you begin to understand the underlying thread of resistance to a Spanish identity and a strong adherence to oneself as Catalonian that can’t be missed. I am an autonomous self, different from the rest of this country and for that, I resist. This resistance that bleeds down Catalonian flags in the form of four red strips and is symbolically draped through a yellow ribbon. This city is real but not just because of this resistance and strong adherence to a Catalonian identity, but rather because of the pain I witness in varying forms throughout the city, a pain that is grieved in one way but celebrated in another form. A pain that has little connection to the Americas but relates more to a universal suffering and a need to define one’s identity and the ways in which we take the varying shapes and forms of this pain and desperation and try to make something livable, manageable, bearable of life from it.
With the many dancing eggs rising up and down in celebration of Corpus Christi located throughout the various cloisters and courtyards of churches within the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, there’s a lightheartedness to faith I sense as we visit various of these dancing eggs on one of our class days in Barcelona. Whether symbolically representing the body of Christ or fertility, I get the immediate impression that Barcelona knows how to have fun with traditions.
Past the dancing eggs, there’s a hard to breath truth I see with my own eyes as we enter the Santa Anna de Barcelona church in the neighborhood. Men after men laying down sleeping across the pews of the church. I pass them as I walk up to look at the details of the church but it’s hard to not look at them. How can I focus on this stain glass when I can sense the weight of life right next to me?
I later learn about how many of these men end up at the church. As migrant workers and young immigrants, many from North Africa, the restart of a new life comes at this harsh price of having no home nor a family to care for them in the city. As a result, they take to living within the church and in similar religious spaces across the city. It’s a harsh reality to witness but I also think about the messages taught in the Bible. Messages of selflessness and love for one’s neighbor and I wonder: If you can’t bear to look at these men or accept their reality as you pray, are you a true believer of your faith?
The pockets of pain widen as we continue to visit more sites in the quarter. There’s the 1938 bombing by General Franco in the Plaça de Sant Felip Neri, which killed 42 children, many of which had been seeking refuge in the makeshift orphanage located in the plaza. There’s the dedication to Saint Eulalia and the assortment of torture exacted on her by Romans, thirteen different forms of cruelty depicted on her tomb in the Cathedral of Barcelona’s crypt. So much pain and personal suffering throughout this old neighborhood in Barcelona and it all culminates during the night of the Sant Joan Festival.
As a celebration of the summer solstice, the night is filled with fire performances and performers dressed as devils. It seems like a carefree celebration and a chance to just let go and break the rules, even if it’s just for a night, but there’s the very physical and metaphorical nature of the fire being the core element of the celebration that makes the night hard to bear. With sparks striking my body from time to time, I come to understand how the pain of Catalonia and the desperation to be represented as a sole identity, completely separate from the rest of Spain, is a painful journey. One that continues to be fought by the Catalonian people, as the Spanish government and countries around the world turn a blind eye to this self-declaration of independence by Catalonia. The tiny singes to my skin feel like a continuous call by the Catalonian people. They have been ignored and invalidated for declaring who they are and for that, I understand why fire dominates this summer night in June. Filled with rage and anger, it’s a call of resistance to being invalidated but a testament to the power of a people and their self-assertion of who they truly are.
Muchisimas gracias to Professor Bailly, Victoria Atencio, and my fellow classmates for being my Honors España 2019 familia as I end my journey of studying abroad in the country where my roots lie. T’estimo molt.
Title credit belongs entirely to Frank Ocean, one of the many voices that became the musical soundtrack during my time on the Honors Spain program. All photographs, unless otherwise stated, were taken by Isabella Marie Garcia.
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