By: Juan Ortega of FIU
As a Cuban American, I always felt a connection to a tiny island I had never lived in floating in the ocean 90 miles away. I had listened to the stories my grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents, cousins, and more would share telling of a life that sounded so beautiful before they sought refuge in the United States. My entire identity revolved around those stories. The beauty of Cuba, painted in my mind with the most vibrant colors and high tempo sounds, was something only hyperbole could do justice to. Known as the “Pearl of the Antilles,” Cuba was an almost unimaginable paradise. However, while these stories built a bridge to a country I never knew, they also set firm foundations for myself as an American.
These stories told of how the U.S. was a land of promise and opportunity, of equality and justice. If Cuba was the heaven my family once knew, the United States of America was the haven they now loved. I felt that I was being raised in the best country in the world, one without fault and only goodness. Furthermore, as a Catholic, I felt that if the U.S. was this perfect of a country, it must have been the beacon on a hill for morality internationally. America was goodness.
As I aged, I took a particular interest to history and politics, and slowly reality revealed itself to me. No country is perfect. No culture is perfect. Nothing is fully good. From slavery to colonialism to racism to sexism, homophobia, genocide, war, famine, etc. I could only accept that humanity was flawed. Yet there always seemed to be a distance from it all. Colonialism was a European concept. Slavery was an Eastern invention. War did not happen in the United States. I remained immature in thought and idea for quite some time only for the veil to be ripped away. If I was going to claim heritage from Cuba, a land I never set foot in, it was only appropriate to claim heritage from Spain, where it all began. My reality, my identity, was going to be finally challenged. What were these cultures I so proudly claimed to be a part of?
Immediately stepping into Spain, I could see that perhaps America and Spain were not as different as I had previously thought. I strolled the streets, lost in the labyrinth of Madrid’s streets, hugged by the colorful homes that hid upcoming turns and corners. It was like walking through a fairy tale or a movie. However, while the beauty of Spain captured my attention at every second, one thing was completely swept under the radar for some reason: the people. More specifically, people of color in Madrid seemed to be shadows of a bustling, primarily white city. Furthermore, many seemed to be relegated to the lower parts of society. This became even more plainly apparent when we entered Puerta del Sol.
The geographical center of the city, all roads in the city lead to the Kilometre Zero plaque in front of the Casa de Correos. Here Madrid is celebrated through multiple cultural and historical displays. At the center of the plaza, a monument to King Carlos III looms over the pedestrians below, recognizing the pivotal role he played in developing Madrid from an undeveloped stretch of land to the city it has become today. To the right also stands a statue of Madrid’s symbol, titled “El Oso y El Madroño,” which depicts a bear eating from a strawberry tree. Here is where the Spanish banded together to attempt an expulsion of French troops from the country when Napoleon Bonaparte led his conquests across Europe in the early 1800s. Here is where Francisco Franco had prisoners jailed and “accidentally” killed for resisting his regime. The history of Madrid lives here. Madrid comes to life here.
Just below the pomp and circumstances of the plaza, the people go about their days just trying to survive. Northern African migrants sell knockoff merchandise, and Middle Eastern gypsies beg for money. Costumed characters roam around for pictures, hiding the faces of the poor who find themselves desperately involved in organized crime to feed their families. However, their plights go unnoticed. The locals pass them by everyday without batting an eye. Tourists interact with them almost as though it is something to experience while abroad. All I could be reminded of was Time Square in New York, a city center widely considered to be the amalgamation of America. Immigrants and the poor share these same plights in the U.S., doing what needs to be done to get by. I wondered, “If America is seen as an international leader, how can this be the reality for so many Spaniards?” only to realize the answer. While abroad I kept up to date with the news in America, and realized that coverage on the Mexican children being held in cages at the border was being reported in Spain, as well. If we were an example morally, then Spain was following relatively well.
Santa Maria de la Sede
The question of my identity continued to linger in my mind has we left Madrid and headed south, to Sevilla. This city was very different from Madrid. In terms of size, Sevilla was much smaller, less grand. However, its beauty exuded in different ways. The quaint, close quartered buildings zigzagged, while cars zipped through on the brick roads. Stores were tight rooms with not much space for shoppers, and restaurants were long and narrow since width was not an option among the cluster of apartments and hotels. Then in the city center stood the enormous Santa Maria de la Sede Cathedral. This building told the stories of multiple societies and thousands of years of history. A Catholic structure, the cathedral incorporates La Giralda, a former Islamic minaret converted into a bell tower. At the base of it, the foundation is made of stones laid during the Roman eras. Secular, Islamic, and Christian, the cathedral incorporates multiple cultures. The outside still has the plaza of orange trees with narrow, shallow grids of water formerly used by Muslims before entering the site of the mosque that once stood there. The outer walls tell the Biblical stories with Islamic artwork surrounding depictions of Jesus and His disciples. Gargoyles stand guard against evil and sin with La Giralda playing the same role it was built to play but for a different audience. In some ways, it was beautiful to see so many cultures coexisting and respecting the beauty of one another. In other ways it seemed ironic.
Just a few blocks away, the Guadalquivir River, the fifth longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, flows. At its mouth stands the Torre del Oro, or Tower of Gold in English. While only one tower stands, there was once an identical tower on the other side of the river; these towers served the purpose of collecting taxes from ships returning from the Americas and Africa. Here Native Americans were brought for exhibition and Africans were brought for slavery. Once passed the towers, they were brought to the steps of the cathedral for sale, an ironic lack of respect for other cultures and colors in a building that encompasses diversity as its foundation.
As a Catholic, I could not wrap my head around this idea, especially because the carving above the entrance to the cathedral’s walled plaza is of Jesus expelling the merchants from the temple. In the Bible, this story depicts merchants selling livestock, but in Spanish history it was slave traders selling people as if they were livestock. Catholicism was used by the Spanish to help justify colonization, stating that it was the duty of the Catholics to evangelize and help bring the Native Americans to the Church. Furthermore, it was stated that the Natives were too primitive to govern themselves, and it was the duty of the Spaniards to govern them simply out of moral obligation.
This bastardization of the religion I was taught struck me. The United States is regularly referred to as a Judeo-Christian country, insinuating that the laws and overall character of the U.S. stem from Christian teachings. It gave me chills thinking that entire civilizations were decimated for greed and power all under the name of God.
Furthermore, it brought up an interesting thought to my mind. In Cuba, the concept of racism is not one that is widely discussed or examined. That is because racism is taught to have ended when Fidel Castro came into power and the Revolution won since the main tenants of the Revolution were economic and social equality. Discussing racism would be a questioning of the effectiveness of the Revolution, which is not socially acceptable. Therefore, race relations on the island have remained widely unchanged since the 1950s because they go unchallenged. This was absolutely jaw dropping to me when I first learned this because slavery and colonization have forever changed and tainted race relations. However, the way to at least try to improve it is to have open dialogue in order to find where failures can be rectified. Moments of history, like the one on the steps of the cathedral, are typically not discussed in Spain. This made me realize how much of history is likely sugarcoated and how little progress can be made with that happening. Religion and quotes from the Bible played a massive role in the justification of abusing people. The Church has tried to mend ties with oppressed individuals and victims of colonization over the centuries, even if it has not been a perfect effort. However, we as everyday Catholics or just people in general seemingly tend to avoid the knowledge and discussion of what happened in the past. That wanting of ignorance will only spread ignorance.
Continuing to face the ugly sides of history of groups I proudly claimed being a part of, we boarded a train for Barcelona. That six hour train ride gave me more than enough time to reflect on what I had experienced so far. Little did I know I would continue to be rattled by the things I continued to learn. Pulling into the train station, there was already a difference. The language of Catalan was everywhere, whether it was on the signs around the station or just people speaking to one another. Catalonian flags waved proudly above public buildings, and locals draped the flags from their balconies. This was no longer Spain. This was Catalonia. There was a strong national identity in Barcelona but not one that I expected to encounter. The citizens here did not claim to be Spanish; in fact, they strongly rejected that identity if anything. They wanted to be free. They wanted independence.
I found it inspiring that an area with a different national identity still wanted to break free and self govern. I could understand its lack of popularity worldwide since Spain is an ally to many Western countries, but I respected the people for striving for something more. However, I then found it odd. The United States was the catalyst for the Age of Revolution that helped kick off the beginning of the end to colonialism. Yet when a nation that shares the same ideals as us wants freedom we do not support them. I knew that it was not such a simplistic answer, but it was a recurring thought in my mind.
We strolled Barcelona, seeing the Catalonian pride everywhere. From the Tibidabo at the top of the mountains, with Jesus’s hands outstretched; to the Sagrada Familia, which to its own extent mirrored a mountain; to the beaches of the coast, packed with proud Catalonians; Barcelona was a world on its own, separated by ocean and mountain from the rest of Spain.
In the Eixample, the more modern part of the city, a small, almost hidden treasure laid nestled in the buildings. La Palau de la Música Catalana, open in 1908 and designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, the building is meant to resemble natural elements, incorporating nature into its design. A huge chandelier lit by sunlight hangs into the music hall, designed to look like the sun itself. The pillars resemble trees, supporting the roof above. The windows are stained glass, giving the impression of a flower garden. Against the back wall of the stage, fifteen muses sprout from the wall, each with a different clothing and hair design to represent the diversity of music played in that room. This is one of the crowning jewels of Barcelona. It has been preserved for generations to come by the UNESCO World Heritage Site, as have multiple monuments to Christopher Columbus.
I found that extremely odd, as while the muses celebrate diversity, Christopher Columbus is widely seen to be a figure harkening back to colonization and slavery in the eyes of many Americans. La Palau de la Música Catalana invites multiculturalism, but many feel Columbus actually repels it. I took solace in at least one thing: the United States has been making strides in removing monuments, murals, or other offensive symbols from the public and moving them into museums.
America has an ongoing discussion about race and religion, and while it many times gets ugly, at least there is a discussion happening. There are many changes to be made and many faults to be righted. Yet there is still a search for the common goal and creed of justice and equality. The acknowledgment that we have not yet reached that goal is crucial to progress. Traveling Spain only made my identity more clear to me. I was no less American, Cuban, or Catholic. However, it provided a more holistic, worldly view of the histories that created me. I learned to accept that I am not responsible of the sins for those that came before me, but I responsible for fixing the wrongs they may have created in order to leave a future more beautiful than the past. As someone that wants to pursue a career in politics, this trip taught me the range of influence and impact that the United States has, the effect that history plays in our current culture, and the fact that progress can only be made if one looks directly into the ugly history many have tried so long to hide. So I thank you, Spain, for teaching me more about who I am than I had ever known. Thank you, Spain, for forcing me to question what I had been taught in order to form an opinion of my own. Thank you, Spain, for being a part of the mosaic of my being that I once rejected but now embrace. Thank you, Spain, for being una mirada en el espejo.