10 cities in 21 days. That makes 3 weeks, 504 hours, and 30, 240 minutes in a foreign country with my professor and 16 classmates. I carried my identity in my 70L Osprey backpack that made look like a Ninja Turtle, but I would not have had it any other way. I learned with no boundaries, lived with no regrets, and loved a country with all my heart. My faith grew stronger with every cathedral I visited, but my perception of other religions also deepened and in a positive direction. My soul soared from one place to another, with every architectural design and art piece making me feel like I was a part of them. I was not a tourist, but a local. Spain was my home for a month, and she embraced me without boundaries.
I spent a great deal of time thinking about what my professor asked of us since day one of this study abroad program. He urged us to question our identities and to figure out what makes us, us. If we are born in one land, but our parents come from another, then what’s our true nationality? Does being gay, straight, or somewhere in the middle even matter? Do we call ourselves Catholic because of our parents, or did we choose to practice willingly? I sought to answer such questions this past month, and my findings introduced me to an entirely new way of thinking. In the meantime, I explored what Spain brought back from the United States, including food, gold, and unfortunately, slaves. I also compared the two countries in terms of sexuality, religion, and politics, noting key differences between them
Madrid: La Sexualidad
Only in Madrid would I see over a hundred naked men and women riding bicycles outside of El Palacio Real. They were protesting for less pollution by lobbying against human dependency on automobiles. I admit that the exhibition was incredibly shocking to me at first, for I have never seen so many nude people simultaneously (and in public). Even more surprising, the policemen did not do anything about it. On the contrary, some of them were casually conversing with the bicyclists. If this were to happen in the United States, they would have been arrested in a heartbeat. But then, something occurred to me. Americans often associate nudity with sex, and that is considered “evil.” In reality, if God created man, then a man in his nude state is spiritually pure. Therefore, nudity is, in fact, pure. So in a way, the ensemble of nude bicyclists was a celebration of our human bodies, showing us that we have nothing to hide. We have to embrace who we are and not be afraid of what others may think of us. What matters is what we think of ourselves.
On my own time, I traveled to Chueca, an LGBT community named after the Spanish composer Federico Chueca. Rainbow flags can be seen everywhere, indicating the neighborhood’s openness to homosexuality. Fashion boutiques, bars, hotels, and restaurants are filled throughout Chueca, with my favorite market being El Mercado de San Antón. An assortment of delicious foods permeated the three floors, from fruits and vegetables to gourmet burgers and Japanese cuisine. I had lunch on the third floor, which consisted of all sorts of Spanish food. It wasn’t until then that I realized the variety of crops that were brought to Spain from the New World. Actually, the majority of my meal consisted of tomato, potato, and cacao (I never skip dessert), all of which would have never been introduced to Spain had Christopher Columbus not sailed to the New World in 1492. He brought back an endless list of food including corn, peppers, pumpkins, beans, squash, and a variety of tropical fruits. What had initially been central components of the Native American diet are now some of Spain’s staple foods. Some examples include patatas bravas, tortilla, pan con tomate, salmorejo, fabada asturiana, to name a few.
Chueca neighborhood in Madrid, España (Photos by Lourdes G. Madrigal)
That same day, I visited Malasaña, one of the hippest and most evolving areas of the city. This 200-year-old community gets its name from a seamstress that was murdered during the uprising of French occupation in 1808. Together with Chueca, Malasaña forms part of the Justicia neighborhood and are both among the liveliest quarters in Madrid. Today, Malasaña’s ambiance delivers a unique experience to the younger crowd, with bars, shops, and live music lining the entire district. As I walked through Malasaña’s main street, Calle Fuencarral, I noticed that this was where all the best-known brands were situated. I was not interested in buying any mainstream commodities, so I took the courage in asking a local where I may find independent fashion shops in Malasaña. She led me to Espíritu Santo, a street where I encountered a chic apparel store called Bendita Tentación. Nearly all of the merchandise was made by Olga, the owner of the boutique. I bought a pair of earrings from her and could not have been more in love. More importantly, I appreciated its authenticity. In comparison to the United States where almost everything is made in China, it was nice to buy something hand-made by a Spanish woman.
As I walked back to my apartment later that evening, I found myself in Plaza de Independencia, an area where my classmates and I had previously visited with our professor. The city’s central square intersects three main roads: Calle de Alfonso XII (leads to the Atocha train station), Calle de Alcalá (Madrid’s longest street), and Calle de Serrano. At the center of this crossing is La Puerta de Alcalá, a Neo-classical triumphal gate that once marked the city’s entrance and was designed by the Italian architect Francesco Sabatini.
Last June, the entire Plaza de Independencia was illuminated with rainbow colors in celebration of LGBT pride month. I never realized how open Spain was in terms of their sexuality. When I tried to find out if the United States had some sort of influence on them, I was even more shocked to discover that Spain was among the first to legalize same-sex marriage in 2005. It took an additional 10 years for the United States to adopt such a law. Considering that Spain was heavily influenced by Catholic monarchies over several years, it was difficult for me to comprehend their shift in ideologies. I mean, the majority of the country continues to be Catholic. Nonetheless, it is reassuring to see them transition to more modern mindsets. And today, Spain is considered the most accepting country for homosexuality.
Sevilla: Arquitectura y Oro
Ah, Sevilla, the place that won my heart from beginning to end. It is an enchanting city widely known for its flamenco dancing, bullfighting, medieval lanes, churches, and grand palaces. What most impressed me, though, was the Christian and Mudéjar architecture that filled the entire city, especially in the Alcázar Palace and Gothic Cathedral. More importantly, I was amazed at the amount of wealth that was brought in from the New World to Sevilla.
Formerly contracted in 913 as a fort for Sevilla’s Cordoban governors, the Alcázar was rebuilt in the 11th century by the city’s Abbadid rulers who constructed a palace called Al-Muwarak. A century later, the Almohads made an additional palace called Patio del Crucero. When King Fernando III conquered Sevilla in 1248, he moved into the Alcázar and essentially made it the primary home for successive monarchs. With the help of Mohammed V and some top artisans from Sevilla, King Pedro I eventually built Palacio de Don Pedro in 1364. Considered as Sevilla’s most remarkable architectural piece, the new palace received influences from the caliphate of Córdoba as well as Islamic customs from the Almohads. The Alcázar contains Moorish (11th-12th century), Gothic (13th century), Mudejar (14th century), and Renaissance (15th-16th century) architecture, depending on the era it was rebuilt in history.
Mudéjar refers to the Moors who stayed in Southern Spain after the Catholic conquest in 1492. The difference between them and the Moriscos was that the Mudéjars did not convert to Catholicism. As a result, Christian and Moorish powers merged into an artistic design that dominated Andalusia. As I made my way through Sevilla, I realized that the architecture looked strikingly familiar to me. That was when I recalled an excursion I did with my professor and fellow classmates to Vizcaya in Miami, Florida. I noted key similarities between the Villa and the Alcázar Palace and was amazed at how influential Spain has been with America. Similar to Vizcaya, the Alcázar greeted me with Mudéjar styled arches that were shaped like horseshoes. Handpainted blue, white, and gold ceramic tiles were also observed, with clear pattern repetitions used as a means to glorify God. Both the Alcázar and Vizcaya contained courtyards that possessed pools and gardens, which the Moors used to contemplate on the heavens to help recreate paradise on earth.
Sevilla is the largest city in Southern Spain and lies on the banks of the Guadalquivir river, which stretches 60 kilometers long. During Spain’s conquest of America, the river used to serve as a vital harbor, receiving riches from the New World and distributing such wealth to the rest of the country. To me, this was especially apparent in the Catedral de Santa María de la Sede, where a site beyond the choir area had immediately caught my attention. In the Capilla Mayor (Main Chapel) stood a 20-meter-tall altarpiece that was entirely made out of gold, all of which was brought from the New World. Dazzling yet pure at the same time, it magnificently highlights the Life of Christ and the Virgen de la Sede in 45 scenes.
The Catedral de Santa María de la Sede is the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world. Constructed between 1434 and 1517 over what used to be a mosque, it is not a coincidence that La Giralda once served as a minaret. Built in the 12th century by the Almohad regime, the lower brick segment of the tower possesses Moorish arches and geometric patterns that are similar to that of the Alcázar. It was not until after the Moors were expelled from Andalusia that the Catholics added the tower’s Renaissance-styled top. Today, the 100-metered-tall structure now serves as a Bell Tower. Interestingly enough, Miami’s Freedom Tower and Biltmore Hotel are replicas of La Giralda in Sevilla.
During my stay in Barcelona, I visited a chic neighborhood called El Born. Identified by its narrow streets, designer shops, trendy bars, and cafes, El Born offers a lively atmosphere for all ages. I got the chance to visit the renowned Picasso Museum, which displayed much of the painter’s masterpieces. From his famous blue paintings to his iconic interpretation of Diego Velázquez’s “Las Meninas,” Picasso delivered an impressive exhibition of his most prized works. After touring the museum for nearly two hours, I found myself in Santa Maria del Mar Basilica, a Catalan Gothic Church built between 1329 and 1383. It was here that one of Jesus’ apostles, James, was said to have preached. This is why a small chapel was built over the area and where St. Eulalia’s body was buried in the year 304. Her bones were transferred to Barcelona’s Cathedral in 1339.
Unlike Sevilla’s Gothic Cathedral, Santa Maria del Mar Basilica has a uniform-looking design, with no particular mix of architectural styles. This is due to its construction within one era, as opposed to several centuries like many structures in Spain. My favorite aspect of the basilica was the stained-glass windows that immersed the room with colored light, which sort of reminded me of La Sagrada Familia. Even though La Sagrada Familia does not remotely compare to this basilica in terms of its majestic beauty, I started thinking about Catholicism as a whole in Spain and tried comparing it with my country.
Santa Maria del Mar Basilica in Barcelona, España (Photos by Lourdes G. Madrigal)
When Spain took over the Americas during Christopher Columbus’ era, the conquistadors imposed their beliefs on the indigenous people. Among those customs was Christianity, which is why more than 65% of Spaniards identify themselves as Catholic today. However, with the rise of liberal views, Spain is generally becoming more secular. This religious shift is most likely due to the younger generation being less affected by Franco’s national Catholicism era. Americans and Spaniards are collectively becoming less Christian, with Catholics and Protestants demonstrating the most significant drop. Unlike Spain, though, the United States does not have a recent account of a dictatorship that worked together with the Catholic Church. Instead, we have a boom of millennials who have learned to distance themselves from religious ideologies that their parents once instilled in them.
The purpose of this project was to examine how the Americas influenced Spain. Not only did the Spanish conquistadors bring back food and gold from the New World, but they also imposed their Catholic beliefs on the indigenous people living there. Architecture also played a role in places such as Florida, where Islamic influence was incorporated in areas like Coral Gables. And although Spain is far more open to sexuality than the Americas, both countries are becoming more liberal. More individuals are supporting LGBT rights while steering away from denominational religions.
This brings me back to the question of what makes us, us. After spending a month in Spain, I honestly believe it is the choices we make that define us. I choose to be straight, Catholic, and American not because of society or what my parents want to me to be, but because “yo sé quien soy.”
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