Aspects of Freedom by Allison Vargas

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Allison Vargas of FIU Honors College in the Alhambra in 2016

ASPECTS OF FREEDOM
By Allison Vargas

Studying abroad in Spain with Professor John William Bailly

“I began to examine the different aspects of freedom in the United States and Spain when I saw La Giralda in Sevilla. La Giralda has an immediate connection to Miami because both the Freedom Tower as well as the Biltmore Hotel were inspired by it.”

La Giralda,  a bell tower of the Sevilla Cathedral, includes parts from many cultures. Stones with Roman inscriptions were used to build the original Moorish minaret before the mosque was turned into a church during
the Reconquista.

The Freedom Tower, on the other hand, was used in the 1960s to process, document, and help Cuban refugees fleeing Castro’s regime. The tower is now a symbol of hope and freedom.

I found it interesting and ironic that a tower that is the product of cultural and religious conflict is the inspiration for a tower representing freedom across an ocean. However, in the case of both towers, conflict brought about cultural blending. La Giralda itself is the product of cultural blending, while Cuban and American culture began blending at the Freedom Tower. Although the towers have very different histories, they have had parallel functions in the merging
of cultures.

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Sevilla’s Giralda served as inspiration for Miami’s Freedom Tower and Biltmore hotel. (Photos by JW Bailly CC BY 4.0)

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

Religion plays a huge role in Spanish history and identity—so much so that it would be illogical, even impossible, to visit Spain and not visit the amazing cathedrals and churches, regardless of your own religion.

The difference in the history of religion in the United States and Spain is starkly obvious: the U.S. has always supported religious diversity and tolerance, while Spain is the product of religious control.

Here is a brief history lesson to explain.

Both the Reconquista and the Inquisition established Christian dominance in Spain. During the Reconquista in the Middle Ages, Christian armies conquered the Moors, and the Moors were driven out of Spain. Spain became united under Catholicism by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, which led to the Inquisition. During the Inquisition (1478-1834), anyone non-Christian, especially Jews, was punished. Later, during the Franco era, Catholicism was the only religion allowed legal status. The government passed laws supporting Catholic teachings, and Catholic religious education was mandatory in schools.

Today, most Spaniards identify as Catholic, but religion has become more of a tradition than anything else. There are still remnants of Spain’s authoritarian religious history, however. Cities like Toledo and Sevilla have a “Juderia” or Jewish neighborhood, although no Jews reside in it. To me, the signs of the Juderia are more like gravestones than neighborhood labels. I personally did not see a single synagogue or mosque that had not been converted into a Catholic church. During my entire time in Spain, I saw only one other church among the countless Catholic churches—a Scientology church.

The lack of religious diversity in Spain stands in stark contrast to the United States, where you may  stumble upon a multitude of different places of worship in any town. However, the U.S. is not impervious to religious discrimination, and it is not unique to Spain. Also, although both countries now claim separation of church and state, religious ideologies constantly permeate politics. In Spain, this separation is difficult, given its history;  but in the U.S. it is notable that religion plays such a large part in a country that has always had a separation of church and state, and that it is even referred to as “one nation under God”.

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SEXUAL FREEDOM

As I have studied in Spain, I have become aware that the level of conservatism is different than in the United States. The U.S. is actually more sexually restrictive, a reality that was blatantly obvious, especially on the beaches.

At Barceloneta and the beach at Sitges, women of all sizes and ages are commonly topless. In the U.S., topless women at a beach would most likely receive stares and even sexual harassment. In Spain, breasts seem to almost be completely desexualized, and toplessness at the beach is regarded as the norm.

Another less in-your-face, but still apparent, way in which Spain is less conservative than the U.S. is the view on homosexuality. I first began to consider this distinction on the day of the Orlando shootings. On that day, the Real Casa de Correos, a building located in Madrid, hung gay pride flags with a black ribbon on them in solidarity. After seeing these flags, I felt proud to be in a country that was standing with American citizens and the gay community. I further noted the difference in views on homosexuality after seeing several gay couples together. Although this is just as frequent in Miami, I did not notice any glares or harsh looks in Spain. These observations led me to do a little research. I found that, according to Pew Research Center, 91% of Spaniards are accepting of homosexuality, while only 60% of Americans are. Furthermore, Spain legalized gay marriage in 2005, while in the U.S., it has only been legal since 2015.

In light of the historical role of religion in these countries, the different attitudes on sexuality are ironic. It is almost paradoxical that a country so dominated by Catholic and conservative ideals legalized such a liberal statute a decade before the U.S. However, it is also relevant to note that the  Pew Research Center also found that half of Americans deem religion to be very important in their lives, while less than a quarter of Spaniards do. Needless to say, Spain’s societal attitudes have evolved rapidly, and in my opinion, for the better. I only hope that American attitudes undergo a similar evolution in the near future.

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A Demon dances in fire at the Nit de Sant Joan Festival in Barcelona. (Photo by JW Bailly CC BY 4.0)

FREEDOM IN CELEBRATIONS

By a stroke of luck, we were fortunate enough to be in Barcelona for the celebration of the Nit de San Joan on June 23rd. I had never heard of this holiday, or what it commemorated, before. My curiosity led me to a swift Google search. I quickly learned that the holiday has pagan origins, and long predates the introduction of Christianity. It is a celebration of the summer solstice, and the Catholic Church later combined it with the birth of St. John the Baptist. Bonfires and fireworks are at the heart of the festivities; the flames are believed to frighten and dispel evil spirits abroad on this night.

Before actually witnessing the celebration, I expected it to be similar to the American Fourth of July, which I associate with fireworks and bonfires on the beach; so when I learned that the Nit de San Joan was celebrated similarly, I imagined them to be alike. Well, it was nothing like the Fourth of July.

There was no part of Barcelona that did not have people out celebrating. Throughout the city, music was playing and fireworks were shooting. These fireworks displays, though, were like nothing I had ever seen. You did not watch them up in the sky while sitting in awe. Instead, they were detonating right beside you in the hands of people dressed up as devils—odd, I thought, for a holiday that celebrates a saint. Although being in such close proximity to fireworks is dangerous, the excitement and thrill in the atmosphere gave me an adrenaline rush that made me completely forget the potential risk.

Participating in this unique celebration really focused my attention on the differences between the U.S. and Spain; a celebration like the Nit de San Joan could never exist in the U.S.; the U.S. imposes too many restrictions! A celebration consisting of fireworks and bonfires would never be allowed to extend throughout a U.S. city. There would be regulations on the beach in the name of environmentalism, regulations on the streets in the name of safety and noise control, and regulations throughout the city in the name of keeping the festivities small enough for the police to control.

What the two countries do have in common, though, is that they have lost sight of the meaning behind their celebrations. The Nit de San Joan felt like an excuse to drink and party, not really to celebrate St. John the Baptist. Similarly, St. Patrick’s Day in the U.S. has little religious meaning and now centers on drinking and partying.

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Audri Rodriguez and Yina Cabrera of FIU in Espana (Photo by Vicky Atencio CC BY 4.0)

FREEDOM AND TECHNOLOGY

In no way is either Spain or the United States more technologically advanced than the other, but the use of, and importance placed on technology, is slightly different. Two applications of technology that I found to be unalike when comparing the countries were transportation and cellphones. These two technologies can either be used in society to augment freedom or to restrict it.

Throughout my time in Spain, there were perhaps only two occasions where I used a taxi to commute. On all other occasions, we either walked or used public transportation to get around, which seem to be the more popular transportation methods. This is a pronounced difference when compared to the most common method of transportation back home in Miami: driving.

Transportation in Miami, in fact, restricts our freedom. I can probably count on my two hands the number of times I have used public transportation in Miami, and I am willing to bet that most other Miami locals can say the same. This heavy reliance on cars leads to our infamous traffic problems. People waste countless hours of their lives in traffic, an issue that the average Spanish citizen would never encounter. Spain’s substantial use of public transportation allows for virtually no time spent wasted commuting, as well as an overall more positive commuting experience.

Cellphones are another technology that appears to restrict people in Miami more than in Spain. My reasoning for this claim lies in the observations I made while eating out at restaurants. In Spain, people at restaurants were always fully engaged in conversations with each other, and never on their cellphones. In Miami, the opposite holds true. Back home, it is rare to see people not check their phones at least once during a meal. But cellphones are not the only culprit. Some restaurants in Miami, like Chili’s for example, have tablets on every table that offer games, which further socially withdraw people from what should in reality be a social event.

So when considering transportation and hand-held devices, Spain seems to be doing a better job at using these technologies to improve lifestyles, rather than hinder them.

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Guernica by Pablo Picasso is the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid

FREEDOM AND CONFLICT

There is a complicated relationship between conflict and freedom. Conflict threatens freedom,  but it is also sometimes needed to gain or keep freedom.

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica depicts the bombing of that city during the Spanish Civil War. Seeing this massive work of art at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid was extraordinary; the painting caused me not only to  appreciate Picasso’s one-of-a-kind genius, but also to reflect on what it depicts. The combination of Picasso’s artistry and the compelling meaning of the piece makes it my favorite painting of the trip.

The artwork is a universal symbol warning against the suffering and devastation of war. For this reason, a copy is displayed in the United Nations Building in New York. This fact led me to directly link the U.S. and Spain once again as I researched the willingness of both countries to use military force. I found that three-quarters of Americans agree that it is sometimes necessary to use military force to maintain order in the world, while narrower majorities of Spaniards share the same view. Furthermore, when asked whether their country should have UN approval before using military force to deal with international threats, only 45% Americans agree, compared to the 74% of Spaniards who do.

This difference in opinion may be due to Spain’s more direct connection to the pain and horror of war on its home soil. Perhaps the U.S. is more focused on the use of conflict to foster freedom, while Spain is more aware of the suffering conflict causes.

Check out Bailly’s study abroad programs
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