Madrid: Dignity and Indignation

In Lavapiés, Madrid (Photo by Angellote)
In Lavapiés, Madrid (Photo by Angellote)


Since I moved to Spain two and a half years ago, my personal life has settled into a state of contentment I’d never before even thought to contemplate. I married a Spanish woman on an Andalusian patio with orange trees; my 89-year-old grandmother was present, along with two dozen other relatives and friends from America. I’ve made close friends here with whom I can grab beers and talk about anything from private difficulties to the novels of Roberto Bolaño. My in-laws say I fit into the family like a puzzle piece, and when Elisa and I visit they always have the local delicacies I adore waiting for me: Córdoba-style oxtail, flamenquínes, cured Iberian ham. In other words, though the United States is my first home, I’ve been lucky enough to find a second home here. And yet there’s a bitter corollary: we have to leave. “I feel like Spain is kicking us out,” Elisa says from time to time as tears form in her eyes. I can’t help but agree, and we’re not the only ones who feel this way.

To say that unemployment is bad in Spain is like saying that the sea is watery. The situation is that oceanically obvious. Since the global economic crisis began, paro—the Spanish word for unemployment—has been rising over the country like a patient, ineluctable flood. Twenty-five percent of the population is jobless, and this leaves out the considerable number of eternal students, young men and women who, lacking alternatives, accrue degree after degree. The phenomenon has a name, titulitis, that reflects both the Spanish sense of humor and the feeling of an ailment infecting the future of the most highly educated generation in the country’s history. The 18-to-35 age group faces a 50 percent unemployment rate. I think back to 2004, the year of my college graduation. A sense of possibility remained strong even then, long after the 1990s boom had passed. And then I think of a student protest slogan today in Spain: Pre-Parado—another bit of wordplay—which means both ready in the sense of educated and pre-unemployed.

It’s worth noting that the resting pulse of unemployment in Spain during good times has always been high—it usually hovers around 10 percent. That figure sets off fever-pitched political debate in the United States, but fantasizing about a return to 10 percent here anytime soon would be quixotic self-deception. Spanish paro has already surpassed the worst levels of the American Great Depression. The Red Cross recently launched a campaign to combat hunger in Spain, redirecting resources previously dedicated to Haiti. More than one in every four children live in households below the poverty line. Things are bad in a way no one could have imagined even five years ago. The only person I’ve talked to who is at all positive about the situation is Elisa’s grandmother. She reassures us that things will never get as bad as they were during the Spanish Civil War, when bread was scarce and bodies piled up in the town square of her pueblo.

Spain’s unemployment figures depress me because they seem to presage collapse, but the reality of life in a country with so many unemployed is even sadder. Elisa and I relocated from Córdoba to Madrid this past April, and since then almost every day I see a corriente, or average, person rooting around in the trash in search of food—never mind homeless people, who now also have competition at soup kitchens and food banks. The border between the perennially homeless and the newly homeless is increasingly porous and irrelevant.

For more than three years, before moving to Madrid, I had frequently visited the city and in that time watched street and subway performers multiply. There are clowns, human statues, musical acts, and costumed characters—my favorite a schlubby, potbellied Spiderman who for some reason poses for pictures with tourists on the Plaza Mayor. On certain days the presence of such performers fills the city center with a theatrical exuberance. But of course, busking is not a prosperous profession— it’s one more symptom of paro.

Dignity and indignation are words that I had never truly considered before moving to Spain. I now think about them all the time, so ingrained are they in the vocabulary of contemporary life—at family dinners, over drinks with friends, even in small talk with strangers. This is indeed a moment of great self-pity, and I see indignation as its righteous double. The Spanish are a proud people, so indignation erupts everywhere. I think of the man in his 40s standing next to me at a demonstration this fall who cried out with such helpless, ragged rage that I myself started to cry and had to leave. I think of the graffiti artist in the neighborhood of Lavapiés, where we live, who stencils a blunt, devastatingly deadpan message onto walls, channeling the voice of an infantilized generation: I live with my parents.

As anyone who has been unemployed or lived amid unemployment knows, it is an intensely personal, idiosyncratic experience. I’ve been able to get by on freelance work combined with savings the past couple of years, but Elisa has spent a total of 15 months unemployed: five months after we first arrived in Córdoba, then 10 more after her seven-month contract as a community organizer in a disadvantaged Gypsy neighborhood came to an end. Elisa’s paro enveloped us in melancoly, like gray weather, but in the sunniest place I’ve ever lived.

Elisa’s paro story goes like this. When her contract was up, she was offered a permanent position, pending the arrival of tardy government money. This meant she kept working, except now as a volunteer, as do so many Spaniards. Like an underclass of perpetual interns, they give their time and energy not for a job but for the remote possibility of a job. But the situation didn’t feel serious: Elisa’s employer demanded less of her, she worked reduced hours, and she didn’t think she gave as much. “I’m not doing anything with my life,” she said over and over. This wasn’t true, but I knew what she meant. The waiting produced a languid disenchantment with time itself: free time sapped of pleasure because there was too much of it, weekdays like weekends, weekends like nothing, the accustomed rhythms of life removed. And all the while, out of an obligation to others worse off, Elisa reminded herself how lucky she was. In the end, the subsidy never arrived.

I’ve come to feel that the crisis in Spain exists as stories, stories you are told that you inevitably pass on. Elisa’s cousin, who completed her Ph.D. in molecular biology two years ago, still hasn’t found a job; her only good news of late was getting accepted into a lab tech training program intended for recent high school graduates. Or consider Esperanza, a 75-year-old woman I interviewed last spring. She lost her home to foreclosure and ended up living in Madrid’s Barajas airport. (It’s estimated that hundreds of families are evicted every day in Spain.) She told me she had found temporary housing but sometimes went to restaurants, ate a meal, then had to own up to not having the money to pay for it. There was D., a woman from the Gypsy community where Elisa worked, who in the last months before we left Córdoba often asked for money so that her kids would have dinner.

These accounts are representative, I think, of many Spaniards. And what of the immigrant prostitutes I pass on Montera Street in downtown Madrid, miniskirted and made-up, looking deflated by the intense competition among them? Or the manteros, the blanket guys, African men I often see running from police, their sacks of knockoff merchandise bouncing on their shoulders? There are so many stories, it’s hard to know what to do with all of them.

What brought Spain to this point? The Spanish economic boom in the years preceding the crisis was a grim parable described as a fairy tale we’re all familiar with: subprime mortgages, unchecked speculation, laughable regulation, political complicity—a world built on fictions. The Spanish version had a result even more disastrous than elsewhere because way too many of the country’s economic eggs were in the construction sector basket. When that went bust the tourism industry could not carry the whole country’s burden. Bailouts came next, and since then the Spanish economy has been contracting under impossible debt obligations and pressure from the Eurozone, resulting in sweeping cutbacks that many see as a brazen assault on the Spanish welfare state. Inseparable from all this, Spain is home to the most ineffectual, least charismatic, often just plain bad politicians I’ve come across, from Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy—whose style of leadership entails hardly ever addressing the public while his government undertakes austerity measures that seem tailor-made to violate all of his campaign promises—to the more than 100 politicians who ran for election in 2011 while facing indictments for corruption. In June, Carlos Dívar, the chief justice of the Spanish supreme court, resigned after it was revealed that he had used public funds to pay for beach vacations. A friend of mine who’s a Spanish magistrate was despondent when the scandal broke. “If the guy at the top is corrupt,” he said, “what hope is there?” And in terms of where the monarchy fits in with all of Spain’s bad news, let’s not go into it. I don’t want to get Elisa riled up; she can’t stand the royal family.

It’s fair to ask whether untrammeled capitalism and political corruption are the sole causes of Spain’s current situation. For example, do some Spaniards receive an unemployment check while also earning a salary under the table? Absolutely. I’ve met a few, though I know far, far more people in Spain who’ve benefited from the social safety net than have exploited it. Is there ever not a small group of people who take advantage of the prevailing system, and is this small group ever not used to justify cutbacks? Although cutbacks don’t improve things for anyone, it is political legerdemain to sell cuts in health care, social services, and other public programs as solutions to problems caused by much more than real estate speculation and bad politics. Spain’s democracy is still evolving, increasingly unsteady of late, from the creation of its 1978 constitution, and behind that landmark there is much tumultuous history: the divisive legacy of a bloody civil war, followed by the almost 40 years of the Franco dictatorship, which brought its own assortment of tragedies, among them a mass flight of Spaniards into exile. Since 2011 nearly 120,000 Spaniards have left Spain. Taking into account the flight of immigrants as well, the population here is actually shrinking.

I am writing this in October, and after 10 months of forms, administrative fees, and an almost disappointingly straightforward interview at the American embassy (we had our fat folder of immigration documents and pictures in order), Elisa recently received her visa to enter the United States as a permanent resident. This news brought on a euphoria tempered by a dark underside: we can finally strike out in search of new opportunities in the country I’m from, but our excitement is tempered by the realization that we’re desperately ready to leave the country she’s from—a place we both love.

On top of the increasingly untenable work situation, the comportment of police in the face of demonstrations is becoming more brutal and frightening. In September we happened to leave Neptune Plaza just minutes before police began beating demonstrators who had nonviolently surrounded the congress. In a restaurant we watched live TV coverage of defenseless people holding up their hands and yet still receiving blows. The next morning a shocking video appeared of police launching projectiles in a train station. A few days later the head of the riot police was awarded a medal by the government.

Is this a place where we really want to live? At least for now, the answer is no.


Read Aaron Shulman’s exclusive web-only update, Return to Madrid, published in February 2014.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Aaron Shulman is a writer and teacher in Los Angeles.


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