Web Essays

Return to Madrid

The stubborn genius of hope

By Aaron Shulman | February 3, 2014
Protest in Madrid, September 2012 (Dani del Sol)
Protest in Madrid, September 2012 (Dani del Sol)


For the Winter 2013 issue of The American Scholar I wrote a Letter from Madrid about the gloomy state of affairs in Spain, my wife’s native country, where we had been living for nearly three years. During our time together there we saw corruption scandals proliferate, police violence intensify, poverty grow, and paro—unemployment—soar. In short, the global economic crisis had turned into a way of life, cornering us into a decision to decamp to the United States.

Elisa and I returned to Madrid this past December for Christmas, acutely aware that the situation had gotten no better since we’d left. The year brought a raft of new corruption accusations, these more splashy than any previous: the former treasurer of the governing Popular Party, Luis Bárcenas, in jail and politically isolated, opened the ledgers of an alleged secret slush fund used to plump the bank accounts of party members. President Mariano Rajoy is among the high-ranking politicians implicated in the scandal, a possible recipient of off-book money, yet no legal action has been taken. Impunity has come to seem as institutionalized as corruption, even as more scandals continue to break and criticism from Europe mounts. A friend who’s a magistrate urged me to note that so many indictments are occurring because judges are doing their jobs. But then other structural weaknesses in the judicial system, such as egregious abuses of pardons, get in the way.

Last year I wrote about the foreclosure and housing crisis in Spain, which produced an average of more than 100 families evicted from their homes each day. This trend appears to have more than kept apace, tallying at upwards of 200 evictions per day in the first four months of 2013 (reliable statistics for the year as a whole are still hard to find). While the STOP DESAHUCIOS platform, a grassroots activist collective, continues to take an impassioned stand against foreclosures, politicians have carried out only anemic reforms to Spain’s emphatically bank-favoring mortgage laws, which stipulate that homeowners must continue paying off loans (including in predatory subprime situations) and interest even after being evicted.

The July train derailment in Santiago de Compostela, killing 79 people, felt like cruel overkill, given that daily news in Spain seems to report on an ongoing collective tragedy.

Then there’s Elisa, the individual embodiment of a national phenomenon: la fuga de cerebros, the brain drain, the hemorrhaging to other countries of Spain’s most educated generation in history. To quote English novelist John Berger, “On a world scale emigration has become the principal means of survival.” Now Elisa is a part of this global economic trend, as well as Spanish friends of ours who were returning home for Christmas from Oman, Chile, Western Sahara, Ireland, and France. Many claim this flight of the young and desperate is why unemployment, which has leveled off at 27 percent, hasn’t continued to rise. To frame this in a personal light, when Elisa and I first moved to Los Angeles my mother-in-law said things over Skype like, You’ll move back in a few years once things gets better. Now she tells Elisa, Forget about Spain. There’s nothing for you here.

In Los Angeles Elisa had found a job she loved that fit her background and aspirations. She had never felt more valued professionally—and never felt further from home. When we arrived in Spain, though, it was like we had never left—in the best way. Friendships were unchanged; family gatherings were as warm as ever. We spent the next two weeks immersed in the unbeatable Spanish joie de vivre. Spaniards know how to compartmentalize woe to embrace the good times of the holidays.

Amid this Christmas cheer, however, we still heard more than a few disheartening stories, if told with less outrage this year and more wry banality: a cousin with a PhD going on her third year of paro, another cousin working months without a paycheck, an uncle who works at a hugely popular chain department store making less than he ever has during his 15 years there, a friend suing his former municipal employer for slander because of rumors created to justify his firing. These are tame stories. We’re lucky within our circle of family and friends not to have someone who is living on the street, or committed suicide due to an eviction, as happened many times in Spain last year. The only person I know doing better is an Italian friend who teaches English at a language school. He’s gotten more hours because there are more students enrolling—their parents preparing them to go abroad when they grow up.

Still, after another year of unmitigated crisis, the air felt less agitated, the talk less fever-pitched, and not just because it was the holidays. When I asked a friend about this, he told me about a bar in Granada with a sign inside that read: Prohibido Hablar de La Cosa, roughly equivalent to, Talking About Things Is Prohibited. When my friend asked what the sign meant, the bartender explained, “You know, ‘Things are so bad. Things aren’t getting better.’ We’re sick of all that.” In other words, the crisis isn’t over, but people are over having it be at the center of their mental and social lives. Perhaps this is a symptom of resignation, but it didn’t seem like a new kind of defeat. Rather, it felt like forward-looking acceptance that allows people to hold on to their dignity.

A friend of Elisa’s embodied the sense of a hard-won emotional rebound. The year before, when we left Spain, he was unemployed. Depressed, he had just moved back in with his mother after getting by on his own throughout his 20s. Now he is still unemployed and living with his mom and hating the 200-euro monthly subsidy he gets from the government. But he seems happy, calm, and upbeat. “I’m doing well,” he told us in December. “I mean, I don’t have anything, and I’d jump at a heartbeat for a bad job that exploited me and paid terribly, but I’m good. I host an online radio show and find new ways to get satisfaction. People used to be obsessed with what stuff they could buy. That’s over. Now people are focused on how to actually be happy.”

This, I thought on our flight back to the States, was more inspiring than jail time for a corrupt politician or a downtick in unemployment figures.

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