Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Travels in Porto


Blog Entry #7

My travels in Porto

Spaniards take their holidays seriously. Normally, in the States, if we have a national holiday in the middle of a week, we either have the one day off in the middle of the week, or they extend the weekend by moving the holiday to Monday. In Spain they wouldn't think to do this, instead with a holiday in the middle of the week—like Wednesday December 8the for example1--they extend the weekend prior or after it (in this case prior). They call this a puente or bridge. This weekend then, I took advantage of the puente and took off for the weekend to Porto, Portugal.



The adventure started innocently enough, with of course a delay.2 The gate next to me suddenly told its passengers that their flight had been moved to another gate, and soon they replaced that flight with another. The new flight, just as its passengers were told they were to board, was suddenly cancelled, igniting a series of groans and curses from the crowd. My flight was delayed as we were sitting on the tarmac awaiting clearance. I ended up arriving in Porto two hours late. The next day I came to find out that while I was in the air, every air traffic controller in Spain went on a wildcat strike, shutting down commercial airspace all over the Iberian peninsula.3 The next day, many flights were cancelled, and passengers were stranded all over Spain. The Prime Minister of Spain then declared a national emergency and militarized the airspace above Spain, forcing the air traffic controllers back to work on penalty of martial law. Now, normally, I would be proud of a labor struggle bringing an economy to a halt, but then I learned how much these little fuckers make: the average yearly salary is 200,000 euros, often doubled or tripled through overtime, with some controllers making over 800,000 Pounds.4 I was lucky to get out of Spain, and even luckier to make it to the wonderful city of Porto, which I got to thoroughly explore the next day.

In Porto, I had my first experience with the wonderful couchsurfing.org, a website designed by travelers for travelers, helping strangers connect and find places to stay wherever they may be traveling. Now, I've hosted others before, and informally couchsurfed with friends of mine, but this was my first time traveling with the website, and I was lucky enough to meet and stay with a variety of interesting people. I knew my first host through a CS meet up here in Madrid, and then I was pawned off to another CS-er who lived in a wonderful little apartment overlooking the river and Ponte Luis I. 
 

On Saturday, I got to meet a couchsurfer named Fernando who absolutely floored me. Fernando is a 62 year old short Portuguese man. He's retired, and his children and grandchildren are spread out all over Portugal. He gets to travel the world without leaving the comfort of his own home by hosting and meeting as many visitors to Porto as he humanly can. Fernando has hosted close to 1000 couchsurfers in two years (he was, unfortunately, unable to host me). Fernando loves giving tours of his home town, and the Saturday I met up with him was no exception. Starting early in the morning, Fernando toured me and an Italian traveller named Umberto all around the city, tiring us (youngsters) out! This guy was a machine of walking and talking. I hope I'm as energetic and spry at that age.

The best part about Fernando was the serious of jokes he kept throwing out for conversation pieces. His particular favorite was:

Porto is a great city for womens drivers, people see them driving, and get out of the way! Empty streets everywhere for the woman driver!” and of course, when one of the females on the tour retorted, “but what happens if there's an accident and a man drives?” Fernando's immortal response: “He was probably thinking of woman...”5

The best joke he had was about souther Portuguese folks: “We're not all perfect, us portuguese. In the south, they so lazy, it take six people for them to make the sex! Two to do it, and four to shake the bed!”

Fernando reminded me of my Dad (I know you're reading this, viejo), and he took us all over the city, including to a free wine tasting tour at a port cellar where they make the world famous port wine (sweet dessert wine). The tour lasted 9 hours without stopping, and I'm really glad I got my ass out of bed early enough to catch it, because I feel like I really got a feel for the city.




Saturday night proved to me how awesome Portugal really is, with bars charging 1 euro for beer, and its not even happy hour! Its definitely a city worth checking out, and I hope that whoever reads this gets the chance to visit someday!

That's all I have to talk about for now, sorry for the space between posts, but I'd rather write about important things than about mundanities.

1Not sure what the holiday is, some religious crap.
2For those of you unfamiliar with discount travel in Europe, I flew RyanAir---The Ikea of the Skies...except without the, you know, durability or usefulness. They pack you into the plane like sardines, inspect every inch of your luggage to make sure its not too large, and charge you whatever they can for whatever little bullshit service they can charge you. I firmly believe these people are given a quota of passengers they have to fuck over every flight through some absurd technicality.
3http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSLNE6B203720101206
4http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article6991798.ece
5Not that I condone this kinda joking, but c'mon, its cute! Derivations of this joke were repeated about every half hour...

Monday, November 8, 2010

Culture of Silence


Blog Entry #6—November 11th 2010

Sorry it's been a while since my last post. It's not that I've forgotten to write, it's more that I've just been quite busy of late with school and other work. I've recently picked up some private lessons that earn me a bit more spending cash each week. There is quite a large, often undocumented, American ex-patriot community here in Madrid, and all over Spain, who work here (both illegally and legally) teaching English.

In the last few weeks I've gone down to Andalucía and visited the sleepy little town of Frigiliana, which is five minutes inland (by car) from Nerja, a town on the aptly named Costa del Sol (Sun Coast). I've also taken a trek to Picasso's home town of Málaga, and of course the beautiful and lively university town of Granada, smack-dab in the center of Andalucía (the souther region of Spain). I revisited the Alhambra, from where my first tattoo was inspired.



Avoiding your roots?

The famous Black Nationalist, Marcus Garvey,1 once said, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” Garvey, of course, was referring to the literal uprooting of millions of Africans from their origins, history, and culture through the Atlantic Slave Trade2. But I think we can apply this proverb to any sort of people, because any tree without roots will rot from the inside. My impression, at least as someone working in a Spanish school, has been that Spaniards (although still connected to their culture) like to avoid their history. As far as I've been able to tell, Spanish children don't learn about their history until late in their schooling. The 14 year old I work with privately has only just begun to learn geography and has never taken a history class. Indeed, the only historical fact I've gotten out of the older kids I work with is that Columbus “discovered”3 America. When I chirp out, “Well, actually, people were already there,” they respond with, “Oh that's right! The Vikings got there before!” At this reply I tend to rub my forehead.

Perhaps my schooling was an exception, but I remember clearly learning about US history at an early age. I remember being six or seven years old and seeing diagrams of how some white devils (and yes, I will call people who do devilish things devils) crammed several hundred innocent Africans into filthy, tiny, ship-holds to work for free on large farms for people who believed they were inferior because of the way they looked. It was confusing, to say the least, but I remember hearing about it. I also remember hearing about how even after those in bondage were “freed,” they were not treated the same as others, and were made to drink from different water fountains, play in different parks, and ride on the back of the bus.

I also remember being told about how ordinary people stood up against that treatment. I remember hearing about police unleashing attack dogs and fire-hoses on people declaring their identities as human beings and demanding their rights as such. And I remember learning that those ordinary, nonviolent people—who committed, together, extraordinarily courageous acts—won. I remember hearing a speech at a young age (or at least parts of it) that began with “I have a dream....”

And although that version of history was superficial, incomplete, and through a particular lens, at least it was touched upon, because above all else...it was recent.4

There is a culture of silence in Spain about their own recent history. From 1936 to 1939, Spain was home to one of the most violent confrontations of the 20th century. In a prelude to the Second World War, the world's ideologies duked it out across Spain in a bloody episode known as the Spanish Civil War.5

In 1931, a coalition of liberal and radical forces came together and declared the Second Spanish Republic, after King Alfonso XIII abdicated his throne and fled the country. The Republic gave women the franchise, secularized education, separated the State from the Church, and began agrarian reform. The Republic was a response to 200 years of an essentially military/feudal system which bankrupted the country with experiments at Empire which failed miserably—the 19th century saw the once wealthy Spanish empire destroyed by the loss of the American colonies. However, the rise of the Republic did not go unchecked by the forces of old: The military, the Catholic Church, and the landed aristocracy.

A few years later, the conservative/nationalist forces won a slim electoral victory (1934) which began to try to reign in the Republic's reforms. However, by 1936 the sentiments of trade-unionists, women, peasants, and regional separatists could not be restrained. The Popular Front (a coalition of socialists, communists, liberals, anarchists, and Basque and Catalonian separatists) won a critical victory in the elections that Spring. Although a slim victory, many poor people took it as a sign that they were now in charge. Some workers took over their factories and some peasants took over the land they worked. Some people were so taken up in the fury that they often lashed out at their most visible historical oppressors through anti-clericalism. For example, some churches were burned (or converted into something useful) and clergy were killed: the clergy in Spain had for years done the bidding of the richest people, and owned a lot of land in those days.

The reaction from the right was predictable and well organized. On 18 July, 1936 the Civil Guard (like our National Guard), and the military rose up (supported by the Church and the Aristocracy) and attempted a coup. The coup was botched when some military units refused the order, and militias (organized by communist, Marxist, and anarchist trade unions) fought back. What commenced was an experiment at violence that the world had not seen since the First World War, and would give a glimpse of the gore that was to come a couple years later in World War II. The bourgeois democracies in the west ignored the Republic and its only ally was the USSR, which hamstrung its cause by creating strife between the coalition.6 To the aid of the Nationalists came the aid of Mussolini and Hitler (Italian troops fought in Spain, and the infamous fire-bombing of Guernica—which inspired Picasso's famous painting of the same name—was done by the Luftwaffe). Atrocities were committed on both sides, with mobs going after churches in Republican controlled areas. However, the fachas, as the conservatives were called orchestrated a calculated and planned program of attacking their political rivals. In fascist controlled areas, it was simply a policy of scorched earth. If you were connected with, or at one time supportive of, the republic, you were simply shot. Sometimes you were just shot for someone important enough not liking you, or having an old score to settle.

During the civil war one general rose to hold ultimate power on the Nationalist side. Generalissimo Francisco Franco7, a short, ugly little man, became the sole authority of the nationalist side. By the end of the civil war, he was the only political power in Spain. After the war his iron fisted dictatorship lasted until his death in death in late 1975. Through the civil war and until Franco's death, political repression flourished in Spain. During and after the civil war the fascists were responsible for somewhere between 120,000-250,000 executions (estimated), on top of the casualties of the Civil War.

The Spanish, today, are still afraid of their past. As bones are being dug up in mass graves found all over Spain, people still talk about the Fraquist regime in hushed tones and awkward glances. In school Franco is often the last thing covered (or so people tell me). Some teachers are beginning to start teaching students more openly about what went on, and more importantly, to understand why and how it must never be forgotten and never be repeated.

Recently, I've found one particular group of Spaniards who buck the usual trend: those whose loved ones were taken from them by the regime, and those who lived during it. Instead of the young calling for justice, it is the old who take up our cause. Every Thursday evening there is a protest, about a hundred strong in La Puerta del Sol, kilometer 0, the heart of Spain. They march for an hour around the central monument of the Plaza to remember the victims of Franco, and to call out against the current impunity for the murderers and repressors who made some of their lives living hells for close to four decades. 8 The ex-generals and officers who ordered the killings, the imprisonments, and the tortures have never faced punishment. They, unlike their victims, have had the privilege of reaching ripe old ages, and ripe old military pensions.



This last weekend, I visited a demonstration put on by these folks to remember the Defense of Madrid. As the historical capital of Spain, Madrid, was one of Franco's obsessions. He needed the city to help claim moral legitimacy to being the rightful ruler of Spain. In November of 1936, Franco began the siege of Madrid. Both sides fought tooth and nail, and the people of Madrid defended their city telling themselves, “¡No Pasarán!” They Shall Not Pass. By December, the nationalists were stalemated at the Casa de Campo park across the Río Manzanares to the west of the city. The Nationalists did not take Madrid until the end of the war when the Republic was collapsed.9
  


Perhaps small pockets of resistance like this and the discussions that are arising out of the discovery of hidden mass graves all over Spain10 will have an effect on creating the dialogue necessary to reexamine the past, and to guide thoughts as Spain moves into the future. The culture of silence on history, however, is rampant in the Western world. Injustice began in history and perpetuates itself today. Justice is also historical, and both concepts are key in the historical process of human relationships. Lets hope people take this to heart and not be afraid of the good and bad parts of our history.
____________________________
2http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantic_slave_trade
3Perhaps “invaded” would be a better term? http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Zinn/Columbus_PeoplesHx.html
4I've recently been quite interested in African-American history. I just read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and I think that every young man in America should read it, black or white. It provides insights on American history and the American experience, and paints a portrait of redemption and purpose.
5A good book on this subject see Anthony Beevor's The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1937-1939, http://www.antonybeevor.com/spain/reviews.htm
6The Civil War (as Beevor talks about) was almost triangular in its conflict. On the Republican side, tensions existed from the beginning between moderates and communists (who wanted strong state control and central authority) and Marxists, anarchists, and Basque and Catalonian separatists. Those tensions erupted into street fighting in Barcelona known as the “May Events” of 1937. A great book on this is George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. The USSR would often not arm or allow support for the marxist and anarchist militias fighting the Nationalists in the north. Also, having the USSR on their side kept the Western democracies from helping the Republic, because they didn't want to be seen on the same side of the USSR.
7http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_Franco
8http://www.publico.es/espana/314400/las-victimas-de-franco-toman-el-testigo-de-las-madres-de-mayo
9http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Madrid#Battle_for_Madrid_.28November_1936.29
10http://www.chronicle.gi/headlines_details.php?id=20224

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

First Week of School


Darkness. My alarm goes of at 7:00am and outside my window it's complete and total darkness as the world comes to life. I take my pills (Lisinopril/Hydrochlorothiaz—for blood pressure—when you take it on an empty stomach with a mouth fulla coffee it throws you into an excellent morning head rush) and down a glass of water. Next comes a shower, instant coffee, OJ and I'm out the door by 8:00am, still in darkness. I head south on the number 3 (yellow) metro line until it reaches the end. As I wait for the commuter train that takes me to Parla, where I work, the first rays of the new rising sun begin to peak over the eastern desert horizon.1 By 8:30am the tumult of the Spanish madrugada, dawn, is in full swing. And thus begins my day every Tuesday through Friday as I make my way to the small primary school I'm assigned to just South of Madrid.


My first full week of school was kind of like learning to swim. Sometimes, learning is easy. There's floaties, kick-boards, and shallow ends. The kind of week I had had some of that easy learning—where I sat in the back and watched the teachers, or where students harangued me with questions about whether I'm married or what my favorite soccer team is (of course...it's Real Madrid...I guess...I feared pulling some other famous soccer team out of the few names I can remember). Then there's the other kind of learning to swim: where an older cousin just kind of chucks you into the deep end and tells you to start kickin'. This sums up most of my first week, since two teachers were out sick and one's been on her honey-moon. That experience required a lot of patience. Eventually I got the hang of it and even learned to calm the kids down with a round of stretching, wiggling, and some primitive meditative controlled breathing exercises.


You see, Spanish children are hard to control, and some of the teachers here don't seem to know how to, or want to, assert their authority and maintain order in the classroom. One 1st grade teacher on my first day instructed me (as I walked in the door) to “do whatever you can to get calm them down.” Teachers seem to treat the children like babies, and so...they act like babies. One British ex-pat journalist blames part of this characteristic on certain demographic and cultural factors:


   “The imperious little princes and princesses of the, now typical, one or two child Spanish family are   a wonder to behold. The centre of attention of parents, grandparents, neighbors, aunts, uncles, and an endless list of admirers, their life is as golden as it can get. They issue instructions to adults in loud voices. A cry of '¡Agua!' and water is brought. '¡Galletas!' and biscuits [cookies] appear. '¡Cola Cao!' and the chocolate drink that appears at almost any time of the day is brought out. '¡Quiero ver la tele!' and the television is switched on. There are, of course, many exceptions but it seems that childhood is often an obligation-free experience. Adults tidy toys. Adults get food. Adults are there, in short, to serve.”2


This is way different than my notion of growing up, which meant chores, setting the table, and generally, being told what to do (thanks mom). This trend seems to carry on even in the public sphere: “...when your child karate-chops his glass of mosto, sweet grape juice, onto the tiled floor, the waiter appears not just with a mop, but with a smile and a new, full glass. If the children then choose to roll around the floor practising infant all-in wrestling, well that is just a sign of robust, endearing good health. Other diners are likely to agree.”3  This pattern of slowed down maturity and spoiling (at least by Anglo/North American standards) even continues well into the 20s.4


This of course means that, as Red as I feel I am in my bones, the fascist in me bubbles up from time to time. This is particularly true in the 1st and 2nd grades, where I've resorted to threatening stares, abrupt stops in my lesson, loud bangs against the chalk board, and even the age old practice of humiliating dissidents by pointing them out and making stand against the wall (so they can stare at it and contemplate their misbehavior). So far, it has worked, and seems to be a fresh sight for some of the normally irritated teachers.


On the bright side, I do often times get paid to play. This was especially true when, last Friday, I brought my guitar to school. With the kindies and 1st graders, we practiced our ABC's and sang classics like “Four Little Monkeys” and “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” But my real shining moment was with the 4th graders. It was in the fourth grade that I introduced them to the Blues. I told them about how it developed from the music that African-Americans invented to cope with the horrors of chattel slavery , “Jim-Crow” segregation, and discrimination. It was difficult for them to comprehend, but I think I got across the point that we need to look at our pasts, critically, so we can identify our mistakes and not repeat them. And most importantly, even though suffering can produce beautiful art, we mustn't treat others differently because of how they look or who they are.


I painted up a “Family Tree” of Rock n' Roll, starting off from African rhythms, moving through Jazz, and into the Blues. Finally, I talked about about the Blues' cousin Reggae, and even got them to sing “Stir It Up” by the late great prophet of the Third World, Bob Marley.


The culminating moment came when I taught the kids probably one of the most important mantras in history: “All You Need is Love.” Let's hope they take it to heart.
Until Next Time

-E
2Tremlett, Giles. Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through a Country's Hidden Past. Chatham, United Kingdom: Faber and Faber Limited, 2006. 234-35. Print.
3Tremlett 236
4“...Spanish children are now staying even longer in their parents' home. In 1990 a quarter of twenty-six to twenty-nine year olds were living at home. Within a decade that figure had risen to a half. Women leave slightly earlier than young men, presumably because they know how to cook and do their own laundry.” Tremlett 238

Thursday, September 30, 2010

29 Septiembre Huelga General—29 September General Strike


Blog Entry #4

29 Septiembre Huelga General—29 September General Strike

Yesterday all over Spain there was a massive general strike that affected transport, mining, industry, and various other sectors of the Spanish economy. Markets were closed, and picketers forced department stores to close their doors. I decided I wouldn't let the day go to waste, so I armed myself with my trusty camera and went to the streets to see what the fuss was about.

Yesterday made me remember Berkeley, because thousands of people came from all around to struggle together for their historic causes. I walked to central Madrid, to the Atocha train station,1 where I joined a march put on by the CGT2 The march ended up in La Puerta del Sol, Madrid's living, breathing, pulsating heart. There were teachers, workers, doctors, gays, lesbians, immigrants, students, and all different types of ordinary people. Even a couple of crazy folks too!3

Why were they out on the streets? Directly, it's because of a recently implemented labor reform measure. The new law raises the retirement age, changes pensions, gives employers more rights to fire workers arbitrarily, cut salaries, and cut benefits. This is part of a general craze affecting the “developed” world, particularly the PIIGS countries,4 European states which have in recent decades invested more heavily in their societies. Politicians seem to like to call them “austerity measures.”5 What they seem like to me is simply taking from from hard working people to justify and rectify the fuck-ups of the people who like to think they run this society, and who gambled with our collective wealth on a system based essentially on nothingness. But hey, what would a gambler be without a system? It's too bad that that lost wealth is usually scooped up by people normal folks will never get to meet.

What I saw today was, literally, people yelling and screaming—the most basic expression. My favorite chant was, “Tthe capitalists should pay for the crisis.” Makes sense to me, not a single working person did anything to destabilize international finance.

But the experience made me think about the nature and necessity of protest. All demonstrations should be an expression of identity: “I am young. I am poor. I work. I study. I am different. I am the same. I am you. You are me. I don't want to buy what you're selling, or produce what you tell me to produce. But still, I have value, and you need to hear me.” Seeing it reminds me of the power of standing up for yourself and for your causes. Fear locks us up and sells us a bill of goods that compels us to want to be the same. Breaking out of that, even with small acts of resistance such as yesterday's strike and marches,6 is what stands in the way of a singular world of fear—the neoliberal world dream (or nightmare) of one world with one market, denying identity, denying history. Protest stands up for a world, entirely possible, of love, identity, and difference. The difference between Spain and the US is that here people seem more disposed to putting work on a back-burner and standing up for who they are. I'd like to see how it turns out. Hopefully the resistance here—the resistance everywhere—breaks the chains of fear instead of reusing them for just as nefarious activities.



Working for a cause is really rewarding. In my case, I've been most recently involved in the struggle to pass Proposition 19 in California.7 To me, this cause isn't about me being able to light up a joint without feeling like a criminal,8 although that's certainly a plus. The struggle against the War on (some) Drugs is part of the civil rights movement of my generation. We arrest far too many people. We arrest a greater percentage of our Black population than South Africa did at the height of Apartheid. We've maintained the color-caste system and reinforced it by expanding it to a whole litany of “undesirables.” With regards to this war on drugs, we see clearly the struggle of history: that there is an “US” oppressing a “THEM.” The good thing about this historical process, though, is that usually the oppressor pronoun's original sin is overcome—rectified—by the oppressed pronoun's eventual supremacy in numbers, motivation, and endurance. The risk, as always, lies in the latter pronoun's (the oppressed) propensity to want revenge.9 That propensity is part of the great human weakness: FEAR. Fear causes you to hate and it is often difficult for people to remember that hate is what got “us” and “them” into this unsustainable situation in the first place. You see, the drug war serves financial purposes that are a lot bigger than the people getting locked up for it. The problem “they” have is that those interests (the prison industrial complex, the police, and their inadvertent allies—large international drug kingpins benefiting off of the underground economy the Drug War has created) are losing justification for it. And with this contradiction, like all systems of oppression, it will fall.10

video

The lynch pin of this historical process is fear. Fear of those who haven't by those who have. A fear of moms for their children's safety, a fear of what's new and different. And even the fear of the injustice of yesterday returning—and the hate that this fear drives. On top of this, we're human. This means we have a lot of assholes around, both literally and figuratively. There's a good number of assholes who make use of this fear in the arbitrary lust for power and material wealth.11 Getting rid of this fear needs to be the object of revolutionaries. We must fight fear with the best tool there is to fight it with. The great thing about being human is that we have, an most often untapped, infinite capacity and possession of this tool—which in English, we've called Love.12
 

I'll Post more pictures once I get a better internet connection w/o a 250mb limit

-E

1In 2004, right before a general election, tracks near this station were heavily bombed by terrorists linked to Al-Queda. Read more about it here.
2Several unions called this general strike. The CGT is an anarchist union that is now the largest anarchist group in the world, with 60,000 members representing 2 million workers through collective bargaining. These aren't the black-clad chain linked idiots representing anarchism in the US, these guys actually read, and organize. The tradition of anarchism comes out of a philosopher named Bakunin, who had a split with Marx in the 19th century over the need for a 'dictatorship of the proletariat.' Anarchism was big in Spain at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Read more about the Spanish labor movement here.
3This is especially what reminded me of Berkeley!
4Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain
5In a parallel to our country, the USA, it turns out the Spanish politicians are as uninspiring as their American counterparts. The Minister of Labor, on speaking about the Strike, commented the usual tried squawk talk about “continuing dialogue.” The expression on his face while he said this, at least to me, conveyed a feeling that he wasn't all too interested in actually listening to what other people had to say about the situation.
6By the way, Madrid's events were tame, nonviolent, and rather fun. However, the news is showing that not all the demonstrations were peaceful. In Barcelona protestors ransacked a library, rioted in the city center, and were the target of police action.
7 Yeson19.com
8"I have always loved marijuana. It has been a source of joy and comfort to me for many years. And I still think of it as a basic staple of life, along with beer and ice and grapefruits - and millions of Americans agree with me."--Hunter S Thompson
9This is where we get firing-squads, and charismatic people who tend to repeat the mistakes of history. Example: 20th century.
10“History is a relay of revolutions.”--Saul Alinsky
11Example: Hitler, Stalin, Nixon, etc,
12Let me just say, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love." -Ernesto “Che” Guevara

Friday, September 24, 2010

On homelessness, a cramped apartment, generational karma and the search for a place to hang my hats (the green, brown, and multicolored ones that is). 9/24/2010



It's been a while since my last post and I'm sorry for that!

Phewwww!!! To tell you the truth it's been quite a stressful week! The relatives who took me in were absolutely wonderful. Mercedes and Pedro have two daughters, Isabel and Ana (12 and 8 respectively), and a very nice house south of Madrid in a town called Valdemoro. Here's the interesting story: more thant half a century ago, Mercedes' mother (also named Mercedes) went to Argentina with her husband Bernardino for their honey-moon. Bernardino was my grandfather's cousin, and in hearing they were coming, my grandfather and grandmother offered them their own house and bed to sleep in, and they moved out for the couple of months they were in Argentina. As such, Tía Mercedes (the older one) and Tío Bernardino of course promised my grandfather and grandmother that when they came to Spain (which is where my great-grandfather came from) they would give them a place to stay.

Twenty years went by, and my grandfather, Juan Miguel Velázquez, passed away without ever seeing the land of his ancestry: Spain. So, (in a turn of events that strikes me quite emotionally) according to them, helping me out so much is just generational karma for a debt never repaid. It really hit me hard when the older Tía Mercedes said that to me when we were walking around Valdemoro alone one day. I've always heard people say wonderful things about my grandfather, but I never thought the things he'd have done in life would reflect on me like this, and that people whom I've never met would wish me well and help me out on my relation to him alone. It really makes you appreciate family, and know that what you do will in turn reflect on who you leave behind in this world. Hopefully I can live up to my grandfather's name and have the same kind of presence. I really do wish I remember him or had gotten to know him. Unfortunately he died when I was only two or three, so I have little memory of him.

On Saturday, the relatives showed me an empty apartment they owned in central Madrid. Unfortunately, the piso (as a flat is called here) was far too small for me too live in. The kitchen fit two people at a time and the bathroom, well....A grown man could not stretch out in any direction. Still, I wanted to get out of the family's house and get somewhere more central so I could look for a different option, and I decided I'd move into the piso temporarily until I could find a more suitable place.

On Monday I wandered into the city in the hopes of finding a piso to move into. I began my search at a place near the Callao metro stop, in the heart of the city. Unfortunately, walking into this first place was unfruitful. I knew from the start I had walked into some trouble: graffiti on the walls, the smell of burnt crack, and an absence of light. Sure enough, the room offered me was too expensive, hadn't a window, and I'm pretty sure the flat doubled as a brothel and drifters' den. Thankfully I kept up my search. It was, however, really difficult. Looking from place to place I found various obstacles. Lots of places didn't have windows and were dark. Others were shared with older people who I didn't think I'd get along with. Others I went to were shared by people who, I could tell, had their hippie-dar on high alert, and when I walked in had probably instantly decided against my boarding there. I didn't come to realize until later that the way housing works around here is not like a college town in the States. People rent whole apartments here, not rooms. Rooms are for short-term boarders or people just passing through, and so, when you find a room for rent, it's not really a “home,” it's more like a place to sleep with people you don't really know.

Luckily, Monday night I received an email from an old friend of mine from Sevilla who gave me the number of a friend of his who was looking for a piso in Madrid as well. Her name is Libia (from Córdoba in the south) , and she's here with her American boyfriend Max who's doing the same program I'm doing and is from Ventura, California. I offered Max and her a place to stay with me at my relatives' spare apartment, that way I'd have some company and perhaps get some leads on a place to stay. Luckily, they had an in with a lady near where we were staying. By wednesday night we had an appointment to sign a contract today (Friday). We convinced another Auxiliar (our job position) to come check it out with us while we signed the contract. Upon seeing it he signed up right away, and now there are four of us splitting a second floor piso near Plaza Legazpi in south central Madrid: Max, Libia, Mark (from New York) and myself! I've got my Bob Marley poster, my Che Guevara photo, family pictures, and tie-dye tapestry up and ready, and I can finally say that I have a place to hang my hats! It's a great feeling to finally have a place to live. Coming to a foreign country and not knowing where you're going to live is quite scary and frustrating.

Next items are on the agenda are opening up a Spanish bank account and buying a guitar. The bank account is so I can get paid. The guitar is so I can stay sane and, hopefully, use it in my job. My entire goal this year is to have a room full of 8 year olds singing Bob Marley's “One Love,” or the Beatles' “All You Need is Love.” Those are some of the best mantra's around, and with messages that I think all children should hear: We're all one, and we only need one thing in life.

Until next time.

-E

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Flying Sucks


It was raining in Madrid when I landed this morning at around 10am local time. I flew out of LAX about thirteen hours before. From there I flew to Dallas, Texas where I boarded a second plane to Madrid. As the title of this piece suggests: flying sucks. American Airlines packed absolutely everyone and everything they could into the Boeing I was stuck in. The seat reclined a full three inches into the knees of the poor bastard behind me. Combine this with the anxiety of leaving your friends and family, a slight hangover, and a troubled belly, and what you get is an incredibly uncomfortable flight in a piece of loud tin.

After taking a cab to Valdemoro (a town south of Madrid) I got to meet my distant family their. Tía Mercedes greeted me, and later I got to meet her daughter, also named Mercedes, who works as a teacher at a local school. It's quite amazing that without having ever met me these people have offered me absolutely everything. I've already been treated to great Spanish food (Spanish Omelet, Croquetas: fried balls of cheese and ham) and an assortment of pork--Spain exiled or killed most of its Jewish population during the inquisition, hence the Spanish affinity for pork. Mercedes' father was my grandfather's cousin, that's how we're related. She's married to a computer technician named Pedro, and they have two little girls named Ana and Isabel.

For now, nothing much is new, I'll be posting up some pictures and what not as soon as I being taking them. Until then, it's figuring out where I'm going to live (which shouldn't be too hard, since Mercedes and Pedro own an empty apartment in the center of Madrid) and maybe making some couch surfing friends.

My only reflections now are just the fact that I've got to accustom myself to thinking and talking in Spanish.  Which is pretty easy the more I listen and talk.  It's pretty nice not being as confident in a language you can understand perfectly, but where you make mistakes verbally.  It makes you listen more, which is a valuable tool in seeing how people construct not just what they say, but how they think.

Much love to everyone. You'll hear more soon.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Holy shit I'm moving to Spain!

My name is Esteban. But you probably know that. Welcome to my blog. I couldn't think of a title, hence the witty name. I've reached out to you to let you know about this blog because in one way or another I am related to, or have a deep respect for, each of you, and I want to make sure I stay in touch with you over the course of the next year or so.

If you haven't heard already, I'm moving to Madrid, Spain, in a couple of days. I'll be working with 5-10 year old kids as an English Language cultural assistant. Don't ask for much more of a description (it's a grant program through the Spanish government—like all things Spanish, details are lacking). I suppose the details of that will be yet to come in the coming entries to this blog.

Keeping a blog like this will be good for keeping in touch with you. More importantly, I think it'll provide a bit of insight for you and I. For you, I promise stories about my experiences, encounters with interesting people,1stories about completely fictional experiences and interesting people, mundane things I do, funny things I see and hear about, not-so-funny things I see and hear about, and pictures. And sometimes, what I think. For myself this is a reflective exercise to develop my capacity for praxis: the process which turns consciousness into action, which in turn, reinforces itself and transforms the world around me.2 Just maybe, sitting down every so often to collect what I've seen, done, and thought about will be good for me, and show you a different lens with which to see the world—through my eyes.

I really do hope you read it. Not because I'm afraid of losing contact with any of you, I know that those who interest me, my people, will come out in the end. But also for your thoughts about what I see and think. I want to hear from you. If you've been to Spain, I want to know where I should go and what to do. If you've any experience with 5-10 year old kids, I wanna know what you know so that I don't fuck up all that badly. Whatever else you think you can help me with, I welcome your advice.

Now for some context:

If you don't know me already, I've just graduated from (or, more appropriately, been chewed up and spit out by) what was at one time the greatest Public University system in the world, the University of California. I graduated from Berkeley last may (2010) with a BA in Political Science and since then have been working as a security guard at the UCB Library. Luckily, that was an easy job, which meant that concurrently, I had the privilege being an organizer on the front lines of one of the most important causes of our generation: drug policy reform.

I've been trying to poke a hole in a system of lies and injustices which has ruined lives and wasted resources. Specifically, I've been working with Yes on Proposition 19, the initiative on California's ballot that would control and tax cannabis—ending the arrest of nonviolent cannabis consumers by allowing the possession and cultivation of cannabis by adults over 213. It has been the most fulfilling political experience I've had, and one that I'm sad to leave. But alas, there are always choices, and the Road is too enticing for me right now. So I've made my choice and am getting on a plane on September 15th. I've got confidence, however, that there will always be struggles to get my hands dirty in. And I need this trip, it's a chance to enhance my critical thinking, and get me to engage effectively in praxis. I've a feeling that the velcro “rip” sound and feeling of uprooting to another place and sense of time for a while might be good for me as a person, and make me a better prepared actor in the historical process when I get back home—wherever that ends up being.

Berkeley was pretty fun, and I'm going to miss the Bay Area. It's a really beautiful place. Many of you reading this blog are from there or have spent time there. The Bay has a certain way of amassing a wide variety of people with the sun in their eyes—not the vast majority, but a lot. People who embrace the 'otherness' they possess. It's a legacy of the University, the Beats, the upheaval of the 20th century, and the counter-culture of the 1960s. I'm not saying that it's a reflection of that time and place today—in this sense history is always echoing—but rather, its history belies a certain undercurrent of resistance. On the flip side, there are plenty of people who did what I did (got their degree at Cal) who were and are blinded by their desire to see their name on a prestigious diploma. A lot of folks are chasing the free-market dream. They might see idealism as wasteful and stupid, but conversely, I see them as cynical and arrogant. An ideology of no ideology is similarly as dangerous.4

My last year in Berkeley was interesting. I came to a lot of questions about what the hell was coming next. Needless to say, the question I hated (and still hate) hearing is “What are you going to do now?” The real thought I always kept to myself was: “None of your goddamn business but if I figure it out I'll let you know!” I've been living in 'Obama's America' and trying to come to terms with my place in it, and my role in the progress of history going forward from it. It was a seminal moment in my formation as a political entity (and we are all political entities, whether we know it or not). I remember storming into the library with a bottle of wine and other amenities with my friends Tom and Pete as we celebrated by the thousands a victory over the forces of ignorance and bad governance. But over the last year, I saw the increasing reality of the situation. I saw police treat students as threats to the State when we asked for a say in the University we gave prestige to. I saw the State use its monopoly of force against people I knew, and people I cared about. I couldn't watch the news because of the rage that I felt watching death being dredged up from the depths of the earth to ooze forth in the waters of the Gulf Coast. I saw criminal finance wiz-kids walk away from the fraud they perpetrated on the public, blaming 'the boom and bust' cycle of money. I can't help wondering, “what's next?” I reserve the right to be wrong, but I think that anyone not recognizing the inevitability and necessity of a shaking transformation of the way things are operated is just talking about the weather. I'm still searching for my place in this historical process, and I think with an open and critical mind, I'll find it.

It's getting late and my front porch here in Pasadena is calling me like the 3rd story deck of my last house called me at 2am. I think I've done enough to introduce you to my thoughts and the context I'm telling you them in. I hope you enjoy the next year or so, and that you read my communiqués and talk to me about them. I want to engage in dialogue with the people I care about, and I hope you want the same. Much Love.

1“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!”--Jack Kerouac, On The Road

2This definition is up to some interpretation, and like all things I say in this experiment, please feel free to provide me with feedback on what you think. A dictionary.com definition of the term is: “practice, as distinguished from theory; application or use, as of knowledge or skills.” I, however, am deriving this notion out of the work of Paulo Freire who defines praxis as "reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it." Freire, P. (1986) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum. p. 36
4“There is nothing more ideological than to say, 'Everyone is ideological; I am the only one who is lucid.'” Sub-comandante Marcos, Of Trees, Criminals, and Odontology: Letter to Carlos Monsivais, The Zapatista Reader Edited by Tom Hayden 2002 Avalon Publishing Group