Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Mad for Fútbol and Flamenco

This is why I love Spain.

I walk down Gran Vía with my new friend Daichi and we wonder why there are so many police with their cars and motorcycles blocking the way. We get to the big glob of people and it is truly impressive: people standing on the wide sidewalks leaving only a hair of space to walk through, people standing in doorways and high windowsills—any nook and cranny they can find in the ornate stone buildings that line the thoroughfare. Teenage boys are even packed onto the tenuous roof of a bus stop. Everywhere arms raise digital cameras high into the air, all lenses pointed toward the blue bus that has stopped traffic. Barça’s bus, carrying the team whose players smile from watch and candy advertisements all over the country, the gods of fútbol. Granada is playing with the big boys now, so FC Barcelona has to come to Granada to play during the season. And tonight is Granada’s home game.

But I don’t stop to look, much as I would love to snap a photo of Messi or Davíd Villa or Xavi or Piqué. As we walk away, groups of ambling girls realize what’s going on and break into a run to see if they can catch a glimpse of these heartthrobs. But I can’t stop—I can’t be late for my first flamenco lesson!

Daichi leads me down a graffiti-clad street to a red door. The flamenco teacher, Chua, lets us in and lights incense. With a fountain pen she takes down my name. I feel that I have stepped into a little secret as she leads me and the rest of the class (two girls and Daichi) into the room with mirrors. With the familiar shoes on, my feet happily follow this woman’s dark hair and long skirt in the planta-tacón patterns and the golpes. It is like Ballet Folklórico in the Green Room back at school, except in a Spanish that’s completely different from the language(s) we speak there. And the movement of the hips, and shoulders, and arms, and wrists, and hands… is all so different. And when she puts on the music, a solear, I feel the music and its swellings and ebbings like a language in communication with my feet, and while I stumble in the strangeness, I am so relieved to finally begin to dance with to the strains of Andalucía, to finally move my feet and body purposefully to music again. It has been so long since I danced; I hadn’t realized that I was suffering from withdrawal symptoms. Dance has made me whole today in a way that surprised me.

And as I leave to go home, I thank Daichi profusely for introducing me to his teacher, since my attempts at finding flamenco classes have met with little success until now. I talk to him in Spanish because we are in Spain, and because it is our lingua franca since he is from Japan and we cannot default to English. I love that I can come closer to Japan through Spain, and I love that I can come closer to Granada through dance.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cante de ida y vuelta

They destroyed their temples. They built churches in their place. But the old lived on, and to this day we can peer through stained-glass windows at what was there before.

By the time the conquistadores arrived at Tenochtitlan and spelled its ruin, Spain was already well-versed in the iron art of imposing Roman Catholicism. Today archaeologists scour the Templo Mayor in Mexico City in search of ancient secrets the great cathedral never fully hid. The architects of both the cathedral and the entire colonial system tried to make squares out of circles, and when the whole enterprise began to fall apart at the end of the eighteenth century, Spanish America was left with the twisted remnants of a strange new alloy that coiled upon itself and broke apart, brittle, but inextricably fused in a new substance: an independent land. Since then, Latin America has been searching for the time before the furnace, for the answer to the brokenness, the secrets from the past that will determine future success. The secrets are still alive, in La Virgen de Guadalupe, an incarnation of the goddess Tonantzin, in the muertitos that Mexicans remember on All Saints’ Day. The secrets are there; we need only peer beyond the colored glass and listen to the soul of a language we only think we have forgotten.

The Great Mosque of Córdoba stands as a scarred testimony to the iron rule that shaped the conquistadors’ mindset when they set foot in the New World. Originally a Christian Visigothic church in the seventh century, the building was transformed into a mosque by Abd Ar-Rahman I and his descendants during the time of Al-Andalus, the Islamic empire in Spain. In the thirteenth century, Fernando III of Castilla captured Córdoba as part of the long process of the Reconquista, in which the royalty of Spain exercised their divine right to control the Iberian Peninsula and impose Catholic feudalism. A mosque, then, was not to be tolerated, and so Castilla chiseled a rectangle out of the forest of arches and planted there a cathedral, so ornate and baroque it bewilders the eye. Years later, Hernán Cortés would carve the same wound in the shape of a cross on a Ceiba tree in Mexico. For the Maya, the Ceiba tree is the religious center of the village and indeed the very center of the universe and cosmology. With his sword that day, Cortés raped the Maya, forcing his culture into the very flesh of America, just as the Crown had done to Al-Andalus. Indeed, it was in Córdoba in 1481 that the Reyes Católicos, Fernando and Isabel, decided to conquer Granada. Eleven years later, Isabel held the Alhambra in her left hand and America in her right. Spain seemed solid; not until the reign of Felipe IV in the seventeenth century did the sun begin to set on her empire.

Photo courtesy of Cassandra Paulk
Spain still celebrates this time. October 12th was a holiday here, just as it was in America. The day has many names, given its problematic nature. In the U.S. it is Columbus Day, and people every year protest, saying that Columbus committed genocide and therefore should not be celebrated. In Mexico some call it El Día de la Raza and celebrate mestizaje and the birth of a new race as a result of the mixing of cultures.1 In Spain, it is called El Día de la Hispanidad, which connotes the spreading of Spanish culture around the globe, or El Día de las Fuerzas Armadas, celebrating the military might that made this possible. During the years of Franco, it was called El Día de la Raza but it had a different meaning from the one we know on the American continent: Franco meant to celebrate the Spanish race and its diffusion across the Atlantic. And, of course, a Catholic figure provides the most agreed-upon name for the holiday: La Virgen del Pilar, patron saint of Zaragoza where, incidentally, her church was built on the site of a “mozárabe” church; that is, a church of converted Muslims. In any case, the day is a celebration of traditional, Catholic, Spanish values. In Granada, which has the vibrancy and international presence of a city but also the surprising provincialism of a town, a short but ostentatious parade of government authorities and two uniformed bands made its way from the town hall to the cathedral in the morning. In the afternoon, La Virgen del Pilar made her way through the city on the shoulders of suit-clad men who marched to the rhythm of drums that sounded just like Semana Santa. 1492 brought two worlds into contact and changed the course of history, but even now, with planes and Internet, the great Atlantic stretches between us—the great conveyor and translator of cultures whose waters still hide our true selves from one another.

The sun eventually did set on the Spanish Empire. In his poem “Velázquez: La infanta Margarita,” Manuel Machado writes:

Italia, Flandes, Portugal… Poniente
sol de la Gloria, el último destello
en sus mejillas infantiles posa…

Granada is in fact the embodiment of both the glory and the ultimate tragedy of the Spanish Empire. It was here that Boabdil finally surrendered and Europe was officially rid of the heathen forces of Islamic rule, prompting bullfights in Rome as the Spanish pope celebrated. And it was here that Fernando and Isabel asked to be buried. Indeed their bodies lie in the Capilla Real at the center of town. The Capilla is a shrine to glorify the dead rulers of a now-dead empire. The forces of Castilla and Roman Catholicism could not stamp out the tremulous cries of the lands they conquered and reconquered, could not erase memory from the places they invaded, could not silence the music of the people who lived there.

When I entered the great Mezquita de Córdoba, I felt the intensity of the religious construction, and its ancient silence overpowered me. The silence of Islamic geometry and masterful arches coexisting alongside crucifixes and chapels. My first sensation was an acute awareness of being in the universe, as the arches seemed to extend forever, as though reflected in invisible mirrors that faced each other endlessly, like the mirrors of Altamira and Tezcatlipoca that Carlos Fuentes imagines in El espejo enterrado. As I made my way through the forest of arches, the Christian art surprised me and seemed out of place, even as it formed an integral part of the same stoic silence. When I arrived at the cathedral within, I felt disoriented spatially, temporally, and cognitively. Its beauty seemed completely displaced, like a Vera Wang model startled to find herself in a luscious African jungle. It is a relic of the time when Spain painted in oil colors over lands it called canvas, before the canvas rebelled and refused to be a simple backdrop in the work of art and war that was the Spanish Empire.

The dichotomy of the Christian and the Muslim in the Mosque of Córdoba is more jarring than it is in the Alhambra. In the Alhambra, the Spanish Reconquista was content to leave most of the architecture intact and simply add virgins and crosses to facades, with the exception of the Palacio de Carlos V, which usurped a great amount of territory and now stands in full Renaissance splendor, recalling the great monuments of Rome. Because the columns of the Mezquita provide necessary structural support, they crowd right up next to the interspersed Christian structures, hugging the very flanks of the cathedral. The effect is a surprising mirror for the outside world beyond its walls, the many different types of people and cultures that inhabit the Andalucía of the twenty-first century. The mosque lies at the heart of the judería, the traditionally Jewish neighborhood. The Jews may have been expelled in 1492, but they left their living mark on the land they left behind, and their spirit still inhabits the city.
Perhaps the greatest mirror for the fine, complex tejido of Andalucía today can be found in flamenco. In the cante jondo that gypsies play at the Mirador San Nicolás while facing the Alhambra at sunset, these aching songs of sinews torn long ago, in the hammering zapateados, in the unsettling but patterned rhythms of the palmadas, we can feel the rushing blood-beat of India, Africa, and Spain, of Jews, Christians, Muslims, and gypsies, and even the red veins of America. Flamenco has evolved orally and so this ever-changing, ever more complex art is at once the most up-to-date and the most ancient manifestation of the character of Andalucía. Exchange with the New World after 1492 brought about cantes de ida y vuelta, songs of coming and going, and I offer these words to Andalucía as my own humble cante de ida y vuelta.

1Personally, I will not complain about the day off. Contact between two worlds has never been easy, and Columbus, for all his shortcomings and moral imbalances, was ultimately an adventurer who pursued a crazy dream and made it happen, even if he and his successors turned it into a nightmare for the people he encountered (not discovered). He literally sailed uncharted waters, and how many of us can claim as much in this age of pre-packaged vacations and GPS systems?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Whispers from the Alhambra

Walt Whitman has been speaking to me lately. For what am I doing here, on this side of the ocean, but “ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them”*?  I am trying to connect the various aspects of my life and studies in a big, never-ending web. My generation is used to Facebook and picturing human interactions in terms of a great web. Granada is a city of constant interactions, sometimes beautiful, sometimes jarring, and often surprising. The city forces its inhabitants to face the meandering gossamer threads* of their past, which crisscross daily life like the cobblestoned and graffiti-coated alleyways that crisscross the city.

For me this means that I am constantly reminded of my ties to the other continent, America, which holds a thousand myths for those here who have never been. I situate myself as mexicana and estadounidense in this bridge-world, this city at the confluence of land and water, mountain and valley, greenery and snow, Spanish and Arabic, ancient and new. I am aware of my roots in the “moonlight through the pines”* of Mississippi and Georgia, in the nopales of México “florido y espinudo,”* but also in the fishing town of Puerto de Vega in Asturias where my great-grandfather was born. And in the languages I speak, my mother tongue English and my father tongue Spanish, I find the shibboleth words from the South like “catawampus” and “catty-corner” as well as the telltale prefix “al” that denotes a word derived from Arabic: “algebra,” “alcohol,” “alchemy,” and of course, a word that penetrates my vocabulary like a breath of enchantment: Alhambra.

That word must have plucked a wailing guitar string somewhere within Washington Irving’s spirit, too, when he came to Granada and wrote “Stories of the Alhambra.” While he wrote fiction, that fiction brought this eternal city to the international consciousness and charmed the gorgeous haven with a mystique that it lives up to and even surpasses.

Begun in the eleventh century, the Alhambra was built as an Islamic royal city and fortress. Its thick walls served their purpose and withstood invasion for centuries, until at last in 1492, that fateful year, Fernando and Isabel's army seiged the city and forced a surrender out of King Boabdil.

The Alhambra is so intensely beautiful that the imagination cannot help but be carried away into a trancelike, dreamlike place that is neither now nor then, neither here nor elsewhere. From afar it sits upon the green mountain and crowns Granada. From within, it humbles with the enormity of its dimensions, the majesty of its vaulted spaces, and the intricacy of its designs and inscriptions.

The journey begins with a steep ascent through the forest. On either side of the road, rivulets of water rush down. Water that Islam held holy at a time when Catholics bathed once a month at most. I walked up and into a dream, a memory, a wish come true. My seven-year-old self had walked this very path with my father, had marveled at the water that rushed through the entire city of the Alhambra in a great circulatory system that gave it life ten centuries after its initial construction. This time I felt the circularity of my life doubling back on itself. I touched my childhood and lived a moment that was never a single moment but a recurrent point at the confluence of eternal circles of time.

If Walt Whitman helped me understand why I have left the American continent, García Márquez helped me understand that stories and histories are not just events with one beginning and end, but rather ongoing occurrences and experiences that we relive again and again. Cien años de soledad taught me that places retain eternal memories of the people who come and go. The Alhambra remembered me and welcomed me like an old family friend who used to pat my head and pinch my cheeks and who still recognizes me in my grown-up form.

The Alhambra is full of quiet surprises. A vaulted ceiling pulls my gaze up like a magnet and I nearly lose my balance ogling at the stalagtite-like architecture that is replicated in archway after archway. I peer at the poems inscribed on the walls and swear once again that I will learn Arabic so I can experience the full effect of the marriage of the visual and the literary. What rich creativity springs from limitations! I understand that strict Islamic law forbids the representation of animate objects, and so has engendered a refined class of beauty, which the Alhambra wears like fine lace on fortified stone walls, fusing feminine and masculine beauty harmoniously.

When at last I made my way down through the colorful gardens, it was with the knowledge that if I returned 365 days out of the year, I still would not discover half the treasures of the Alhambra. But the stillness that almost drowned out the tourists, and the rushing water that sings in a language I would love to understand, whispered to me that I could come back again, and again, and again, and find myself and be surprised each time.

 *Quotations are from Walt Whitman's A Noiseless, Patient Spider, Ray Charles's Georgia On My Mind, and Pablo Neruda's Confieso que he vivido.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Settling in, taking it in

This story begins with Switzerland. For it is in Switzerland that my family, as well as family friends, welcomed me and eased me back into the feel of this side of the ocean. As always when I come to Europe, I was struck by how old everything is, and I tried to open my eyes and ears as wide as possible to take it all in, knowing full well that inevitably I would miss more than I could catch.

Perhaps this story really begins in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where my father’s brother met Europeans and Mexicans who had been to Europe and back, and decided to go there and make a living playing his guitar. He settled in Switzerland and started a family, and he has been living there ever since. For me this means that I can go to a place where people speak a language I don’t understand at all, and feel both displaced and at home, speaking in Spanish and English with my family. When I am with my family I largely approach Switzerland through the lens of a Mexican consciousness, which makes for a surprising cultural experience. The last two nights I spent in Zurich with family friends who have strong American ties, and so during my stay with them I saw Switzerland more through the lens of the United States.

This blog is supposed to be “Palabras desde Granada,” so how can I sum up Switzerland before moving on to Spain? I could tell you the relief I felt at leaving my things in a room I recognized in the little Swiss German town of Brügg, a familiar oasis in a strange faraway land. I could tell of the crisp, lilting English that Swiss Germans speak and that I began to vaguely imitate by the end of the stay. Or I could record stark memories—the chill of the river in Bern on my bare feet before I let them dry in the late summer sun, the damp coolness inside a stone castle in the countryside, the sharp taste of Gruyère in the morning that wakes me up as much as coffee, the sun warming me and my cousins by the lake as I ogled at Zurich to the right and blue-green mountains to the left.

I happened to arrive in Switzerland during election season. The country has seven major parties and many smaller ones. Switzerland prides itself in being a real democracy, and it is true that every person has a say, technically speaking. Any citizen can organize a petition for a law, for example, and if several thousand people sign the petition, the parliament must review it. And because the party system offers more choices, voters need not align themselves with the left or the right and vote for one single liberal or conservative platform. Rather, citizens can choose who they vote for based on the issues that matter most to them—religion, environmentalism, immigration, etc.

The richest and most supported party in Switzerland is the SVP, the conservative anti-immigrant party. All over the country I saw tons of advertisements for SVP candidates—in train stations, on the streets, in a movie theater. Switzerland has strong isolationist qualities: the nation refused to join the European Union, it has kept itself out of war, and it prides itself in running smoothly, like a precise clock. So the recent influx of immigrants, with their new cultures, languages, and customs, has shaken the country’s pride. The Swiss people seem to fear that their centuries-old political, economic, and cultural insulation is wearing thin, and the evenly heated house that is their country is now letting in a chilling winter draft.

Which brings me to Spain. All over Europe, and indeed the world, immigration is becoming a contentious issue. Here in the south of Spain, where we are so close to Morocco, immigration is also a heated topic. This is only my third day in Granada, so later I will better be able to expound upon this subject. It is one that I will be following closely, since I chose to study in this city largely because of my interest in the Arabic and Islamic influences in Spain. I am lucky to be living in a Spanish home with a housemate from the program who is writing her thesis on the early years of the Reconquista, the time in which Spain was fighting the Moors, so our interests intersect.

Ever since I watched the cathedral of Salamanca disappear behind a hillside as I rode a bus to Madrid and the airport that would take me back to the United States, I have been longing to go back to Spain. I was eight years old when I took that bus ride, and I had not set foot out of Europe for six months. And now I am finally back. Back to the land where people speak with lisping “zetas,” back to the place where dinner is at ten at night, back to the old, crowded streets lined with ornate lamp-posts. Coming to Granada has been a discovery and a re-discovery. On the one hand the environment is familiar, because I remember my time in Spain long ago, and I remember how prepaid phone cards work from my time in Italy last summer. On the other hand, I still have to make calculations in my head when I pay in euros, I get lost in the narrow streets and have a hard time finding the same shop twice, and I forget the name of the pastry I’m supposed to try in La Casa Ysla. (It’s called pionono, by the way, and it is a bit too sweet for me. I should know better and just always go for chocolate.)

Granada is the city of tapas. These small dishes are so called because long ago, to keep people from getting too drunk, they were placed on top of a drink to cover it. That way you had to eat what was on the plate before removing it and enjoying your drink. Tapar means “to cover,” hence the word “tapa.” In Granada when you order a drink you get a free tapa along with it. So on my second night here, I went out to Calle Navas to try sangria with tapas and enjoyed a selection of fresh, fried seafood as well. The food was wonderful, the street was lively, and a clarinetist serenaded us. I look forward to returning to Calle Navas, finding more streets in which to enjoy tapas, and not joining three tables outside to fit the ten of us from the program, who all spoke to each other in English.

I am inclined to introduce myself to Spaniards as Mexican when they ask, as this avoids confusion and circuitous explanation. Yes, I’m from the United States, but I am bilingual and I say “ahorita” like a Mexican. Don’t worry, I will be saying “vale” soon enough. But as for the zeta… I don’t think I can give up saying “gracias” and making the “c” and the “s” sound the same. Once again, I am viewing this culture through the only lens I have—my own experience as a Mexican and as an American. But I try not to filter everything and rather to just take it in as is. In the restaurant on Calle Navas I squeezed lemon over all my food because the fat lemon wedge was sitting there waiting for me on the edge of the plate, saying “Try me. This is the way it’s done here.” And I liked it, even though in the States I hate lemon juice on principle. Being in a foreign environment challenges me to identify just exactly what my principles are. For example, on principle I believe it is wrong to treat immigrants poorly, no matter where I am. My hatred of lemon, however, is not a principle but simply a blockage of the mind that I have overcome.

In the Albaicín today, which is a historically Moorish part of town up in the mountains, I felt the need for quiet. The fine architecture and the view of the Alhambra require complete openness of me. Openness of the mind, openness of the heart, openness of the soul. It is all so new and grand for me now, that I must receive, receive, receive. It would be pretentious of me to write much more, because to do so would imply that I have some way to encapsulate what it is to gaze out at the beautiful stone fortress on the mountainside with the Iglesia de Sán Nicolás at my back and a couple kissing scandalously off to one side of the Mirador. After we walked back from the Albaicín and I bought a purple skirt from a street vendor that I plan to wear tomorrow at the beach, my housemate Cassie (Sandra in Spanish) and I sat in the Plaza de la Trinidad and quietly ate our bocadillos that Mama Che had prepared for us. We didn’t talk much, we just sat there digesting what we had seen and taking in the people around us, families and couples and lone souls enjoying the Saturday sun.