As a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in the Comunidad de Madrid bilingual schools, I felt the tension of economic disparity from my first days in Spain. The threat of strikes and constant presence of protestors in one section of the city center or another, depending on the day, made the general dissatisfaction difficult to overlook.
Conversations with my fellow ETAs made the imbalance even more obvious. I taught in a school in a well-off suburb about an hour outside of the city via MetroLigero. In a writing assignment on the topic of the most memorable day of their lives, many of our twelve year olds detailed their first communions with lengthy lists of gifts. One in particular confided that he’d received two iPod nanos, two sports watches, two dress watches and a Wii with a few games. He added, unselfconsciously, that he’d then thrown a fit when his cousin tried to play with the Wii first.
This in contrast to the New Year’s resolution to save money of a student in the same grade attending school in the one rough neighborhood the Fulbright Commission advised us not to live in. When the ETA leading discussion asked why he’d chosen that, he responded, stunned, “¡Mujer! ¿No sabes que estamos en una crisis?”
Ahh, the economic crisis: The ever-present cause of your every difficulty, whether you were wondering why your monthly stipend was
late again, why your overpriced shared apartment didn’t turn out to have heat (which you wouldn’t have noticed while arranging your lease in September), or why your school, one of the top in the region, couldn’t afford to create its own English language library without discreetly using funds earmarked for other initiatives and asking students to themselves transport the books back from the class trip to London.
Yet despite the visibility of the crisis, I hesitated to bring it up with Spaniards. If the history teacher I practiced English conversation lessons with strayed onto modern topics, I’d eagerly absorb the thoughts he offered, but wasn’t quite willing to ask for more.
Then our school’s bilingual program coordinator asked me to teach the context of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men to my sixteen year old fourth year students. I called the lesson “The Landscape of John Steinbeck: Of Mice and Men, California’s Salinas Valley and the Great Depression.”
We began where the novel itself does, “a few miles south of Soledad” (Soledad is Spanish for loneliness) before delving into the Depression. With an unemployment rate of 22%, Spain currently finds itself just under the rate the U.S. experienced in the 30s.
We talked about migration during the Dust Bowl and the hostility traveling workers experienced as they moved to follow the jobs. While my first landlord in Madrid dismissed the hostility that often still arises around the topic of immigration (“Spain has been confronting her racial issues for hundreds of years. They’ve all been worked out by now.”), if you listen to the younger generation, the ones who don’t yet hear the harshness in their words, during their breaks at school, you’ll still hear insults laced with racial slurs.
This isn’t to single out Spain; during my time in Europe, France was deporting gypsies, and Arizona was making the news for its tough take on immigration policy. But these conversations are of utmost importance. Without them, without a new consciousness on the issues that matter to our neighbors, how will we realize that our words or our actions are actually hurting others?
Reflection seems natural during a time of such inequality. It was in the midst of the Depression, after all, when FDR said, “I see one-third of the nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished. …the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
Shortly after my lesson on Steinbeck, Spain’s 15-M movement manifested out of similar sentiments. And, if I’m honest, I didn’t expect much from it.
I avoided la Puerta del Sol for the first few days of the protests. During our grantee orientation in September, the American embassy had strongly stressed that the best move in a local disturbance was to stay away and avoid mixing with the crowd. I was unsure what I’d encounter were I to wander through the group that had now set up camp, and, not being a Spaniard, didn’t want to stand out as a foreigner.
I expected the plaza to have become a botellón, a drunken street party, or for the police vans parked strategically on the narrow streets nearby to suddenly encircle the group, sirens blaring. Neither of those things happened.
In fact, when I first accidentally (having forgotten that the protest was still underway) and later deliberately traversed Sol, I found a group united under a banner that proclaimed, “Si no nos dejáis soñar, no os vamos a dejar dormir”: If you won’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep. And rather than feeling threatened by such a statement, found myself nodding my head.
And yet, I thought I wanted more from the 15-M movement. Sure, the large number gathered were showing their dissatisfaction with the status quo—high unemployment rates, a difficult housing market, and a political class that seemed to prosper at the expense of the people—but how were they going to turn things around?
As we finished our class on Steinbeck, the English teacher and I asked our students what they would change to bring Spain out of the crisis if they were in power. One raised his hand, “If the politicians don’t know, if the experts don’t have any ideas, how am I supposed to?”
“Do you really think the politicians are the experts?” the teacher pressed. “Do all of them have degrees in this? Previous experience? No.”
The kids then tossed out their own ideas, some admittedly better than others. At least the conversation had started.
That, to me, seems the strongest thing that’s come out of 15-M. The protests drew awareness and understanding. They did more than make the economic disparity within the country visible: They gave faces to it.
As Of Mice and Men ends, Lennie asks George to tell him the difference between them and the other guys.
George responds, “Guys like us got no fambly. They make a little stake an’ then they blow it in. They ain’t got nobody in the worl’ that gives a hoot in hell about ‘em.”
“But not us,” Lennie cries happily.
George, quiet for a moment, adds, “But not us. Because I got you an’—”
“An’ I got you,” Lennie finishes.
15-M proved that the individuals involved weren’t alone in recognizing the difficulties many Spaniards face in the current economic crisis. The movement showed, at the very least, that others gave “a hoot in hell” about them too. That’s not a bad place to start.