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Spain 1992: Notes From A Survivor

ISSUE:  Spring 1993

During the 1960’s, when Spain slowly entered the world’s consciousness as a very cheap place to travel, with its glorious beaches, good food, quaint customs, and slightly perplexed attitude toward foreigners, visitors found a country that was in some ways familiar but in many other ways alien enough to make it fascinating. Spain became a cultural Disneyland for tourists, who, when they washed off the suntan lotion long enough to do some sight-seeing, discovered the marvels of the Alhambra, the great mosque in Cordoba, Antonio Gaudi’s triply phallic Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, the unexpected splendors of the Royal Palace in Madrid (where tapestries are measured not in numbers, but in kilometers), the masterpieces of the Prado Museum, the wonders of Toledo (so spectacular that the entire city was declared a national monument), and the imposing double monuments of Phillip II’s palace at El Escorial and the huge cross at the Valley of the Fallen (so large that on a clear day—rare now because of air pollution in Madrid—it can be seen from 49 kilometers away). Frommer’s invitation to do Spain on $5 a Day was not merely possible: one often had change left over at the end of a full day of sightseeing, travel, and eating. His information on the 75-cent three-course chick-pea and lamb stew lunch (with wine) formed part of the lore of every traveling student.

1992, however, brought a very different Spain into focus. The inevitable attention heaped on the Iberian nation during the celebrations of the Quincentenary—this word has replaced the more politically charged “Discovery” or “Encounter” —thrust a once sleepy country into the forefront of international consciousness. The world’s media did their part to hype “The Year of Spain” (L’Express), if sometimes getting their facts and images skewed. For example, Newsweek’s cover story (Jan. 6, 1992) told us that the century following the Discovery in 1492 was Spain’s Golden Age, when in fact the Golden Age by all accounts was the 1580—1680 period. That they missed by a mere hundred years should not surprise us all that much since the. article also underscored Spain’s “newness” by publishing three pictures: one of a partially completed building for the international Expo in Seville, one of a local reenactment of the Moors being expelled from Christian Spain (a clear and unsubtle reference to the country’s notorious intolerance as exemplified by the Inquisition), and the third of a grinning gypsy selling raw garlics in the streets of Barcelona. The message was unmistakable: this country, which for centuries was viewed either with fear, as during the days of the Hapsburg Empire, or contempt, still lived on the margins of Europe’s political, artistic, and intellectual community. Spain was still rather quaint—”different,” as the official Franco tourist board slogan once proclaimed.

But anyone who has been to Spain or, even more, has studied its startling transformation since 1975, soon realizes that “quaint” Spain has gone the way of chaperones on dates, sex-segregated beaches, serenos (the door-key wielding neighborhood watchmen who appeared as though by magic when one clapped one’s hands at three or four or five a. m. after an evening out on the town), or, I might suggest, grinning garlic-sellers. Today Spain is aggressively, even arrogantly, modern, and the flamenco dancers and gypsy garlic-sellers have transformed themselves into tourist spectacles or subjects for Newsweek photographers. Spain has moved from a backward, repressed society to one at the forefront of European culture. Don’t believe it? Here are some perhaps surprising statistics:

• Spain’s foreign exchange reserves per capita are more than double Japan’s.

• 57 percent of Spaniards own their own homes (they are 8th out of 16 countries in Europe), more than the residents of Denmark, France, Britain, Austria, Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, or Switzerland.

• Office space per square foot is more expensive in Madrid than it is in New York, Frankfurt, or Milan.

• In 1975 the average Spanish family had 2. 8 children (well above European average); in 1992 it had declined to 1. 4, the second lowest in the world (after Italy). This declining birthrate means that by the year 2001 there will be one senior citizen for every young person in Spain. (Franco used to give a “National Birthrate Prize”; the 1971 winner had 19 children).

• More than 41, 000, 000 people came to Expo in Seville, which Spain ran with no serious incidents or accidents.

These scattered statistics tell only a partial story. Spain today is new, exciting, and, as the film director Pedro Almodbvar might put it, “on the verge” of a breakthrough into the modern world. “Quaint” is out. As William Finnegan has written in The New Yorker (Sept. 28, 1992), “. . .for all the medieval images that still cling to the country [‘the real Spain’ is] a thoroughly modern land, increasingly sexy and shockproof and rich.”


My friend Pura, a high school teacher, lives with her husband and eleven-year-old daughter in a comfortable apartment in one of Madrid’s more stable neighborhoods. She knows perfectly well how to use her convection oven, her microwave, her ice-maker, her MAC SE, and her Black and Decker cordless screwdriver, as well as the two cars squeezed into the parking garage in the basement. She is an avid reader of modern literature—she has a particular interest in Spanish and European novelists—and can converse excitedly, as most Spaniards can, on contemporary politics and international affairs. They reflect pride that Spain has just been voted a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Pura is aware of, if slightly perplexed by, the world’s general ignorance of her country’s recent history, achievements, and aspirations. Spain has just celebrated ten years of peaceful Socialist rule, and has moved in the past 17 years from a repressive dictatorship to a fully democratic monarchy, a transformation unmatched anywhere in the world. “Democratic monarchy” is not an oxymoron: King Juan Carlos has consistently proven himself to be one of the most staunch defenders of democratic ideals, as witnessed primarily by his daring dismantling of the coup d’etat attempt televised for all of Spain to see on the night of Feb. 23, 1981, a night so (in)famous that it is widely known simply as “23 F.”

Pura married her husband Pedro in 1976, just as the Transition to Democracy was beginning. In their own university days it was difficult to obtain certain books or see certain movies. Any meeting was considered suspect, and political discussions took place behind closed doors. Their generation, which fought Franco’s police on university grounds and often paid for their youthful indiscretions with time in jail, remembers the long night of Francoist dictatorship (1939—1975), but with less intensity as the years go by. For their daughter Irene, born in 1981, Franco is just another history lesson at school, a series of assignments in social studies classes. Pura notes, not without pride, “Francoism is something out of books now, not something lived by this generation of students.” The many political and economic freedoms enjoyed by today’s students are so deeply rooted, so taken for granted, that many are unaware of what that freedom really means and how much has been gained in just 20 years. “Spain has gone through two hundred years of political change in less than seventeen years,” notes Elfas Dfaz, a distinguished professor of political sociology at the Autonomous University in Madrid.

The generation that is running the country today grew up under the Franco dictatorship but surprisingly bears few visible scars. Students who by all rights should have absorbed the God-and-Country rhetoric hammered home in the schools, in the media, in the official literature, and in social organizations apparently were not listening. When Franco died, there seemed to be in place instantly a generation of well-trained, well-educated, articulate people in their thirties who moved effortlessly into positions of responsibility. Evangelina Rodriguez, whose father spent years in jail as a prisoner of the Franco regime, remembers the day her father came home (after walking across half the country). He had been gone so long that she merely said, “Mommy, there is a man here who wants to see you,” not recognizing him as her father. Today she is the highest-paid woman cultural commissioner in Spain; the divisions of the past are long since healed.

Pedro and Pura are hip and articulate “baby boomers” who know what is going on, and can laugh at the rapid changes Spain is experiencing. They don’t even flinch at some of the programs and commercials appearing on official TV channels, taking the modernization of Spanish attitudes as a given. After all, 1992 was the year that Jews, Muslims, and Protestants finally became the legal equals of Roman Catholics, who previously had dominated official religious life through tax breaks and access to the schools. The Spanish entry at the Cannes International Advertising Film Festival created a ruckus when it was shown on TV, but shown it was. In an advertisement for rubber cement, the ad followed a pair of very reverent nuns who discover that the penis of a statuary angel in the garden had broken off; they take it to the Mother Superior in a lace cloth, wrapped carefully. Together the three return to the garden and delicately glue the poor baby’s member back on. The inconceivable punch line occurs in the film’s last two seconds as one of the nuns surreptitiously turns the penis up just before the rubber cement dries. The country feigned outrage but watched the ad gleefully and laughed.

Condom ads, still the embarrassed forbidden fruit of American TV, have been staples on Spanish TV for years (they need to be; Spain now has the highest AIDS rate in Europe and the highest drug-addiction rate in the EEC). TV itself, which during the Franco years was dominated by the State, and up to five years ago was limited to one or two channels, now has seven channels competing for an ever-increasing audience.


The 1980’s were a kind of “Party Decade” for Spain, culturally and economically. “La Movida,” as it was called, dominated the Spanish mentality. This artistic and cultural “shake-up” energized the country and became the appropriate outlet for much of the pent-up emotion of the sixties and seventies. The economy flourished, and easy money was everywhere. Prices rose, but so did salaries and investment opportunities. Spaniards, who for years could not afford costly commodities because of the weakness of the peseta, joined the modern consumerist economy with a vengeance. Not normally savers of funds, they abandoned all pretense at reserve in the 1980’s and went on a wild consumer binge. Spaniards had always demanded the best but could not often afford it; now, their buying power seemed to match their tastes, and Spain jumped into a vortex of expensive dining, designer clothes, first-class travel, luxury cars, and flashy living. Restaurants (often costing upwards of $100 per person for lunch) were packed, and the streets were replete with Mercedes Benzes and BMW’s. Whereas in 1982 only 23 percent of Spaniards defined themselves as belonging to the middle class, by 1992 more than 52 percent did so. The combination of rising prices and the decline of the dollar has made Madrid so expensive that shopping junkets leave the capital every weekend for New York, where food, clothes, gifts, and electronic gadgets are considerably less costly. I have taken several pairs of blue jeans to friends in Spain, not because they are not available (as is the case in Russia) but because they can run upwards of $80 per pair. Jos6 Carlos, a friend from Alicante, always arrives in Charlottesville with an empty suitcase, which he stuffs with jeans and sweaters; this last trip he took home 17 pairs of jeans for his children, cousins, nieces and nephews, and wife; presumably, customs officials remain unaware of the flood of denim that arrives at Barajas airport each morning on the planes from the United States. Some things still remain out of reach of the average family. Even Pedro, who owns two cars—-in a country where gas costs nearly $5 per gallon and where traffic jams can reach truly monumental proportions—and who spends the “sacred” vacation month of August in elegant Santander in a rented apartment, would not consider going out for a round of golf, which costs about $96 (motorized golf cart included, when available).

In the “Year of Spain,” prices were raised even beyond their already high levels to match the influx of tourists heading for the Seville World’s Fair, the Barcelona Olympics, and Madrid, the so-called “Cultural Capital of Europe 1992” (which produced some 1800 cultural events for the occasion). The classy Alfonso XIII hotel in Seville raised its double-room rate from $250 to $625, while the Carmona parador more than doubled its rates, from $160 to $360. “Up With Your Hands! This is a Hotel!” screamed the headline of an article in Cambio 16, one of the best investigative news magazines published in Europe. While pre-publicity about high prices seemed to scare off some foreign visitors to Spain this year, Spain is still the most visited country in the world by tourists. There are nearly 1 1/2 tourists per Spaniard (51 million tourists for 39 million residents). It was impossible to get a ticket, even at $90 to $460 each, for the opening ceremony at the Olympics; they were sold out by early April. The Seville Fair, a stunning explosion of cultural energy representing 110 countries, was the second largest construction project in Europe (after the Chunnel), but it threatens to be a loser for its investors since fewer visitors appeared than expected. You wouldn’t have known it from the long lines in front of the more popular pavilions, but some of the businesses were forced to lower their seemingly extortionist prices and others folded within months of the Fair’s opening. A light lunch for four (finger food, drinks, and dessert) cost us $80 one hot afternoon. As Jose, an acquaintance in the retail business, griped: “Spain on $5 a day is now Spain on $5 a minute.”

Still, Spaniards manage to live very well indeed, and they live considerably better than they did 20 years ago. As a result of the economic improvements which have taken place since the early 1960’s, Spaniards are not only wealthier, they are healthier and taller as well. Just this year the government recognized this officially by changing the standard mattress size—five inches were added; now, presumably, fewer toes dangle out from underneath blankets on cold Iberian nights. The rhythm of life is hectic but civilized, filled with friends and good food, animated conversation and laughter. The growth in the economy has meant that the best of Spain is no longer reserved exclusively for tourists. The Mallorca food emporia, the Loewe leather shops, the paradores (very few Spaniards could afford to stay in them in the 1960’s), restaurants like Zalacain, Horcher, Jockey, and the Cenador del Prado, which used to be nearly private clubs for wealthy visitors are now full of natives. Americans, in fact, have been priced out. Cafes are full at all hours. This August we secured tickets to hear Alfredo Kraus sing at the Santander Music Festival ($40 per ticket, last row) and had arranged to meet friends for coffee and drinks after the performance. We got out at 1: 15 a. m. to a swarm of people in the balmy streets and had great difficulty finding a parking spot. When we did manage to park the car we had another wait for a table—this at about 1: 45 a. m. Everyone was out strolling, from family patriarchs to little children, teenagers to adults. Much of the conversation centers around politics, which Spaniards love to discuss.

Pedro and Pura voice some dismay that Felipe Gonzalez’ Socialist Party, the PSOE, is as troubled by corruption as other political parties. In the election of 1977, the first free elections held in Spain since 1936, nearly 95 percent voted, but now voter participation has declined to little more than 40 percent. A recent graffiti labeled the party the “CORRUPSOE” and 75 percent of the people believe the government wastes money. Spanish democracy has entered the complacent stage that plagues many Western democracies, which, while hardly the ideal state, reflects at least how far Spanish politics has come since the death of Franco.


Democracy has brought political and financial corruption; it has also brought crime. Petty theft and muggings have become a way of life for many Spaniards and tourists. Everyone I know has been robbed—Pura was mugged standing in front of her school talking with a colleague at 1: 30 p. m. in July—but the populace staunchly refuses to be obsessed with crime. There is little real fear in Spain (the incredibly lively and late night life attests to this), although older people, perhaps because of their age and perhaps because of their memories that “with Franco we lived better,” do express concern. There are also no guns. Today, the police hand you a printed form which enables you to check off which type of mugging, pickpocketing, or robbery you have suffered. Robbery increased by 316 percent in the past ten years.

There is concern over the future as the party of the 80’s turns into the hangover of the 90’s. The national debt is up while the ability to pay it off diminishes. Worry mounts that the strides made during the last decade will not be maintained. The Ministry of Culture has cut back on investment in cultural activities, and everyone fears that Spain will be saddled with high debts from the triathalon of activity in Madrid, Barcelona, and Seville. These worries are reflected in the arts.

The Ministry of Culture has decreed a posteriori subsidies for film producers based on the films’ commercial success, but then it has cut back its total budget by nearly 30 percent for all cultural activities, leaving a dual residual concern that 1) only commercially mainstream films will receive official support and 2) there will not be enough funding to go around even to those benighted projects. Spaniards have learned in the past decade and a half how to produce high-quality films, but their inability to break into the worldwide distribution network keeps their work generally unknown outside their borders. Pedro Almodovar is about the only Spanish film director written about today outside of Spain, and he is not even the best of the lot, although his daring films, Labyrinth of Passion, The Law of Desire, What Have I Done to Deserve This?, Matador, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and High Heels reflect the drug-crazed, sexually liberated, and colorful what-the-hell 1980’s in Madrid. Other film directors—the distinguished grand old men of Spanish cinema Carlos Saura and Luis Garcia Berlanga, the younger generation which includes Fernando Colomo, Victor Erice, Manuel Gutierrez Aragen, Pilar Miro, Montoxo Armendariz, Jaime Chavarri, Juan Jose Bigas Luna, and Ana Belen—are now free to create films restricted only by budgets, not ideology. Some have been artistically successful while others have foundered on the shoals of limited vision or technical expertise, but most all of them have suffered from a lack of good distribution.

The theatre, while dazzlingly creative at times (again, anyone who witnessed the Fufa del Baus interpretation of the Discovery of America at the Olympic opening ceremony could not help but to marvel at their breathtaking originality), languishes in the same vicious cycle which haunts theatres worldwide: high ticket prices due to a reduced audience; reduced audience due to high ticket prices. Of course, the real problem is the lack of good plays. Madrid authorities reinvigorated the Centro Cultural de la Villa in 1991—92 with performances of plays written by living Spanish dramatists, but it is not clear whether such commitment will be sustained. High production costs insure that only the consecrated masters and beloved old-timers get produced, while the lack of production possibility further diminishes the corpus of people willing to write for the theatre. The Ministry of Culture runs three subsidized theaters in Madrid, but these subsidies are being cut along with the Ministry’s budget retrenchment. Barcelona’s theatrical life is more creative than Madrid’s, and the works written and performed by Fura del Baus and a more established company, Els Joglars, stimulate high public interest—and frequently, vociferous protests—when staged outside the Cataldn capital. Columbi Lapsus mocked the intrigues of the Vatican in 1990, while Yo tengo un tio en America was a riff on the whole Discovery/ Encounter frenzy of 1992.

Antonio Buero Vallejo (b. 1916) still produces striking works—his latest play, Mtisica cercana, treats compellingly the responsibility of a modern businessman in the growing drug trade and the implications of such actions on his family—but one does not see a ready replacement for him on the horizon, notwithstanding the sometimes excellent work written by Fernando Fernan-G6mez, Jose” Luis Alonso de Santos, Fermfn Cabal (his Travesta won the important Tirso de Molina prize in 1992), and Maria Manuela Reina. Alonso de Santos had a big hit in 1985 with Bajarse al moro, which Colomo subsequently turned into a successful movie in 1988; his latest effort, Trampa para pajaros, had a modest run in 1991—92. The most popular of the contemporary dramatists, Antonio Gala (b. 1936), issues forth streams of vacuous and derivative, if sometimes amusing, theatrical spectacles (Carmen, Carmen, a silly review with a spirited performance by the excellent actress Concha Velasco, was the hit of the 1990 season). Most of Madrid’s theaters are sustained by imports (Los Miz—Les Miserables— was the hot ticket in the fall of 1992), subsidized performances of the Spanish classics, or translations.


Much of the high-life and creative spirit unleashed since the death of Franco has taken refuge in the novel, which for years had languished in irrelevancy, or was written and published abroad. Currently there are a number of Spanish novelists being translated into French, Italian, and English, indicating a breakdown of the isolation felt by Spanish novelists for a generation. The Latin American “Boom” of novels by Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Manuel Puig, Jose Donoso, and others shifted the center of attention in the Spanish-speaking world to the American continent. Slowly, it is shifting back as Europe “discovers” contemporary novelists. The current darling of the French literary establishment (important for international exposure) is the Catalan Eduardo Mendoza. Mendoza has written six novels and a play, all of which have been best sellers inside and outside Spain. His La verdad sobre el caso Savolta (1975) appeared in English in 1992, while La ciudad de los prodigios (1986) came out in English in 1988. Both novels marked a step away from the politically-obsessed or vituperative writings of some recent exiles to a more international perspective. His fine-tuned double sense of humor and irony make his novels both provocative and accessible to a wide public. Several women novelists, among them Rosa Montero (Te tratare como a una reina, 1982), Esther Tusquets (El mismo mar de todos los veranos, 1979) and Lourdes Ortiz (Despues de la batalla, 1992), bend gender expectations in works that frequently display an in-your-face toughness in a controlled, lyrical prose.

The most notable novelist on the Spanish scene today is undoubtedly Antonio Munoz Molina (b. 1956) whose five novels have won him the country’s most prestigious literary prizes and countless pages in the popular press. The Cervantes Institutes, created a few years ago as neocolonialist organisms to propagate the use of the Spanish language throughout the world, named a board of trustees in 1992 which consisted of the Great Old Men of Spanish literature and language. There, alongside the well-past-60 crowd of Camilo Jose Cela (Noble Prize 1989), Octavio Paz (Nobel Prize 1990), Gabriel Garcia Mdrquez (Nobel Prize 1982), Francisco Ayala, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, and others, sat Munoz Molina, who at the time was 36 years old. El jinete polaco (1992), a complex and difficult novel, won several lucrative prizes and stayed on the best-seller list for nearly forty weeks. Other works of his, Beatus Ille (1986), El invierno en Lisboa (1987) and Beltenebros (1989) earned him a deserved reputation as a master stylist with a rich vocabulary and an original take on life which he couches within the framework of other artistic genres (jazz in the case of El invierno en Lisboa, film noir in Beltenebros, and painting in El jinete polaco). He is just the most visible of a generation of gifted writers who are no longer writing against Franco, but (as Alm6dovar says) as though Franco had never existed. Critics have their eyes on Javier Marias, Julian Llamazares, Luis Landero, and Soledad Pue’rtolas.

While Spaniards still do not read as much as their northern neighbors, 1992 marked the first year that they rose from official underdeveloped status as concerns daily reading. According to UNESCO figures, more than 105 newspapers per 1000 inhabitants are now distributed daily, the equivalent of 4, 080, 000 newspapers per day. Pieces of the past still stick to the country, of course. Rosa Montero, the journalist/ novelist, recounts with open-eyed amazement the first time she saw a newspaper box in the United States, a device into which one puts 25e and from which one democratically extracts one newspaper. She insists (correctly, I’m afraid) that in Spain the first quarter to go in would empty the box and the newspapers would be resold nearby. The self-discipline of one quarter/one paper is unimaginable in individualist Spain.

What 1992 managed to do was in part disentangle the images of “Spain” which North Americans receive and meld together with “Latin American,” “Hispanic,” “Latino,” and “Chicano.” Other than language and a conceptual heritage, there are few real points of contact between Spain today (aggressively European) and the countries in Central and South America. “Spanish” food as known in this country has nothing to do with the cuisine of the Iberian peninsula, which is based on fresh fruits and vegetables, exquisite (and expensive) seafood, and olive-oil based sauces and flavorings.

** ** **

The party may be coming to an end. 1992 has closed down, and with it the Seville Expo, the Barcelona Olympics, and the Madrid Culturefest. This is not entirely a bad development given some of the harebrained ideas generated in the name of the 1992 celebrations. My candidate for the Bad Idea of the Quincentenary is the so-called “Project Honeymoon,” which married the Statue of Liberty to Barcelona’s Columbus statue. The wedding was legal in Nevada, where it took place, although consummation of it seemed to pose severe logistical problems. A vacuum of sorts has been left in post-1992 Spain, and it is not clear what will fill it. The AVE, the high-speed train linking Madrid with Seville (wags called it the “AVEria,” which means “breakdown” because of the frequent glitches it first experienced) runs half empty now, even at 200 kilometers per hour. The economy limps along, burdened with debt, unpaid bills, two devaluations of the peseta in four months, and continuing revelations of corruption by cabinet ministers and business leaders. The Spanish GNP, which between 1986 and 1991 was higher than the European Economic Community average, declined in 1992, and growth now stagnates at 1982 levels. In 1992 the trials finally began in the scandal and corruption case of Juan Guerra, the brother of Alfonso Guerra, Felipe’s right-hand man since school days who came to be the all-powerful Vice President before his forced resignation last year. The influence-peddling case has been cleverly labeled “Waterguerra” by the Spanish press. I think the most significant symbol of the coming retrenchment is the fact that Zalacain, the first Spanish restaurant to win three stars from the august Michelin group, has closed, in part because the limitless government expense accounts of the 1980’s have been reeled in and the high-level bureaucrats are being forced to eat lunch on an austerity budget of $50 rather than $100. Times are tough.

Even so, Spain in 1993 is chic, sexy, and with-it, if slightly dazed by the speed of the changes since 1975. And one fact is eminently clear: Europe no longer ends at the Pyrenees.


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