I have a Spanish friend named Gil. We met during my first week here in Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. One night in a bar, a group of Andalucian pilgrims were chanting something unintelligible over the music. Gil asked me if I understood them. I said no. He told me that they were singing, “Benedict, Benedict, Benedict, the sixteenth, the Pope.” Then he muttered, “fucking Catholics.”
The next day, a group of American girls were being followed by a pack of Spanish boys who claimed to be in Santiago on a pilgrimage. Gil chased the men away and then gave the girls a lesson – “Spain is not a Catholic country,” he said, “and those men are only claiming to be pilgrims to hit on you.” Spain is not a Catholic country? What on earth is he talking about? What about the inquisition? What about Franco, the Catholic dictator who ruled Spain for fifty years? Of course Spain is a Catholic country! Everyone knows that…
But when I stopped and thought about it, I realized that Gil might have had a point. Spain is not as Catholic as we all think. For instance, Gil’s older sister, Ana, is a practicing Catholic who teaches religion. Still, she has no problem with the sexuality of her younger brother, who jokes about taking advantage of Spain’s recent change of laws and marrying his boyfriend of six months.
In my first conversation with my host mother, Angelines, she told me that she was Catholic to the extent that she liked Catholic doctrine. For example, she told me that she likes men, and that as an unmarried woman, if she wanted to date, she was going to date, regardless of what the church had to say. Angelines also told me that homosexuality was a natural thing and that if she were a lesbian, she would want to marry whomever she liked.
My friend Michael, a gay Jew, told his host family one day that he was going out to Chueca, Madrid’s Greenwich Village. The mother of the family told him that that was great and that her kids liked going there, and then his host sister very kindly asked him if he was aware that it was the gay neighborhood. When he smiled and said, yes, that he was aware, she just told him to enjoy himself.
This isn’t to say that Spain is a fantastically liberal country where everyone is completely accepted. The prejudice directed at immigrants is sometimes shocking. Whether it is the product of racism or the brutal honesty of a culture unfamiliar with the concept of political correctness, it is present in nearly all levels of white Spanish society.
And yet, there are parts of the US where the same kind of prejudice exists. Further, just because many Americans wouldn’t dare make comments about all thieves being African immigrants without papers (as my host mother said at dinner early this week) doesn’t mean that there aren’t many Americans who would think such things. And while we may not teach Catholicism in public schools, as the Spanish do, the teaching of evolution is banned in more than a few of the United States.
Indeed, the Inquisition has been dead for almost 200 years, and Franco’s dictatorship ended in the 1970s. Spain is a modern country with a range of people representing a spectrum of cultures and beliefs, including native Spaniards and recent immigrants, among them Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and many others.
My preconceptions turned on their head, I move forward through the semester with a sense of wonder. Spain is a dynamic place. The culture is shifting as we speak. The question now is, can America keep up?