The Indignant Indigent Youth of Spain
Last week we went to the “Semana Grande” Festival in the beautiful Basque city of San Sebastian, along the Atlantic Coast of Spain.
We left our car in a parking station under one of the main squares of the city and headed to the nearest exit. We spiralled up a cement staircase carelessly, wending our way upwards towards the sunshine. As we rounded the last bend I found myself staring up at a young man, seated in a corner of the stairwell. As I climbed up towards him our eyes locked momentarily. Spanish eyes are often so beautiful, and his were no exception -almond shaped and brown with thick black lashes. As his eyes met mine, I saw sadness, embarrassment, and worst of all perhaps, a look of defeat, of helplessness. He held a slightly crumpled used coffee cup sheepishly in one hand. He did not hold it out to us as we passed by him however, but held it almost imperceptibly closer to his body, and gave a little shrug as though saying, “I know you won’t give me anything, but I do not know what else to do.”
He was such a normal looking young Spaniard – in his early 20’s, slightly bearded, with kind, soft eyes, longish but well-trimmed hair, wearing jeans and a striped collared shirt. He did not look like he was into drugs or booze. He looked clean, as did his clothing. He could have been any guy anywhere walking down the street or working at any job. But instead he was crouched uncomfortably in a stairwell, looking so out of place.
He looked nothing at all like the people begging for change on the streets of our town, Pau, with their dogs that sport spiked collars, their dirty cargo pants, their funky rebellious hairstyles and piercings, and their “I’m cool and I don’t give a fuck” attitude. In Pau there are dozens of street characters like this who are used to their lifestyle and (at least outwardly) unashamed. They reach out their hands or cups towards every passerby, looking them straight in the eye like a challenge. They sit on busy streets, next to ATMs or bakeries, places calculated for highest foot traffic, highest probability of handouts. They have a sense of humor about who they are and what they do. They don’t care what you think. When you meet their gaze, they give nothing away. It’s a hardened, practiced look, studied nonchalance. They have learned to protect themselves. They make their lifestyle seem like a choice, their choice, and they hold their cards close.
But this man was different.
Even the place he had chosen to sit screamed rookie. He was out of the general eye of most of the people walking around the city – he would only be seen by people ascending from the parking garage, and these people would come upon him and pass by him so quickly, they wouldn’t have the time to register his existence and think about giving him money before they were already past him, above him. And besides, there is an inherent awkwardness about stairwells – an intimacy in the tightness of the space. Very few people would stop in such a small, confined place, to dig in their pockets to give money to a stranger.
It was all wrong. But I think he cared more about not being seen and exposed to too many people, than being in the best begging location. I think he chose his spot because it offered a bit of psychological protection that he otherwise was sorely lacking.
When our eyes met I felt like we had a whole conversation
“you don’t belong here, do you?”
“No and I don’t want to be here”
“what are you doing here then?”
“It was the only thing left to try”
From this small moment of contact, of connection, he let me into his world a little bit, mainly because he has not yet learned how not to be so emotionally available, how to put up the walls and stop caring what people think.
And in my imagination, this is what I saw, this is how I envision him:
He is not homeless but lives in an apartment with other family members – probably an apartment far too small for all the people who live there. He is probably college educated. Maybe he didn’t always get perfect grades, but it was a good degree, a respectable degree. But he has never had a job apart from a few part-time things here and there that fell through. He has tried for over a year to get a job. None of this friends have jobs either. He has gotten to a point where it feels pointless to keep trying because of one simple fact – there aren’t any jobs to be had. But he feels so guilty – his mother’s part-time job was just axed, and his grandparents’ pensions are helping to support them both, not to mention his siblings. He hates knowing he is taking away from anyone, at an age when he should be at least providing for himself, and the older people in his family should be comfortably retired. Instead the entire family is cramped, stretched, barely getting by. So he has decided to spend his days begging for change, trying to take the burden off of those older, hunched, tired shoulders. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be…
Now obviously I can only imagine his situation, I do not really know. All I know is the impression he gave me – he did not look like someone who had met with some horrible tragedy or addiction that drove him into the streets. He didn’t look at all crazed. He looked sober and serious and embarrassed. He looked like someone who was fully ready and able to go out and live his life, responsibilities and all, but for some reason, some twist of fate, of the economy, of the world, his adult life has not been allowed to begin, at least not in the way he would have expected.
I’m sure it sounds like I am romanticizing this man and his situation…but I am not imagining anything that is farfetched…in fact statistically speaking it’s a highly probable scenario.
Try for a moment to wrap you head around this statistic: As of June, 2012 the unemployment rate for people under the age of 25 in Spain was a shocking 52.7%. The general unemployment rate is also horrible, at 24.8%, the worst in the European Union.
So, given that one in two people under the age of 25 who are trying to get work have not been able to, it is not at all farfetched to imagine this twenty-something year old sitting in a stairway is one of the millions of young Spaniards who have tried, and tried, and tried again to find work but failed.
To further extrapolate, imagining he is living in tight circumstances with his family is not such a stretch either – as this seems to be the common storyline according to this recent NYtimes piece on the subject: Spain’s Jobless Rely on Family, A Frail Crutch
With one in two young people out of work, protest has been a popular way to pass the time in Spain.
A young American student I know recently went on a trip to Spain and saw protesters camped in cities there. He told me how interesting it was to see how much Occupy Wall Street had spread around the world. Oh you charming American youth, always assuming everything starts in the US! But you see, before anyone was occupying any part of the United States, streets of Spain were being occupied by the “Indignados”, The Indignant, who were inspired in part by the Arab Spring. Their protests shook Europe, and arguably inspired some of the protest organizers in none other than Wall Street. From the perspective over here last fall, it looked like the Indignado movement was spreading West, spreading all the way to the US of all places. But things always look different from within the US, within the bubble, the fishbowl. With this magical, particularly American slight-of-hand, everything always seems to have started there, even all the things and ideas that we lift from other places. But that’s the US – take an idea and refurbish it, tweak it, improve it, buff it up and resell it as an original. Even US protesters seem to have remarkable marketing and branding skills, because although they may have arrived a little later to the party, Occupy became the symbol of a global complaint, and the word Occupy is now being carried on signs all over the world, even by the Indignados of Spain.
Something has gone horribly wrong in Spain – but what exactly caused it and who is to blame is a source of constant debate here in Europe. See for example very different perspectives on this subject:
- Debt Crisis: Michael Noonan blames Spain for its woes, banks need €62bn
- Spain’s economic ‘apocalypse’ defies Europe’s web of blame
- Ruinous policy also to blame for Spain’s crisis
- G20 summit: Barroso blames eurozone crisis on US banks
I am not an economist, and truth be told, the more articles I read, the less I feel I really understand what is going on and why. Perhaps that is because most economists seem to only marginally understand what is happening to our world in any case, using old models and theories that have nothing to do with today’s globalized reality.
What interests me more I suppose is the bigger picture, and the human reality within that picture.
In 1975, after 40 years of brutal, unbending dictatorship, Spain became free…free to develop, free to be capitalist, free to grow, free to make mistakes. It was hard at first – everything was falling to pieces in the late 70’s and early 80’s. But then things shifted, and the economy grew. And then the economy skyrocketed. And Spain prospered. It was a golden age, the kind parents now tell their teenage children about with misty eyes, where everything finally seemed to be going right. But what a fickle, capricious word is prosperity in contemporary economics.
There was something beautifully and horribly idealistic about the Spanish boom of the 1980’s. The brazenness, the bravado, the youthful excitement, the allure of wealth and power and capitalism. Maybe an arrogance too.
But today’s Spanish youth have none of that arrogance, nor the idealism.
A Spanish friend of mine, Mariano, recently posted this on his Facebook wall – a passage (attributed in the post to the famous Spanish graphic humorist, Forges, however it would seem from my research actually written by Spanish Journalist David Jiménez) that has gone viral in Spain. This is my own translation:
Maybe the time has arrived to accept that our crisis is more than economic, it goes further than this or that political group, than the greed of bankers or the risk premium. To assume that our problems won’t end by changing to one party or another, with another set of urgent measures, or a general strike. To recognize that the principal problem of Spain is not Greece, the euro, or Mrs. Merkel. To admit, in order to try to correct the problem, that we have become a mediocre country.
No country achieves a similar condition to Spain’s overnight. Nor in three or four years. It’s the result of a chain that starts at school and ends in the establishment. We have created a culture in which the most popular students in school are the mediocre ones. The mediocre are the first to get promoted in the office, are those we are made to listen to most in the media, and the only ones we vote for in the elections, regardless of what they do. Because they are our own.
We are so accustomed to our mediocrity that we have come to accept it as the natural state of things. We use the exceptions to this mediocrity, which almost always come down to sports, to deny the evidence.
– Mediocre is a country where its citizens spend an average of 134 minutes a day in front of a television that principally broadcasts garbage.
– Mediocre is a country that has not had one president that spoke English or had some minimum understanding of international politics in its entire democratic history.
– Mediocre is the only country in the world that, in its rotten sectarianism , has managed even to divide associations for the victims of terrorism.
– Mediocre is a country that has reformed its education system three times in three decades, until its students were situated at the bottom of the developed world.
– Mediocre is a country that doesn’t even have a single university within the top 150 in the world and forces its best researchers into exile in order to survive.
– Mediocre is a country with a quarter of the population unemployed, that nevertheless finds more motivation to be outraged when the talking heads of a neighboring country joke about their athletes.
A country is mediocre where the brilliance of others provokes suspicion, and where creativity is marginalized and independence sanctioned.
A country that has made mediocrity the grand national aspiration, unabashedly pursued by those thousands of young people seeking to occupy the next spot in the Big Brother contest, by politicians who throw out insults but don’t provide ideas, by bosses that surround themselves with mediocrity to conceal their own mediocrity, and by students that ridicule their peers for making an effort.
Mediocre is a country that has allowed, encouraged and celebrated the triumph of the mediocre, marginalizing excellence to the point where one is left with two options: leave or be swallowed up by the unstoppable tide of grey mediocrity.
In reading and translating this, I admittedly feel it’s a bit hard on poor old Spain…especially given that my country, the good old US of A, most certainly meets and exceeds most of the qualifications for mediocrity as put forth by this author. That being said, I think that the most powerful and insightful criticism generally has to come from within. And whether you blame mediocrity or call it by another name, there is a crisis in Spain, and people are most certainly leaving.
2011 was the first year in Spain’s history when more people left the country than entered it, according to the Spanish National Institute of Statistics (INE). Young Spaniards looking for opportunities are leaving the country in droves. In fact I have met many young Spaniards here in Pau, studying at the university, looking for jobs, biding their time. They are smart, kind, fun, open and interesting. These are the people who are coming to be known as Spain’s Lost Generation. They are drifting, waiting to land.
One of my favorite people here in Pau is just such a person. Mariano (mentioned above), from Albacete, did a Master’s degree in Environmental Science, never found work in Spain and ended up in Pau for a while because his long-term girlfriend is from this region and she was doing a Master’s degree here. He didn’t find work in Pau, and has been living in a beach town about an hour from here, working as a waiter since June.
It was his birthday last Sunday, so we decided to drive out to the coast and invade the restaurant he’s working in to bring him a cake. Mariano is one of the most likable people I have met in my life. It’s hard for me to imagine a person who wouldn’t be charmed by him – he is genuine, quirky in a fun and light-hearted way, tremendously warm-hearted and has an amazing knack for getting along with basically everyone, somehow putting them at their ease. You can imagine – he makes a phenomenal waiter. Not quite the same as working in environmental science though…
He works from 2 PM till 11 PM with no more than a small meal break, and the rest of the time he’s running. Some nights he works well past 11 PM and into the early hours of the morning, but doesn’t get paid any extra for the time he puts in. But he says he can’t complain – his bosses gave him a free place to live above the restaurant. He’s not in a position to protest.
Mariano hasn’t had a single day off since the beginning of June. Sunday, his 26th birthday was no exception. It’s a very busy restaurant and the clientele, from what we observed, are quite demanding. He spent his 20-minute dinner break with us, and also managed to sneak away now and again, finding little quiet moments to chat with us in between meeting customer needs. He told us the sad news – he had applied to three Master’s Degree programs in France, and had been told at the beginning of the summer that he’d been accepted to his program of choice, which included free tuition. However, a week ago he was sent notification that in fact he will not be taken into the program. No explanation, no nothing. No more degree. No idea what to do now.
It is heart-breaking to see such an amazing, intelligent, good person with so many excellent skills and attributes so adrift. And not for a lack of trying, not for a lack of taking risks and attempting to make things happen. But time is passing and his degree is getting older and colder, and he is getting no work experience in his field. What will this mean for his options in the future? It is a hard thing to be 26 and have no useful work experience.
He has no idea what he is going to do now…his job on the beach will end in early September, perhaps he’ll look for another job waiting tables in Bayonne. His girlfriend will be done with her masters in 6-12 months…he’ll try to take odd jobs here and there, somewhere in the region and get by. And then? Maybe they’ll move to Latin America because the jobs are plentiful there at the moment and the economy is booming.
Surprised? As Europe decays, Latin America is in a surprisingly stable position. Let’s take an example – Colombia, an absolutely lovely country, which also has a stable and growing economy – with a real GDP growth rate of 4% in 2010, and 5.9 % in 2011, and current unemployment at 10%. This compared to Spain with real GDP growth of -0.1% in 2010, 0.7% in 2011 and -1.8% so far in 2012 and unemployment at nearly 25%.
After all the floods of immigration from Latin America to Spain over the last decades, after all the racism and prejudice this inspired in the native Spanish population, the tide has turned and their youth are now finding that the Americas could hold the promise of opportunity in a new world, an escape from a dying, decaying one. Spanish youth will arrive on the new continent, many helpless and hoping for work of whatever kind, just some kind of opening, some opportunity, exiled from their own impoverished world. How quickly things change.
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