Category Archives: Spain

Miles Horton & Paolo Freire in 1987, photo by Candie Carawan, in Horton & Freire 1990.

highways on the sea: from Machado to Paolo Freire

This is a perfect short poem from Antonio Machado’s Proverbios y Cantares (1912):


Todo pasa y todo queda:
pero lo nuestro es pasar,
pasar haciendo caminos,
caminos sobre la mar

Everything passes and everything stays,
But ours is to cease to be. 
As we go, we make a highway,
A highway on the sea. 

[revised on Dec 1, 2023.] 

Machado had already juxtaposed caminos (roads, paths, journeys) with el mar (the sea) in the second poem of the volume:


¿Para qué llamar caminos 
a los surcos del azar?... 
Todo el que camina anda, 
como Jesús, sobre el mar. 

Why designate as highways
furrows left aimlessly? ...
Anything that travels moves,
like Jesus, on the sea.

The same pairing recurs in the most-quoted lyric of the whole book:


Caminante, son tus huellas 
el camino y nada más; 
caminante, no hay camino, 
se hace camino al andar. 
Al andar se hace camino, 
y al volver la vista atrás 
se ve la senda que nunca 
se ha de volver a pisar. 
Caminante, no hay camino, 
sino estellas sobre la mar.

Traveler, the highway
is your footprints, nothing more;
Traveler, there is no highway,
you make it as you walk.
As you walk, you make the highway—
and the path you see when you turn back
is the route where you'll never be.
Traveler, there is no highway,
save for stars upon the sea.

In 1987, the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire (then 66 years old) and the American organizer Myles Horton (82) interviewed each other at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, which Horton had led. Freire says, “Myles, I think we could start our conversation by saying something to each other about our very existence in the world.” A little later, he adds, “It’s very important for Brazilian readers to have information about Myles. About me, they have already, but about Myles they don’t have and it’s very, very important.”

Horton adds, “Yes, but the people in this country need the same thing about you.” He then proposes to talk “mainly [about] the things that would help people understand where I came from in terms of my ideas and my thinking, what they are rooted in. Is that the idea?” Freire replies, “Yes. Everything you recognize as something important. I think that even though we need to have some outline, I am sure that we make the road by walking. It has to do with this house [Highlander], with this experience here. You’re saying that in order to start, it should be necessary to start.”

The resulting book, We Make the Road by Walking (Horton & Freire 1990), explains in a footnote that Freire is adapting “a proverb by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, in which one line reads “se hace camino al andar,” or “you make the way as you go.”

For activists, this phrase suggests that people can make new pathways by taking action, and perhaps that we should learn the trails that our elders have left for us. But I think Machado’s original point was apolitical. He meant that the stories we tell about ourselves are not permanent–or even important–and they vanish as we pass through them.

Translations by Peter Levine. Photo by Candie Carawan in Horton & Freire, We Make the Road by Walking (Temple University Press 1990). See also: Machado: Glory is never what I’ve sought; Lorca’s rivers

from Andalusia to Cornwall

Four sabbatical months in Europe are coming to a close this week. We spent three of those months in Granada, Spain, until our Schengen tourist visas ran out. Since then, we have mostly stayed in Penzance, Cornwall.

It’s a study in contrasts. To name one: Andalusia is famous for fervent Catholic spirituality, although I’ve written a bit about how that reputation is exaggerated.* Meanwhile, Cornwall may be the most Methodist region on earth, with Methodists representing an outright majority of Cornish churchgoers since the 1800s. Few expressions of Christianity could be as different as a stark, sober Nonconformist chapel versus a whole city that pulsates with baroque, syncretic Catholicism during Holy Week.

But I want to mention water.

Andalusia has always been semi-arid, and its classic landscape is dry earth studded with olive trees between stony mesas. Right now, the region is suffering a catastrophic draught that is probably related to climate change. However, the Nasrid (medieval Arabized Muslim) rulers of Granada built a remarkable irrigation system for the city. Snow melts on the Sierra Nevada mountains, fills Nasrid aqueducts, flows through high-pressure pipes under the Alhambra to the Plaza Nueva, and then up to the area around today’s Church of San Nicolás, where a mosque covered a large public cistern. From that reservoir, pipes still fill more than a dozen other Nasrid cisterns, from which water irrigates backyard gardens and squares filled with flowering trees and other plants that attract an exuberant array of birds. The whole city is an artificial oasis, more than eight centuries old, which is surviving the ecological crisis so far. You can clearly see the distant snow that waters the trees around you.

When we arrived in Cornwall, it stopped raining here, as if we had brought the Andalusian draught with us. The skies have been almost as blue as they were in Spain. But this is a watery place. Everywhere, burbling streams rush down to the nearby sea. Most streams are overgrown, almost concealed in foliage, as is nearly everything. The entire county has been covered by a thick mat “Of tendrils, leaves, and rough nuts brown”–not inert, but luxuriantly growing as you watch; and flowers have been generously sprinkled over all that deep green.

*See also reflections on modern Granada (Spain); Richard Wright’s Pagan Spain.

reflections on modern Granada (Spain)

We’re leaving Granada tomorrow after living here for three months. My limited Spanish and a certain shyness have prevented me from learning a lot about contemporary life here. I feel better informed about the distant past than the present. Nevertheless, I’ll venture a few observations and hypotheses.

For those who have not seen it, the most salient feature of Granada is its beauty. The castle-palace of the Alhambra caps one hill, but around that romantic building are bigger summits, and the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas form the backdrop. Whitewashed houses with flowering gardens and little squares cascade down the hill of the Albaizin, where we lived. On the plain below are fine boulevards, marble-paved squares, and baroque domes.

Granada is not a big city. The population of the municipality is only 230,000. Although some legally protected green space has been lost, farmland and wooded hills remain in view. The university enrolls about 60,000 students, not concentrated on one campus but distributed through several neighborhoods. Numerous foreign students either visit the university or study Spanish in private schools. As a result, the population is quite youthful and informal. Hardly a business suit is seen.

Since three million people visit the Alhambra each year, the city is full of tourists. A substantial portion are Spanish, but Granada also draws people from the rest of the world, ranging from backpackers to bourgeois families to big tour groups. And there are many expats and some refugees. No particular foreign language dominates.

Andalusia is still fairly poor and dominated by agriculture. The region’s per capita GDP is $18,500, similar to Sicily’s and much lower than $42,000 for the EU as a whole. Many rural people moved to Granada in the postwar period and settled in neighborhoods like El Zaidin, where, apparently, conditions were at first pretty rough. I have walked through every part of the city proper and found all the streets pleasant: bustling, clean, safe, and well served by public transportation (including a brand-new subway line) and other facilities. Perhaps some of the apartments are small.

Rural life usually feels far away, but not always. We could regularly hear a burro bray from our house, and once we watched a man herd his goats up a nearby street.

Granada retains a small-town feel under the surface. On the bus that I often used to take home, the older clientele would frequently greet each other by name. People walk their dogs off-leash and leave them to wait outside of stores. Many enjoy a paseo in the late afternoon.

For me, a rough indicator of globalization is the variety of food. In Granada’s supermarkets, virtually all of the ingredients are meant for Andalusian dishes or Italian-style pizza and pasta. Except in the biggest “Ipermercado” and one little shop owned by a South Asian man, stores typically offer a single shelf with a few bottles of soy sauce and some “Old El Paso”-brand seasoning as their only foreign ingredients. Likewise, 98 percent of the city’s many restaurants offer Andalusian menus with very similar dishes. The situation is completely different in Madrid, where one can buy ingredients or cooked meals from anywhere in the world.

The previous paragraph is not a complaint. For one thing, Spanish food is good! Besides, we enjoyed being immersed in a place with a distinct culture. I do think Granada might be behind the curve (for better and worse) on globalization. That doesn’t mean it is unsophisticated, although some Castilians and Catalans may think so. For instance, the city boasts at least 14 independent bookstores, presumably serving the university community. It seems characteristic of Granada that these stores stock many new books for serious readers, yet almost every volume is in Spanish, and most are by Spanish authors. The same was true at the extensive annual book fair. One gets a sense of mild insularity–and pride.

There is a long and rich literary tradition of describing Granada as melancholy. As I wrote recently, Richard Wright observed Granada and all of Andalusia as fanatically Catholic, haunted by history, and static. I am reminded of how writers use the Turkish word hüzün (meaning something like “communal sadness”) to describe Istanbul. In both cases, outsiders are inspired by the tragic remains of past grandeur. In both cases, some local people adopt the visitors’ melancholy as their own. And both descriptions mislead.

In fact, Granada can give an impression of frivolity and subversiveness. Spanish people from other regions like to visit the city for pre-wedding parties. They dress in crazy matching costumes and tease the blindfolded fiancés. Although they are generally segregated into “hen” and “stag” groups, you see individuals expressing various gender identities. For every nun in a habit, there must be a hundred young people with tattoos and piercings. The graffiti art by El Niño de las Pinturas and others is well-known.

The first thing that Castilians say about Granada is that the Arab-Islamic heritage is strong there. They are not wrong. In our neighborhood, the layout, the surrounding walls, and the water system all date to the Emirate of Granada; and at the bottom of our hill, the Guadalquivir is simply the Wadi al-Kabir: the Big River.* More subtly, the streets are still repaved with black and white stones, a continuous practice since the Arab period; and even modern doors often have rows of iron studs that, in medieval times, would have been painted to indicate that the owner had accomplished the Hajj. Under our living room is a cistern, an aljibe, that is part of the irrigation system of Arab origin.

But I want to complicate this impression. First, the influence of Arab Islamic culture is far deeper in other places than many people realize. In English, there are about 900 words of Arabic origin, including “sugar” and “alcohol,” and there are about 4,000 in Spanish. Not only in Granada, but also in Chile and Texas, people use a lot of Arabic words. Americans eat meals in courses, wear lighter colors during the summer, and do many other things as a result of the customs of Arab al-Andalus.

Also, some of the explicitly Arabic influences in Andalusia are probably “invented traditions,” in Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase.

For instance, it’s worth experiencing an “Andalusian hammam” or Arab bath. That tradition dates all the way back to 1988. The Alcaicería is the city’s “bazaar” neighborhood, a warren of quaint shops. It burned to the ground in 1843, and the architecture you see there today is a Victorian fantasy of the Middle East. The Alhambra is one of the world’s greatest expressions of classical Arab culture, yet it probably consists of a selection of medieval buildings that had various owners and functions. Ferdinand and Isabella seized, heavily renovated and modified, and connected these buildings to form one renaissance-style palace, and then the rest of the neighborhood gradually vanished. The Alhambra has never stopped being transformed by ambitious architects who are responsible for things like the incongruous Victorian roofs and everything about its lovely gardens.

Arab and Romani/Gitano influences were as important for Granada’s modernists, Lorca and Manuel de Falla, as they have been for its folk arts, like flamenco. But this is not simply a case of the past influencing the present. For one thing, Arabs and Romani constitute living communities in Granada. In 2003, the Moroccan immigrant community of almost 5,000 people opened a beautiful new mosque across from the Alhambra, and Romani still dominate the Sacromonte district.

When audiences cry ¡Olé! to appreciate a flamenco dancer, they may be saying wa Ilâh (“by God”) in Arabic. Or that may be a false etymology that persisted as a myth because it sounded so romantic. In short, there is a long and complex history here of assimilation, appropriation, “othering,” ambivalence, celebration, nostalgia, and sheer invention. Andalusians have been hybrid and have been choosing to present themselves as hybrid ever since the Emirate.

Sad to leave Granada, I think of the last sultan, “Boabdil” (actually, Muhammad XII), and his famous “Moor’s Sigh” as he turned to face the Alhambra for the last time. Or of Carlos Cano’s lyrics:

Deep in the cistern, what should appear
But the sadness that killed Boabdil the emir.
And I left it under the shadow of an almond tree
On my way to the mountains of Guajar-Faragüit.

To see whether, during the time of honey,
There was a flowering of the light of thought,
And whether the town will recover its color,
That old-time Berber green-and-white.

Oh, country children,
Tender spikelets,
Go and run to tell the earth

That the poor wait for her at dawn.
At dawn, old earth, at dawn…

[my translation]
En el fondo de un aljibe me encontré
la tristeza que matara al rey Boabdil.
Y a la sombra de un almendro la dejé
por los montes de Guajar-Faragüit.

Por ver si cuando el tiempo de la miel
la luz del pensamiento diera flor
y el pueblo recobrara su color
verdiblanco de origen bereber.

Ay niños del campo,
espiguitas tiernas,
echad a correr.

Decidle a la tierra
que el pobre la espera
al amanecer.

Al amanecer la tierra,
al amanecer…

Then again, maybe nothing could be more typical of Granada than an American tourist (think: Washington Irving) recalling a mythologized medieval Andalusian Arab to taste some melancholic sublime on a cheerful day in a thriving city of tourists and students.

*Correction: the river at the bottom of our hill is the Darro, a tributary. See also: Richard Wright’s Pagan Spain; challenging the Reconquista; Lorca’s rivers; sabbatical update (from when we first arrived.)

Richard Wright’s Pagan Spain

Living in Andalusia for three months, I read Pagan Spain, a book that the great Black American writer Richard Wright published in 1957. From 1947 until the end of his life, Wright lived mostly in Paris. Gertrude Stein encouraged him to cross the border to Spain. During three weeks of 1954, he drove about 4,000 km of Spanish roads, rode trains in the south, and talked with people of diverse backgrounds, demonstrating empathy for all but the most annoying of them. His book demonstrates particular compassion for women, whose structural oppression Wright analyzes at length and in a way that surely qualifies him as a feminist in an advanced 1950s mode.

Overall, he portrays Spain as deeply backward, profoundly poor, and utterly static. He sees no prospects for change. To be sure, Franco’s fascist dictatorship suppressed progress, and 1955 was just under halfway through that long and dark chapter. However, Wright analyzes Franco as more of a symptom than a cause. The problem, in his view, is spiritual: the Spanish people are deeply irrational, hierarchical, communalistic, and superstitious, in contrast to the rational individualism of what Wright calls “the Western world”–and with which he explicitly identifies.

He acknowledges a bias for Protestantism (despite not being religious any more), but he needs an explanation for Spain’s backwardness compared to other Catholic countries, including France. He suggests that Spain is actually immured in an older, deeper–and therefore more profoundly static–form of religion, which he labels paganism. The rituals of Spanish Catholicism are pre-Christian fertility rites in superficial disguise. For instance, he reads the Black Virgin of Monserrat as a pagan fertility figure that is meaningfully placed among phallic rock formations.

I admire Wright, appreciate his sensitive portraits of Spanish acquaintances, and share his abhorrence of Franco. But his book offers a testable hypothesis: Spain will never change (and certainly not soon). One character who emerges as basically a fool is an American businessman who predicts economic development.

In fact, Spanish GDP grew at an average rate of 6.5% from 1959 to 1974, the period known as “the Spanish miracle.” Per-capita GDP was five times higher in 1990 than it had been in 1950. That growth accompanied a vast migration of people to cities and the transformation of work and daily lives, for better and for worse. Other countries experienced similar trajectories. El milagro español resembled il miracolo economico italiano, les trente glorieuses in France and the German Wirtschaftswunder. This convergence diminishes Franco’s credit for the growth. But Wright explicitly denies any possibility of similar change.

Once fascism ended, Spain was poised for further, rapid convergence with the EU countries, not only economically but socially, culturally, and politically. The country that Wright perceived as permanently stifled by reactionary patriarchy was early to legalize same-sex marriage and now has a cabinet with a female majority. Wright believed that piety dominated the Spanish psyche, but today just 18.5% of Spanish citizens identify as practicing Catholics (and of those, more than one third never attend mass).

Wright ends the book with a portrait of Holy Week in Seville, complete with delirious penitents with “bruised and bleeding flesh,” soldiers whose faces are “hard and stern”–“their gleaming bayonets … a forest of steel”–workmen with “bleak and pinched” faces bearing floats, and other mass expressions of subjugation and piety. “A feeling of helplessness, of desperation, of wild sorrow, of a grief too deep to be appeased clogged the senses.” All of this is Catholic on the surface but follows “some ancient pattern of behavior” based on a male/female binary.

We recently observed Holy Week in Granada. The floats sound similar to the ones Wright watched, and the number of participants remains extraordinary. But the whole event is highly informal, with fun roles for children, guys coming out from under the floats to check their phones or buy drinks, light security, and bands that sound like homecoming day in a US college town. Although I am sure that piety persists in some quarters, overall, one has a sense of traditional forms being transformed for radically new purposes.

Demetrio E. Brisset (2019) describes scattered efforts to organize light and even satirical Easter festivals under Franco, which were increasingly successful. “The foundations for the modern-day festivals were thereby laid. The successful shift from festivities in honour of Catholic saints to a type of celebration related to non-religious carnivals simply required a change of attitude, that was encouraged by another social and political context, i.e. disintegration of the system of moral norms after the death of Franco. The social effervescence of the fascinating period between 1976 and 1978 liberated the festivities from the tight control to which they had previously been subjected.” Brisset traces several influences on 21st century festivals in Spain, including tourism, political critique and satire, scholarly efforts to revive folkloric traditions, demands for women’s leadership, and even self-conscious neopaganism, which seems to owe more to the global New Age movement than to anything indigenously Spanish.

Perhaps we can say Wright’s view was interesting enough to prove flatly wrong. Although his values were benign, he dramatically underestimated the agency of the people he observed, which might be a lesson for all of us.

I think of a young woman Wright meets in Barcelona, whose role in life is to be a virgin. She never leaves her family’s funereal apartment because premarital contact with the outside world would open her honor to question. Meanwhile, her fiance, who is too poor to afford a wedding, regularly purchases sex from women he holds in contempt. Today, this woman could be alive and in her 70s. If she has survived–and I hope she has–she has seen extraordinary change.

Source: Brisset, Demetrio E., Novas festas profanas em Espanha, Revista Lusófona de Estudos Culturais, December 2019

Machado: Glory is never what I’ve sought

Antonio Machado begins the 53 short “Proverbs and Songs” from Fields of Castille (1912) with one that announces his intentions:

Nunca perseguí la gloria 
ni dejar en la memoria 
de los hombres mi canción; 
yo amo los mundos sutiles, 
ingrávidos y gentiles 
como pompas de jabón. 
Me gusta verlos pintarse 
de sol y grana, volar 
bajo el cielo azul, temblar 
súbitamente y quebrarse.

I’ve tried an English version that is a little loose to allow unforced near-rhymes that might honor Machado’s form:

Glory is never what I've sought,
not to print my song in others' thought.
I love delicate worlds, subtle
and weightless as a soap bubble.
I like to watch them decorate
themselves with sun and scarlet,
float below the sky's blue,
tremble, and--pop--they're through.

See also: “a poem should.”