Valladolid is not Spain, but it is

By Peter James Hudson

They say that Valladolid was the only town in Spain where people wept openly when Francisco Franco died. That young women only fuck their boyfriends once a week. On Tuesdays. And then only for short stints after five in the evening. While I’m not sure if it happened on a Tuesday, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabel of Castile married in Valladolid in 1469. In 1488 the city’s first autodafé took place in its Plaza Mayor. Eighteen Jews confessing to “judaizing” were burned alive in a well-attended public spectacle. In subsequent years any number of heretics, pagans, Lutherans, and incarnations of the anti-Christ joined them.

The stakes have long been removed and the torches have long gone out and the Plaza Mayor is now lined with bars and cafes and boutiques selling trinkets to tourists. Postcards reproducing oil paintings of matadors. Castanets. Crucifixes. Key chains with figurines of black-robed Ku Klux Klan grand wizards, the ultra-Catholic devotees of the city’s annual Santa Semana processions. Now, on Friday nights, after the well-attired but somber Spanish families have finished their cigarettes and tapas and wandered into the dusk, young men spill out of night clubs, drunk on calimochos, equal parts red wine and Coke, shouting, fighting, puking – and cursing all those lost Tuesday evenings.

I spent a few months in Valladolid in the spring of 2004. My lover at the time, a beautiful and brilliant Cuban curator and art historian, had won a scholarship to the ancient Universidad de Valladolid to pursue a graduate degree in museology. I needed to start writing my dissertation. Valladolid seemed as good a place as any to write and to try to make work a long distance relationship already compromised by the US and Cuban governments. Yet while I had arrived in Spain with all kinds of stupid, writerly visions of a country of golden light and romance, this was soon dispelled when I saw the barren landscape of Castile and Leon, a sky whose colour shifted between callow shades of grey, and a city repressed, humourless, and unrepentantly Catholic – a combination that conspired to undermine my relationship and scuttle my writing timelines while offering, if nothing else, a lesson on the cultures of Spanish racism and what seems, increasingly, to be its performance in the arena of Spanish football.

Before arriving in Valladolid my girlfriend and I had lived together in Havana for a few months. Of course, it isn’t fair to compare Havana, a multicultural city of more than two million people, to Valladolid, a homogenous Spanish backwater of 320,000. But I will anyway.

Havana, unlike most North American cities, is still actually a city: dense, improvised, full of energy, noise, narrative: decaying, but always re-imagining its future. In many ways Valladolid works. Its streets are compact and walk-able and green space and markets are always accessible. Yet if Havana is, like the rest of Cuba, a remnant of the Cold War, as some people would have it (like those who speak earnestly of wanting to see the country before Castro dies, as if seeing a mulatto driving a ’57 Chevy held together with sugar cane fibres is the most precious thing in the world), Valladolid, like much of Spain, is akin to a forgotten medieval empire. Valladolid is a well-maintained diorama, a scale model of a conservative Spanish social ideal. The times of social rituals regulate behaviour and discipline social interaction, forcing people off the streets and into their homes to return to their families and, presumably, their God.

The convenience of getting a tube of toothpaste or a bag of potato chips at two in the morning, or of finding an open bar or a bodega during the afternoon siesta or a bout of late night insomnia, obviously isn’t the pinnacle of civilization. Yet surely the modern is a least partly defined by one’s ability to break living patterns dependent on seasons, tides, crop cycles, and the earth’s rotation on its axis. Not in Valladolid.

There are no black people here, my girlfriend told me before I arrived, repeating it almost as soon as I stepped off the Ryanair charter into an airport smaller than ones I had seen in Gander, Newfoundland and remote islands in the Philippines. We are the black neighbourhood. I refused to believe her – weren’t black people everywhere? – and a few days into my stay, determined to find Valladolid’s black community, I traversed the entire city, dragging her along with me. We walked past the Equadorian internet café that served as the social centre of Valladolid’s miniscule South American immigrant population, past a sports complex, past a zillion cathedrals, across boulevards, highways, canals – until we heard the sound of drums, echoing off the walls of a newly-built low-rise housing project. I smiled to my girlfriend, smug. See? I told her. I knew there was a black quarter – even in this shitty Spanish town. She just shook her head, by this time resigned to my stubbornness, and murmured a prayer to the Virgin.

We walked further, crossed another canal, and, turning a corner, entered a cul-de-sac. In it sat a lone white woman, cowry-shelled dreadlocks crawling out from under a Rastafarian tam, wearing a tied-dyed skirt and a Che Guevara t-shirt. A small dog, the kind of mangy, ownerless mutt endemic to the third world, danced at her feet. Her eyes were closed, and she leaned over a small drum, furiously beating some arrhythmic tattoo.

But there were black people in Valladolid. Two. There was the black guy who ran a little sports bar, with his white Spanish wife, where we would sometimes watch football. The Spanish teenagers dressed in track suits and backwards baseball caps who came into the bar to play pool and get trashed, high-fived him as they approached the bar and barked their greetings and orders in a strange, guttural Castellano inflected with what they apparently thought was the cadence of Ebonics. The other black person was a Dominican waitress at another bar. Sometimes, she told us, when she would approach a table her customers would simply stare at her. She would return to the kitchen, allowing them to regain their composure before she took their orders. She described to us how people would stop her in the street, grab her arm, and try to rub the blackness out of her skin.

Valladolid was fine if you enjoyed your own exotic allure. One of our roommates was a Brazilian (white) who traded capoeira lessons for blowjobs. On discovering my girlfriend was Cuban, the few younger Spaniards we met in the city enthusiastically asked her to mix mojitos and caipirinhas and demonstrate salsa and samba moves. They were perplexed by my blackness, however; unsure what cultural party favours came with being black and Canadian, and unable to read the mask of cynicism, disaffection, and relentless prairie irony that serves as a black Canadian creed. Since I could neither rap nor tap dance – and had no way of procuring weed – I was culturally irrelevant.

We were, in all probability, the first black couple to visit that forlorn city since the Middle Ages and its citizens did everything in their power to let us know it, though in the cloaked modalities familiar to any black person who has spent any time in Boston or Vancouver, that leave you feeling like you are having an out of body experience. We felt like the first West Indians off the Empire Windrush or Fanon on the streets of Paris. Children gawked. Older couples interrupted their post-siesta strolls to stare. I ignored the children, thankful that they were less exuberant than the little French shit who drove Fanon into a spiral of self-doubt, but greeted the seniors. Politely at first, but these civil entreaties garnered little response other than alarm and muttered curses. Over time, the frequency and the brazenness of these encounters eroded my congenial façade and I had to be restrained from cursing them in English while they backed away, gripping their pace makers and tripping in their leg braces and orthopaedic shoes, wondering how these Moors had surreptitiously returned from the fifteenth century to lay claim to their land with the intention of establishing an Islamic Caliphate over their pious and Catholic country.

For while Valladolid’s Catholicism surprised me, I was more shocked by how that culture and identity was based on an enduring fear of and contempt for Islam rooted in the memory of the Reconquest. This would explain, I think, the continued attempts since the 1950s by Spanish bishops, led by the Archdiocese of Valladolid, to have Isabel la Catolica beatified. And it also explains the veneration of Spain’s patron saint, Saint James the Greater, known in the Hispanic world as Santiago Matamoros – Saint James the Moor Slayer.

According to legend, following Christ’s crucifixion, when the apostles scattered to spread the gospel, Santiago ended up preaching throughout the Iberian Peninsula. When he returned to the Holy Land, King Herod Agrippa killed him, making him the first martyred apostle. His body was tossed over the walls of Herod’s compound, but Christian devotees found his body, and angels flew it in a rudderless ship to Galicia, where it was entombed in rock. The sepulchre eventually made its way to its location at its current site, at Santiago de Compostela, and a cathedral was built there, Santiago’s body under its altar. During the Reconquista, Santiago appeared during the Battle of Clavijo, around 844, slaying ten of thousands of Muslims, and inspiring the Christian warriors to victory. Since then, he has been represented descending from the sky on a white charger, a sword held high above his head, Arabs, Berbers, and Moors crushed beneath the hooves of his horse.

A military order was founded in his name and his iconography, as Spanish historian Américo Castro has pointed out, shifted from that of a humble Galilean fisherman to an avenging angel smiting the infidel and raging Christian holy war against the Muslim invader – he became what Castro describes as the “counter-Mohammed” and his sanctuary in Santiago de Compostela “the counter-Kaaba”.  From the ninth century, Santiago de Compostela became a shrine for pilgrims, wending their way across Western Europe through Spain following, legend has it, the Milky Way to Galicia. El Camino de Santiago, as the pilgrimage is called, is still traversed by thousands of hippies in rubber sandals and Gortex jackets, tourists seeking faith, lepers, power walkers, sufferers of rheumatism, and Catholic devotees – all carrying a staff and with a scallop shell the symbol of Santiago, pinned to their breasts.

Santiago, like the Inquisition, followed the Spaniards to the New World – and that endeavour, of course, was done in the name of Ferdinand and Isabel, “enemies of the sect of Mahomet,” as Christopher Columbus announced, “and of idolatries and heresies”.

In the New World, he became Santiago Mataindios – Saint James the Indian Slayer, appearing to Spanish soldiers during the battles of the conquest of the Americas, his name gracing the cities founded on a violence done in his honour. Yet Santiago also became associated with indigenous resistance in the Americas, appearing as an Indian god of thunder fighting European invasion.

In the Caribbean, he was similarly creolized. In Puerto Rico, Santiago appears as Santiago Apóstol, commemorated every July 25th in a procession in Loíza Aldea. In Haiti, he became Saint Jacques Majeur, in vodou iconology as Ogou Feray, lwa of war and steel, a figure of revolution and patron of politicians and ironworkers, his sword a machete. In his story El Camino de Santiago, translated as “The Highroad of Saint James,” Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier uses the pilgrimage as a way of narrating the multiracial worlds of both the Caribbean and medieval Spain, indeed, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean appear as two mirrored images in his work, balanced on the fulcrum of 1492 – where Africans and Europeans, Christians, Jews and Muslims, all live together in energetic (and lusty) coexistence – even as Church and State try to regulate this difference through the Inquisition.

But Spain’s Santiago is not the Santiago of the New World, and the multiracialism of Carpentier’s Spain is not mirrored in the Spanish present – instead, after more than a century’s worth of outbound migration, only recently has Spain become a destination for migrants and the country is only now going through the early throes of the crises of multiculturalism that other European countries, as well as settler colonies like Australia and Canada, have been responding to, with mixed results, for years.

“In Valladolid [the pilgrims] were greeted by the stench of faggots burning to death the wife of the Emperor’s counsellor, in whose house the Lutherans had met and held services,” writes Carpentier. “Here everything smelled of scorching flesh, burning sambenitos, the grilling of heretics.”

Indeed, during a period of writer’s block, I found myself drawn to the live coverage of the Abu-Ghraib hearings on C-SPAN – after I had convinced myself that telenovelas were relevant to my writing process, as were the afternoon variety shows like Hay Tomate, whose every episode apparently featured a mildly retarded fat guy in a hot tub with female models, celebrity upskirts, David Beckham’s text messages, and the approaching boda real between Don Felipe and Dona Letizia, a divorced civilian previously married to her high school literature teacher – and it was as if I were living in the doubled world of the Inquisition in Carpentier’s novella: I was sitting in one ancient seat of Christian fundamentalism and anti-Islamism while watching another Christian fundamentalism and the war against Islam played out in some awful other time.

Valladolid is not Spain; the culture of Castile y Leon is obviously far different than that of Catalunya or Euskadi or even the less nationalist of the autonomous regions, yet in many ways it represents a caricature of Spain’s social conservatism and Catholicism and the closest thing that can be claimed as a national identity. And it’s because of what I saw in Valladolid that I wasn’t surprised by the series of instances of racism in Spanish football over the past few years. This story begins during an October 6th, 2004 training session for Spain’s national team. Spain’s ancient coach Luis Aragones, a figure, it should be pointed out, who resembles an octogenarian snow monkey, shouted at Jose Antonio Reyes, then still with Arsenal, that he should tell that “black shit”– the black shit in question being Reyes’ Arsenal teammate Thierry Henry that he, Reyes, was a better player than Henry. While the incident was broadcast live it was mostly ignored in Spain and it took the English and French media to castigate Aragones for his racism. Aragones and his defenders suggested that what he said was only a motivational ploy, fair game on the pitch, and could hardly be considered racist.

“Reyes is ethnically a Gypsy,” he told El Mundo. “I have got a lot of Gypsy and black friends. All I did was to motivate the Gypsy by telling him he was better than the black. I consider myself a citizen of the world. I don’t care about their skin colour. I feel I have been the victim of a lynching. I didn’t use the term ‘black’ with any racist meaning.” Obviously totally clueless about what a lynching is, Aragones would later reiterate the fact of his multiracial social circle, claiming that he couldn’t be racist as he had “black, Gypsy and Japanese friends, including one whose job is to determine the sex of poultry”.

While I can’t say whether or not Reyes is, in fact, “ethnically a Gypsy”, the entire incident seemed to say more about Reyes’ insecurities, doubts, and fears, than it does about Aragones. After all, after a brilliant start with Arsenal after arriving from Valencia his form soon dipped. He had a difficult time adjusting to life in England, expressing his desire to leave Arsenal for Real Madrid to a Spanish reporter pretending to be a Real Madrid rep, while claiming that the Arsenal dressing room was filled with “bad people”. And Reyes always appeared to me as a footnote to the text of Henry’s genius. Was there some doubt in Reyes’ mind about his own ability next to the black shit? Did Aragones recognise this in Reyes? When Spain and France met in the quarter finals of the World Cup in Hanover, les bleus thrashing la furia roja on the strength of goals from a Senegalese, an Algerian, and a gangsterish white boy recently converted to Islam, Reyes spent the game on the bench.

In the meantime, Aragones’ comments seemed to unleash a latent racist tendency amongst Spanish football fans. Over the coming months, racist incidents – usually in the form of spectators imitating monkeys whenever black players touched the ball – occurred with an alarming frequency, and an impotent response. England’s under-21 team were met with racist abuse during a game in Madrid. This was repeated when the Spanish and English national teams met for a friendly at the Santiago Bernabeu on November 17th, 2004. With Ashley Cole, Sean Wright-Philips, and Jermaine Jenas receiving similar treatment, the volume of abuse rising according to the darkness of the player’s skin. Over the next months during club matches in the domestic league, there were well publicised incidents involving Malaga’s Equadorian defender Richard Morales Aguirre, Carlos Kameni, Espanol de Barcelona’s Cameroonian goaltender, and Barcelona’s prolific Cameroonian forward Samuel Eto’o.

The fines meted out by the Spanish football federation were minimal and, as late as the fall of 2006, before he was sidelined with a torn meniscus, Eto’o was subjected to monkey chanting during a game at Racing Santander. While the incident received little attention in the Spanish press, he came under fire for asking a Catalan reporter to repeat a question in Spanish.

These incidents happened long after I had left Valladolid. I had returned to New York in May of 2004, and my girlfriend had gone back to Havana soon after. While I was there I never had a chance to see FC Real Valladolid play but from what I understand I didn’t miss anything. They, and their garish white and purple uniforms, were demoted during the season I was there. Beyond a brief period of glory – in a 4-1 defeat to Bilbao in the Copa del Rey during the 1949-59 season – their history is one relentless loss that finds itself mirrored in both the national team and, if you ask some Spaniards, the national psyche – Cuba still weighs heavily on the Spanish heart – and its record in international tournaments has been consistently one of promise and failure. Even Rafa Benítez was sacked during his time there, winning only twice in twenty-three starts as the team remained mired at the bottom of the league tables in the 1995-6 season.

Many Valladolidians, if that is the proper term, despite a loyalty to their city and their team, transferred their enthusiasm to Real Madrid, the team of Castile (and Franco), as a way of dulling the acute neurosis that comes from faithfully supporting a constantly losing cause. But by the time I was in Valladolid, Madrid was imploding. Zidane’s wonder goal against Bayern Leverkusen in the 2002 Champion’s League Final was but a distant memory. Even with the celebrated arrival of Fiorentino Perez’s great white hope, Beckham, the coming of an Aryan messiah to Castile initially did nothing to improve the team. Some Spanish reporters began to wonder if he was mentally challenged, judging by his random runs. Roberto Carlos’ free kicks flew further and further wide off the net. Zidane seemed mostly bored and angry. Ronaldo hungry and distracted. Raul predictably bad. Luis Figo’s Portuguese nihilism darkened as he received poor service from his midfield. Only Spanish keeper Ikor Cassillas maintained any level of dignity, playing with the stoicism of a soldier marshalling a gallant but futile last stand.

While Real Madrid faltered, a revived Barcelona had begun its ascent, led by the irrepressible Ronaldinho – a player passed over by Madrid President Forentino Perez for Beckham because he was deemed too ugly. While I watched as many Barcelona games as possible in various bars throughout Valladolid during the team’s remarkable run during the spring of 2004. (That season, Barcelona ended up second, just behind Valencia, and ahead of Madrid, who ended up fourth).

I never got to see what was, for me, Ronaldhino’s best play of the season. It was never broadcast. In March 2004, while filming a Nike ad in Santiago de Compostela, in front of the twelfth-century cathedral built around the sepulchre of Santiago Matamoros, the director asked Ronaldhino to demonstrate a scissor kick. Ronaldhino obliged. But his kick was so powerful, and so ill-placed, that it broke one of the windows in the cathedral – was it, perhaps, an assault by this smiling black devil on Spain’s avenging angel?

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