We had not anticipated encountering such an outpouring of love and affection when we rounded a corner in search of tapas and wine.
It had already been a very full day, what with a bus trip to Segovia, a visit with new friends there, a tour of a castle (why do all tour guides in Europe proclaim that their’s was the one that inspired Disney?), a visit to a couple of different churches, and lots of stories about history.
We had not read the newspaper, and thus did not know that the former Deputy Prime Minister of Spain had passed unexpectedly after suffering a massive stroke earlier in the week.
The people, they came out in droves, pressing in on all corners, hoping to pay their respects to the beloved educator and government official, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba. I have heard it said that other cultures have such respect for their educators but rarely have I seen that played out the way I’ve witnessed it here this week.
Everywhere a person goes in Madrid there is evidence of appreciation for the educated. Bookstores abound. It is not uncommon to see young men and women carrying a book in hand as they cross a street or round a corner. Books are on display in hotels as works of art. Literary quotes are blown up and hang over bars. Bars brag about having been favored by James Joyce or Pablo Neruda, even one that bragged that it might be the only place in town Hemingway didn’t eat at.
The coarseness of culture that has overtaken the US seems absent here.
Even among the pressing crowds, there is a certain dignity of humankind that permeates. That is not to say that Madrid’s citizenry doesn’t express themselves, that they aren’t vocal. When Pedro Sanchez, Spain’s Prime Minister, arrived late to the Congress of Deputies, many in the crowd booed their displeasure. Had they thought it disrespectful of the Prime Minister to not be there as Rubalcaba’s body was carried in?
There is a rise in right-wing hard-liners in Spain, our new friends had told us earlier that day. We’d met these friends in a coffee shop on the main avenue in Segovia, just moments after we’d walked under the historic and magnificent Aqueduct.
These new friends had welcomed us to their city with warm hugs and many kisses. Years ago, she had taught with a neighbor of mine in Oregon. When he heard I was going to Segovia, he hooked us up.
The generous couple invited us up to their apartment, where, yes, there was one whole wall lined with books. The other wall displayed her husband’s artwork. They’d met in California some 40-plus years ago. He, the Spanish intellectual in search of a career in film, and she, the American intellectual, seeking a career as an educator. Ever since, they have spent their lives traveling back and forth between his people in Spain and her people in California, because it used to be that we regarded such a union as the most romantic, not as something to be looked upon with suspicion.
But that was before the rise of the right-wingers.
He voted for the first time in his life last week, he told us.
He is 70 years old and had never voted before because he figured how he voted did not really matter.
A lot of people in the US feel that way – that their votes don’t matter. It’s a self-defeating mindset, of course. If you adopt the position that your vote doesn’t matter and, thus, you don’t vote, then you fulfill your fears- you vote doesn’t count… for anything good.
Inside the Alcazar there is a fresco. It was not around during the time when King Ferdinand III or Queen Isabella called the cold stone fortress “home”, but it does depict the Queen and her court.
The painting is political in what is left out, not by what is put in.
The artist left the eyes of the people blank. All but the youngest child is blind.
I thought that was such great commentary on what is happening in our own country, as the tyrant in charge moves us all headlong towards disaster. The lives of children the world over at the mercy of a man who thrives on power but is sorely lacking in knowledge, or intellect,or any of the many graces Spanish people thrive upon.
We, here in America, have a blind man leading the blind, while those of us who can see, look upon in horror and almost paralyzing shock.
The fool thinks he is building the US into a mighty fortress, but he fails to see that the danger he fears lies within the walls he’s building.
While a world of grace and beauty lies beyond them.
Our new friend in Segovia told us that the reason he voted for the first time at age 70 is because he finally understood that “a progressive who doesn’t vote is casting their vote for the right-wing party.”
In Spain the rise of the right-wing party is known as VOX. They mirror the FOX cult that follows Trump. They are homophobic. They are racist. They are fervently anti-abortion. And, thankfully, because of the educated masses, who recognize the danger they pose, VOX are in the minority in Spain. So far.
Fundamentalism and misogyny exists in all corners of the world. Queen Isabella knew something about all that. A strong-minded and powerful woman, she used her voice to speak out. She refused to marry for the sake of marrying. She flat out told her father, the King, uh-uh, no-way. She was determined to have a say in who she’d marry and how the kingdom was run. And weren’t no man smart enough, or godly enough, to be the boss of her. (I can only imagine what Queen Isabella would do to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp if she were around).
Queen Isabella was a woman of prayer. She reportedly prayed one suitor to his death. (I’m borrowing from her prayer journal in that regard, begging God to put a stop to a certain someone).
The people carried roses clasped to their chest, as if in embrace of Rubalcaba himself.
He was beloved among the masses because he was a learned man, a man who understood the need for facts. It was Rubalcaba who upon first winning a seat in Spain’s Congress had declared: “Spanish citizens deserve a government that doesn’t lie to them.”
At the very least, isn’t this what people the world over deserve?
A government that doesn’t lie to us?
Rubalcaba made those remarks because of the false and dangerously misleading report that the 2004 Atocha train bombings had been carried out by a Basque terrorist group, when in fact, it had been an Al-Qaeda inspired terrorist group. The bombings which killed 193 people in Madrid and wounded another 2,000, were carried out just days before the 2004 election. The intent was to keep voters away from the polls.
Perhaps because he was an educator first and foremost, and a politician second, Rubalcaba was beloved among the people. That’s why they pressed in, waiting for the moment he arrived for the very last time in Congress, carried in a coffin.
He left politics in 2014, as he saw the beginnings of the rising tide of religious-driven fanaticism. He returned to work on the front-lines – in the classroom – where he continued to challenge students to think critically, to seek not just the truth but the facts underlying those truths.
In one of his last interviews about his time in public office, Rubalcaba lamented that “politics is more hostile than ever, but not so much due to its proponents or external factors, but due to its own inbreeding and self-destructive mechanisms. It’s dog-eat-dog.”
He held lots of titles in his lifetime but the most important one may have been left off – that of prophet. But then again, that’s such a difficult role to master, especially if you aren’t sure anyone is listening.
The world was a better place when instead of walls, we built windows from which we could see the other side, and the other person.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of BURDY (Mercer University Press).