Perspective from abroad: Demistifying a foreign land

Semana Santa, or Holy Week, processions in Granada, Spain. The religious festivities take place during Easter week and are an example of the countries Catholic ties, which are strong but less intense than Miller expected. (Anna & Michal/Flickr)

Every morning when I walk to class, I pass by some graffiti that reads, in English, “Spain is not Spain.” I may or may not understand that statement now more than I did the first time I saw it.

No singular experience can represent every existing one within a community or a nation. That’s a pretty obvious and fairly trite statement, but I don’t think that makes writing it any less worthwhile. We all need a reminder every now and then.

The fact is, it’s difficult to write anything substantial about a country or even simply about my perceptions of a country without generalizing at least a little or making small assumptions here and there.

I’ve been in Spain for almost a month and every day I realize just how unaware I am about something that happened the day before. Regarding Spanish life and culture, there will always be things that I’m clueless about.

Sometimes, I’m especially mystified about something when my vague stereotypes are confirmed by one or two people. The more I learn the more I become aware of my ignorant assumptions.

One such assumption I’ve made is about the Gitanos, or the Gypsies, in Granada, Spain. After hearing from various people that the Gitanos are poor, lazy and dirty, and then being approached by a number of Gitanos selling flowers and rosemary sprigs, I got the notion that all Gitanos are ostracized and segregated from Spain’s formal economy and society.

I recently learned that, although Gitanos are fairly well-ostracized and face many cultural and economic barriers, some of them do in fact choose to integrate. At least several of the professors at the university where I’m studying are Gitanos.

I’m trying to be more aware of the stereotypes and preconceived notions I have of Spain and its people so I don’t mistakenly confirm my assumptions again.

Another such assumption I had about Spain was that it is a very, very Catholic country. When I stepped into my host mother's apartment for the first time, I felt that assumption was confirmed.

My señora has shelves and tables covered with religious icons and imagery. Every weeknight at 8 p.m., she goes to evening services at her church. On my first Sunday morning with her, we watched a few television priests and the pope give their Sunday sermons before heading off to our own mass.

It was at mass where I realized that perhaps my host mother is a little more religious than your average Spaniard. The church was only about a third full, and I was the only member of the congregation younger than fifty. She is among a handful of the faithful who attend services every weeknight.

As it turns out, ever since Franco’s dictatorship ended and Catholicism ceased to be the official state religion, Spain hasn’t been all that Catholic. According to a 2014 study by the Spanish Centre for Sociological Research, only 68 percent of Spaniards identify as Catholic, and only 14 percent of those Catholics go to church at least once a week.

Culturally, while Spaniards still love a good religious festival, Spanish society is becoming less traditional and more progressive.

Divorce was legalized in 1981, and a 2005 law made it easier for married couples to divorce by eliminating a mandatory waiting period for physical separation. In 2010, according to the official statistical office of the European Union, Spain’s divorce rate was 61 percent, higher than the United States’ 53 percent in 2011.

Spain legalized marriage between same-sex partners in 2005, 10 years earlier than the United States. Although Spain’s conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has stated a personal opposition to same-sex marriage, he has respected the Constitutional Court’s decision to uphold the law that legalized it.

The country is also more progressive than I first expected it to be when it comes to reproductive rights and habits. Abortions were first legalized in cases of rape or physical danger to the mother or child in 1985, and, to my understanding it, is now completely legal in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy and up to the 22nd week of pregnancy in cases of fetal deformities.

All these fun facts add up to show that, as is the case with almost every other country, there is more than one Spain to discover and to understand.


Molly Miller is a staff writer for The Daily Campus currently studying abroad in Granada, Spain. She can be reached via email at molly.miller@uconn.edu.