Trapped in the clichés of Spain

The crisis in Catalonia has demonstrated that the Iberian stereotypes persist in foreign media outlets

Andrea Aguilar
Goya’s ‘El perro,’ from the Prado Museum collection.
Goya’s ‘El perro,’ from the Prado Museum collection.Getty

If the best point of view to reflect on life is to already be dead, to say something intelligent about Spain, perhaps the best thing to be is foreign. That was the provocative contention of the publisher and writer Manuel Arroyo several days ago at the Students Residence in Madrid. Founder of the Turner publishing house, Arroyo brought together historical tales of journeys through Spain. For example, those of the English aristocrat Richard Ford, who journeyed throughout the country in the 19th century on a pony disguised as a peasant farmer, and who, together with his compatriot George Barrow – a legendary deliverer of protestant Bibles throughout the Iberian Peninsular – is to a great extent responsible for the clichéd image of Spain that has taken root in the Anglo Saxon world. Arroyo explained his interest in what Hispanists and Hispanophiles have written alluding to the fact that “what others think is as important as the truth.”

In the portrait that is made of democratic Spain, the Francoist legacy that many stories in the international press have underlined while covering the Catalan crisis is a controversial point. That was what Antonio Muñoz Molina was referring to in his opinion piece entitled ‘In Francoland’ published in EL PAÍS. “In academic circles there is a certain compulsion to continue to understand Spain in relation to Francoism, in place of analyzing other forces and economic and European trends,” argues Eli Evans, the author of a wide-ranging analysis published by N+1 magazine, which focuses on thinking and culture. His links to Spain began in the 1990s, he studied Hispanic Philology in the United States and he has traveled all over the country. “As a member state of the EU, Spain is embedded within a network that goes much further than the shadow of its past.”

As a member state of the EU, Spain is embedded within a network that goes much further than the shadow of its past
Eli Evans, writer 

However, the most direct reference point for the Anglo Saxon world continues to be the Civil War. While people may be interested in Spanish current affairs, they are not familiar with the country’s Transition to democracy after the death of Franco, nor with the current system of autonomous regions. Spain did not take part in World War II, which brought the Americans closer to Europe, nor did it form part of the Marshall Plan, nor is it geographically close by. “The image of Spain in the US is a complex issue, one that changes according to the time and political context,” says Soledad Fox Maura, a professor at Williams College and the author of a biography about Constancia de la Mora, the head of the foreign press office during the Republic. “Hemingway went so far to say that Madrid was the capital of the world, and many agreed with him. Madrid, and more recently Barcelona, are highly valued destinations by US students. There is no rejection of Spain and interest in studying the language, literature and culture is on the rise.” Fox points out that scientific exchanges on all levels should be strengthened, to increase the number of specialists in Spain beyond hispanism. That, she states, would favor the development of a more complete vision.

How do they see us today from outside? Obviously, it all depends on where we are being viewed from, but what’s clear is that in general terms, we are not that visible. The international focus in terms of news has moved from 9/11 to the Islamic terrorist threat, and the politics of the US continues to play a dominant role compared to Europe. That said, the most common vision of Spain is as a vacation destination, with quaint traditions (bullfighting, flamenco), excellent food, regional diversity and a wide range of cultural heritage – not to mention having one of the most important soccer leagues. And no stereotype of modern Spain has as much of a draw in the collective international imagination as the movies of Pedro Almodóvar: if you are a Spanish woman abroad the comparisons with one of the characters or situations from one of the Oscar-winning director’s films will be almost automatic. Even in The Guardian Natalie Nougayrède described what has been happening over the last month in Catalonia as being a hybrid of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Tie me Up, Tie me Down, before making it clear that the situation was a lot more serious.

The amiable and sunny portrait that international publications usually resort to has been ripped up this fall. In fact the first crack arrived with news about the economic crisis that was strangling Spain barely two years ago, and whose effects continue today. Since 2010 the international media have echoed the unemployment figures and photos of street disturbances (in March 2012 images of street violence in Barcelona opened the print edition of The New York Times, a newspaper that also published a controversial black-and-white image of a man in Spain rooting through a trash container for food). That left buried other news stories that could have had greater resonance in the international media, such as the dismantling of Basque terrorist group ETA, or the resistance of the country’s doctors to the privatization of healthcare, at the same time that the fight to save Obamacare in the US was ramping up.

The most direct reference point for the Anglo Saxon world continues to be the Civil War. They are not familiar with the country’s Transition to democracy after the death of Franco, nor with the system of autonomous regions

This last month, the news about the Catalan crisis has almost always ignored what happened during the regional parliament sessions that took place on September 6 and 7. The October 1 referendum on independence is time and again presented as illegal “according to the Spanish government,” without pointing to the fact that it was approved in the Catalan regional chamber with a simple majority of 70 votes in favor, and not with two-thirds of the votes, as the law requires. The supposed objectivity that comes with that “according to” is not in accordance with the true facts, and brings up a long-standing controversy about how an objective new story should be reported, something that has been debated in recent times by the US press at a time when it is examining its own conscience over its role in the victory of Donald Trump a year ago.

Beyond this controversy over journalistic norms, what is true is that no matter how interesting international commentators may find the intellectual debate regarding sovereignty and democracy, there are nearly 45 million Spaniards for whom this is much more than just a theoretical matter. Is it legal or illegal? Why does the foreign press not spell this out?

The division among Catalan society has also not received a lot of attention in the headlines outside of Spain. “A 90% of yes votes in the referendum is an easy figure to cite, even if it is a majority behind which a minority is hiding in terms of the total census,” says journalist Jonathan Blitzer, who covered the Spanish financial crisis for a number of different media outlets and is currently a staff writer at The New Yorker.

Another issue that appears to have been largely ignored in international news stories is the pact between the far-left anti-capitalist CUP party, the Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCat) and Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) that allowed for the formation of the now-dissolved Catalan government. In this case there has been no resorting to any simile that relates the difficulties of a political trio with the tempestuous love triangle that Woody Allen portrayed in his move Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona. “What is happening in Catalonia doesn’t fit within the neat scheme of right versus left, which means that the alliance of the conservatives of PDeCat with the anti-establishment CUP has, in some way, been left out of the story,” explains Evans. “It’s complicated to explain that union between a party that imposed harsh cuts with another that holds a diametrically opposed position.” As that Francoist slogan used to attract tourism said, “Spain is different” – or at least peculiar.

No stereotype of modern Spain has as much of a draw in the collective international imagination as the movies of Pedro Almodóvar

Again and again it has been repeated over the last few weeks that the pro-independence forces have won the “narrative” of the Catalan crisis. That’s to say, that this version has been widely disseminated. Félix Ovejero, a university professor and instigator of the center-right political party Ciudadanos (which is opposed to Catalan independence), equates what has happened to what is known in economics as the “anchor effect”: “You manage to plant a number – or in this case an idea – and from there the variations are marginal. Clichés are very difficult to correct.” He says that in Catalonia the pro-secession movement has been changed in the eyes of the public into “something more akin to Palestine than the Italian Northern League.” But in this respect, Nitzan Horowitz wrote a resounding article in the Israeli daily Haaretz headlined “Stop comparing Catalonia to Palestine.”

The picture that has been painted abroad is of a community that is seeking its independence, an easy formula that leaves aside the terrible errors of calculation that this bid bring with it,” says Evans. “The response that the international public gets to the question of why Catalonia wants independence is that Spain is oppressing them, and the images from October 1 reinforced that. Important nuances such as the relationship between the economic crisis and the constitutional challenge that the promise of independence supposes have been mostly left out of published articles; or the fragility of the governments, both the Spanish and Catalan. What’s more the system of autonomous regions is bewildering for a large part of the public, given that it is something that they have never heard of. For many what has happened has been a revelation: Spain is much more complicated than they thought.”

What is true is that a flick through the news stories about the independence process that have been published this month in international media confirm that in many cases confirms that old law of news that each one tailors the information to their territory. For example, in the Japan Times they have focused on the silence of Tokyo in the face of the pro-independence plans and the lack of tourist cancellations to Spain, while in The Hindu the headlines have been dominated by the civil disobedience encouraged by the regional government. Jonathan Blitzer points to the resonance that the October 1 police charges had in the United States: “The issue of police violence is very fresh and fiery. The images of the police charging against voters is a harsh blow for the anti-separatist cause. They are making the Spanish government look like an aggressor and distracting international spectators from the substantial problem that the referendum poses.” Researchers at the Elcano Royal Institute have stated that the police charges were “an unmitigated disaster.” Studies that were carried out before October 1 showed that in Europe, the majority of citizens did not approve of independence in Catalonia. Now a study is being prepared that will measure the effect that the police actions had on international opinion.

Correspondents in Spain have unanimously pointed to the impenetrability of the central government in terms of dealing with the situation and plans in Catalonia. Helene Zuber, a veteran correspondent from weekly publication Der Spiegel and who has spent 32 years covering Spanish current affairs, points to the contrast between that attitude and that of the regional government. “The Spanish government has to a large extent lost the narrative because to tell these things well there is a need for access, for sources to provide information. If you don’t give us news, we have to find it on the other side, meaning that point of view will get more coverage. Practically all of the media outlets in Germany, including small local TV stations, have had access to Puigdemont,” she explains.

Each story that Zuber has published in the last couple of years on the Catalan issue has generated an energetic response on the part of the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia (Diplocat). Without going into the secessionist aspirations, the idea that a prosperous region is calling for a better distribution of wealth to not finance others that are more disadvantaged is not supported by German taxpayers, Zuber explains, given that in her country, since reunification, citizens in the West have been paying a solidarity tax to help the East grow – something that allows Berlin not to declare itself in bankruptcy, for example – and the fact that they are net contributors to the European Union. “However, it its difficult to counter the grey narrative of the law to the images from last weekend of half-a-million people protesting for freedom and Puigdemont talking about a coup d’etat. Rajoy has been too confident that the use of the law was enough.”

Historically, news and opinion from abroad about Spain has played an important role. William Lyon remembers how the correspondents from Time magazine worked during the Transition. They would send a long text that would be rewritten in New York adding more information and sources, before being edited and sent back to the correspondent. Journalism was different and there were no accelerated social networks. The profession has changed: the speed, dwindling resources and the voracious appetite for news has a lot to do with that. “Many journalists who do not know the history, or even Spain, have written short stories for the internet simply looking for people who speak English,” Zuber explains. “They are trying to capture sensations, something that is within the current fashion of narrating a story based on feelings.”

News stories today are as highly sensitive and explosive as emotions, that’s true, but it is always uncomfortable to be portrayed. Journalist Alexander Stille reflects on this in the coda of The Force of Things, a memoir of his family. “The writer takes something that belongs to a number of people, appropriates it, and converts it into something that inevitably turns out to be alien and mistaken for those who have lived through those events, but in another skin, and that have the same rights over the same material,” he says. “We all develop a concept of the world and the place we occupy, we develop our narrative, and then when someone arrives with their own narrative – especially if it is published and becomes to an extent the official version – it is incredibly destabilizing, like an earth tremor under your feet, which increase instability.”

This is something that many Spaniards have felt. From a young professional based in New York for two decades who has been overwhelmed by mails from American colleagues who have been asking him for clarification on what is happening, to a young businessman educated in the United Kingdom and with a large export network abroad. Given the stories that he was reading in the Anglo Saxon press, he eventually opted to anticipate the questions he was receiving by automatically including in his messages to clients a paragraph that explained the Catalan crisis, underlining that the referendum was illegal under the very laws that govern the Catalan parliament. He also clarified that the Civil Guard is a force that was created in the 19th century, and is modeled on the French gendarmes.

Fierté or self-love is the trait that the writer, translator and member of the French academy, Florence Delay, believes to be the most characteristic of Spain. Author of the book Puerta de España, which Manuel Arroyo was presenting at the Students Residence, Delay emphasizes that she speaks in her classes about Spain in a universal manner, not a peninsular one. “It could be that passions are stronger here, or at least I see it like this because I am French,” she explains. And what is the most-common error among those who analyze what is happening here or what has happened? She answers that it is their emphasis on ideas and lack of interest in common sense. “They are more concerned with Don Quixote than Sancho.”

English version by Simon Hunter.

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