The Intercity from Valencia to Madrid moved noiselessly past uninterrupted, shiny green stretches of orange groves made brighter still by the threadbare brown hills in the distance. Although we had left Valencia’s train station just a few minutes ago, a uniformed attendant had already wheeled through the narrow aisle of this second class car with free newspapers, complimentary drinks, and a headset for the movie to be shown momentarily on the overhead screens. Everything about this ride was so uniquely Spanish–man ners, style, countryside, the station we had just departed–that I could not mistake it for an anonymous passage of time aboard just any train. I was in Spain. Sitting back, sipping my Agua de Mondariz, my eye slowly wandered through the train car as my mind traveled back along other tracks laid down 40 years ago when I made my last trip on this train.
Most of the daytime passengers are still women. Unlike then, few are dressed in black. Most are middle aged and wear modern, though not stylish clothing. Sitting across from me however was a 20 something chavala (young woman), her right hand noisily dipping into a bag of potato chips, her head rolling from side to side, her mouth emphatically mouthing the words of a song she’s listening to on a CD player, her mauve-colored leather panted legs and black booted feet rhythmically keeping time to its beat. I am mesmerized by her appearance and behavior, both so at odds with the other women in the train and with my own memories of Spain and Spanish woman of my generation. Watching her, there is something in her manner that wants to reveal an essential truth to me about this moment and this place.
Seeing her and staring at her, it is hard for me to remember now, that when I was her age and lived here 40 years ago, Spain was still governed by Europe’s only remaining Fascist leader, Francisco Franco; that political life was monolithic, and that freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and association were not permitted. Breathtakingly in these past 40 years, Spain transformed itself into a parliamentary democracy. It traded a single-party, centralized state for a federated grouping of strong regional autonomous states with a still functioning center. Its constitutional government and young democratic king avoided political and social disintegration, became strong advocates for a United Europe, and a strategic partner for the then newly emerging democratic governments of Latin America. Spain did not become Yugoslavia, although it easily could have split into Basque, Catalan, and Galician nations. None of this would have been possible without the remarkable transformation, emancipation and participation of Spanish women in this process.
My epiphany ended suddenly. The chavala leaned across the aisle and slammed me with the verbal equivalent of a Mike Tyson right hand as she furiously, succinctly, bluntly, and loudly told me to stop staring at her. (A que miras, viejo verde/What are you looking at you Dirty Old Man?)
And so began my first trip back to Spain since my University days; a trip intended to explore and write about Spain’s immigration policies, but which had a new reality imposed on it by the force of every day living in Madrid and Valencia–the pivotal role of Spanish women in the reordering and restructuring of Spanish society. This is one of those women.
. I should have known that Rocio, my oldest daughter’s closest friend, would not arrive by car, taxi, or foot. Riding her 800cc. flame red Ducati the wrong way up a one-way street, the last 20 or so meters on the sidewalk, she skidded to a stop in front of the Continental Hotel where I had been waiting for her. She is 25. Franco’s dictadura had already turned blanda
(soft) when she was born. She is a classic belleza andaluza–olive-colored skin, dark eyes, long, thick, henna-accented hair. These features were set off by lips colored a deep crimson red-with an easy smile, a quick and nimble way with words, and a keen awareness of the world around her, at home and abroad. She speaks American English luently having lived in
our New York home as a high school exchange student. Her work as a full-time radio journalist brings her into daily contact with the male world of the past. All her colleagues at the station are men, most married and most 45 years old or older. Yet except for respecting the station’s hierarchies–she is the youngest and least experienced worker–within this clubby men’s precinct, Rocio tells me that her workaday life is free of sexual innuendo and disparaging comments. She tells me this as I cling to her on the back of the Ducati
winding our way to the City’s Bull Ring through the rabbit warren of streets that is
Valencia’s medieval Michelet district. We were headed for a midnight con
cert. Ketama, a fusion flamenco/rock band is playing at the Bull Ring tonight. She tells me that unlike her mother and older sister, she has none of their concerns about
niñas buenas (good girls) or niñas malas
(bad girls). She goes out clubbing, eating, or just hangeando and she does not
carry the burden of her sex or her family honor. She smokes. She travels by herself, and if like tonight she arrives home at 4:00 in the morning at her parents’ apart ment where she still lives with her youngest sister, no one is up waiting to scold or berate her. Rocio is free to come and go as she pleases. Supper the next evening reveals another side of Rocio. This lively, free spirit demonstrates a reverence and obedience to her parents that is also as natural as her independence. There is no sense of the rebel in her as she passes the
merluza (hake), pours a third glass of tinto (red wine) for us, and clears
the dishes, allowing her father and I to talk while she continues to straighten up with her mother and sister in the kitchen.
Without Rocio and thousands of women like her, Spain today would still be
el garbanzo negro (the black chickpea) of Europe, cut off from the rest of the continent by the Pyrenees