“Which way is Chueca?” asked a girl, American, about twenty with a pink streak in her hair and a shirt that proudly announced the Pope’s upcoming visit to Madrid. “I am B-O-R-E-D to D-E-A-T-H with these pilgrims.”
I pointed down the road.
“Are you going to the kiss in?”
I shook my head.
“I didn’t come all the way to Madrid just to pray.” With that she was off in the direction I had pointed her.
My first encounter with these pilgrims was a couple of days before in Valencia. They descended on the city from all around the world. There were flags from Brazil, Peru, South Korea, Cameroon and countless unknowns from the former Eastern Block. They filed through the park that sits in the dry bed of Valencia’s once formidable Turia River, invoking a twisted modern spin on Jesus’ fabled walk on water. It would have been an easier trick in times of widespread ecological disasters.
It was a coincidence that we were there. We had gone to the small town of Vinarós for a couple of weeks free from Madrid’s lackadaisical Spanish version of an urban bustle and we had to catch the Ave, the high speed train, back to Madrid from Valencia. We decided to spend a couple of days since I’d never seen the city.
The pilgrims were also on their way to Madrid. As the Pope soon would be. I knew the Pope was coming, but I honestly had no clue that his arrival would bring so much fanfare. 1.5 million were traveling to Madrid for the festivities. Mostly, they were energetic people under the age of 25 accompanying church groups from every imaginable outpost of the industrial and pre-industrial world. Valencia was just one of the many parking lots where the tailgaters met before the big game in the country’s capital.
The first group of pilgrims I encountered this Summer was the 15-M movement in Madrid. A peaceful movement begun by people resisting the rising homelessness resulting from the repossessions by banks of homes of those who were victim to the housing crisis. They camped out in Sol, Madrid’s central plaza, for six weeks in a shanty town of their own construction. There were kitchens which prepared meals for free, community yoga studios, planning and brainstorming locations used to plot out a more coherent vision for the future of their movement and for Spain. After six weeks the indignados, the name they gave themselves, voted to leave the plaza and walk to cities around Spain spreading their message, which was, impressively, one of hope almost more than one of anger. They gathered once more in the main plaza to celebrate their return and remind the media that their dispersal did not signify their disintegration.
Most of the indignados left the plaza after the reunion, but they left an information booth as a permanent brain center for their movement. The police tolerated their presence patiently, but with the Pope’s visit coming, and the world’s Catholic voyagers along with him, one group of pilgrims was going to have to take priority over the other.
The cops moved in early in the morning and peacefully removed the mob’s lingerers.
The Twitter-sphere exploded and the indignados returned en masse to occupy the plaza, but the police, in full riot gear, defended the plaza by filling it with vans and officers, and surrounding the perimeter with their plexi shields.
I live near Sol. With no air-conditioning in the steamy Madrid July, we sleep with the windows open. All night long the sounds of helicopters and distant shouts gave us goose bumps that resulted from something between fear and excitement. Fear of disorder. Excitement at the prospect that finally the system had overstepped its bounds and someone was speaking back. The morning after the conflict, we woke up at 6 and headed for the train station. We were leaving for our vacation in Vinarós, the one that led us back through Valencia and to our second set of pilgrims.
Even as I write, 15-M is gathering in Tirso de Molina, because Puerta del Sol has been cut off to them, to stage a protest that, if it is not aimed against, certainly stands in contrast too, the Pope’s pilgrims who are free to gather at the city’s center.
I’m a bit of a news junky. Even when spending days at the beach, disconnecting from projects and remembering that life outside of human drama exists, I sneak away to the bathroom down the hall of the pensión to read the New York Times and El Pais––Spain’s national paper––on my cell phone before my fiancé wakes up to remind me why we left the city.
This vacation met with a particularly strange dissonance between meditative afternoons sleeping on the beach after a big paella and pitcher of sangria, and each morning’s return to the daily global narrative: Double Dip. Under water. Eurozone crisis. Austerity. Debt ceiling. Social Security. Tax breaks. Violence in London. Violence in Philadelphia. Violence… pick your place. Rick Perry. Tea Party. What would FDR have done? What was Obama doing? Did Murdock know? According to El Pais, we’d be returning to a Madrid where the Metro was 50% more expensive and the prices of utilities would be higher, while wages, already much lower compared to cost of living than anywhere else in Western Europe, would remain low, and the social safety net, already much less impressive than those of Germany or France, would undergo a process of reevaluation and ultimately significant cuts at those two nation’s behest.
But, the Pope was coming. It wasn’t Mr. Marshall, but it would serve as a distraction.
An expensive distraction, estimated at over 50 million before security costs. The city center would be closed to traffic for a week. Pilgrims would have an 80% discount on the metro, cheap meals, and housing in, among other (read private) places, public schools, while taxpayers bore the brunt of the cost. There would be a lot of anger from those who take el estado laico––separation of church and state in our parlance––seriously.
Atocha train station was a madhouse Tuesday night at 11 when our train left us in Madrid. It was nearly impossible to get the metro. The density of flags and papal T-shirts was fifty times what it had been in Valencia. The young people were strange to me. I’ve been teaching 18 and 19 year olds for the past few years at community colleges and University’s in 3 different countries (Spain, China, US), but these were different. They weren’t disaffected, they weren’t cynical, they weren’t… drunk.
They were sweet-faced, naive, bright-eyed, global… They were singing while sober! They were filled with a religious frenzy. It was… somewhere between cute and annoying.
We thought it may just be the train station, but each stop was met with equally full platforms and happy, singing faces that would not be boarding our already stuffed metro car. Happy even as they were left behind, my God!!!
At the back of the pack were angry citizens who couldn’t get to, or home from, work. The fervor-filled, and the righteously embittered created a strange shared atmosphere that seemed almost like a snapshot of global politics. Though, I got the feeling that while the embittered side couldn’t ignore the fervor-filled, the opposite presented little challenge.
The streets of our neighborhood were no different. Packed with American priests leading acoustic sing-a-longs well after midnight, the regulars of the bars staring blank-faced and joyless at the absurd enthusiasm that was filling their street on a Tuesday night. Chinese, who usually sell beer on the street, stood by, confused at the prospect of neighborhoods filled with young people not buying their cheap beer. The schoolyard that sits beneath our living room window had been converted into a campground. The sounds of make-shift showering and silly-hearted giggling filled the night much like helicopters and angry shouting had two weeks before.
I missed the old pilgrims. The ones that had come to demand changes, rather than honor institutions. I was confused at how this new batch could come to this place, at this time and celebrate so whole-heartedly. Their whole-heartedness seemed heartless in light of the situation. It was sort of like being forced to go to a water park with a bunch of kindergartners on the day you were fired and divorced. In the capital of a country that is rife with unemployment (well over 20% and over 40% for young people), growing homelessness, political chaos, a place that is wretched with the fear of uncertain futures, the Pope’s visit, and the accompanying joyful mobs who literally displaced the protest movement speaking for the poor and traditionally disempowered, seemed like an irony too bright to stare at.
Most disturbing, the edge, the nervousness that accompanied that potential clash of the system against its components––the citizens against the institutions that often forget who they serve––had left the city at a time when the city, the world, needed it most. The church, at its best, can be a source of inspiration and change, but this felt like little more than a giant self-congratulation in a time of crisis.
An opiate indeed. But, then, there were those disaffected faces that couldn’t quite stomach this joy in the metro, this joy on the street.
I was brought up in Catholic schools. I even did an MA at a Catholic University in Spain. I’m not a practicing Catholic, but in so far as my consciousness is plagued by religion––and I mean that for better and worse––it is plagued by the Catholic form of it. But, the church that won’t let go of me is the one my high school teachers showed me at work in El Salvador. The church that kept the poor first and foremost and accepted self-sacrifice as central to the work of liberation. The church that would have stood with the homeless and unemployed, that would have walked with them to the furthest corners of Spain and beyond in pursuit of a greater equity. Not the church that would displace the displaced in order to enlarge its own pulpit.
All of this is premature, because the Pope hasn’t even arrived yet. Maybe he will come and speak about the responsibility citizens carry one to other. Maybe he will talk about the dangerous effects of unmitigated greed that are revising social contracts around the globe. Maybe he will even express some profound solidarity with the 15-M movement and the displaced that it represents. That would be the kind of church I might be able to look for faith in.
Then, I have to remember that as in all things we are the moderates who are forgotten in the shouting matches that rule our public spaces. There are more pink-streaked Catholics in the long line of bow-legged fence straddlers than it is convenient to acknowledge, and I’m sure that many of the revelers here would happily stand hand in hand with that first group of pilgrims from 15-M. I’ll look out for them when I head to Chueca for the kiss-in.