Sunday, October 20, 2013

Spain, Book 2

Spain, Book 2

Historia de España

Throughout my travels this past year, I have been very blessed in the fact that I have come across some of the kindest individuals in this world, who have selflessly shared with me their time, resources, and encouragement: From the Rodriguez family, who hosted me in their home for almost a month as I interned in Barcelona; to Giuliana and Erik, who had me over to their home in Berlin for home-cooked meals; to Steve and Maragrit, who gave me a personal, historical bike tour of Wannsee and grilled for me; to Eric and Marcel (and Fritzi, who made the introduction) who had me and my mother to their home; to Maestro Voronkov, who has given me tickets to some of the most exhilarating performances; to Miguel, who made sure to show me Europe as I had never seen it before (I mean, the Sacre Coeur in Paris is a pretty epic place to experience Easter!); to my friends – both new and old – who always seem to know my deepest times of need and encourage me; to my dear family and cousins, who have encouraged me in my job search; to complete strangers on the streets and on airplanes who say just the right words at just the right times. 

To be honest, I am quite humbled by all of the outpouring of love and attention these past few months – and I have no earthly idea how I can possibly repay everyone for everything they have provided me. Although this past year has been a whirlwind of adventure, excitement, and exploration, I will not lie: they have also been filled with a certain degree of anxiety for the future, loneliness, and uncertainty. Although I know that my future holds exciting things for me, I often forget this fact in the humdrum of everyday life. 

I mention this because one very special friend, Manuel, who has been of constant encouragement to me and my endeavors, is one of the individuals who gave me the second book I read about Spain, Historia de España, by Pierre Vilar [English translation: The History of Spain]. The book was given to me by my two closest co-workers from the Francisco Viñas Competition in Barcelona, Spain, when they discovered my blog.  This book, which was first written in 1946, was banned during the Franco years. It has since gained considerable influence and the version which I received was published in 2009 by the publisher Crítica. (One thing that I will mention is that the book is in Spanish and so the quotes are likewise in Spanish. For those non-Spanish speakers, I would suggest looking up translations via Google Translate.)

The first section of the book is entitled “El Medio Natural y los Orígenes del Hombre.” This section particular focuses on the geography of the Iberian Peninsula and how the geography of Spain has ensured that it had a singular history: close to the African continent, isolated from the rest of Europe by the Pyrenees and the ocean, and barriers to transportation within the country itself (i.e. no important river systems.) 

The second section of the book is entitled “Los Grandes Rasgos de la Historia Clásica: La Edad Media.” It focuses on the advancement of Islam on the continent, which started in the 8th century and exerted a considerable influence which lasted between 300 and 800 years depending upon the region. The author notes the importance of this era by saying, “En resumen, la Edad Media conoció un Islam español  lleno de vida y de originalidad, cuya riqueza, pensamiento y compejidad prepararon, no menos que la Reconquista Cristiana, las grandes realizaciones de la España futura.” (page 33) The following section subsequently focuses on the Reconquista, or the Reconquest, which lasted from the 700s (the first Islamic invasion) to the fall of Grenada in 1492. The author particular notes the importance of the Reconquest for the identity of Castilla, which was the only state to continue fighting the Moors after the 14th century. (It is also important to note that the Spanish that is most spoken today is Castilian Spanish – this kingdom really became the front runner of Spanish identity.)

The third section is entitled “Los Grandes Rasgos de la Historia Clásica: Los Tiempos Modernos,” which deals with the years from 1479 to 1598, in which Spain became united and created one of the largest empires the world had ever seen in the Americas. As the author notes, “Tres reinados y poco más de un siglo. Este tiempo bastó para proporcionar a España uno de los más brillantes triunfos que la historia conoce. Éxito demasiado rápido, ciertamente, para poder asegurar su solidez; y que será seguido de profunda decadencia. Pero esta época ha dejado a España el orgullo legítimo…” (page 59) In other words, during this short time, religious unity was achieved (albeit, through often horrifying means and forced assimilation), a modern state was created, and an empire was formed. It was too brief a time to achieve all of this solidly and Spain was pushed to its limits. 

The fourth section is entitled “Los Grandes Rasgos del Período Contemporáneo” and discuses Spain’s challenges in entering into the modern world. Although in these early eras, Spain was still quite diverse, “España afirmó su cohesion, su valor de grupo” (page 120) through the Napoleonic era and the War for Independence. This section also discusses the political and governmental changes that occurred in Spain throughout the 1800s – multiple constitutions, experimentations with a Republic , and the return to monarchy - as well as some of the social challenges in society. 

The fifth and final section is entitled “Las Crisis Contemporáneas” and discusses the events leading up to the rise of the dictatorship of Franco. In 1931, a Republic in Spain was reestablished, following the fall of the monarchy. The Republic, however, was short-lived, as Civil War broke out in 1936. The author notes that there were many problems with the Republic. Interestingly, “La Constitución fue creada sobre el modelo de la de Weimar, la más democrática en Europa… [con] sufragio universal, extendido a las mujeres y a los soldados.” (page 187) However, the new-found Republic lacked infrastructure: a decent school system, challenges with the place of religion in a modern society, the strength of the military, and the differences between different regions. As it was written during the era of Franco, the book then offers a brief analysis of the Franco regime and what it meant for the development of Spain. 

I found this book incredibly interesting because it provided me a sense of the diversity of Spain from a historical perspective, and then provided me with an understanding on how the country went about developing into a nation. It is a concise book and provides a very interesting and thought-provoking overview into a history about which I knew very little. Thank you Manuel and Silvia!

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

Spain, Book 1


Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through a Country’s Hidden Past

Learning the Spanish language was never an active choice in childhood or even in my teen years – it was always something thrust upon me. I took basic Spanish courses starting from kindergarten – learning the animals, numbers, colors, food, etc. We went at a very slow pace based solely on conversation (no writing, reading, grammar, etc.) Thus, when I took my first intensive Spanish course in my preteen years, I felt a bit overwhelmed by everything that I did not know. Understanding the effort I would need to put into a foreign language to gain a degree of fluency, I wanted to get out of Spanish and get into a language that I thought would be more “useful” to an opera singer, say, German or French.

But, I was unable to find myself off the hook in regard to Spanish – academic year after academic year. I thought that things might be different in college, but I was wrong. In fact, when enrolling for courses at Wofford College, the Registrar told me that I was not permitted to pick up a foreign language from scratch (German) unless I would continue with Spanish. Seeing my visible disappointment, he offered me consolation: news of a scholarship program that would send me to Chile during the January Term of my first year if I continued my language study. I do not know what I found so enthralling about this– in fact, I had hardly spent the night away from home without hating every second of it. (Thinking back on it, it was probably the teenage girl institution of the “slumber party” which I despised, rather than the actual spending the night away.) 

In order to be competitive for this scholarship, I began studying Spanish by myself for hours a day every day during the summer. Needless to say, I won the scholarship. And in fact, by the time my classes started, I was placed in a 300-level language course. Within months, I had gone from lukewarm feelings about Spanish (not even willing to order in Spanish at Mexican restaurants) to giving power point presentations in Spanish-language immersion classes. My nearly six weeks in Chile, in which I lived with a Chilean family (shout out to the best host family ever – Patricio, Jeannie, and my “hermanitos,” Felipe and Raimundo!) and took Spanish-language culture classes at a local university, I discovered the person I wanted to be: flexible to new ideas and situations, multi-lingual, knowledgeable about global affairs and social issues, and open to people of all cultures. Discovering this about myself in a Spanish language environment, Spanish had engrained itself as a part of my identity.

Continuing my Spanish language studies (both in courses, books, and articles) in the United States, I noticed one thing: Latin America is presented as the helpless victim and Spain presented as the powerful conqueror. Before I found myself in Spain in fall 2011 for a semester, I found that I had been fed through my studies a very one-dimensional and closed view of Spanish society – and the worst part, I didn’t even know it until I found myself surrounded by one of the most interesting and colorful cultures I have ever experienced. With this experience in mind, I wanted to find a book that would fill in the gaps of my knowledge of Spanish diversity. I eventually decided upon Giles Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through a Country’s Hidden Past

To me, one of the most important aspects to recognize about Spain is that it is not the one-dimensional country of conquistadors. It certainly is not this now – and arguably was not this in the past. Three other languages other than Spanish, which are native to region, are still widely spoken today. Catalan, which is spoken in the region of Cataluña on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea including the city of Barcelona, boasts over 7 million native speakers. Galician, which has about 3 million native speakers, is spoken in the northeastern sections of Spain. In the Basque region (near the border of France), the Basque language (Euskara) is spoken natively by over 700,000 people. The interesting fact about this particular language is that it is not a Romance language and subsequently not related to Castilian Spanish whatsoever – a remnant of the original inhabitants of the area.

Living in Spain in the fall of 2011, the diversity of Spanish culture was evident everywhere I turned: On September 11th, I celebrated with my friends out on the streets the National Day of Cataluña. (Interestingly, this day actually commemorates a very negative event from September 11, 1714, in which the Catalan forces were defeated by the Spanish forces in the War of Spanish Succession.) In the news, bull fighting had just been outlawed in Cataluña because it was not a native cultural tradition of the region and only attracted tourists to the shows, who had no interest in the traditions or the well-being of the bulls or the bullfighters. The terrorist group ETA, which had fought for Basque independence and separation since 1959 (under the Franco regime), had just declared a cease fire. Photographs of the terrorists, their faces masked by white sheets, covered the front pages of newspapers, as the people questioned if it could possibly be the end. I was very pleased with this book, because there was one chapter dedicated to each of the distinct cultures of Cataluña, Galicia, and the Basque region. The author brought up some very interesting points: 

  • Regarding the Catalans, the author shared the problem at hand regarding nationhood, and whether or not it is – or should be – based off of different linguistic or cultural traditions: “So what makes a nation a nation or a country a country? Does it have to be an independent state? Obviously not, if you think about Scotland… And what does it mean to be a country – or, if you want, a nation – inside another country? Catalans account of nearly one in six Spaniards. They are an essential part of the mix. It is a very Spanish conundrum.” (page 346)
  • Regarding the Galicians, the author questioned why Galicians are happy being Spaniards. Despite having a different language and culture, they have accepted their identity as Spaniards in ways that the other groups have not. “Two-thirds of Galicians have grown up with it as either the main or shared language of their household. Some 83 per cent speak it fluently. That compares to just 16 per cent of Basques who speak euskara as much as, or more than, castellano.” (page 377)
  • Regarding the Basques: “If Darwinian rules of selection apply to the survival of languages, Basque is not only fit but has found, in Spanish democracy, its healthiest habitat for centuries. The number of grown-up Basques who claimed they could speak or understand euskara rose from 33 per cent to 41 per cent over the decade up to 2001.” (page 321) I found it very interesting to see how democracy, in this case, provided safeguards for the continuance of a minority language and culture.

However, what I find most interesting about this book was its descriptions of Francosim, and particularly the actions – or lack thereof – of Spanish society to cope with the legacy of this fascist dictator. Franco came into power in Spain after a bloody Civil War, which lasted from 1936 to 1939. (Many of you might be familiar with Picasso’s famed Guernica, which portrays an attack on civilians from the Nazi Luftwaffe in order to provide support for General Franco.) Just like the leaders of fascist Germany (Hitler) and Italy (Mussolini), Franco ruled with authoritarian power and severely limited the rights of his people. However, he ruled until his death in 1975, after which he requested that the monarchy be restored under King Juan Carlos, under the assumption that the King would uphold his National Movement. 

Needless to say, that didn’t happen. “Within three years of Franco’s death in 1975, the king had not only buried the Movimiento Nacional principles that he had once sworn to uphold, he had buried the Moviminto altogether. By the end of 1978 Spain had become a democracy. Francoism was dead, the Movimiento had been dissolved and the voters were happily piling earth on the graves of both. It was a remarkable transformation. It saw Juan Carlo himself shed almost all his powers to become the largely, ornamental head of a constitutional, parliamentary monarchy. He is in that sense, Europe’s last true king – the last monarch to have had the powers of a ruler. No other living European monarch has enjoyed such power, or given it all up.” (page 89) However, it is important to mention that because of this peaceful change from dictatorship to monarchy to constitutional monarchy, that justice has never truly been granted to the Spanish people. The author notes that “Francoism never has been placed on trial (unless the varied judgments of historians count.) Silence was at the heart of Spain’s transition to democracy – enshrined in the pacto del olvido [The Pact of Forgetting.]” (page 81)

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Venezuela, Book 8

Venezuela, Book 8

Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music

When I was younger, many people referred to me as a “child prodigy.” I started playing the piano at age 3 - reading music before words. Throughout my preteen years, every local competition in which I entered, I won a prize. However, it was not the piano which made people think “prodigy,” but rather my singing. When I was seven years old, I started voice lessons from a graduate student of opera at Converse College (a music conservatory in Spartanburg which has been the home to many illustrious figures in the United States opera world – including composer Carlisle Floyd.) Growing weary of children’s musical theatre pieces, I asked for something more challenging and was given a religious piece in Latin. A few months later, I made my “debut” at a local church and was immediately asked to perform in many other places around the community. Long story short, I began taking from a full-fledged college professor several times a week. I tore through repertoire (in 6 languages, no less) almost quicker than it could be given to me. I performed in programs housed in concert halls with thousands of people watching me. I sang multiple gigs a month. Needless to say, I was never without spending money in my preteen years due to my status as a "freelance musician." (To be clear, I have always questioned the "prodigious" qualities of my musical ability. I just think that being a child living in a small U.S. town and more interested in soprano Renee Fleming than Britney Spears gave me this label, due to the unusual nature of it all.)

Looking back on these experiences, I find it amazing because they are so far removed from my thought process today. It is almost as if I had an identity crisis somewhere along the way and didn’t even recognize it when it was happening. As I look and apply for jobs, I have recognized that in none of these jobs would I be a performer or entertainer. That being said, it is impossible to separate myself from my experiences in classical music – and I recognize that I will never let go of my identity as a musician. I gained a great deal of confidence, stage presence, and poise through performances. But more than that, I learned a great deal of responsibility as I cared for my voice (no yelling at sporting events for me!), developed a strong work ethic (yes, I would practice hours a day), and discovered what it meant to actually earn something, instead of being given it by my parents. These are the benefits of a classical music education. In today’s world, there is no more popular classical education program than the Venezuelan El Sistema. After having read so many books based on political, economic, or historical topics, I wanted to find a book which particularly delved into this subject. I found one English-language book entitled Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music by Tricia Tunstall.

I have to admit, the title is a bit sensationalistic, borrowing off one of the “hottest commodities” in the classic music world today: Gustavo Dudamel. This world-renowned conductor has one of the busiest and exciting schedules for the 2013-14 season - performing the world over, particularly in the United States. In 2009, Dudamel became Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. He is also the most well-known product of El Sistema, an organization for which he is currently serving as Music Director of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. Rather than focusing on Dudamel, this book focuses most specifically on the formation of El Sistema and its founder, José Antonio Abreu, a retired economist.

El Sistema is a music education program and a state foundation of the Venezuelan government. It currently affects over 300,000 children in over 30 youth symphony orchestras across the country. The majority of the children in this program (many statistics say around 90% of the children involved) are living in poor conditions. El Sistema, which translates from Spanish to English as “The System” seeks to alleviate the challenges of poverty for these children by embedding in them a sense of self-esteem and a sense of community, by encouraging them to work together and reap the benefits of teamwork. El Sistema is truly unlike any other program in the world, as the author notes: “One of the great perennial debates in the field of art education has always been about access versus excellence – whether it is more important to extend arts education as widely as possible or to achieve a high level of artistic skill among a smaller elite. Abreu, it seems, has never subscribed to this dichotomy… ‘Culture for the poor must never be poor culture.’” (page 76) 

(For those wanting to learn more about El Sistema, I would suggest watching a special from the television program 60 Minutes, which provides some inspiring examples and success stories from the program. I would also suggest watching Abreu’s speech after winning the 2009 TED Prize.)

After having read so much about the political system in Venezuela, I made a lot of connections that were not mentioned in the book. In fact, I will mention that Hugo Chavez is not listed in the index, although there is one mention of him in the book: “His [Abreu’s] political and diplomatic acuity have enabled him to gain the backing and material support of seven consecutive Venezuelan governments, ranging across the political spectrum from center-right to the current leftist presidency of Hugo Chávez.” (page 84) Although this was only briefly touched on in the book, I feel as if it is worth emphasizing. Personally, I find the idea that such a program could survive so many regime changes to be remarkable. Indeed, it would take more than just good connections, but also a great deal of diplomacy and acumen. However, it does come at a price: El Sistema has changed under Chávez. In fact, the state foundation’s name was recently changed to Fundación Musical Simón Bolívar and its touring orchestra is now the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, supposedly to better connect with Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution. It seems as if Chávez utilized this foundation to gain positive publicity abroad.

One aspect that I also found fascinating was how the author (who is from the United States) chose to describe Abreu – the quotes she chose, the wording, etc. In fact, while I was reading the book, the descriptions of Abreu seemed quite similar to those of Hugo Chávez, when he is viewed in a positive light. They both had created powerful movements and were able to convince people (particularly of the lower socio-economic classes) to dedicate their time and energies to these movements. Both figures built these movements on themselves and relied on almost a supernatural, spiritual quality to grow them. Although there are examples throughout the book, two quotes particularly stood out to me that reiterate this supernatural quality of El Sistema, the latter being from Dudamel himself: 

  • "’From Abreu’s energy we could feel the message behind the music – the spiritual fountain from which it comes. And that was really what it was about, for us. To serve that spirit as we could in that moment.’” (page 66) 
  • Regarding Abreu: “’It is the Maestro. He is the soul of it – not only the creator, but also the soul. From the very beginning, he has had the capacity to know everyone’s needs, to take care of everyone… We are his sons and daughters; we have his blood in our veins.’” (page 89-90)

I am not saying that Abreu is a Chávez-like figure, but am trying to draw some connections between the two to emphasize an important point: Can El Sistema live without Abreu? In the past few months, it has become ever the more apparent that the Bolivarian Revolution does not have the strength, and arguably cannot survive, without Chávez as its leader. And, if we doubt that El Sistema can live without Abreu, can a system be developed that will ensure its continuation and growth in the future? 

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

Friday, October 18, 2013



Maldives: Kingdom of a Thousand Isles

The power of the force and pressure of water has been something that has frightened me ever since I was a little girl. This fear is not based in my swimming ability (or lack thereof.) I started swimming when I was a little girl and actually find swimming laps very therapeutic, albeit, I do not go swimming often. Likewise, my fear does not stop me from swimming in pools, ponds, lakes, oceans, etc. In fact, I consider my distrust of water a very healthy fear – one that is based in the fear of the power of nature.
I was born in the great state of Alaska, on account of the adventurous natures of my parents. They truly made the most out of their 4-year Alaskan experience: living in a log cabin, owning a purebred husky, frequent camping, getting chased by a moose, encountering a grizzly out in the wild, taking care of their landowner’s herd of sheep during summer vacation (and yes, they got out – apparently, it is hard to round sheep up if they get out of a pen), surviving 24 hour-light summers and 24 hour-dark winters, attending a birthing party at “the shack” (and yes, a baby human was born in the midst of the festivities), losing control of the car and plunging off the side of a cliff (according to my parents and another friend/witness in the car, “not quite a Thelma-and-Louise, but close”), etc. Although I loved these adventure stories, my parents were always careful to warn me of the risks associated with adventure.  After their years in Alaska, my parents came to the opinion that nature is a hypnotizingly beautiful, yet destructive, force.
Every year, my parents had friends and acquaintances that were killed in accidents – plane going down in the wilderness, car driving off the side of a remote icy road, boat being capsized by a glacier river, etc. The families of these victims were lucky if a body could even be recovered – most simply disappeared for good or, at least, until the snow thawed.
Nonetheless, I have never been one much for “nature tourism” – taking a trip solely for the purpose of hiking, biking, scuba-diving, skiing, etc.  I mention this one fact to introduce the book I read on the Maldives. Now, many of my readers may not know of the Maldives. This country (which is a member of the United Nations) is the smallest country in Asia – both land-wise, and population-wise. This country, which is located in the middle of the Indian sea, consists of “more than 1,000 islands together with innumerable banks and reefs, [and] are grouped in a chain of 19 atolls.” (page 10) As my geography skills are lacking a bit, I did not know what an “atoll” was before I read this book. The theory of atoll formation was actually by Charles Darwin: “Darwin’s revolutionary view was that an atoll is not the coral encrusted rim of a volcanic crater, as had been thought, but is formed when a small volcanic island, or tip of a mountain peak, gradually subsides into the sea.” (page 30.) I am including a photograph I found on Wikipedia of an atoll or often-called “lagoon island”, to give my readers a better understanding.
Needless to say, these lagoon islands and their coral attract a great deal of tourism to the Maldives. Tourism, in fact, accounts for more than 25% of the GDP, which is not a stabilizing factor to the economy of the Maldives. Following the destruction from the 2004 tsunami, the GDP of the country contracted 3.6% in 2005.
A consequence of the popularity of the tourism industry in the Maldives was that it was nearly impossible for me to find an academic book about the country, which has a population of less than 340,000 people.) Instead, I had to purchase a tour book, Maldives: Kingdom of a Thousand Isles by Andrew Forbes, published by Odyssey Guides. Although I did not like doing this (at all), I was comforted by the fact the author was quite educated, and actually held a Central Asian History. As a scholar, he has interspersed the typical information in a guide book with excerpts from published academic articles which he had written about the Maldives. These articles provide a much stronger insight into this country’s society and history and include such topics as: Africa and the Maldives in an article originally published in the Journal of the Kenya Museum Society; Archaeology and Artifacts in the Maldives in an article published in the Far Eastern Economic Review; and Black Magic in the Maldives Worldview in The Asian Wall Street Journal.
Although the book does not delve into the history of the island, it is clear that the island nation had a different course of history than many of the other countries in South Asia, particularly when it comes to colonialism. “European influence has been slight. The Portuguese occupied Malé [the capital, as well as the most populous island of the Maldives’ in 1558. Intolerance and cruelty marked their rule, and the Maldivians responded with guerilla warfare… After the Portuguese debacle the isolated Sultanate was left alone by the European powers until 1877, when the Maldives became a British Protectorate. Under the terms of this agreement Britain assumed responsibility for external affairs, but the country remained internally self-governing.” (page 14) Described by the author as an “imperial afterthought,” the Maldives gained its independence in 1965.
Some other interesting facts about the Maldives include:
  • The importance of religion to the Maldives. For many years, and even after the nation’s independence, the Maldives were actually a Sultanate. Within three years of independence, a republic was created, however, religion still plays a very important role: “Maldivians are staunchly Muslim, and have a strong sense of their cultural and national identity.” (page 11) I likewise found it interesting that based on religion, the “Maldivians are not allowed by law to sell alcohol, even to tourists in hotel resort bars. (The government employs Sri Lankans, Indians and Bangladeshis to work as bar staff.)” (page 27)
  • The author notes that “Today it is necessary to be a Sunni, Shafi’i Muslim to be a Maldivian citizen.” (page 72) I found this citizenship definition particularly interesting after I learned of the recent government human right violations in the past few years and the subsequent global controversy. 
  • Historically, the Maldives had ties to many areas of the world and in fact “Maldivian cowries continued to be used as currency in parts of eastern Africa until as recently as 1921.” (page 62) After so many years of economics courses (with the topic of currency frequently discussed), I thought that this fact was extremely interesting – and imagined how scarce a resource these Maldivian shells must have seemed to the Africans who used them as currency.
Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!