Semana Santa in Spain

Like Greece, Spain went through a period of punishing austerity in the wake of the 2011 Eurozone crisis. Like Greece, the weight of adjustment was shifted heavily onto the shoulders of young people. Like Greece, this has given rise to an extraordinarily high rate of youth unemployment and disaffection among young people. Like Greece, this has motivated the rise of a new, grassroots party of the radical left — Podemos (Spanish for ‘We can’). But unlike Greece, Spain has emerged from recession.

The country will head to the polls later this year, and the conservative government will hope that the economic momentum will suffice to return it to power. It will be close. Podemos is nipping at its heels, and there is general disaffection with politics — on the right, the Ciudadanos, or Citizens’ Party, has arisen to offer an anti-establishment politics with a pro-European bent. Both the upstart parties did well in the March Andalusian elections. In Greece’s standoff with the rest of Europe, there is undoubtedly a subtext of trying to offer as little as possible to the Syriza government, so as to take the wind out of the sails of parties like Podemos which are arising elsewhere on the continent. Yet despite the hard line the European Union has taken with Greece, seemingly to make an example of it, Spain’s own rebels seem undeterred. In late May, the indignados also won elections in Barceolona (where Ada Colau, a housing activist, became mayor) and made strong advances in Madrid. At the time, I couldn’t help but note that Britain’s Labour Party collapsed in that country’s elections, seeming to reveal that a left built on the old model of a union base is going the way of the dinosaurs. In its place is emerging one based on youth and community activists.

After a long recession, Europe returned to growth this year, however tepidly. German unemployment is low and consumers are opening their wallets. Meanwhile, the European Central Bank has pumped huge volumes of money into the economy in its own form of ‘quantitative easing,’ all with a goal to stirring inflation and getting people to spend. As I have written recently, such ‘bubblenomics’ does tend to raise growth, but it can leave the structural problems of the economy intact. Britain’s economy, for instance, is growing healthily now, but its underlying productivity hasn’t budged in years. All that has happened is that people with assets (shares or real estate) are feeling richer and spending more — a situation which, if it persists, will end badly. But a bigger concern has got to be the exclusion of a vast swath of the population from the growth. Worse, because so many young people are unemployed, they are not engaged in the sort of regular skills-updating that happens among stably employed people. So while Spanish labour productivity has rebounded after the crisis in a way that Britain’s has not, long-term productivity growth will be inhibited as result of this skipped generation.

As in Greece, about a quarter of the total population is unemployed, but half of young people are. What this means is that older workers are comparatively secure. For instance, the business press has celebrated the return of the Spanish auto industry from the brink of the extinction. Wage cuts agreed with the unions breathed new life into Spanish plants, encouraging investors to return. But these wage cuts were not applied evenly. More senior workers were sheltered, whereas first-time employees had their pay cut by a quarter. That this should somehow be seen as progressive is beyond me; it smacks more of a sort of generational apartheid. But I suppose young car workers who stand on assembly lines doing the same job as the codger next to him but getting a fraction his pay, at least can content themselves with the fact that they’re at work. Most young Spaniards can’t find work. Nowhere is this more evident than in southern Spain, which has historically been a poorer part of the country.


Malaga, seen from the old Moorish casbah

Malaga is a beautiful, sun-drenched city with magnificent public gardens, marble sidewalks and a thriving tourism trade. But you just have to leave the main squares and arcades for the barrios to see a city that is crumbling and decrepit. Many buildings stand empty and abandoned, their entrances sealed with concrete and their doors and shutters left half open, revealing empty shells inside. Some are half-finished, cables and supports sticking out like boney fingers from grey concrete, their construction having no doubt been suddenly interrupted when the crisis hit. Others undoubtedly have owners who are just awaiting a rebound in the market before they sell them to developers – a rebound which, who knows, may be years away if it ever comes. One can see through half-open shutters the bare, darkened, cavernous interiors inside, and occasionally an abandoned football on an old balcony. Some of these buildings have just one family resident, others have none. And every once in a while, one comes across a furtive squat, though there are so many empty buildings here it would take an army of migrants to occupy them all.

Out of a desire to celebrate the beauty and tradition within these seemingly decrepit communities, street artists have taken to adorning the chipped concrete walls with images that celebrate the legends and characters of the neighbourhood. In the the Lagunillas Quarter, where I stayed in Malaga, one such artist is a graffiti-painter named Doger. I came across him while he was ato work one day, in one of the many small squares of the city, and he told me of how he felt the government had abandoned these inner-city communities to their decay. The murals he put up were his way of celebrating the vitality of the quarter, of which there is no shortage, Malaga being a city where life unfolds day and night. As vivid as the paintings, Malagenas come home from the bars in loudly-singing groups at 3 am and stop to talk with the tradesmen who, sometimes, are suddenly taken with the urge to do long-postponed repair jobs in the middle of the night.

Arising as if spontaneously, though in fact it apparently follows the German irregular art movement, murals DSCF1384spread across the walls of the barrios, giving life and colour to neighbourhoods whose street life betrays the listlessness of its buildings. These paintings celebrate the life of the community, often representing individuals well-known to the community, like a well-known beggar who sings for his money. There is thereby a subtle repossession of the property of the neighbourhood, a silent but effective rebellion against a property regime in which the only people with a ‘right’ to be here are the registered owners of the land and buildings — even if they never set foot in the community. I couldn’t help but note the similarities to emerging community movements in London which are bringing together estate-tenants to rebel against developers who want to evict them to fix up the properties, and then jack up the rents (the New Era movement, to which Russell Brand lent his very-public support, being perhaps a signal turning-point in the battle between developers and Londoners — the owner of the estate in question having been the New-York-based pension-fund of several American unions).

A penitent procession in Malaga

A penitent procession in Malaga

The street art seems to be of one with an old Malagena tradition of popular cultural expression — the Semana Santa (Holy week) penitent processions. Originally begun as penitential marches in the last week of Lent, the parades are now a major social-event in the Andalusian calendar, with native-sons like Antonio Banderas returning each year to line the streets and cheer the hardy souls who parade through the city streets, night after night, bearing massive floats that commemorate the events of Christ’s final week. Amid the gloom of the recession, a carnival atmosphere took over the city. Every day, and often in the night, I’d hear the distant drumbeat of a procession that was entering the city, and would walk out to the streets to join the crowds. There is a curious reverence for the spectacle we behold. Few would think of themselves as believers in any conventional sense, and the float-bearers seem to be as taken with their friendly banter as with any sense of religious duty — though one does see the occasional blind-folded bearer, depriving himself of the sights and friendly repartee so as to turn the moment into a genuinely contrite one. However, children line the streets to shake the hands of their older peers who make the procession, as if the touch of the penitents still confers some grace or cool on its beneficiaries. And amid the laughter and jostling for good camera-angles, one sees people cross themselves, and the applause for the float-bearers seems to reflect a genuine appreciation for what they represent. On Palm Sunday, I took in mass at the magnificent Malaga Cathedral, a towering structure built after the Requonquista which seemed, in its soaring arches and ornate statuary, to scream ‘We are back.’ The mass struck me as being a very southern European affair. The chatter and bustle of the packed church spoke to a people who were still sufficiently familiar with their Catholicism that they did not approach the practice of their faith with an unusual degree of respect. It was just a part of their life which they seemed keen to preserve, in this the most significant time of the Malagena year (apart, of course, from the summer corrida, when bullfighters replace penitents in the city’s hearts).


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