I’ve been debating on whether or not to post about a particular problem. For the most part because I’ve wanted to highlight the best Spain has to offer in regards to its food, culture, and people. Another reason is that I simply couldn’t put it all into writing, as it’s an uncomfortable topic and something most people would like to pretend isn’t there, or doesn’t exist anymore.
But what happened yesterday stems from the same issue that’s been eating away at me since shortly after I returned to Spain last Fall, and I just can’t stay mum and pretend it didn’t happen this time…
* * *
Yesterday, D-Man and I began our search for a place in the city of Granada, the second city in Spain that’s captured my heart after Sevilla. Since D-Man had an early school exam, I went ahead and ran a quick errand for my sister-in-law in the meantime. My sister-in-law, whom knew we would be in the city for the day, had asked me if I could go to her school to pick up her certificates of completion. I said it wouldn’t be a problem, so she requested the documents via telephone and signed an authorization form along with a copy of her I.D., which would give me the legal permission to get the certificates for her.
I went over to my sister-in-law’s school, and located the specific teacher that had her certificates of completion.
The teacher, Maria del Mar Romero Morón, was in a small, nearly empty classroom speaking to one of her students while two other students worked in a corner of the room together. I quietly stepped into the classroom and stood over to one side, planning to wait until she had finished speaking with her student. She immediately looked up and said, “Dime.” Tell me.
I told her I was there to pick up Josefina’s academic documents. She responded with, “Josefina? I don’t know a Josefina. Who are you?”
“Do you have her I.D.?”
[Fiddling with the papers I had in my hands]. “Yes, and the authorization request form.”
“Well, hold on! Can’t you see I’m with a student??”
I moved back over to one side, and texted my sister-in-law to let her know I was at the school, but that the teacher didn’t seem to know who she was. Josefina called me immediately, and I stepped outside of the building to tell her what I knew – that the teacher didn’t recall a Josefina, that she seemed to be in a very bad mood, but had said that as soon as she was done speaking with her student she would help me. My sister-in-law told me not to worry, that she was the only Josefina there had been at the school, and that she had spoken personally with the teacher. She said that perhaps the teacher was simply suspicious that I was someone else.
I walked back inside. Seeing that I was going to be waiting a while, I patiently sat down at one of the empty desks and began reading one of my books. Within 5 minutes the teacher walked over to me, slammed the certificates down on the desk (without asking for the authorization request form, or any sort of identification for that matter) and said, “Next time, have Josefina inform you well about what it is you’re supposed to do. And….difference between…. a privilege….and a right!!”
At times, my Spanish fails me. What I knew in this moment was that I was being verbally attacked, and emotionally, I had turned in on myself. I told the teacher (in her native Spanish) that I didn’t understand what was going on.
“You don’t understand?! Awww, how terrible, how sad!!”
By this time, several other students had trickled into the classroom and were watching the scene unravel. I was trembling with embarrassment. I was hot, I was cold, I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t understand what I had done to make her so angry.
My words failed me. Eventually, after having more insults hurled my way, I resorted to responding in English, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand…”
Teacher: “What?! What did you say?” [Turning to the student she had been helping]. “What did she say?”
Student: “Dice que no entiende.” She says she doesn’t understand.
Teacher: [Turning back to me]. “You think you speak English….”
Now I knew. You think you speak English.
I look Spanish-speaking. But English is my native tongue. Though now I can say I dominate the Spanish language at a fluent level, it doesn’t always hold the same ground for me when it comes to defending myself in uncomfortable situations (in which case, any language might fail me anyway).
I picked up the certificates she had slammed on my desk, held her menacing stare, and walked out without a single sound.
* * *
Back in town, my sister-in-law told me that she had called her teacher to see what the problem had been. The teacher had told Josefina her side of the story, which, amazingly, coincided with mine. My sister-in-law was abashed and apologized to me profusely, crying, saying that if she had known better she would never have sent me to pick up those papers for her.
Apparently, the teacher had told Josefina over the phone that I, as some [dirty Latin-American] immigrant, did not have the right to be in Spain, but the privilege. She also piled on some other racist and politically-incorrect things about my assumed nationality that my sister-in-law kept to herself so as to not further crush me.
This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, and it most certainly won’t be the last. Due to the country’s major budget cuts and overall economic competition, animosity has continued to skyrocket towards, for lack of a better word, colored immigrants (what else is new?). I have had even worse insults hurled my way, both subtle and not-so-subtle, and some even detrimental to my health and well-being (I was denied medical service at our town’s health center three times until I showed them my passport and further explained that their government had hired me as an English teacher and I, therefore, did have social security).
Either way, I feel like a big sheltered idiot. I feel that I’m finally beginning to see humanity for what it is, and I can’t help but be deeply disappointed. I’m even angry at myself.
My only hope is that I continue to learn from life’s experiences and find it in myself to trudge ahead and be the very best person I can be. Because as much as there are ignorant and intolerant people in this world, there are also countless wonderful people that make life a joy to live. And we can only try, in solidarity as living beings, to show each other the kindness and respect we would like in return.
I will keep you updated on the situation. But for now, are there any thoughts or similar experiences?
UPDATE: 4 months later.