31 March 2017, The Tablet

The two-million people strong ‘Father’s Day’ fiesta that took over Valencia

View from Madrid 1, Margaret Hebblethwaite

Nearly two million visitors attended the celebrations in Valencia this year for the feast of St Joseph on 19 March – which is also Father’s Day in Spain. Known as Las Fallas, the Valencia fiesta had a record turn-out, after being declared by UNESCO last year to be an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The entire city was swallowed up in a five-day and five-night street party. On the Saturday there was an offering of flowers to the Virgin of the Defenceless (Virgen de los Desamparados), which were stuck into a huge structure of the Virgin in the plaza outside the Cathedral, five or six times as tall as a man. The blooms made a spectacular cloak, with red carnations picking out the letters AM – for Ave Maria – on a sea of white.

?The Virgin is not the only enormous figure displayed in the streets during the fiesta. Every neighbourhood produces in its local square a falla, which is a collection of elaborate cartoon-like figures moulded in polystyrene – mostly political caricatures (and not surprisingly, Trump figured prominently).

On Sunday night these were set on fire in a dramatic blaze, requiring considerable attention from firefighters to prevent a general conflagration.

A different kind of street display in a different part of Spain is a large banner declaring “Refugees welcome” (in English) hung high on Madrid’s city hall (Ayuntamiento).

I was surprised not only by its size and prominence, but by the fact that it was not written in Spanish. My host explained: “It’s because the refugees understand English, and the message is put there for them, and also to give a message to the world.”  

The banner was first put up by the city’s leftish council in September 2015, and it was initially said the banner would stay up at least a week; but it is still there 18 months later, reminding the national Government that it has barely begun to keep its promise to receive 15,000 refugees under the EU redistribution plan.

Meanwhile, it was suggested to me that while I was in Madrid English will be lost as an official language of the European Union after Brexit, despite Ireland being a member.
And what about Scotland? La via escocesa (the Scottish way) is a live topic of debate with widespread support for Scotland.

A columnist in the newspaper El País, Lluis Bassets, wrote: “David Cameron and Theresa May will reap what they have sown… They are the ones who have followed the criteria of a plebiscite vote instead of that of a representative democracy.”

The fear, of course, is that Catalonia will want to follow suit, and at the beginning of last week [20 March] the current President and Vice President of the Catalan Generalitat, Carles Puigdemont and Oriol Junqueras, co-wrote a article in El País newspaper demanding the same right to an independence referendum as the one which Scotland has already exercised. And is very keen to exercise again.

The government did not delay in replying that the cases of Scotland and Catalonia are fundamentally different, because the Spanish constitution is quite explicit in barring regions from holding referendum on the subject of self-determination.

My hosts took a similar line: the difference is that Scotland is a country, they said, but Catalonia is not. But then, I was staying in Madrid, and I might have heard a different story in Barcelona.

When I asked a group of Madrid economists and teachers their opinion of Brexit, they considered it would hurt Britain more than Spain. They said that there were 7,000 Spanish nurses in the UK, including seven people they knew personally, working as nurses in Liverpool.

This had been an attractive prospect not only because the pay was better and the work more secure, but also because their work anywhere in the EU counted for social security years in Spain. They are unlikely to stay once that recognition is lost, no matter whether they are given permission to remain or not. But while they can move to work in other EU countries, what will happen to the National Health Service in Britain?

Incidentally, not one person I spoke to considered Spain’s considerable economic problems to be the fault of the euro: on the contrary, the euro was giving them the stability to recover, they said. Unemployment is very high at 18 per cent but it is falling. No one I spoke to regretted Spain entering the European Economic Community (as it then was) in 1985 – an event commemorated by a curved stone monument close to Madrid’s Plaza Mayor.

Another live issue in Spain today is a campaign by the left-wing political grouping Podemos to stop the state television channel broadcasting the Sunday morning Mass. The suggestion, which will impact most severely on the elderly and sick, led to a wave of social media protest, with the result that well over a million people watched the programme on Sunday 12 March. We may be a society without an official state religion, say the Catholics, but the Jews and the Muslims have their own cultural programmes on state television, so why shouldn’t we?

In reality, the Podemos proposal is more a reaction to the fierce conservatism of the official Church, than a response to the needs of the nation. They say that the homilies of the televised Mass provide a platform for retrograde political positions such as opposition to gays, sex education, divorce and abortion.

The kind of approach they most dislike is exemplified by a conservative Catholic group called HazteOir (“Make them listen to you”), which has been sending an orange publicity bus around the country with a tasteless message against transsexuals splashed across its side: “Boys have penises, girls have vulvas, don’t let them deceive you. If you are born a man, you are a man. If you are a woman, you will go on being one.”

A judge ordered earlier this month that the bus could no longer drive in public, as the message was an act of “public denigration” of people “who exercise their sexual identity in a different form”, denying them their dignity.

But if Podemos dislike Catholic conservatives, the vitriol from the other side is even more pronounced. An editorial on the televised Mass in the conservative paper ABC accused Podemos of “antidemocratic values”, “a rancid mixture of Marxism, Stalinism and Chavezism”,“anti-Christian hatred” and of  “civil-war tactics contrary to the constitutional unity and peace of Spain”.

In the face of such hostility, it is refreshing to learn that the very leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, who is not even a Christian believer, said: “Listening to the Pope draws my attention to how much I agree with him.”

Roll on Francis’ calls to dialogue.

What do you think?


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