Aaron Shulman: Letter from Madrid

Shulman reflects on the crisis in Spain @ The American Scholar. Since I moved to Spain two and a half years ago, my personal life has settled into a state of contentment I’d never before even thought to contemplate. I married a Spanish woman on an Andalusian patio with orange trees; my 89-year-old grandmother was present, along with two dozen other relatives and friends from America. I’ve made close friends here with whom I can grab beers and talk about anything from private difficulties to the novels of Roberto Bolaño. My in-laws say I fit into the family like a puzzle piece, and when Elisa and I visit they always have the local delicacies I adore waiting for me: Córdoba-style oxtail, flamenquínes, cured Iberian ham. In other words, though the United States is my first home, I’ve been lucky enough to find a second home here. And yet there’s a bitter corollary: we have to leave. “I feel like Spain is kicking us out,” Elisa says from time to time as tears form in her eyes. I can’t help but agree, and we’re not the only ones who feel this way.

To say that unemployment is bad in Spain is like saying that the sea is watery. The situation is that oceanically obvious. Since the global economic crisis began, paro—the Spanish word for unemployment—has been rising over the country like a patient, ineluctable flood. Twenty-five percent of the population is jobless, and this leaves out the considerable number of eternal students, young men and women who, lacking alternatives, accrue degree after degree. The phenomenon has a name, titulitis, that reflects both the Spanish sense of humor and the feeling of an ailment infecting the future of the most highly educated generation in the country’s history. The 18-to-35 age group faces a 50 percent unemployment rate. I think back to 2004, the year of my college graduation. A sense of possibility remained strong even then, long after the 1990s boom had passed. And then I think of a student protest slogan today in Spain: Pre-Parado—another bit of wordplay—which means both ready in the sense of educated and pre-unemployed.

It’s worth noting that the resting pulse of unemployment in Spain during good times has always been high—it usually hovers around 10 percent. That figure sets off fever-pitched political debate in the United States, but fantasizing about a return to 10 percent here anytime soon would be quixotic self-deception. Spanish paro has already surpassed the worst levels of the American Great Depression. The Red Cross recently launched a campaign to combat hunger in Spain, redirecting resources previously dedicated to Haiti. More than one in every four children live in households below the poverty line. Things are bad in a way no one could have imagined even five years ago. The only person I’ve talked to who is at all positive about the situation is Elisa’s grandmother. She reassures us that things will never get as bad as they were during the Spanish Civil War, when bread was scarce and bodies piled up in the town square of her pueblo.

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