When I first wanted to study in Spain, way back when I was a junior in high school, I thought of the country as a far-away place full of good times, sun, flamenco and bullfights in the middle of the street.
It was a rash simplification, I know, but nothing around me contradicted that image. Indeed, a 2008 study performed by Spain’s Real Instituto Elcano found that those images made up nearly the entire image of Spain in the United States. Only one in two Americans surveyed knew who King Juan Carlos I was, and only one in three knew of the current president, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero..
Even after taking a class about the actual cultural context of Spain last semester, those images stayed with me. Again, my surroundings didn’t provide me with an alternative, and I even went so far as to call my semester blog “There Will Be Flamenco.” I still knew it wasn’t a complete picture, but I was going for what people knew about Spain.
After four months, I now know how wrong I was about Spain. It’s not a rural country that just clawed its way out of the 19th century. It’s a very urban country that crawled its way out of the Francisco Franco dictatorship in the mid-1970s.
This is not to say that Spain is backwards. In fact, the exact opposite is true. The constitution recognizes a universal right of health protection along with the usual freedoms of religion and the press. The post-Franco transition to democracy was quite possibly the smoothest the world had seen, and it lists near or at the top of fields like automotive exports (sixth in the world), wine (first) and medicine (doctors in Barcelona performed the world’s first full human face transplant March 20).
Still, Spain has had to fight against a perceived image of social decline and passionate discord. The former empire conquered much of Central and South America, to be sure, but once France and Britain began to conquer the seas, Spain lost its good standing in the world. The defeat of the Spanish Armada, ineffective attempts at democracy and the loss of Cuba and the Philippines in 1898 sealed its fall from grace, and the civil war of 1936-39 condemned it to the backwaters of dictatorship for 40 years. The tourist motto used during those 40 years (“Spain is different,” written in English) didn’t add credibility to their image.
A country doesn’t leave such a history behind immediately. Although Spain was home to the 1992 summer Olympics in Barcelona and houses one of the world’s best metro systems in Madrid, the image of the country as a place of sun and genial, if not completely modern, remains. It’s a shame. A country with the world’s ninth-highest GDP does not deserve such treatment.