I spend the final afternoon of the conference on the edge of my seat, furiously taking down notes and desperately hoping that my Spanish will not fail me and will allow me to at least get my head around some of the incredible ideas and provocations of the anthropologist Carlos Gimenez. Gimenez is a professor of anthropology at the Autonoma University in Madrid, but I suspect this is a humble introduction to a man whose previous work has included advising on the UN peace process in Guatemala.
He is humorous, thoughtful and has some sharp, insightful truths about Spain and immigration which speak volumes about Spanish society, history and the hopes for many that citizenship education will play in assisting Spain as it faces the challenge of incorporating newcomers to Spanish society.
The prospect of a multicultural society, unlike in Britain, is a new one to Spain and the fear of the implications of this can frequently be heard by the audience. As Gimenez puts it:
“For those of us who love diversity, we’re about to have the time of our lives, for those of us who love uniformity and believe in the idea of one uniform people, community, nation all of pure Spanish descent, they’ve got some difficult times ahead.”
Gimenez argues that before we even talk about integration, interculturalism or any other “fashionable way of asking the question: how will we get along?”, people need to “feel” they are actually citizens. He argues that some people would say that new immigrants to Spain feel they are treated like “second class citizens” , he argues that the reality is a lot worse than that, they aren’t, “in the current climate, made to feel like they are citizens at all”.
In Guatemala, during the peace process he entered long discussions with indigenous groups about citizenship in the aftermath of 36 years of bloody civil war. One of the key questions was raised by a Quiche woman involved in discussions who “calmly stared me straight in the eye and in the calmest and most cutting way asked: So, Mr. Gimenez, tell me, how is it possible to talk of citizenship in such an unequal society, so inherently and institutionally racist that has just killed masses of it’s population?”
The fact of the matter is that the notion of citizenship, citizenship education and civic rights can always be talked about and even form part of the rhetoric and educational system of authoritarian regimes.
Gimenez does not shy away from highlighting his frank observations of the mistreatment and misunderstanding of newcomers to Spain. Some times it feels like political correctness is an alien concept here and having lived in Spain and heard comments similar to those noted by Gimenez, made by the Spanish about the gypsy and other populations, coming from the U.K., it can be hard to appease the lack of understanding. As Gimenez points out, what does not favour Spain’s future in adapting to a multicultural society is it’s very history of never quite integrating or, in some cases, accepting the gypsy population with open arms.
However, he, at the same time, is hopeful. He believes that the answer lies in true dialogue, literally, that people talk to each other and the more people from different backgrounds speak to each other and the more spaces that are created to promote this interaction, the more understanding will result. He believes that the Spanish only relatively recently received democracy with the death of Franco and that since a really passion for democracy has inspired generations since. In 2002, Madrid recorded one of the highest counts of people taking to the streets in protest against the Iraq war (an estimated 600,000 – 2 million). He argues, that the Spanish people’s passion for travel and cosmopolitan societies could further favour coexistence……is this enough?