My mother’s eighty-eighth birthday celebration was complicated by Euskara Ta Askasuna, “Basque Homeland & Liberty,” yes, the dread E.T.A.s.
After fourteen months of uneasy truce and secret negotiations with Spain’s right-wing president José María Aznar, the E.T.A. began bombing again last winter. Despite the repudiation of a Spanish public that has protested each terrorist act in massive numbers, the Basque Bombers seem to be irrevocably back in business. This July, they brought their deadly Dog and Pony show to Spain’s southern coast, the Costa del Sol, in a campaign designed to cripple the nation’s billion-buck package-vacation industry.
At least once before, in 1996, the E.T.A.s had attacked this southern tourist Mecca, beginning with a bomb in a bathroom at the glorious Alhambra in Granada, and working their way down the coast, setting off small hotel blasts and thinning out beaches usually blanketed with bikini-clad variously pink or bronzed vacationers, most of them on holiday from northern Europe.
The killing began July 15, when an E.T.A. commando took out the leader of Aznar’s conservative Popular Party in Málaga, the Andalucian port that is purportedly the birthplace of both Pablo Picasso and Walt Disney. Four days later, in a homicidedly ecumenical gesture, the E.T.A.s tried to blow up José Asenjo (an official of the now-opposition Socialist Workers Party) and his whole family, but the car bomb shifted and failed to detonate. A car packed with explosives and parked in an affluent Málaga neighborhood was deactivated by police the next day.
Authorities distributed wanted posters for one Gorka Palacios Albay as the lead E.T.A. on the Costa; he is a Basque native of twenty-six with deeply suspicious eyes and a crooked, disdainful smile. I took one look at the poster and skeedaddled out of the cavernous Málaga airport ten minutes after touchdown, lest Gorka try to take it out. At home, down the coast in Fuengirola, in a condo that once featured a view of the Mediterranean and now only looks out on a sea of concrete, Mamacita was not worried. She had her movie videos, TV remote, and her children (in that order of preference). She despised the E.T.A.s for trying to poop on her eighty-eighth birthday party. On the big day, she sipped ersatz champagne and blew out the candles, gobbled down a big slab of birthday cake, and soon went back to the TV.
Spain is a little like my mom these days, much younger and slimmer and even more consumer crazed, but just as self-absorbed and complacent. Although the decent people (gente decente) of Málaga held a huge march against Gorka and his gang, the shopping spree had resumed by mid-afternoon, and the beach bars never missed a beat. España 2000 has a distinctly passionless and plastic cast to it – indeed, everything from the credit cards to the grapes now comes swaddled in the stuff. Regardless of the E.T.A.s, Costa del Sol growth is a healthy 4 percent and the tourist operators are making pesetas hand over fist. But in Fuengirola, once an impoverished Andalucian fishing village, frozen paella and gazpacho in milk cartons is fast replacing the enviable table life of the locals. The oldest bar in town has been torn down, and the local government, fearful of tourist injury litigation, has closed off the wondrous Moorish castle down the beach.
Perhaps the most plastic product on the Spanish market today is President Aznar, a former tax inspector who has become hotshot merchandise in rightist Euro circles, a darling of Silvio Berluscona, the liberal Italian neo-fascist. Aznar himself shares similar baggage – his Popular Party avoids critiquing the Franco dictatorship like the plague, and some of his collaborators have Falange dossiers.
In 1996, Aznar displaced the encrusted Felipe González/Socialist Workers Party government, and he recently won re-election to a four-year term – this time with an absolute majority in the Congress. A little man who sucks up long cigars, José María Aznar appears to be at the pinnacle of his power, feverishly privatizing former state industries (telephone, electricity, natural gas distribution), a crusade that earns kudos in the high-rent districts of Europe and Washington.
Having won power from a long-ruling party (nearly twenty years) whose welcome had worn itself out in a welter of scandal and hypocrisy, Aznar is a role model for his Mexican think-alike, president-elect Vicente Fox. Indeed, Aznar’s governance may provide an instructive eyeful of what the Fox years will look like: increased concentration of wealth, some trickle-down to the more aggressive middle classes, campaigns of social moralization, a culture coated in plastic. Both Fox and Aznar are committed globalphiles who champion “free trade” and increased transnational commercial integration – a process that is inevitably accompanied by depreciation of national identity.
In Aznar’s Spain, “Euro-zation” is the modus operandi of the globalizers, a strophe that translates to a loss of “Spanish-ness.” Although Spanish “flavor” and “style” retain currency as marketing themes, the heart of Spain is fast disappearing into the European sea. Eighteen months from a common European money, Spanish scholars recently convened in Santander to consider a “common” European history. The color of all this common-ness is a dull off-white in a nation where public life used to be a lot more vivid.
The exceptions to this homogenization are, of course, the Africans. In the past decade, Spain has become the first port of call for many thousands of mostly Maghrebi-rooted immigrants – although, increasingly, Black Africans seeking sanctuary from the unspeakable horrors of war in the Congo and Sierra Leone have been stumbling ashore in southern Spain. Their arrival adds color and soul and visible suffering to the Eurocratic uniformity of the contemporary mix here. It also excites the racist genes of not a few natives – Spaniards, despite sharp regional distinctions, remain just as white as the hordes of Brits, Frogs, Krauts, and Squareheads who blanket their beaches when the E.T.A.s are not bombing. Racism, particularly in Andalucia, where southerners have fought an 800-year war to keep the “Moros” in their place, is endemic on this peninsula. Racially-motivated beatings and burnings of Moroccans and Black Africans and their property are routinely reported. Last February’s riot at El Ejido, near Almería, when Spaniards beat and maimed their Moroccan workers, was a race riot.
Low-wage Moroccan and Algerian workers have become so numerous along the southern shore that many Costa del Sol towns now have their own mosques and imans. In Fuengirola, where my mom has lived since Francisco Franco gave up the ghost, the Iman is a pudgy, patchily-whiskered holy man named Mohammed Kamel Mustafa. Although he is a man, Iman Mustafa recently authored a volume entitled “The Woman In Islam,” an essay that chastises the brutal beatings Muslim men in the community sometimes administer to their wives. Instead, the Iman suggests techniques of corporeal punishment that will not leave marks. If newspaper space is any measure, Spain is presently experiencing an epidemic of wife killings and bashings, and the spunky women’s movement here did not much cotton to the Iman’s advice. Over a hundred feminist associations are calling for Iman Mustafa’s arrest under law No. 510 of the civil code, i.e. “inciting gender-directed violence.”
One morning, I ran down the Iman’s misdeeds to my mom, who, despite her liberationist tendencies (she was once a suffragist), seemed more interested in watching her favorite hand puppets on the new TV. At last I flagged her attention and Moms, who still sings snatches of the “Internationale” upon request, finally lowered the sound and listened to my kvetching about the Iman.
“What do you think, ma?” I asked the now eighty-eight-year-old great grandmother.
“What do I think?” she pursed her lips in contemplation.”What do I think? I think they ought to cut that motherfucker’s dick off, that’s what I think!”
Happy Birthday, Mamacita.
John Ross reports frequently for the Observer from Mexico City. In July he traveled to Spain for his mother’s birthday, whence this report. Ross says his mother is available for personal appearances at bar- and bas-mitzvahs, quinceañeras, and May First International Workers’ Day parties.