Everyday on my way to class here in
Salamanca, Spain, I pass through a questionable-looking alleyway.
The apartment building on the right always looks half-deserted, and
the walkway is littered with trash. As in any city back home,
though, what really makes the alley threatening is the original
artwork sprayed on the walls of the apartment building. Unlike its
American counterpart, however, Spanish graffiti has strong
political undertones. Instead of one gang trying to intimidate its
rivals with a not-quite-impressive collection of swear words, the
people who are responsible for the graffiti in Spain are trying to
achieve definite socio-political objectives. “Toda victoria
militar es una derrota social” (All military victories are
social defeats), one writer proclaims. Not only that, but they
encourage their readers to become responsible citizens by
exercising their right to vote. “No les votos botales”
(Don’t throw your votes away), one says. “Tus votos
— ellos deciden” (Your votes — they decide).
Granted, Salamanca is a university town, and therefore likely to
be more intellectual and politically aware than the average Spanish
city. Still, I’ve noticed political graffiti in several other
European countries, such as France and Italy. It says something
about the political awareness of a country when even the rebellious
youth, traditionally the most apathetic segment of society back in
the United States, has strong political views.
And if there’s one thing Europeans feel strongly about,
it’s Americans. Although I still don’t know enough
Spanish to have complex political debates with the locals, I have
had some interesting conversations with other English speakers. One
night in particular stands out in my mind. While I was having
dinner in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor with a few other University
students, two Englishmen spontaneously decided to join us on the
pretext that our conversation was more interesting than theirs.
They then proceeded to give us a long and detailed explanation on
exactly why America (and Americans in general) totally suck. Their
complaints were the usual ones. Like most Europeans, they spent a
good amount of time criticizing America’s involvement in
Iraq. Their most interesting claims, however, concerned the
characteristics of the average American, who they said to be
selfish, misinformed and ignorant about the world.
Despite the Englishmen’s generalizations and
simplifications, it was hard to argue with them. There is something
inherently self-centered about Americans’ apathy concerning
the rest of the world. Coverage of foreign events has always been
scarce in American media. According to Towson University, 80
percent of United States citizens don’t own a passport, much
less travel abroad. Furthermore, despite only comprising 5 percent
of the global population, Americans still manage to consume 30
percent of the world’s natural resources (Oracle’s
ThinkQuest). Even in the University´s study abroad program, a
group supposedly dedicated to learning about and appreciating a new
culture, the students gleefully called the United States “the
best country in the world” when they gathered in the Plaza
Mayor on the Fourth of July.
Politics and social issues just aren’t something that
keeps many Americans up late at night, inspiring them to deface
public property with spray-painted expressions of their passion.
Although places like Ann Arbor might be the exception, I doubt
I’ll ever find much political graffiti in the United States.
After all, living in America, an ocean away from all the other
countries in the world besides Canada and Mexico, it’s easy
to began to think that we’re the only ones out there, that
our country is all there is to the world.
During that night in Madrid, however, I felt differently.
Suddenly, it was so obvious that we are not alone. Surprising
enough, we’re sharing this planet with so many other people.
There’s nothing like traveling to make you actually care
about history and politics, the stories of our home.