Reflections on Spain, the Fulbright, and our historical moment

I am happy to have the opportunity today to share with a U.S. audience my experiences in Spain generally and at our Mid-Year Seminar in Valencia in particular. My experience as a Fulbright scholar in Spain is inseparable from my own personal history as part of a family that lost our home in the capitalist crisis that began in the United States in August 2007, an event which temporarily ended my academic career. The opportunity to return to my research – a history of the struggles shared by indigenous communities, runaway slave societies, and pirates in the colonial Caribbean – has been made possible by the sacrifice of U.S. workers and especially Spanish workers whose labor provides the tax dollars that have provided me food and shelter while I complete this study. Though the crisis continues in the United States and though the black community, indigenous community, and others have lived in a perpetual state of segregated economic crisis since conquest and slavery, the current economic crisis in Spain is both wider and deeper than it was in the U.S., and it continues to worsen every day.

The economic context is essential to understand because it has been the foundation of my learning experience in Spain. As an independent researcher, I am less integrated in Spanish society than, for example, a teaching assistant in an elementary school. Instead of spending all day with students and frequently engaging with parents and coworkers, I read old pieces of paper looking for clues about how people not so different from us faced a conflict not so different from ours in the not so distant past. If this were all I did with my time here, however, it would be easy to feel isolated. Similarly, if I approached my life in Spain with the fear or anxiety that many readers may initially feel when reading the economic statistics, it would be even more difficult to build connections here. On the contrary, I want to highlight for readers just what an incredibly warm, welcoming, and comradely community I have found in Sevilla, and in Spain more broadly.

While I have made major advances with my research and had the opportunity to share it in Dublin, Berlin, Madrid and Paris during my time here, it is the shared experience of the struggle against the capitalist crisis in Spain that has been my greatest learning experience. The extremely high level of education in Spain facilitates sophisticated and insightful political conversations in public spaces like cafes and bars, and it must moreover be credited for the fact that Spain is one of the few European countries without a growing fascist street movement. For personal reasons, I have been especially grateful to learn from how common Spanish people have organized themselves to fight the barbarity of homelessness in a country with enough empty residences to house the entire homeless population of the continent.

It is in this context of unexpected opportunities that I want to highlight what a wonderful experience I had at the Fulbright Mid-Year Seminar in Valencia. While I had the pleasure to meet many fellow grantees from Spain and Andorra at our brief orientation in Madrid, my position as an independent researcher and the friendships I developed with Spanish people here in Sevilla left little opportunity to build on those connections. For me, this event was an important reminder of how many exciting and important comrades were to be found among my fellow Fulbrighters. In addition to the free time we had to pick up where our fast-forged friendships had left off back in September, the Mid-Year Seminar provided many of us the opportunity to share our research with the collective. Having spoken about my work in maybe twenty forums in a half dozen countries, I can say that the conversations during and after these presentations in Valencia were among the most intellectually rich and politically relevant of my career. To the organizers and the fellow grantees: thank you! Of course, the Mid-Year Seminar also provided all that Valencia has to offer: extraordinary food which included a vegan paella, beautiful free and communal public spaces like the walk along the old waterway from the aquarium to our hotel, and its own struggles for equality and community control.

If I may speak directly to the exploited, expropriated, and oppressed among future potential applicants: the Fulbright is for us, too. Do not allow any anxiety about a foreign culture or any insecurity stemming from your own class, race, sex, gender, sexuality, or other background keep you from this opportunity to teach and to learn and to share in this struggle that spans the Atlantic and beyond. Our Fulbright materials always feature the famous quote of its namesake, Senator J. William Fulbright, expressing his hope that human beings “can learn to live in peace – eventually even to cooperate in constructive activities rather than compete in a mindless contest of mutual destruction.” If this is to be true, it will only be because we make it true. We need you. No nos mire, ¡únete! We have nothing to lose but our chains. We have a world to win.

Isaac Curtis (Ph.D. Candidiate, Department of History, University of Pittsburgh)

Note: This article has been updated to identify the author and to provide a source and a correction about homelessness statistics.