Latin Americanist Lunch: Favela Tourism

Recently I attended the final Latin Americanist Lunch of the semester. The guest speaker was Bianca Freire-Medeiros, a professor and writer from Sao Paulo, Brazil. She gave a presentation titled “Twenty-five Years of Favela Tourism: Continuities, Changes, and Challenges.” I was interested in learning more about this topic, as I had read The Spectacular Favela in my “Understanding the Global Community” class last year. The book explored favelas as a spectacle for the rest of the world, and explained the history of tourism in Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil.

Freire-Medeiros also focused her talk on Rocinha, as this was allegedly the first favela to be marketed as a tourist attraction. It is located in southern Rio, and is home to around 70,000 people. She explained how dangerous and unglamorous favelas are, and then explained how they are portrayed in the media.

In reality, violence and crime runs rampant in favelas. In fact, gangs are such a staple of favelas that they form a type of informal government. Gangs take care of mail delivery and trash collection, trying to gain the trust and support of residents in their territory. Ironically, police are often extremely corrupt, and generally distrusted. I remember watching a documentary last year about gangs in favelas. It highlighted the police as violent and susceptible to bribery, while showing the gangs as peace-keepers.

Apparently, this drama is what attracts tourists to the favelas and allows tourism companies to exist there. Especially with the Olympic Games and World Cup taking place in Rio, there has recently been a huge rise in tourism. It is not unusual to see groups of tourists, armed with cameras, riding in brand new Jeep Wranglers down favela streets. The favela way of life is incredibly romanticized by tourism companies, which paint an unrealistic picture of the slums. Many of the tourists are excited by the “danger” of venturing into a favela. Tour guides capitalize on this, frequently telling visitors to keep their heads down and move quickly and quietly when they are on foot.

Freire-Medeiros also mentioned the romanticizing of favelas in popular media. She played clips from several rap songs that make reference to favelas as exciting, cool places, and showed us the website for a clothing line that markets “favela” style clothing. Apparently there is a ritzy bar in Paris called “Favela Chic.” With this kind of advertising, all the tourism industry has to do is set up camp in Rio and wait for the customers to pour in.

However, favela tourism isn’t black-and-white. While it is largely resented by residents, in some cases it helps them. Freire-Medeiros explained that sometimes favela residents open their own tours, offering an “authentic experience.” This helps them to make a living, even though it does come at the expense of their neighbors.

Still, it can be widely agreed that favela tourism is exploitive and a negative phenomenon. At the end of her presentation, Freire-Medeiros asked us to brainstorm ways to put an end to this industry. No definitive answers were given. I think that a great deal of interest in favelas comes from its mention in popular media, and that if this disappears then public interest will gradually fade. But this is easier said than done—where there is money to be made, business will thrive. And unfortunately, favelas are clearly a lucrative attraction.

Enrique Villar-Gambetta

On Monday I went to a meeting of the Spanish club, an organization I joined last semester. This meeting was probably my favorite yet, and definitely the most informative. They brought in Enrique Villar-Gambetta, the Honorary Consul of Peru in Oklahoma, to speak to us about the use of Spanish in a professional setting. This is something I had wondered and worried about constantly since I came to OU. I knew immediately that I wanted to major in Spanish. I had come so far since I began learning the language, and didn’t want to lose what I had. Also, I knew I enjoyed it—having a few Spanish courses each semester has kept me sane through a harrowing math major. However, I’ve been concerned that I’m wasting my time. Double majoring isn’t always easy, and I’ve never been confident that I can find a way to use my Spanish professionally.

Villar-Gambetta

Villar-Gambetta laid these worries to rest. He spent the first few minutes dazzling us with facts about the Spanish language and world: There are more Spanish speakers in the US than Spain (and this number is rapidly growing); Spanish is the second most spoken language on the planet; and there are plenty of rising industries in Latin America that many US companies are eager to tap into. Hearing this certainly made me more optimistic. He explained how he used his bilingualism constantly as a lawyer travelling between Peru and Oklahoma. His accent was thick, but very easy to understand. He told us how he had worked hard to learn English for his career, and was not at all disappointed with the doors this opened for him.

A good deal of his talk was economic. He explained how important it was to employers that their employees are able to communicate with as many people as possible. Spanish speakers open up dozens of nations for business, and are often called on to travel a good deal. This was good to hear. Whatever I end up working in, I want to travel. Also, I want to have plenty of opportunities to exercise my Spanish. My father is from Colombia, and Spanish is his first language. However, he is never required to speak Spanish in his pharmaceutical job, and I have noticed him losing a bit of his fluency. This is so sad to me—when I finally get to a point where I am comfortable in Spanish, I’ll make sure to practice regularly.

For a good deal of his talk, Villar-Gambetta explained to us what he does professionally. This was hard for me to follow, as I’m not too familiar with legal terms. However, I could tell that he was constantly going back and forth between the US and Latin America. He also mentioned that he was sometimes required to travel in Brazil, and had been learning Portuguese. He said this was not too difficult for him, as Portuguese is so similar to Spanish. He emphasized that nowadays many employers are looking for employees that are not only bilingual, but trilingual. The way he put it, “Bilingual is required; trilingual is desired.” While learning a third language won’t be easy for me, I look forward to it. My Spanish major actually requires that I take 5 hours in an additional foreign language. Maybe I can use this as a stepping stone to Portuguese, French, or Italian. These languages use very similar latin roots, and it might be possible for me to become familiar with all of them. No matter what, I’m excited to continue learning languages at OU, and hopefully to use them someday in a professional setting.

The Eve of Nations

This Friday, I went with a friend to OU’s 47th annual Eve of Nations. The night consisted of a dinner, a fashion show, and a dance competition between international student organizations. I was very surprised by the vast array of international groups that came to compete and see the show. Honestly, I was a little ashamed that I had been unaware of so many of them.

Originally, I bought a general admission ticket, but when we arrived my friend convinced me to upgrade to a dinner ticker. It was worth it—not only did we get to enjoy an international buffet during the show, but we were much closer to the actual stage. The MCs started the night at around 7:30, giving everyone a chance to get their food and settle in.

The event definitely succeeded in broadening cultural awareness, at least in my case. I unfortunately have lost the program I was given at the start of the night, which I was going to use to list the cultural groups involved. I don’t remember all of them off the top of my head, but there were certainly more than I had expected. I didn’t know that OU had a Bolivian Student Association, an Angolan Student Association, Iranian Student Association, or Malaysian Student Association. I went online after the event to check out what other groups there were, and found clubs for students from Nepal, Oman, Pakistan, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Turkey, and Vietnam. Honestly, I would not have expected any of these organizations to exist. When I came to Oklahoma from New Jersey, I was worried that a college in the Midwest would lack diversity. I have found the opposite—OU strives to welcome and support international students. I would never expect OU to have students from—for example—Oman, but at Eve of Nations I saw them perform!

The fashion show was an impressive start to the night. While all of the countries represented did a great job, my favorites were by far the Native American student associations. I don’t remember exactly what tribes participated, but they pulled out all the stops for their costumes. Complete with headdresses, their traditional garb was bright and elaborate. They presented first, and were definitely a tough act to beat.

Next was the talent/dance competition. I was most impressed by the Indian student groups, which included an all-girls dance team and a co-ed team. They were probably the largest groups, and the most energetic. The all-girls team showed off a choreographed Bollywood/Hollywood fusion routine, and the co-ed group gave a more traditional taste of Indian dance. The co-ed team ended up winning the entire competition, which I was happy about—I had voted for them.  All of the other groups were also very engaging and fun to watch. I was never bored, even though the event lasted a few hours longer than I had expected it to.

All throughout the night, the energy of the student groups was contagious. I found myself dancing along in my seat on more than one occasion. I wasn’t the only one—it seemed like everyone got into the acts and really enjoyed themselves. I found out afterward that this Eve of Nations was actually the largest international showcase in Oklahoma this year. This certainly made me proud to be a student at OU. I know I’ll be going next year as well!

The Colombian Student Association

Spanish Club

This semester, I decided to participate in OU’s Spanish club. I loved OU Cousins, which I was a member of last year, but I unfortunately did not think I would have time this semester for both clubs. I wish I had known in advance that Spanish club would not demand very much of my time, as I might have been able to do both.

The club meetings don’t typically last more than half an hour, and are usually only every few weeks. I expected these meetings to be in Spanish, but they are not—I guess this makes sense, as the club is open to all students, not just those studying Spanish. However, we still learn about Spanish and Hispanic culture, especially through events! For instance, for the past few years the Spanish club has organized a “Tomatina” event, which is held in honor of the actual Tomatina festival that occurs annually in Valencia, Spain. Interestingly, no one knows for sure how the tradition originated. One popular theory is that a group of townspeople once rebelled by throwing rotten tomatoes at city councilmen during a celebration, and that the mock-rebellion was so enjoyed by the townspeople that it was repeated year after year. When Francisco Franco came into power as the dictator of Spain (in 1936), he promptly banned the festival because it was not religious. However, it surprisingly came back full force after his death in the 1970’s. Today, it has only grown in popularity and is even considered a notable tourist attraction. Although it only lasts an hour, the mess is so great that the streets need to be cleaned afterward with firehoses. However, the city council doesn’t mind—the acidity of the tomatoes actually cleanses the cobblestone streets of the festival very effectively.

Since the tradition restarted in the 70’s, it has caught on in numerous other cities and even countries. It has been adopted by Costa Rica, Colombia, and several locations in the United States. For instance, there is a version of it in Colorado that is considered a show-down between Coloradans and Texans. OU’s own Tomatina (unfortunately) does not involve actual tomatoes. However, red water balloons are used as the next best thing. It certainly wasn’t as big as the real festival, but I still enjoyed it! The Spanish club invited other students to throw the water balloons at each other on Walker-Adams Mall one afternoon in October, and from what I could tell everyone had fun!

I was not able to attend see it this year as I had family visiting, but the Spanish club also creates a display for “El Día de los Muertos,” a Mexican celebration of the dead. The display is put up in Kaufman Hall (where we meet) and imitates a traditional altar that is commonly created to honor those who have passed away. I really appreciate that the club acknowledges different Spanish-speaking cultures, and tries to give members (and the whole OU community) a taste of diverse celebrations and traditions.

Spanish club also arranges several movie nights each semester. I recently attended the presentation of Pan’s Labyrinth, a film that I hadn’t seen since I was very young. It was interesting to re-watch it, especially because I am now able to understand the cultural and historical references of the movie much better than when I was a child. I also appreciated that it was a Guillermo del Toro film, as my Spanish class has been studying the Mexican director and his work. In fact, I was able to see quite a few similarities between Pan’s Labyrinth and Cronos, a movie of his that we recently watched for class.

I will certainly be sticking with Spanish club, and am excited to see what kinds of events are planned for the spring semester. I might even consider running for an officer position in the future, provided that I have enough time. I would like to be able to put together events for others interested in Spanish cultures, and I definitely enjoy meeting other students that share my love for Spanish!

Nadia Villafuerte

This Friday, I attended one of OU’s “Latin Americanist Lunches.” The speaker was Mexican author Nadia Villafuerte, most notably author of the book “Barcos en Houston.” I decided to attend this event in particular because I read Villafuerte’s short story “Chica Cosmo” for my Spanish literature class. Like all stories in “Barcos en Houston,” which means “Boats in Houston,” “Chica Cosmo” is about immigration. However, not exactly the type of immigration you would expect from a book by a Mexican author. Villafuerte was born in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, which is in the southernmost state in Mexico. Living so close to the southern border, Villafuerte grew up observing the largely illegal immigration from Guatemala and other Central American countries to Mexico. From how she described it in “Chica Cosmo,” it sounds as if Mexico (especially its large cities) is viewed as a place of great opportunity and social mobility to many people in other Latin American countries.

Reading “Chica Cosmo” and listening to Nadia Villafuerte’s presentation made me consider an aspect of immigration I was formerly barely aware of. Living in the US, it’s very common to hear about Mexican immigrants crossing the border to escape violence, corruption, and poverty in their home country. Because of this, I came to consider Mexico a poor, dangerous, and undesirable place to live. This is why Villafuerte’s perspective was such an interesting one to hear—it made me realize that there really is a spectrum of living conditions across the Americas. There are people in Guatemala who consider Mexico to be a land of opportunity, just as some Mexicans view the USA. Above all, this made me wonder what life must be like for those who risk everything to cross into Mexico.

In “Chica Cosmo,” a young woman attempts to cross the southern border of Mexico from Guatemala. She must make it through a series of identity checks in order to travel from Guatemala to Chiapas to Juarez, her final destination in northern Mexico. She comments frequently on the hopeful things she has been told about Juarez, such as its wealth, size, and opportunity. In Guatemala, she worked as a prostitute for years to save up enough money for false papers. She has little education, and mentions that there are no other secure jobs for her in her home country. The story centers on her decision to turn in another illegal immigrant who is jeopardizing her chances of making it across the border. Ultimately, it is a story about the personal risk and moral questions involved in coming into Mexico illegally.

Villafuerte’s testimony and stories reminded me of my family and their experiences with immigration. My father and his parents came to the US from Colombia legally when he was a child, as they were able to save up the money to do so. However, many of his aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives were not so lucky. Several of them travelled up through Mexico and attempted to cross the border into the US, but were caught. Many of them finally decided to settle in Mexico rather than returning to Colombia. From what my father has told me, life in Colombia was dangerous and unfruitful when he was growing up. Hearing stories from him has helped me to be more sympathetic to illegal immigrants, especially those coming from central/south American countries that are sometimes very dangerous places to live.

 

My Spanish Literature Experience

This semester, I am taking a class in Spanish literature. The course aims to introduce students to a variety of different stories, poems, plays, movies, and even letters that can serve as a window to Latin American and Spanish culture. So far, it has been my favorite Spanish class at OU. I feel like I have actually improved in my writing, reading, listening, and speaking this semester, thanks to the course’s balance of discussions and assignments.

When I signed up for a class in literature, I expected to study only well-known books from the Spanish-speaking world. However, I was very mistaken. On the first day on class, we were asked to define the word “literature.” This was actually very challenging for me—I had never before considered what does and does not qualify as literature. After sharing our answers, the class came to the consensus that literature has no concrete definition, and that it is made up of all the written works that influence the culture around them in some way. Our professor, Dr. Julie Ward, then told us that we would be studying not only books, but also theater, film, poetry, and important letters.

The way the class is structured, we read or view the material at home and then use each class period to discuss it both in small groups and as a class. I find this layout to be extremely effective. Everyone reads the material, as each work of has an online quiz that we need to fill out before class. The quizzes are never overly challenging, as Dr. Ward understands that some of the assigned works can be difficult to understand. The in-class discussions always help me to complete my understanding, as there is always time for questions. Because the class is so small, I usually feel very comfortable raising my hand. Also, each week we are to participate in online discussions with classmates, including those in other sections. These forums are prompted by several questions, and we are required to not only answer these questions but also respond to other students’ posts. Through these methods, I find it very easy to keep up with the class.

I also have learned a great deal about Spanish and Hispanic culture by analyzing works from specific countries and time periods. For instance, we studied a short story titled “Las Medias Rojas” which exemplified the oppression of women in 19th century Spain. We then watched a film called “XXY” that centered on gender roles in present-day Uruguay. Above all, I enjoy how diverse the readings/movies are—they often share themes, but come in very different forms from very different times and places. This shows us how Spanish-speaking cultures relate and differ culturally, and also how they have changed throughout history.

Aside from sampling a variety of literary works, each student is assigned a scholarly edition assignment. We must select one of the pieces that we study, and create a version of it that is thoroughly annotated and explained. I chose Christopher Columbus’s letter to Luis de Santángel, one of his primary sponsors on his first voyage to the Americas. I actually found it very easy to annotate, as it is one of the longest pieces we study and full of controversial topics. For example, I am currently writing my research paper (another component of the scholarly edition assignment) about Columbus’s approach to the native people of the Caribbean in his letter. The way he discusses them reveals a lot about how he views them, and foreshadows his later treatment of them. After finishing the scholarly edition and literary research paper, I feel I will be much more prepared to tackle future classes both in Spanish and English.

Overall, I think I have gained more from this class than from any other Spanish class I have ever taken. I certainly feel more capable, and I look forward to the two Spanish classes I’ll be taking next semester.

La Nueve

When I studied abroad in Spain this past summer, I took two classes in Spanish history. At first, I was very worried that I would not be able to keep up with classes held completely in Spanish, but I ended up truly enjoying them. In one of these classes, I was assigned a few reports about topics of my choosing. Although all of the topics were new and interesting to me, my favorite by far was a paper I wrote about “La Nueve.” I was especially proud of this paper because in addition to writing it in Spanish, I challenged myself by doing all of my research in Spanish as well.

A central focus of our class was the Spanish Civil War. Up until the year 1936, Spain was a constitutional monarchy. However, with the rebellion of a far-right group called “El Falange,” the king was dethroned and Francisco Franco rose to power as a dictator. The leftist group that fought against Franco’s forces were known as “Los Republicanos,” or the republicans. After the victory of the Falange, Franco initiated the expulsion (and sometimes execution) of known republicans. So at the end of the war in 1939, thousands of these soldiers and sympathizers (approximately 465,000) left the country. A popular destination was France. Even after taking dangerous routes, often on foot, to reach France, the republicans were not well received. France’s economy was still recovering from the great depression, and the newcomers were seen as moochers and competition by the native French. Once again, they became the underdogs of society.

To deal with the influx of people, the French government set up concentration camp-like centers for the Spanish, and tried to redistribute them to neighboring countries when possible. However, this process was slow and impractical. Ironically, the start of the Second World War provided France with an alternative solution to the great volume of Spaniards that had arrived in their country. With so many people desperate for work, they had an enormous source of cheap labor. What was more, many of the republicans were recent veterans, and were certainly willing to take up arms against fascism.

Those who chose to fight were sent to the French Foreign Legion. One particular division in which many Spaniards ended up was called the ninth company, under Mariscal Philippe Leclerc. Often referred to as simply “The Ninth,” these men were assigned quite a task—liberate Paris from the Nazis. Why them? The Spanish company had quickly gained a reputation for being seasoned, tough, and especially successful in combat in urban areas. Of course, they were not the only forces assigned to enter Paris—but they were chosen to spearhead the effort. The night of August 24, 1944, the 120 troops of The Ninth Company arrived on the outskirts of Paris. They drove armed vehicles, each one painted with a name. Many of these names were those of battles in the Spanish Civil War, such as “Ebro” and “Brúñete.” Another was called “Durruti,” in honor of the anarchist leader José Buenaventura Durruti who was struck down by Franco’s forces. There was even a tank bearing the name “Don Quixote,” simply an affectionate reference to Spanish culture. In these vehicles, The Ninth stormed Paris and arrived at the Hotel de Ville, a large building in the center of the city that was not controlled by Nazis. There, they received a warm welcome from Parisians, and quickly set up a formidable canon to defend their new ground (the canon was nicknamed “Abuelo”). As the rest of the French forces began to enter Paris, the Nazis made the decision to retreat. Over the next few days, there were various battles in and around the city as the Nazis slowly made their way out. But after the dust settled, Paris was back in the hands of the French. The Ninth visited numerous other Nazi-controlled cities in northern France, liberating all that they could. Unfortunately, many of their troops perished during these efforts—but they most certainly did not die in vain.

What I love so much about the story of The Ninth is its poetry. After losing all they had—including their home—to a fascist leader, these Spaniards remained loyal to democracy. They may have lost to Franco, but the soldiers of the Ninth Company continued to fight against fascism across Europe. Against all odds, they went from outcasts to heroes in their new country—and not once did they forget what they were fighting for.

El Silencio de Neto

This Wednesday I went to OU’s screening of “El Silencio de Neto” (The Silence of Neto), a film recommended to me by my Spanish Literature professor. She mentioned that it was the first Guatemalan film screened internationally, directed by Luis Argueta. OU managed to have Luis Argueta himself at the screening, and after the film he spoke briefly about the ideas and history behind the movie. The film centers on the life of a young boy, Neto, and his life during a very tumultuous time in Guatemala. The story takes place in 1954, the year of the coup d’état that dismantled the country’s democratic government.

I had trouble understanding why the movie was called “El Silencio de Neto.” It seemed to be a coming of age film, made very unique by its historical context. I suppose a good deal of the plot had to do with Neto learning how to be more independent. The movie opens on his birthday—he has eleven candles to blow out but is so severely asthmatic that this is difficult for him. He is treated very much like a young child by his family. His father shelters him, not wanting him to know anything of the war that is beginning around him. I believe this may have something to do with the title of the movie: At the beginning, Neto is very soft-spoken and unwilling to talk back to adults. At one point, he even asks his uncle, who often fights with Neto’s father, why he always brings up things that will anger others. He wants to know why he doesn’t just stay quiet. His uncle responds that staying quiet might be easy, but that when you have something to say, the right thing to do is to say it.

Neto is a peacekeeper. He is always the one to urge his friends to get along, and he comforts his little sister when she becomes startled by the sounds of bombs that become common during Guatemala’s Civil War. He has trouble keeping this up with the death (by heart attack) of his beloved uncle. At the funeral, a distraught Neto is visited by his uncle’s ghost. Their conversation is brief, but Neto jokingly accuses his uncle of never making good on his promise to teach him how to fly a balloon. His uncle responds that he has come back to fulfill this promise, and at later at his funeral his ghost instructs Neto from afar as he lights and flies a ceremonial balloon. He implies that letting go of the balloon is like letting go of the dead. Overall, the film focuses heavily on Neto’s coming of age and learning how to handle his emotions. In a time when his country is at war and his uncle (who is very much like a father to him) passes away, he is forced to grow up very quickly. However, with the guidance of his uncle, he comes out wiser and more mature.

Although the story of Neto was interesting, I was also intrigued by the historical aspects of the movie. The US government, specifically the CIA, trained Nicaraguan troops and sent them into Guatemala to overthrow their democratically elected president. The CIA felt the need to do this because they interpreted the liberal ideas of the Guatemalan government as nearly communist, and during the Cold War this was seen as a cause for alarm. The invasion was successful, and a military US-backed government was imposed in Guatemala. What I found most interesting about this was that I had been completely unaware of it before seeing “El Silencio de Neto”. I suppose it is not surprising that this chapter of US history is not emphasized in our schools, as it certainly casts us in a bad light. I’m glad I had the opportunity to watch this movie, as it provides a startling example of another nation’s perspective on US imperialism.

Spain Reflection

Since I arrived in Spain, I have noticed several changes in myself. Of course, my Spanish has greatly improved—I am so much more comfortable now with talking to native speakers. But I’ve also found myself growing in other ways that I did not anticipate. Overall, I feel much more independent and capable than I did when I left the US three weeks ago. Hopefully, the skills and habits I’ve picked up here follow me back home.

As trivial as it may seem, I am very proud of my newfound ability to effectively use public transport. Of course, coming from the New York area, I should already be pretty proficient in this. But for some reason I have always found myself shying away from buses, subways, trains, and the like. Unless I have someone else to guide me, I become very nervous at the idea of travelling to unknown places. However, this was a pretty essential skill in Spain. And to make it even more daunting, I needed to do it in Spanish. At first, this was very tricky—I missed buses, got lost in train stations, and walked just about everywhere I could. But I eventually found a solution to my dilemma: I began to ask people for help. I was always nervous to do this, worrying that my Spanish wouldn’t be good enough for the locals to understand, or that I wouldn’t be able to comprehend their instructions. Still, I forced myself to reach out and ask for directions, and found that most of the time it was incredibly helpful. Most people were so understanding and kind, even taking time to make sure I knew what they were saying. After a few weeks, I wasn’t even hesitating to ask those around me for help.

Recently, I traveled across the island of Mallorca with a few friends. We had to catch a bus early in the morning, and found ourselves very confused about the location of the bus station. I went up to an elderly couple and asked them if they knew where it was. The man looked puzzled, and said “I’m sorry, but do you speak any English?” I’m proud that I have gotten to the point where I can confidently speak Spanish to people without second guessing myself or becoming too nervous about them understanding me. In fact, it was a bit jarring to hear English from a man I had simply assumed spoke Spanish. I realized then how comfortable I could become with both languages—I feel like I’m finally on my way to being bilingual.

I also feel as if I’ve substantially built up my stamina during my time here. Since the program is only a month long, each class requires 2 and a half hours each day. I’m in two classes, and toward the beginning of the trip I found sitting through 5 hours of class a day to be very challenging. It would not be as difficult in my native language, but because I am not as fluent in Spanish I have to be paying rapt attention at all times to understand the lecture material. There’s no zoning out. I felt a bit panicked, thinking that there was no way I could make it through a whole month of classes. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that paying attention only became easier with time. I was genuinely interested in all of the material I learned, and I now know a whole lot about the history of Spain. Aside from gaining knowledge, I’m glad to know that I am capable of something that I so doubted I would be able to do. I hope that the discipline I learned is something I can apply to other areas of my life.

Overall, my experiences abroad have made me feel so much more capable than I considered myself to be before I left. I’m of course excited to go back home and see my family, but I know that I need to get used to being away for long periods of time. After all, I go to school halfway across the country from my home in New Jersey. Also, I plan of studying abroad in Puebla, Mexico for a semester next year. I’m so thankful that I did my summer study abroad done first, so that I could prove to myself that I can handle it. I’m sure I’ll face plenty of new challenges next time I go abroad, but now I know that I will also grow in ways I could never anticipate.

La Cuidad de Toledo

Of all that I saw and experienced in Spain, the city of Toledo left the most lasting impression on me. Although we only spent a day there, as a program field trip, it was easily the most incredible historic site I have ever visited. The bus ride from Alcala de Henares to Toledo took only an hour and a half, so we were able to arrive fairly early in the day. Our first stop was at an overlook above the city, which is surrounded by mountains. The view was incredible, and we were able to see how the river Tagus winds around the city, almost creating a moat (Tagus is the longest river in Spain). The mountainside leading down to it was covered in bright red poppies, making the vista even more breathtaking.

Although the city was physically very impressive, what I most appreciated about it was the history. I was studying the middle ages in one of my classes at the University of Alcala, and the professor of that course also happened to be my tour guide in Toledo. As we wandered the city, he pointed out a multitude of things that we had studied in class, which remained from the 1400’s.

Toledo is known in Spain as the city of three cultures. Before Spain was conquered by the Roman Catholic empire, the Iberian Peninsula was inhabited by Jewish, Muslim, and Christian peoples. In most cases, each cultural group would isolate itself, keeping to their own cities and regions. However, Toledo was an exception. It gained fame as the “city of tolerance,” where all three major religions would intermingle and live in the same neighborhoods. Of course, there was still occasional tension, but for centuries the city was remarkably peaceful and unique among more segregated Spanish towns.

In fact, it was considered commonplace for business to be done over cultural lines. After all, the three subpopulations tended to be more proficient in different areas, and therefore able to market their strengths to one another. For instance, one stop of our tour was a church that exemplified the coexistence of the three cultures. Now called Santa Maria la Blanca, the building was constructed in the late 1100’s. However, it was originally a synagogue known as the Ibn Shushan Synagogue. When the Jewish community decided to erect it, they hired Muslim architects and workers to design and build it. This was because Muslims were typically much more experienced in architecture, while the Jewish excelled in other professions. This resulted in the synagogue looking very much like a traditional mosque, with plain white walls, pillars, circular niches in the walls, and horseshoe arches characteristic of Islamic architecture. Despite its appearance, it was used for centuries as a place of Jewish worship and gathering. But eventually, when the Roman Catholic kings began to push other religious groups out of the peninsula, the synagogue was abandoned and became a church in the 1550. However, it still appeared to be a mosque, and continues to look this way today.

El Interior de Santa Maria la Blanca

The city and its diverse history was fascinating, especially because it cemented the material I had just learned in class. We had the time to visit plenty of smaller points of interest, including several that were relevant to several writers we had been studying. My favorite stop was the former house of Mariano Jose de Larra, a prominent writer during the 1800’s whose work we had read various excerpts from. Apparently he gardened as a hobby—we were actually able to see the towering trees that he had planted as seeds over 200 years ago.

We ended the day with a zipline ride across the river Tagus, and spent some time on “La Puente de San Martin,” an enormous medieval bridge that connects the city with the countryside across the river. I would go back to Toledo in a heartbeat—one day was certainly not enough time to fully appreciate it. Although I saw several other sites in Spain that dated back even farther than the amazing buildings in Toledo, it still stood out to me above all else. It was a time capsule, bearing evidence of a city far ahead of its time.