“Es una vergüenza…”, “Así nos va”, “Normal, este país”
Last week, a nurse in Spain became the first person to catch ebola outside of Africa. Scary? Maybe. A cause for extra precaution, for more education? Definitely. Shameful? I don’t know if we should go that far. But during this past week, I’ve heard a lot of reactions from Spaniards—friends, Twitter personalities, politicians, newscasters, etc. Some offered support to a person who was risking her life to save someone else. But a lot of people talked about shame. Shame? Yes, shame.
La vergüenza ajena
I love Spain. I think it’s a pretty cool country—beautiful, with great food, open-minded people (mainly). It has its problems, but it’s overall a nice place to live. I am sometimes shocked by Spaniards’ views on their own country, the way they insult it, as if their problems made it a terrible country. As Spanish National Television put it in a blog post, “We Spaniards feel shame constantly.” As the blog mentions, everyone feels a twinge of shame when your drunk uncle does ridiculous things at a wedding. Of course! But Spaniards seem to feel shame where most of us wouldn’t, to feel shame when they personally haven’t done anything wrong. La vergüenza ajena, feeling shame on the behalf of another person.
Politicians are corrupt in Spain. Politicians are also corrupt in the U.S. Heck, politicians are pretty much corrupt everywhere. Isn’t that what politicians do? I find it interesting to read the news after some political scandal here. The word shame, vergüenza, is almost always used. It’s not just that the politician should feel ashamed; it’s also that Spaniards feel a sense of shame for having such a corrupt politician. You would expect outrage; you would expect demands for them to step down. You might not expect a whole nation to feel a collective sense of shame.
As I said before, last week a Spanish nurse tested positive for ebola. It was scary because she caught the disease in Spain, not Africa. Thus began the panic, the overreactions, and the blame game. It is a natural human instinct to look for a scapegoat. But I honestly could not understand why people began to feel embarrassed by this, as though they were embarrassed to be from a country where a mistake was made. In fact, a nurse in the U.S. was diagnosed with ebola over the weekend, and I do not feel ashamed by this fact. (Take a look at some of the memes that came out of this. It’s interesting.)
I come from the land of red, white, and blue everything, over-the-top patriotism so strong it makes you roll your eyes sometimes. We pledge allegiance to a flag. To a flag. A flag. Here in Spain, this type of patriotism wouldn’t just cause eye-rolling; it would cause embarrassment. Again, la vergüenza. This is a more complicated topic, but too much patriotism is associated with the Franco years, with fascism and xenophobia. It’s an understatement to say it’s complicated. (Thanks, Facebook, for forever altering that phrase for me.) As an American, it’s interesting for me to see the way Spaniards approach patriotism. I find that some are indeed patriotic, but it seems to be easier for people to be proud of their hometown or their village. There’s a few advertisements in Mario’s hometown which state, “Orgullosos de ser zamoranos,” proud to be from Zamora. That seems to be an easier sentiment to express.
Whenever the New York Times writes about Spain’s problems, certain people tend to get very angry. Others feel embarrassed. This New York Times article about austerity and hunger in Spain provoked negative reactions on Twitter. Many were offended by the portrayal of Spain. I wanted to tell them that we knew that it was just one part of Spain, that Spain was also the land of charming villages and magnificent landscapes and stunning architecture. A country cannot be summed in a news article. Just wait a few days, and there will be another article writing about something positive.
This is a complex topic with many layers, and I don’t wish to trivialize it. I am just curious if anyone else has encountered this in Spain, or if any Spaniards wish to comment on the concept of vergüenza ajena.