The Romans called it "Valentia," meaning "valor." The Arabs called it Medina bu-Tarab, which translates to "city of joy." With such a proud heritage, it's bittersweet to note that Valencia, the third most important city in Spain after Madrid and Barcelona, is a place where all the costs of Spain's economic crisis are visible.
The city reminds me of Athens, probably because both have orange trees everywhere and the people have a distinctively Mediterranean joie de vivre. It also reminds me of the Greek capital for more unfortunate reasons: In this Spanish city, poverty and economic inequality are palpable. Unlike sophisticated Barcelona — one of the few places left in Spain where people can still find jobs — and busy Madrid, where tourism and government officials keep the city alive, Valencia has had to absorb the weight of more than six years of economic malaise on its own.
Like many Spanish cities, Valencia enjoyed rapid economic growth in the 2000s, triggered by the construction industry and tourism. But the crisis that began in 2008 hit Valencia hard, and it has never really recovered. On every building hangs a sign advertising apartments for sale, and it only takes a short walk to see beggars, people sleeping next to ATMs and teenagers collecting cardboard to recycle. In the poorer neighborhoods that surround the city's center, African immigrants hang out in bars with no evident occupation.
Everyday Life Continues, Although Altered
What I found particularly interesting about Valencia is how clearly the crisis has hit the middle class. Expensive restaurants are frequently empty, while cafes and cheaper restaurants are full. High-end clothing stores subsist, but most Valencians shop at cheaper places offering bargains and discounts. Just like in other Southern European cities hit by the economic downturn, Valencia's middle class is trying to adapt its lifestyle to the new environment without completely abandoning its identity. Valencia, like the rest of Spain, is also marked by emigration: At the airport, I met several young men and women visiting home after emigrating to Northern Europe to work.
Socializing is a key element of Spanish culture. One of the things I love most about Spain are its street corners: They are incredibly wide, so every corner is a little square where people can meet, bars can set up tables and children can play. I have always been fascinated by languages and accents, so I was amazed to see people switching from Valencian (a close cousin to Catalan) to Castilian and back to Valencian during the same conversation, probably without even realizing it. While the crisis dominates the topics of their conversations — everybody seems to be talking about unemployment or politics these days — the Valencians still enjoy spending time together in public.
Public spaces also show additional manifestations of the crisis. During my stay in Valencia, I saw several pieces of graffiti and installations of street art with words such as "emigrate" or "stop the corruption." A photographic exhibition in a community center was aptly called "wasted youth," focusing on the large segment of the population that neither studies nor works. The Spanish have even coined a term for them, the "ni-ni generation," similar to what is known in English as "NEET" — "Not in Employment, Education or Training." Just over half of the active youth population in Spain is out of work, creating a long-term problem for the country because those who have enough training chose to emigrate, while those left behind have considerable difficulty entering the workforce.
The Valencians are no strangers to times of crisis. The city flourished during the fifteenth century as a key commercial hub in the Mediterranean, and the discovery of the Americas turned the Spanish economy toward the Atlantic, opening an era of decadence for Valencia. However, just like the Catalans, the Valencians bet on the wrong horse during the War of Spanish Succession in the early 1700s and suffered the wrath of the Bourbon kings when they took control of the government in Madrid. The war marked the end of the Kingdom of Valencia, which was absorbed by the Spanish crown. The region would have to wait until 1982 to receive its first statute of autonomy.
In the early 20th century, poet Antonio Machado wrote that there isn't a single Spain, but two. His concept of "the two Spains" was meant to illustrate the ideological and cultural frictions between a left-wing, republican and anti-clerical Spain and a conservative, monarchic and Roman Catholic Spain. Valencia is one of those places where you can see the two Spains in action.
One of the first things I did upon arriving in Valencia was visit its cathedral — a very strange building that exhibits almost every possible architectural style. Valencia’s cathedral is a mesmerizing collage where Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neo-Classical elements coexist in a fragile harmony. The main reason I visited this kaleidoscopic building was to see if it was actually used by worshippers — and to my surprise, it was. Despite decades of secularization, Spain is still a very Catholic country where change is slow and tradition is important. Valencia has a strong, secular communist tradition, but conservatives have ruled the region (the Valencian community) and its capital (the city of Valencia) since the early 1990s.
The other Spain is quite active as well. During my 10-day stay in Valencia, I came across protests of every kind. Two in particular caught my attention. The first was a demonstration by left-wing groups demanding the end of the monarchy and the creation of "the third republic" emulating the communist second republic that lost the Spanish civil war in the 1930s and briefly had its capital in Valencia. I was attracted by people waving the purple, red and yellow republican flags while teenagers beat drums in a military style. These men and women numbered in the hundreds, demanding the abolition of the monarchy, the end of austerity measures and greater control of the state over the economy.
The second protest that caught my attention was a demonstration by members of the Platform of People Affected by Mortgages, or PAH, its Spanish acronym. They were demanding a change in Spanish mortgage law that would force banks to accept homes as full payment of mortgage debts. In Spain, the combination of high unemployment and the collapse of the real estate sector has led to a situation where people are left without their homes and with massive debts. Under the current legislation, banks repossess homes whenever their owners cannot pay their mortgages, but real estate prices have fallen so sharply that borrowers must continue making payments on assets they no longer own.
These kinds of protests come at a key moment in modern Spanish history. The country will hold municipal, regional and general elections in 2015, and for the first time since the end of the fascist dictatorship in the late 1970s, a third party, the left-wing Podemos, leads the traditional center-left Socialist Party and the center-right Popular Party. During the PAH protest, I noticed people chanting "yes we can," Podemos' main slogan, and "all the politicians should go," the battle cry of Argentina's 2001 protests.
I asked one of the protest organizers if she thought the upcoming general election would change things in Spain. "There is always hope," she told me, "but also skepticism." I was surprised by her sophisticated approach to Podemos. She said, "we like them, but so far, they haven't said anything concrete. We want to see their specific proposals on mortgage law reform before we decide whether we will vote for them."
Valencia is a reminder that the Spanish crisis continues to affect a large number of people and that many Spaniards are skeptical about their future, even despite the recent statistics showing the economy is growing again. Not as powerful as Madrid and not as prosperous as Barcelona, Valencia is still a place that raises questions about the future of Spain — especially at a time when the pillars of the country, from its political system to its territorial unity, are in question.