10 October 2017, UberX.
E. drives a shiny, new looking, red Toyota Camry. I only know the make of the car, because I remember reading it off the Google maps page with my UberX ride information. It’s weird to realize that I can see the route suggested by the app displayed on my own screen while this stranger drives to pick me up. I find myself critiquing the algorithm, because I have my own ingrained routes which offer themselves automatically when I register someone’s location.
He’s not quite my father’s age, but nevertheless, he reminds me that the sharing economy is not, as promised, a source of income for young workers looking to make some extra cash, but a source of income for people of all ages.
It’s nearly eleven in the morning, and he’s driving me to work in downtown Providence. I missed the bus and figured this is what the so-called “sharing economy” was made for: using someone’s side gig to get to my own side gig.
I ask him how he’s doing and he’s cheerful. His radio is tuned to 95.5 FM, which used to be WBRU – Brown University’s student radio station – but was recently sold and now broadcasts Christian rock music. I wonder if it’s a hold over, or if it’s a recent addition to his radio presets.
It turns out he’s from Puerto Rico. He tells me he still has family there, his mother and his brother. I ask how they’re doing and he says they’re fine. The house is made of concrete and withstood the weather, they have water from the ground, and his brother had bought a large generator. They have water and power, so they’re alright, he says. The only problem is food; the supermarkets are only letting people in 10 at a time to avoid mayhem and to ensure that people only take a few of the things they need, rather than everything. If you need batteries, you can only take two packets.
He asks me if I’m going to work, I say that I am, and that I usually take the bus, except that I missed it this morning. He tells me about how he took the bus once, in 1991 with his kids and said “never again.” The next year, 1992, he got a car. I mention that the bus is always crazy, always somebody having some problem on the bus. (The two bus lines which run near my house run between two transit centers and one runs between hospitals. A large portion of the regular riders are people who make use of the city’s human services – you see a lot of colorful characters, and hear a lot of interesting stories.)
E. tells me that he used to ride the train when he lived in New York. Always there were people who would get into fights and cause trouble. If a seat opened up, you’d have to deal with other people who wanted to sit there, regardless that you’d both been waiting for it. He’d often let other people take it, he says, he doesn’t know if the person who was sitting there was sick. Better to avoid the fight and the uncertain cleanliness. He’d wait for the seat to get cold, he says.
I ask him about living in New York; how long did he live there?
He went in 1977, three months before the Blizzard of ’77. He never forgot it, he says. At the time, he’d been living in an illegal basement apartment. There was no door leading to a hallway on the inside, only a door to the outside. When the snow piled up, there was no way for them to get out. The landlady didn’t want to call the cops or the fire department because the apartment itself was illegal. They were stuck there for days, eventually, she did call the fire department. When they showed up, they cut a hole in the floor of the kitchen and pulled everyone out. No more basements apartments after that, he said.
He asked me about my parents, I said that both of my parents had been born here, in Providence, but that my mother’s family was Greek, and my father’s father was Puerto Rican, but grew up in New York, and my father’s mother was from Ohio. So you have Puerto Rican blood, he asks. Yes, I say. But you’ve never been there? No, I tell him, but I’d really like to go sometime.
He tells me that July is the best month to visit Puerto Rico. Every day is a carnival. One day they’ll close one street, the next they’ll close another. It’s the best month to go on vacation. He always tells people to visit Puerto Rico in July. Wait for them to get everything back to normal, and go on vacation in July. I tell him I’ll do that.
I really hope I’ll have the chance to do so.
08 October 2017, Lyft.
It’s dark, and I don’t notice what kind of car she drives. I think it’s silver, and I know it’s some kind of four door sedan. As always, I’m entranced by the weird little bulbous LED screen that Lyft provides its drivers. The tail end of my friend’s name scrolls across and I inform her that I’m not Eric, although I am the person who will be taking the ride. In the dark, I spot a flash of a tattoo on her arm; it’s the triforce from the Legend of Zelda games.
Driving through the greater Boston metro area at night is one of my favorite experiences. I say I’m trying to catch the last train to Providence, because I have work the next morning. She asks me what I do and I explain that it’s a part time gig working in a bookstore. I’m looking for work, I tell her. What do you hope to do? I studied journalism, I say.
I assume she doesn’t drive for Lyft full time and ask what she does outside of this work. She corrects me, kindly, and I apologize. It’s good money, she says.
I ask her what she would be doing if she could do anything, and she tells me she studied to be a jeweler. She had an agreement to take on an apprenticeship, but it fell through, because the jeweler she would have been apprentice to is moving into the holiday season and doesn’t have time to take her on.
I tell her I’m also hoping to get experience before moving into a more freelance position. We’re both newly graduated, although we both seem like non-traditional graduates. She tells me that she’s completed all her classes and walked in the spring, but that she couldn’t pay for the last two classes, so her degree is being held hostage by the university.
Without a degree, she can’t find work. The car is dark, and we’re both facing forward, and under the passing street lights we take confession. We share our fears about moving to a big city, without a job, merely because we know that’s where the jobs are. Even entry level positions require 3 years experience, she says. In the dark, I nod. As we’re getting on the freeway, Fall Out Boy’s Just One Yesterday starts playing on her radio, and I think about the time I spent away from school.
Making rent in Boston is scary, she tells me. I tell her that I think I’m going to have to find work in Idaho. Maybe it’s time to do things that scare me, she says. Maybe so, I think.
Her degree was more theoretical, than practical. Though she studied jewelry, her program had no prerequisites, and so she would find herself in advanced classes with a bunch of beginner students, which would stymie her opportunity to learn more technical aspects. She spent her education making fashion jewelry, the showy, and sometimes cumbersome, pieces that we’re might be familiar with from the runway, or in galleries. It’s not the sort of thing one would wear in a regular situation.
She had hoped to start her apprenticeship while still in school. But at the time she was working part time, going to school, and driving for Lyft, which was already difficult to manage, adding the apprenticeship would have been impossible.
If she can’t get an apprenticeship, there’s a school in San Francisco she is interested in. Without the apprenticeship, she can’t get a job. If she can’t get the apprenticeship, more school will have to do.
When we pull up to south station, we wish each other luck.
An intentional complication
There are 4 major areas to consider regarding the current situation in Spain, where the region of Catalonia recently held a referendum on a declaration of independence:
- the economic reasons for Spain’s insistence on retaining Catalonia,
- the questions arising from a newly independent Catalonia with regards to the European Union, with an eye towards the freedom of movement of goods, people, and money,
- the fascist history of the country and, specifically, Catalonia’s still fresh memories of life under Franco, in particular the condemnation of the present Spanish government as fascist without a meditation on the fascist history which continue to resonate in the present,
- finally, with the emboldening of racisms across the Western world, immediately embracing ethnonationalist separatist movements seems premature.
These are a series of spitball thoughts, I do not seek to present myself as an authority on the subject. Nor do I want to appear for or against Catalan independence. Ultimately, I believe many of my points might be justifiably used to support the arguement for independence. Equally, however, a geopolitically conservative and globalist thread in some of my points will be of little interest to certain progressive groups, and the hard left anti-imperialists who see globalism as a direct descendent and scion of colonial imperialism. (A position I am not, strictly speaking, willing to refute.)
1. Wealth and federalism
Spain, like most nations, is made up of regions with their own local governments and governance. Along with the political distinctions, these states create economic zones, which in turn feed into a larger national economy, with some wealth redistribution happening courtesy of the national government.
Barcelona and Catalonia more generally are among the few regions in the Spanish economy which are flourishing, despite the economic crisis which developed in Europe after the 2008 US financial crash. That prosperity is a strong motivator for the national government of Spain to maintain a hold on the region. Spain continuese to be strapped for cash, even having put into effect the austerity measures and the economic restructuring demanded by international creditors.
It bears remembering that the issue of Catalan independence, while not entirely new, did not have anything nearing its current prominence before the economic crash. It was only as the screws were put on and Spain began to feel the crush of its debt that Catalonia started its legislative saber rattling and invigorated the call for independence.
2. European Unity and the economy
The biggest question regarding secession from a European nation is how the new border and the new government will be integrated (or not) into the European project. Regardless of whether Europe welcomes a newly independent Catalonia into the European Union or not, that accession will have to be negotiated (or renegotiated, depending on your perspective). One can only presume that the Spanish representation in the European government will do their utmost to make life difficult for the new nation. It is unclear if they are likely to have allies who fear similar sucessions within their borders. (With Britain making its own European exit, the Spaniards are down an anti-Independence ally.)
Most importantly, Catalan independence means more uncertainty for the European Union, an already struggling and beleagured project. Until the details of Catalonia’s status within the bloc are worked out, there will be many people in limbo; European citizens who live and/or work in Barcelona or the region, who may or may not be allowed to remain. The fate of Spanish citizens who wish to retain that status yet continue live and work in Catalonia will also need to be negotiated.
Ultimately, Europe has created a region of porous borders which has greatly benefited workers who are able to travel across national boundaries in search of work. Additionally, as we are learning from Brexit, the porous borders of the EU have built an interconnected and interdependent infrastructure system. Renegotiating those contracts creates seemingly impossible quandaries in which the average citizen is left uncertain as to their future.
(New borders and new governments mean that all of the agreements and systems which undergird modern life will need to be examined and repartitioned to meet the requirements of the new government, and the limits of the new borders. This is an unenviable position to leave anyone; I invite you to explore the questions that Brexit has raised for the shared power grids bridging the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.)
3. History (Fascism)
Reaching back into the misty past and the heyday of the Spanish empire is superfluous for understanding the roots of this conflict. The most pressing history is that of the 20th century. It is a history which is still vivid in the minds of Catalans.
Under the fascist regime of Francisco Franco, Catalonia was violently repressed, and much was done to strip them of their cultural and linguistic identity. An acquaintance told the story of how after Franco’s death in 1975 and the return to democratic governance, she had to put in the paper work for an official name change, so that her government documents would reflect the name her parents gave her, a Catalan name, which she was prohibited from carrying under the Franco regime. Her experience was not unique.
Many people who have visited Barcelona are familiar with the habit of Catalans to prefer English over Spanish when encountering someone who does not speak Catalan. Use of the language was banned under Franco, and these little “regional quirks” are the markers of the scars the fascist regime left on the people.
I am uninterested in defending the actions of the Spanish government. The choices they have made are abominable, in addition to making the government look terrible.
The vivid memory of fascism should have served as a reminder for the Spanish government to avoid violent suppression and the suspension of Catalonia’s limited independence. Nevertheless, those outside the country should be careful of invoking the imagery unless they are prepared to hold up the current government against past fascist regimes. Though the actions of the Spanish government are reprehensible, they have not reached the heights of dictatorship. We must urge them to remember their own history, and the respect they owe their Catalan bretheren, and furthermore, we must hope they have learned something from dealing with the Basque Separatist movement.
Much of the Western world is preparing to do battle with nationalists of a variety of sorts. Ethnonationalists pose a unique quandary for those who seek equality. Self-determination is a noble goal, but it can create as many problems as it might purport to solve.
Thankfully, Catalonia is positioned in such a way to avoid the quandaries which have plagued the self-determination of the Jewish people. Hopefully, if they do achieve independence, the freedom of movement within Europe will been maintained even across these new borders and there will be no need for the “bloodless genocides” which plagued the establishment of a Greek nation-state and Turkey which saw the exchange of Greek Muslims and Greek Orthodox Turks. We can only hope that prosperity will forestall the possibility which resulted in the Bosnian genocide, and the continued unease in the region. Perhaps it we will avoid armed conflict, but the possibility of avoiding all political tension is a fantasy.
The consolidation of ethnic identities into nation states has left a number of wounds in the developed world. They are implictly tied to the history of empire, colonialism, and imperialism. There are no good answers, never mind any easy ones.
Personally, I have ever stronger reservations about the logic of ethnonationalist self determination. Mostly because it feels like an excuse for those who have to abandon those who have not, and those who have not to justify power moves which lead to greater pain down the line. Here I undoubtedly split with any anti-globalists, who see porous borders and rampant capitalist internationalism as the great evils plaguing all nations and peoples. Nevertheless, I stand with those who see globalization as a reality with which must contend and should make our decisions with an eye towards justice and equality when it comes to crossing borders and making opportunities for all people on our planet. Ethnonationalism seems to invite divisiveness and trouble.
Photo by Selene Means. Wallace Salanpo holds a sign amidst other protesters.