Gratitude: Spain and La Familia

Don Harris | November 2013

Whenever I get a chance, I steal away to one of my favorite spots in all of Spain: the Plaza de Cabildo, located in the heart of the sleepy sherry town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, across from Doñana, a wildlife preserve on the shores of the Atlantic. The plaza is near the venerable market where each day, local housewives visit its stalls of fish, meat, citrus, cheese and garden fresh vegetables brought in early in the morning. Now and then, when I drop by there to enjoy the market atmosphere, I see the same old woman sitting at the entrance guarding her big basket of tiny snails – deftly sweeping back errant creatures as they seek to gain freedom by furtively crawling over the edge of the container.

In the center of Plaza de Cabildo is a large and welcoming ceramic fountain with a bubbling jet of water in the center, surrounded by a ring of about a dozen smaller jets. The fountain is a magnet for pigeons and little boys who like to play in the water. Around the edges are tall palm trees and extravagant bowers of bougainvillea, and throughout there are people sitting at tables in the warm Andalucian sun, sipping Manzanilla sherry or a caña of Cruzcampo beer and savoring the freshest of seafood – including the fabled langostinos de Sanlúcar, amazingly delicious prawns, and tortillitas de camarones, a fritter made of tiny brine shrimp.

As idyllic as this sounds, the real reason I return is because I enjoy the Spanish people and the way they live out each day involved with one another. There are kids everywhere, young parents and friends chatting at cafés, a few sherry bodega stalwarts, people from all walks of life spontaneously gathering as a lively community. A couple of weeks ago, when Ruth and I visited the plaza, we saw a little girl standing beside her young father who held what must have been a pound sack of birdseed. He was sowing handfuls on the tile pavement and the pigeons were ecstatic – and not only the birds, but also about a dozen excited little girls and boys running amongst the pigeons trying to catch them. 

I have always thought what was special about the Spanish culture was the way they include their children, infants or teenagers, in all aspects of their life together as a family. More than forty years ago a Spanish friend asked me, “Why would you entrust your most precious child to a stranger?” - referring to our practice of hiring babysitters. Even if it was a midnight outing at a restaurant, the children would be there with them – not left in the care of another. 

As a result, at many public locations, such as a tapas bar or a restaurant, there is often a cadre of little sons and daughters playing right next to all of the adults. Over the years, Ruth and I have noticed that, even at a public park, mothers would be very involved in conversation while the children are given free reign to play within the vicinity - without the involvement of supervisory “helicopter moms.” As a result, the children took care of one another. If there was a scratched knee, or someone fell down, for example, the child did not run to their mother nor did the parent quickly intervene - instead older children in the group rendered aid or comfort to the younger. In effect it was a community responsibility, not solely a parental one. 

Of course this works well when your neighborhood is essentially unchanging and everyone knows one another at least casually. The churro lady at the market in El Puerto de Santa María has been in the same location for more than fifty years, and she followed in the footsteps of her father and in turn his father. Literally everyone in the town knows her, from the cleaning ladies to the corporate heads of the sherry bodegas. I bought my first churros from her in 1973. Sometimes I would take our boys to the market on Saturday morning and, for 60 pesetas, Charo would fill up a cone with sizzling hot churros (the cone was made out of an old newspaper).

The Spaniard is raised with this broader view of life where many people are viewed as family. Our type of privacy and 'rugged individualism' is unknown; rights and responsibilities are shared by all in the family. When you are in a smaller city you will notice that the three generations are together when people take a paseo – the afternoon stroll. Grandma may take her granddaughter by the hand, and she in turn knows that she is looked after by her son or daughter, or even grandson.

In America, we have evolved into a quite a different society than that of traditional Spain. Our economy often requires two paychecks, making daycare and babysitting a reluctant necessity, and often our families are scattered over hundreds or even thousands of miles. The biggest travel period of the year for the airlines is Thanksgiving weekend, the uniquely American holiday where we celebrate the importance of our family connection and go to great lengths to get together. The celebration hearkens back to our roots, when the original settlers experienced the kind of interdependence which much of rural America and traditional Spain still experience.

In Spain, the severe financial crisis continues to linger, and the response of the Spanish people is to pull together as a family. We seldom saw 'street people' or 'homeless' during our recent travel in Spain, despite the fact that unemployment still is hovering at close to 25% (for youths, almost 50%). I think this is because their culture has an unquestioned understanding that everyone belongs, and their families have a responsibility to include them. The family might have to "add water to the broth" - the caldo at the dinner table might be a little thinner, and the bed might be makeshift, but it is there for anyone without question. 

When we arrived for the celebration of Nuestra Señora del Pilar in Zaragoza a few weeks ago, we wondered if the feria would be on a smaller scale than when the economy was doing well. On the contrary, the city was bustling with more activity than ever! Compared to our visit five years ago, it appeared to us that the number of families dressed in native costume bringing flowers to the Virgin had doubled. Even at dusk there were still more groups processing into town - many singing and dancing. Along the Ebro River were dozens of stands selling homemade roscos and doughnuts, big loaves of country bread, grilled Ibérico ribs and chops, and trays of candied fruit and other sweets.

Now I do not want to sound like a Pollyanna. There are severe problems, and in some families there is barely enough food to share, and this is why the greater community feels a moral duty to respond: after all is said and done, we are all in this together. Last year we told you of the San Froilán soup kitchen in Lugo supported by the family who provides us with bread from Galicia. There is no law making them do this – it comes from a sense of responsibility: “When I was hungry you fed me.” 

This generosity is not just confined to the mores of traditional Spain; it is part of the American character as well. Last year La Tienda met with representatives of the food banks distributing food to needy families all over Spain and decided to help out by launching the Campaign for Spain. Your generosity as a part the La Tienda family was amazing. We banded together to send $50,000 to our needy neighbors in Spain. Because of your enthusiasm and the continuing need in Spain, we are launching the Campaign for Spain 2013. I hope many of you will join with us to give what you can. As with last year, 100% of your gift will be forwarded to those who need our help. 

Su amigo,