Julio Camba, La ciudad automática

Chapter XVIII:  Black Spain

From 110th St to 116th St, between Fifth and Eighth Avenues, it could be said that we are in Spain.  It’s something of a black Spain, for sure, but it’s a true Spain, thanks to the language, the character and the general attitude people there have toward life.  Look at the store displays and the illuminated signs:  “Dr. Roque, cirujano-dentista [surgeon dentist]”, “Pasteleria de Simon [Simon’s Pastry Shop]”,  “Campoamor, Comidas y bebidas [Campoamor: meals and beverages]”, Libreria Sanjurjo [Sanjurjo Bookstore]”, Libreria Cervantes [Cervantes Bookstore]”, “Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, “La flor asturiana” “El patio” “Teatro de San Jose”, Billares Rodriguez.  There can be no doubt that this is Spain, and only a petty, provincial spirit would fail to recognize this.  It is the great Spain, the great Spain where the sun still doesn’t set, in short, the Hispanic Spain.

In the Teatro de San Jose, the audiences are delighted not only by the respective accents of the gallego, the catalan or the baturro.  Right next to them on stage appear the “jibaro” from the Antilles, the pelado from Mexico, the atorrante from Argentina, etc.  The dance numbers include jotas and sones, sardanas and rumbas, pericones and muneiras, peteneras and jarabes.  The instruments played include the guitar, the cajon, the clave, the guiro, the tabourine and the ariba.  Flamenco is sung next to songs fro the pampas; alalas are followed by vidalitas, malaguenas by corridos.  And the restaurants, for their part, wouldn’t be considered Spanish restaurants if on the menu, next to Valencian rice or catalonian escudella, we can’t find tamales, churrasco, mole de guajolote, chile con carne, barbacoa, sibiche, el chupe de camarones and other Hispanoamerican platillos (dishes) or antojitos (appetizers).  And if you, reader, find this nomenclature somewhat barbarous, I can only lament that, because such a reaction would prove no that you’re very Spanish, but that you are hardly Spanish, that you have an exclusively peninsular concept of Spain and that you are lacking in awareness of our national history.

If, in fact, you are lacking this historical awareness, and you’d like to acquire it, you can do no better than to come to this neighborhood in New York that I’m talking about, where you’ll find a miniature version of a very grand Spain. […]

Chapter XIX

The Inquisition and Arroz con pollo

In the middle of Broadway, between 47th and 48th Streets, there is a very entertaining museum of the Spanish Inquisition.  In the museum, a number of paintings, vaguely resembling those of Solano, represent our friars fro the inquisitorial age engaged in their favorite activities, like hanging old people upside down in the chimney of the fireplace to cure the by smoke, searing with red-hot iron the breasts of pretty adulteresses, roasting new born babies on a spit, etc. etc.

The Spaniard who arrives to New York and runs into these paintings is likely to grab a quill and send an indignant letter to the newspapers in Madrid, arguing that the US is deliberately slandering us.  But there’s nothing of the sort.  It’s just one more of these store fronts in NY devoted to the sale of quick, violent and cheap thrills.  Tens cents a thrill.  When prohibition started, these places more or less substituted bars, and people went to the to get the same kind of stimulus they used to get from a glass of gin or a shot of whisky, and even though nowadays everybody drinks, it doesn’t really matter.  New York needs more emotions every day.  The ads for gangster films promise “a thrill a minute.  Unfortunately, gangster films don’t excite anyone here any more, since everyone is so accustomed not just to the artistic fiction but to the reality of industrialized crime.  So if some businessman has found a way to make some money off the Spanish Inquisition, are we going to assume that the US hates us?

The idea that the US hates us is about just as accurate as the also popular notion that the US adores us.  If instead of encountering those pictures of the Inquisition, the Spaniard who has just arrived to the New York, runs into one of those restaurants called Granada, Valencia, Chateau Sevilla, Alcazar, etc, he might adopt the second hypothesis, that Americans adore Spain.  Some terra cotta roof tiles at the entrance, inspired by the California missions; some wrought iron; a calf’s head, not on the menu (where, a la vinagreta, it would be most appealing), but rather on the wall, pretending to be a bull’s head.  Castanets.  Waitresses, supposed to be morenas, are mulatas, just to be sure.  Combs. Mantillas.  Spanish yellow rice; chile con carne, frijoles negros, gallegan broth or caldo gallego, etc etc.  All with background music from Carmen, performed by a band of blacks dressed up like bullfighters.

The owner of one of these places is an American woman of Irish descent, miss MacDougal, who owns a chain of exotic restaurant in New York, which excuses soe of her equivocations, like, for example, having people eat an asturian fabada while listening to the strains of the bulgarian national anthem.  In general, though, these places are run by Greeks who are in control of the food business.  So, just because a compatriot fro Venielos gives you a Nicaraguan dish in a more or less Californian place in New York, are you going to think that Spain is in fashion in the US?

The truth in all this, the sad and painful truth, is that the US neither adores us nor hates us; that the museum of the Inquisition is meaningless; as is the Chateau Sevilla.  The truth is that for America, Spain will always be a confusing mix of the Inquisition, arroz con pollo, the Catholic Kings, General Sandino, Seville, Antofogasta, Salvador de Madariaga, la Pastora Imperio, bullfights, rhumba, Christopher Columbus and Sir Niceto Alcala Zamora.

2 Responses to Julio Camba, La ciudad automática

  1. James Yglesias says:

    Thanks for the memories.

  2. We’re like a Cuban sandwich in Ybor City. Un mixto de Cubano, Espanol y Italiano, pero DELICIOSO! And, everybody loves them.

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