Catherine in Spain

Catherine is a senior Distinguished Scholar who is majoring in biology and anthropology, with a Spanish minor, in Dedman College. She received a Richter fellowship for summer 2010 to travel to Madrid and research the integration of people with disabilities into Spanish society.

So many things, so little time

I don’t even know where to start this post because so many things have happened since the last time I posted. This always happens. Maybe I should have posted more often. Oh, well. Here goes:

Visit to a Day Center:

Last week I visited a combination day center / assisted living facility / special employment center. The living facility and day center are for people with very severe intellectual disabilities and/or behavioral problems. I didn’t know this before I got there, and when I found that out, I have to admit I was a little bit nervous. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting myself into, but I met with the director of the center and she gave me a tour of the facilities. It was a really interesting place.

c037%20.jpg The people who use the center are almost completely dependent on the staff; many lack the communication and motor skills necessary to care of themselves. Everyone was organized into “classrooms” depending on their own special needs, and each room caters to the needs of the specific group – for example, one room had bright colorful lights, music, and textured walls and carpets for sensory stimulation. The building reminded me mostly of an elementary schools with color-coded signs and pictures indicating which room is which, brightly colored walls with crayon self portraits, and puzzles and games to keep everyone busy.

Walking into one of the classrooms with the director, I was greeted by the question “Quien es? Quien es?” (Who are you?) by one of the men inside. I told him that I’m a student from the United States and that … oh, wait … that’s where he stopped me. He was so excited that I was from the US that he started yelling “Americana! Americana! Americana!” followed by “Hamburguesa, hamburguesa!” which means hamburger. It’s funny what people associate with American culture 🙂 The man called his friends over and told them (though I’m sure they’d already heard!) that I am, in fact, American.

They all shared his joy and one by one they all gave me “besos” – kisses on the cheek. Then, in an effort to share their Spanish culture with me, they started shouting “typical” Spanish words: “Tortilla!” “Toro!” “Paella!” It was a really humorous and touching experience, and the director seemed to be excited by the reaction of center’s patrons to my visit.

I also visited the special employment center, a laundry company that does the laundry for the living facility and nearby restaurants and hotels. The people employed here, unlike those living in the day center, are almost completely independent, and having access to their own paycheck from working at the laundromat allows them even more freedom to live their lives as they want.

Sunday trip to the mountains:

c-024%20.jpg Last Sunday I went with the family I’m staying with to their garden in the mountains. This was a nice change of pace from navigating public transport and doing interviews. After seeing all of the veggies that were growing (and trying to figure out what the heck the words are for all of the veggies in Spanish) we went on a hike. Yes, I went on a hike. Through the wilderness, more or less.

I climbed up a waterfall (and back down) without incident and followed my wonderful “tour guides” (ages 11 and 13, family friends that came with us) up and down the slippery hills! It was absolutely beautiful and the sun was shining through the trees to give everything a heavenly glow. Although I am far from an outdoorsy kind of girl, I really enjoyed the chance to see another part of Spain away from the city.

After this excursion, we had obviously worked up an appetite, so we went to a local restaurant for lunch. Guess what I ate? Goat. Add that to the list of interesting things I’ve eaten here. It wasn’t too bad, really, except for the kidney that popped out when I started cutting a piece to eat. After the initial gasp and “Oh my lord, there’s a kidney on my plate” reaction, I handed the kidney off to someone else (though I’m told it’s a delicious treat – no thank you!) and dug in. The meat had an interesting flavor to it that took a little getting used to, but all in all it wasn’t too bad. Does anyone know why we don’t eat goat in the US? I’m curious to know why we don’t.

More interviews:

The other day I talked to someone at Fundacion ONCE, an umbrella organization for several groups that fight for job opportunities for and integration of people with all types of disabilities. The foundation itself hires many people with disabilities to do jobs, from designing websites to manning desks and everything in between. It was an interesting interview, and I received a video and a few books that will be really handy resources for me to use.

My best interview yet was yesterday with a young woman named Claudia who has cerebral palsy. Before I tell you about the interview, a quick and humorous aside about the circumstances under which we met. Claudia invited me to her home to interview her, and when I thought I was in the right place I gave her a call to figure out which house was hers. She said she’d send her dad out to the street to show me the right house – seems normal enough.

So out comes her dad wearing a striped Speedo and a button-up shirt – unbuttoned – with the bottom part tied at the waist a la Brittney Spears’ “Baby One More Time”. After the interview he volunteered to drive me back to the Metro station and so we got into his car (a bright yellow BMW convertible); on the way he told me that he is a singer and banjo player who has toured the world performing but now owns a nightclub in town. Could he be any more fabulous?? I really don’t think so.

Anyway, back to the matter at hand. Claudia was an absolutely amazing person to interview. Her English was really great, so most of the interview was in English with a few Spanish tidbits thrown in. She’s spent significant time in the US with a cerebral palsy advocacy group and has now started her own web-based organization to provide resources and support for other people in her position.

It was really interesting to hear her compare and contrast cultural differences between the US and Spain with regards to disabilities. For example, she said that Washington, D.C., was like heaven because everything was wheelchair accessible but that she could never live in the US because she wouldn’t be able to afford all of the physical therapy and health care that she needs. The positive thing about Spain is that health care is free and available to everyone who needs it, but the negative is that people lack the “go-get-’em” attitude of self advocacy that she saw in the US.

Claudia stressed the importance of not treating people with disabilities like children and recognizing that people with disabilities are people, too, above all. She is an incredibly strong-willed, compassionate, and intuitive young woman, and I’m looking forward to keeping in touch with her throughout my research and beyond.

One last hoorah:

Since it’s my last week here, I convinced my friend to take me on a day trip to Toledo, a town that’s about an hour south of Madrid. Sergio, two of his friends, and I went to the beautiful old city to tour museums and churches and take pictures of all of the beautiful sights.

c020%20.jpg Toledo is a really interesting place because it has been influenced at one time or another by Muslims, Christians, and Jews so it has numerous mosques, churches and synagogues all over the city. I’ve already mentioned my penchant for old churches and the cathedral of Toledo definitely didn’t disappoint.

The cathedral started being built in 1227. What?! That’s several hundred years before the United States was even a thought. The inside of the cathedral is nothing less than breathtaking with its Gothic sculptures and immense gold altar. It’s lined with chapels devoted to different saints, and I think I could have spent all day exploring all of the ornately decorated chapels and altars. Unfortunately the guys I was with were not nearly as enthralled by the church as I was, so I didn’t actually get to spend all day there. Instead we headed to a military museum, which proved to be much more intriguing to them.

That day we also stumbled upon an old Turkish bathhouse that was now in ruins, a synagogue-turned-museum about the history of Jews in Spain, and a McDonald’s (hey, we’re all college students and Toledo is a very expensive town!) in the town square where we enjoyed lunch out on the terrace. I love Toledo so much because it’s filled with history, faith, and incredible character. We spent several hours there, but we definitely didn’t see all there was to see.

It’s just about time for me to head back to the States, but I still have a couple of things to fit in before I leave. I can’t believe it’s almost over!

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Exploring Spain’s sights and services

C127.JPG I think it’s about time for another post! I’m officially halfway done with my trip to Spain. I’ve gotten a lot done, but I even want to think about all I have left to do!

All work and no play …

C065.jpg Last weekend I didn’t have any interviews planned so I spent a lot of time with the family I’m staying with. We went downtown on Friday, Saturday and Sunday to do touristy things. I ate a squid sandwich in the Plaza Mayor, saw a panoramic view of Madrid from the rooftop of Circulo de Bellas Artes, and enjoyed tortilla de patatas and the sunset in Retiro Park.

I also got to see some of the artwork I’ve studied in Spanish classes up close and personal at the Prado and Reina Sofia museums! Picasso’s “Guernica” is my new favorite painting, I think. If you haven’t seen it, I suggest a Google Images search ASAP. The painting depicts the bombing of a town called Guernica by Franco’s allies during the Spanish Civil War and it’s an incredible testament to the horrors of war.

c104-2.jpg On a lighter note, all weekend I was happy just wandering around the city and marvelling at all of the old buildings, narrow alleys, and beautiful architecture. The little streets here all have so much character and charm that even the most mundane businesses or apartments seem as though they should be epic museums or landmarks. There are a plethora of old churches downtown, which is good because I have a thing for churches. They make me feel very at peace and connected to other people. I walked into one especially beautiful one and realized that I had accidently walked in on a wedding! Don’t worry – I slipped out unnoticed. There are so many wonderful things to see and do in Madrid and it was nice just to be a tourist for a couple of days.

On Sunday I met up with Liz, one of my Alpha Chi sorority sisters from SMU. She was in Spain teaching English at a summer camp and she came to Madrid with the other camp counselors for the last few days of her trip. It was great to see her and to speak English for a little while! We sat at the foot of the Royal Palace eating ice cream and talking about how much we both love Spain 🙂

Back to business

Tuesday I had a great interview with a man named Miguel who works for an organization called AFEM (Asociacion FEAPS para el empleo de las personas con discapacidad intelectual – FEAPS Association for the Employment of People with Intellectual Disabilities). It is part of a larger organization called FEAPS, which stands for Federacion de Organizaciones en favor de Personas con Discapacidad Intelectual (Federation of Organizations in favor of People with Intellectual Disability).

Did you notice that the letters in the abbreviation don’t match the words in the name of the organization? I did, so I asked Miguel about it. He told me that originally the organization was called Federacion de Organizaciones en favor de Personas Subnormales. That’s right, an organization for “Subnormal People.” The change in the names of the organizations, he said, reflected a changing attitude about people with intellectual disability.

AFEM runs centros especiales de empleo (centers of special employment) for people with various intellectual disabilities. Their centers range from restaurants to factories to landscaping and construction companies and everything in between. The organization’s goal is to provide job opportunities to qualified people who may not otherwise be hired because of their disability.

I asked Miguel a lot of questions about why his work is so important and how things have gotten better for people with disabilities in recent years. Something interesting that he told me is that he sort of regrets that an organization like AFEM has to exist: he told me that there is a law in Spain that mandates that 2 percent of the employees of every company must be disabled; if every company actually adhered to that rule there would be no need for centers of special employment because every disabled person who wanted a job would have one. But alas, companies do not do as they are told so extra efforts need to be made to provide employment for people with intellectual disabilites.

All in all, my interview with Miguel was extremely informative and very helpful. He gave me 5 or 6 books about special employment and sent me all sorts of facts and figures about disabilities and employment in Spain. He even told me about an employment center that I can check out next week. The only problem is that it’s a three-hour bus ride away so I haven’t decided when/if/how I will visit it.

I had another interview this morning with a woman who works at FEAPS. I navigated public transit for about an hour and a half each way because the office was in the southern part of Madrid. Oh, and in case you were wondering, I am basically a professional navigator of the Madrid public transit system by now. Evidently, despite my terrible sense of direction, I’m quite adept at reading metro maps and bus time tables. Who would have thought?

Anyway … today’s interview wasn’t the most informative in the world, especially for the three hours of travel, but I did manage to learn about a day center for people with disabilities that’s a bit closer than the three-hours-each-way employment center. I have an appointment at noon on Monday to visit that day center to see what’s what. Hopefully I’ll get to talk to some of the clients to get their take on living in Spain with an intellectual disability. That would be ideal!

The main thing I’ve been hearing in my interviews is that the public’s view of people with intellectual disabilities is changing “poco a poco” – little by little – every year, but that ignorance and fear still pervade people’s perception of the disabled. This is because for many years people with intellectual disabilities were kept in institutions or inside their homes, away from the public’s view, overprotected by families who didn’t know that they could live normal lives just like you and me. This research is turning out to be even more interesting than I originally expected.

Plans for the weekend

Tomorrow or Sunday I’m going to meet up with a girl I met four years ago during the exchange program I did. I unexpectedly saw her a few days ago while waiting for the bus. It was a great (surprising!) little reunion and we were both excited to see each other again. It’ll be good to get more opinions from people my own age about the situation of people with intellectual disabilities here in Madrid and I think that Belen will be a great person to start with!

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The World Cup

It’s been several days since my last post, so I have a lot to talk about!

First of all, Friday was my first interview here! I talked to the director of Special Olympics in Spain. I was really nervous at first, but she was very nice and helpful. I didn’t even get lost! Well, I almost didn’t get lost.

A word to the wise: here the bus stops are not labeled and street signs are not obvious. That was my only problem. On my way home I got off at the wrong bus stop and had to walk for about 45 minutes to find the house!

But anyway, in the interview I learned that Special Olympics isn’t nearly as well-known in Spain as it is in the United States. The woman I interviewed said that it was her goal to increase public awareness so that they could increase participation of athletes and volunteers. Catherine1.jpg She told me that the inclusion of people with disabilities has changed for the better in the past few decades in Spain, but they still have room for improvement. My first interview put my mind at ease. It was not nearly as difficult as I expected.

Fast forward to Sunday, the day of the World Cup final. I watched the game with the family and some friends at the house where I’m staying. We had quite the spread of snacks and set out lawn chairs in the back yard to watch the game. It was really Catherine4.jpgentertaining because I could hear the cheers and yells of the whole neighborhood along with those of the people watching with me. I learned the names of all of the players, the rules of soccer (which I have to admit I didn’t know much about before) and some choice Spanish profanities that were yelled when the referee made a bad call. After Spain won, we went back to the same fountain from earlier that week and took lots of pictures and rejoiced with the rest of Tres Cantos.

Monday afternoon we decided to go to downtown Madrid to greet the soccer players as they returned from South Africa. It was crazy downtown! The newspapers today said that there were a million people in the city that day to watch the parade. Everyone living in the city hung flags from their windows and everyone was gathered in the streets to greet the players. The parade started at 7:30 but we waited for about 3 hours before it got to where we were standing. It was a long evening, but finally the bus got to us, everyone went crazy, and we waved as the players and coach passed by. What a great experience! Braving the crowds was worth the memories.

Today, I went to the Biblioteca Nacional Espana to pick up my library card and look for books. I wasn’t expecting what I encountered when I got there. I wasn’t allowed to bring in my purse, I had to go through two lines of security, and I had to have my folder and notebook inspected before I could go in. What an ordeal! I was finally in; I found the desk and picked up my library card and was ready to request some books. Luckily they gave me an information booklet in English so I could understand all of the (many, many) rules and regulations. Catherine3.jpgAll of the books I needed, though, were at another location (sort of a warehouse for books, I think) so I had to request them. I’ll be going back on Thursday to get them.

All in all a good weekend. I’m still not used to the schedule that Spaniards keep – up at 10 and to bed after 2 – but hopefully a few more days of it will get my body used to staying up so late. We’ll see! Everything else has been great. The family I’m staying with is amazing and I’ve met some wonderful people so far. I’ve kept the getting lost to a minimum, and navigating the metro and bus hasn’t been as hard as I thought it would be. So far, no complaints!

Also, a couple of quick changes to my last post: The chant actually was “Illa, illa, illa, Villa maravilla” (The world illa evidently doesn’t mean anything, it’s just for the chant – who knew?) and the title should have been “Que Viva Espana”. Sorry about that, any native speakers out there 🙂 My Spanish is getting better every day!

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Que Vive Espana!

Tonight was one of the most exciting nights of my life! My apologies in advance because I know this is going to be a really long post 🙂 In case you haven’t heard, Spain won the World Cup game today against Germany! I went with a group of people to watch the game at a large gym in town (Tres Cantos is a town about the size of Plano, I think). They projected the game on a huge screen, and there were about 200 other people there watching with me. The atmosphere inside the gym was electric – everyone had their faces painted or carried Spanish flags or wore the jersey of their favorite player.

Before the game even started people were cheering, and when the national anthem of Spain was played, everyone stood up to sing along. During the game, the crowd could not have been more excited. They cheered every time that Spain got possession of the ball. Literally every time. When the team tried for a goal, everyone stood up and clapped and hollered – even when they missed. The German coach was greeted with vulgarities and middle fingers every time he was show on the screen. Very intense.

All in all, it was a very passionate crowd. Throughout the game, everyone engaged in chants and songs that had something to do with Spanish pride and beating Germany. It wasn’t long before I caught on to the chants. My favorite was “Villa, Villa, Villa maravilla!” which pretty much means “Villa, Villa, marvelous Villa!”; the chanted it each time they showed David Villa, Spain’s star player, on the screen. Needless to say, everyone went crazy when Spain scored their goal. Soon after that the game was over, and everyone headed out to the fountain in the middle of town.

Late-night festivities

The scene on the way to the fountain was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Let me first remind you that the town I’m staying in is a pretty small suburb – think Plano or Columbia. Now picture a scene where cars are speeding around honking their horns, people are leaning out of apartment windows and waving flags, blowing air horns and singing songs, and all of the young people are gathered in (yes, in) the fountain in the middle of town. There were even fireworks!

I never expected anything like that here. I thought that would only happen in the big city but, alas, they take their futbol very seriously in Spain. I could not keep the smile off my face as I saw how incredibly excited everyone was that their beloved Spain was headed to the World Cup finals for the first time ever.

The festivities at the fountain were still going strong around 11 pm when my group left and headed to dinner. We decided to stick around that area to eat and decided on the tapas bar of Tres Cantos. For those of you who aren’t familiar with tapas, they are basically just little servings of food that come with your drink.

So, for two euros I got a Coca Cola and plate of oreja. What is oreja? Pig ear. Yes, I ate the ear of a pig. When in Rome, right? For the most part it tasted like very pork-y pork and I might not have known what it was if it weren’t for the pieces of cartilage that tasted like soft plastic. I probably won’t be ordering that again any time soon. The group of us all shared our tapas so I also got to taste baby octopus, fried squid, and tortilla de patatas. Loved the squid and tortilla (not like the tortillas of Mexican food – more like an omelet with potatoes, grilled onions, and a little garlic), hated the octopus.

In true Madrid fashion, dinner ended after midnight and we stayed up watching the festivities from a park bench until the wee hours of the morning. After a long night of soccer, singing, fountains, and pig ears, it was finally time to go to sleep.

Back to work

Today was not nearly as interesting, but was much more productive. I got my library card for the Biblioteca Nacional Espana, found several books online that I am going to check out, made a map of the roads near the house where I’m staying (so I can find the bus stop – I’m really terrible with directions), and set up my first official interview!

Tomorrow I’ll be going into Madrid to meet with and interview the director of Special Olympics Espana. I also got a recommendation to speak with a friend of the family I’m staying with, who is the director of another advocacy group. Should be great – I’ll follow up on that tomorrow. I plan to wake up extra early tomorrow to go over my interview questions and double check my route so I don’t get lost. If you know me, you know I’ll most likely get lost anyway. Oh, well!

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Made it to Madrid

At long last I’ve arrived in Madrid! I’m staying in a suburb of the city called Tres Cantos with the families of two friends that I met four years ago when I did an exchange program in high school. I am really happy (as are my parents) to be staying with families instead of in a hotel. Not only is it safer and less expensive, it will also do wonders for my Spanish skills!

I forgot how difficult it is to speak and understand a foreign language while jet-lagged, but I’m trying my best. Hopefully tomorrow will be easier.

World Cup fever is rampant here; it seems like every single TV channel is covering the games, interviewing players, and making conjectures about Spain’s odds of winning the whole thing. Tomorrow night is the big game: Spain vs. Germany. Admittedly, I am not much of a soccer fan, but it is impossible not to be excited about tomorrow’s festivities.

Today has been a relatively quiet day. I ate breakfast when I got here and hung out with Sergio, the friend I am staying with, and his brother Miguel. Around 3 pm, after a long nap, we ate lunch. Eating schedules here are different from those back home. Here they eat a light breakfast of cookies or pastries and coffee with milk, a huge late lunch around 2 or 3, and a very late light dinner. Good thing I packed a month’s supply of granola bars! I tend to get hungry at all hours of the day so I have a feeling those will come in handy.

Well, less about my eating habits and more about my research: The purpose of my coming to Spain is to research how people with disabilities are viewed in Spanish society: how they are treated, what opportunities they have, what barriers they face.

My plan is to talk with young adults, both disabled and not, to gain a better understanding of their views of and experiences with disabilities. I am also scheduled to talk with several organizations including advocacy groups like Special Olympics and job placement agencies that work toward independent living for people with disabilities.

I have spent several months preparing interview questions, establishing contacts, and brushing up on the vocabulary I’ll need on this trip, so hopefully everything works out as planned. Here goes nothing!

Hasta pronto!

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