by Mark Freeman @1994, revised 2021
As a member in fairly good standing in one of history’s earliest immigrant groups—we Wandering Jews—I visited one of our older stomping grounds two summers back. That ground being Spain. The occasion: the 500th Anniversary of the Expulsion of the Jews and Arabs by Ferdinando and Isabella, known as the Catholic Monarchs. Having consolidated other independent states under the flags of Castille and Navarra, they went on to finally defeat the Moors along with their Semitic Hebrew cousins of al-Andaluz in the peninsula’s south. In 1492 they gave non-Catholics three easy choices. Convert, be killed by the Inquisition, or leave. Just as Signore Colombo’s first ships did on the last day before it went into effect. His three ships carried rabbis and imams yet nary a priest… but that is another story.
In 1992 my partner and I travelled the country from Madrid to once-Moorish Granada in the south. Think fried fish and flamenco in Romani caves, and a gay pilgrimage to Federico Garcia Lorca’s home in Fuentevaqueros near Granada, where the young poet and playwright suffered death by impalement at the hands of fascist militia under the dictator Franco.
It was nearly 120 degrees in the dust in Fuentevaqueros, so we waited under the shaded veranda of a local bar for our museum tour to start. A pre-teen busboy wore a Lorca t-shirt and there were Lorca posters for sale– he is the town’s sole attraction. Old men, some no doubt from Federico’s day, eyed the two tourists with looks that seemed to say: Poetry lovers at best, but probably queers. It must have been a difficult town for a well-cultured little gay boy to grow up in.
Once inside the Lorca family’s thick-walled and cool house, now museum, we were guided by a well-informed government guardian. Here was a class photo of Lorca with the boys in his school and another with the girls– he the only boy in that one. But of course his mother was the rural schoolteacher. There were posters of Lorca’s plays performed in Budapest, San Francisco, Moscow, New York, and by the Habimah in Tel Aviv.
And what’s this? A photo of two young men in big sweaters, one standing behind with his hands on the hips of the other. One of the doncellas, it turns out, is Salvador Dalí without any mustache and in front Federico– two queens a-camping? Next to it is a photo of the young filmmaker Luis Buńuel, in nun drag. When we asked about them, our guide raised his eyebrows. In case there is any doubt, there are always Lorca’s poems, like this from Sonetos de Amor Oscuro (with apologies, the translation is mine).
“El mariquita se peina en su peinador de seda. Los vecinos se senríen en sus ventanas potreros. El escándalo temblaba rayado como una cebra. Los mariquitas del Sur cantan en las azoteas.”
The sissy combs her hair in her dressing gown of silk, while neighbors laugh at her out of their rear windows. The scandal sends tremors striped like a zebra. The Southern sissies sing out from the rooftops.
From there we traveled up as far north as Barcelona for the ’92 Olympic Games. No tickets to get in. But the best party was outside near the park’s grand staircase, dancing and singing with Brazilians in their flag’s colors but also without tickets. And then on to the Roman walled town of Girona, still in the region of Catalunya.
A few dozen kilometers above Barcelona we found ourselves on a funicular, a ski-style gondola moving up a sheer mountain to the aerie of Montserrat. This is a functioning Benedictine monastery dedicated to a Black Madonna, Our Lady of Montserrat, who was named patroness of Catalunya in 1844.
Stopping near a cloister where monks were singing a Gregorian tune. My partner stayed for the music, but I entered an unmarked door. Following vague directions and deep curiosity, I climbed several flights up a poorly-lit stairway in search of the monastic offices, wanting to find someone who could answer questions that this Jew had about their church’s policy.
Who I found was a handsome if prematurely-grey young closet queen, but in black monk robes rather than a fluffy pullover sweater. He appeared blue-lit, seated behind a computer. I explained my request. Without batting an eyelash, but with a voice like warm butter, he asked me to wait in a cell-like adjoining chamber.
Along the darkened corridor outside this little room came the echoes of monks’ sandals on clay tiles and the occasional muffled voices of children—Montserrat is also a school that boasts a famous boys’ choir. It felt as if we were in the film “The Name of the Rose” and that at any moment a juvenile Christian Slater or perhaps even Sean Connery might appear.
But for twenty minutes nobody did. I had time to think back on some of the amazing individuals we met on our peregrinations in Spain and Morocco during the month before.
- Roman-Angel in his tight black t-shirt, faded jeans and tiny goatee looked like an out U.S. queer of the ACT-UP! years, which these were. His bedroom in Madrid even held the requisite pair of handcuffs and one of the large Calvin Klein’s posters by Bruce Weber. As it turns out, his family is mudejar or morisco— originally of Moorish descent and therefore, as he says, “of impure blood.” They were forcibly converted from Islam just before 1500, after the fall of Granada. It may seem odd that many Spaniards still keep quiet about a history of “tainted blood.” But attacks by rightwing hoodlums against immigrants from North Africa are once again on the rise. But when Roman talks of his roots in the Andalusian south, he lights up. To him it’s a magical place, where people are less closed, warmer, emotionally expressive. Called al-Andalus in its Golden Age that lasted 600 years, while Northern Europe existed in dismal squalor during the Dark Ages. There astrologers and mapmakers, philosophers and the original romantic poets engaged in discourse and trade from Alexandria and Constantinople to Toledo.
- Eugeni, the spokesperson for FAG-C (Frente Acción Gay de Catalunya) told us about recent anti-gay assaults and murder. A gang of local skinheads in steel-toed Doc Martens on a late night rampage in Barcelona’s Ciutadella Park attacked a sleeping 35-year old street prostitute, Juan José Rescabó, known as Sonia. After kicking her repeatedly they broke a broomstick in two, leaving half in her body. Three more transients were attacked the same night, but those three survived. A week later there were still no arrests. This did not surprise the militants of FAG-C: “Twenty-five years ago the Spanish National Police were part of Franco’s forces– some of their own kids are skinheads.”
- Living together in a small apartment by Antoni Gaudí’s cathedral La Sagrada Familia, Arantxa and Frida, trans-femme streetwalkers and friends of Sonia’s, shared their own cop stories. “The police closed off the street where we have worked for 15 years—right by the Barcelona soccer stadium—so that our clients couldn’t drive in to reach us. Their excuse was to ‘clean up’ before the Olympic Games started, which is just how they always portray us—as filth –or as buffoons. But we were able to portray it as a labor issue when we took to the streets right in front of the Princess Sofia Hotel, where the International Olympics Committee had their free rooms. There we went limp and blocked traffic in both directions for over 20 minutes! Our slogan –‘Queremos comer!’ ‘We want to eat!’—was a simple request by well-dressed transvestites. We got onto the evening news on every channel.” Sixty of those protesters also got arrested. “Gays can camouflage themselves,” Arantxa posited. “80% of them hide in the closet. But we travestis, like the poor and immigrants, cannot hide ourselves. So the discrimination against us is far worse.”
- We met Abdul Rahman on the train to Fez during a 5-day side trip in Morocco. He told us he had just graduated in Philosophy from the Sorbonne and offered to guide us tomorrow through his city’s maze-like medina market. He found us a cheap hotel (it had pack-camels outside!) but said they had only one room which we could share with him. We left him downstairs in the tea-house where he was talking with several suspicious teenagers who wanted to be our guides. I nodded “no” to Abdul, but was anxious when he went down and kept talking to them before coming back to the room. Yet we were not knifed in our sleep, and his tour the next day was wonderful. It included a visit to the world’s oldest university. When we sat for a quiet moment by a women pilgrims’ resthouse I confided to Abdul that I was a Jew and was ashamed that I had felt afraid of him the night before. He let us know that he had been neutralizing the teenage delinquents, and that he knew I was Jewish and Morocco’s relations with its many Jewish citizens were excellent. This was confirmed at the EXPO in Seville, where on the Day of Morocco we heard a concert by Juan el Lebrijano, a Spanish gypsy with his transnational Orquesta Andalusí de Tanger, its Moroccan members in white hooded djellabas and the Spaniards in tight pants and ruffled shirts. Later was a great set by feminist pop singer Sapho, A Jewish Moroccan singing in Arabic songs by the Egyptian diva Oum Koultoum. After Abdul Rahman left us at a plot of dirt that was our bus station back to Tangier, those same boys showed up again and demanded recompense for their lost earnings on us. When I said that I would never have hired drug addicts, they screamed at me the three dirtiest names in their vocabulary: Jew! Communist! Homosexual! They were a bit flabbergasted when I laughed out loud, since they were right on the money with all three epithets. But we heaved a silent “In’shallah” as our bus pulled up just then.
- Chef ran the small but perfect L’Hostalet Del Call on the narrow historic Jewish street in the ancient walled city of Girona. One pungent cigarette after another hung from his mouth as he and his wife Nuria Bach prepared exquisite traditional food based on medieval recipes he researched. This is the kind of intimate but relatively affordable bistro you luck into once in a lifetime. After our first meal there (rabbit, I recall) we went back into the tiny kitchen to congratulate Chef. I remarked about a card on the wall above his stove that included some Hebrew script. He asked if I could actually read it, which I made a stab at, but I was able to show how to replace it right-side up. He answered my question about his family origins cagily, as his ancestors probably taught all family members to do. But he did offer to take us for a walk atop the city’s ancient wall the next day. Our budget allowed us to return for a second meal during the time we were in Girona’s old city. It was as wonderful as the first. [Note: on a return trip a decade later the restaurant was gone; even now that we have the internet, I find no reference to the delightful L’Hostalet Del Call.]
But back to Montserrat. I was still waiting in the Benedictine headquarters for some desirable gentile to enter the room. Instead, it was a bent-over monk who arrived to talk. Father Romualdo, an aged Catalan who had one good and one wandering eye, had lived most of his life as a monastic in Jerusalem. He quickly grasped the gist of my query (in few words, “Doesn’t the Inquisition still continue?”) and answered it with sophistry worthy of a Jesuit.
“The balance has shifted. There have always been those in The Church who condemned acts of the Inquisition. Others say that if The Church is under attack, it must be defended. Once there floated the idea that they [the Jews] were guilty of deicide, but most now view that as an equivocation. I don’t condemn anyone. This was one moment in the historical flow. The current always changes—thanks be to God.”
I pulled out a recent document dated March 26, 1992 that was signed by the Archbishop of Tarragona & the Primate of Spain that had been delivered to the Central Council of American Rabbis. It read:
“The year 1492 was a period of persecutions, rejection, expulsion, forced conversions, of exile and even of death. That the same year signals the beginning of the great adventure of modern times, the opening to Europe of the American continent, doesn’t change the picture much. Actually, it makes it sadder…. There is no doubt that what the Christians did to the Jews, and to the Muslims, is exactly the contrary to what should have been done, according to the principles of our Christian faith.”
And counter to the teachings of the Jewish lad you call Christ, I could have added, but held myself back.* I did say that 500 years is a long time to wait for an error to be corrected, and asked Father Romualdo if his Church had not learned anything applicable to today’s despised minorities: transgender people, for example; or actively sexual teens; or practicing gay folks?
“They are outside the law of God,” he chided.
“Fundamentalist segments of my own religion believe the same,” I let him know, “whereas Reform Jews have now accepted homosexuals both as members and as rabbis. “But,” I pressed on, “whether the church believes that gay sexual acts are moral or not, shouldn’t there be a church position condemning violence against sexual minorities, as well as one making it clear that it is a mortal sin to violently attack North Africans or other minority groups?”
“We reprove such deeds,” said Romualdo sadly. “But I cannot point out a document, a letter from a bishop or an encyclical dealing with this problem. Yet who am I to condemn homosexuality?” [This would be almost the exact language voiced some 20 years later by the new Pope Francis.]
Before we parted, I complimented him on the basilica, home of the Black Madonna revered in Catalunya, and for a prayer we heard sung there. It was a Salve Regina introduced somewhat ecumenically in five different languages out of respect for the diversity of visitors. I mentioned how this sharply contrasted with the Hispano-centric and very conservative mass we had stumbled upon in an austere church in Girona. That had been a church affair proposing a new saint from the ranks of the elitist Opus Dei, a successor to the Office of the Inquisition. That congregation was also the scariest looking collection of dark-suited mafiosi-style businessmen I’d ever seen.
Romualdo chuckled deeply, and both of his eyes sparkled with pleasure—even the amblyopic one. “So,” he smiled, “you noticed the difference.”
Even in church, the amazing changes Spain has gone through can be felt. And outside of it, women who once were pressured to dress all in black, after the death of Franco blossomed in a fabulous burst of feminism and an effluence of no-longer repressible sexuality. Spain is now so socially liberal that we heard a government guide blaming Garcia Lorca’s murder on “homophobia of royalist conservatives,” to a tour group that included many children and adolescents. Still, 20,000 people also showed up last November to commemorate the birthday of Francisco Franco. And the Opus Dei now reports a worldwide membership of 75,000 militants, up 1,000 since 1980.
At their Pavilion when we visited Seville’s EXPO World’s Fair, Spain admitted problems with drugs, prostitution and immigration, as well as the boom in now-legal abortions and a sharp increase in newly reported HIV infections (up 60% to over 15,000 just in 1991.)
But Spain’s problems didn’t start with prostitutes or jotos or heroin. The crime Spain is guilty of is that it transferred the European mania of hatred toward Jews and Mohammedans onto indigenous people it “discovered” in the New World. Spain then took the gold it ransacked there and literally plastered it all over its churrigueresque church altar facades, rather than investing it in a modern banking system (as the Dutch managed with the riches they harvested from the Americas). The Iberian economies still lag behind to this day.
For 500 years the Spanish suffered under its church-enforced uniformity: the silly and racist insistence that its citizens were all cut from the same white cloth. A billboard advertising Cruzcampo beer reveals this thinking as it continues to the present. On it a happily cartoonish Spaniard brags, “Todo Un Tipo”— we are “All One Type”.
Spain’s hubris of pride built a forced togetherness by despising all who were different—Jews, North Africans and gypsies, faggot poets and wild women. To my view, these constitute Spain’s deepest, most lasting glories. Not El Cid and Torquemada, but Camarón de la Isla and Maimonides, El Greco and Modigliani, both of the Picassos (Pablo and Paloma), Lorca and Almodóvar and Penelope Cruz.
* For those interested in the polemic I could have provided the old monk, I append a letter I wrote in April 2010. It is not a part of the travelogue above and, like all polemics, can be safely skipped. But hey, this was before gay marriage was legal in the U.S., so here it is.
A Letter to Catholics
I am writing to you as the husband of a man raised and confirmed in the Catholic faith who no longer feels welcome in his own church. This pains me. I also approach you as a Jewish man who claims an affinity for Jesus. Might I explain?
My experience of Catholics is of loving, kind committed people; I can tell that you are strongly driven by your commitment to morality. In Latin America I’ve seen the Church stand with the poor and indigenous in confronting the powerful.
Also in our country, Catholics and Jews rarely forget– as some other do– that our own families were working immigrants, whether from Ireland, Italy, Poland or Mexico. And I have seen devout Catholics, like my partner’s mother, believe not only in ritual and prayer but also in true charity. When she goes back to visit her home in the Philippines she is dismayed that some “send the maid” to fulfill obligations to serve, rather than giving of themselves to those in need. I honor and revere her service.
As for Jesus, I was drawn to his story as far back as I can remember. In the youthful idealism of my disquiet generation, I identified with him as the only prophet who was young and filled with loving-kindness. As an adult my mentor was a rare and wonderful rabbi and professor at Santa Rosa Junior College. He taught historical Old and New Testament classes, and sat as a scholar in the Jesus Seminar. He was an activist when in 1987 gay teachers and their supporters’ livelihoods were threatened by California’s Proposition 6, and he took care of one after another of us as we died of HIV. I miss Dr. Sandy Lowe dearly.
I don’t suggest that Catholics and Jews don’t also have differences. To me, these mostly have to do with the concept of a hierarchy that speaks for all the faithful. The idea of obedience to a church or a temple is foreign to us as Jews. We do not have priests to read us the Bible or interpret it for us. That is every Jew’s job (also including the women at long last). And it is often said, “Wherever you have two Jews, you have three opinions.”
With no high priests since the fall of the 2nd Temple, and no one central authority, all types of Jews can be good Jews– and any rabbi’s followers can leave and choose another. So it is hard for me to grasp the idea of edicts from above that must be accepted, agree or not. What if they are wrong? I must answer to God for what I do.
And I am proud to be legally married to the man I love. A Catholic and a Jew, we took vows with a female Unitarian minister presiding, under an apple tree one crisp October afternoon on a farm in Calabogie, Ontario. Canada had just legalized gay marriage and there we were, buoyed by love and support from good people who were happy for us.
I have no doubt that gay marriage will also become a reality across our country too. My proof is the vast majority of young people who already see it as obvious that two people loving each other, of whatever gender, is a good and not an evil thing. Their children may well ask their grandparents one day, as others ask about the decades-long struggle for African-American civil rights, “How could anyone have been against that?”
Of course it was the Mormon Church whose limitless funding led to the narrow passage of California’s Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage initiative. Have you heard why? It turns ou t that the Church of Latter-day Saints holds a quaint belief that high heaven is reserved exclusively for married people.1 Certainly not– a shudder at the thought– for homosexuals. Apparently no Catholic nuns or priests could visit that heaven either.
Which brings us to another current controversy. Who is responsible for the ongoing rape and molestation of Catholic children and adolescents, girls and boys in almost equal measure I understand? And who is to blame for the ongoing cover-up of those crimes?
As a gay man who has worked for 30 years with children and teens (those with cancer, Cystic Fibrosis or Sickle Cell Anemia, in homeless families and with kids in school libraries) I deeply resent Cardinal Bertone’s implication2 that those guilty of these atrocities are people like me. Since the Women’s and Gay Liberation Movements of the 1960s we have been open about our lives and loves. Your church’s hierarchy, to the contrary, has demanded the closet for gay and lesbian members, sexual repression in heterosexual clergy, and dishonesty or deceit when that did not prove possible. Instead of having healthy relationships, some priests were allowed to repeat terribly unhealthy ones in an environment of stealth.
As a non-Catholic I am free to ask questions. Why can’t women become priests? And why can’t Catholic priests marry, like other clergy? For that matter, why can’t gay priests marry each other, or other adults? Tradition is often called upon in defense of policy, but some controversial evidence indicates it may also have been policy and tradition in the early Church to bless same-gender pairs.3
As for the decades-long cover-up, certainly the Church tried to help troubled priests. But to some not insignificant degree, wasn’t it for self protection? If not, why do the current pope [Benedict] and his officers focus on the Church as the victim of anti-Catholic bias, and seem to forget the actual victims of the crimes? Were this in the past I can imagine Pope John XXIII begging the forgiveness of Catholics who have come forward to tell their histories of abuse, and making changes so that it never happened again. The current pontiff, if I may say so, in no John XXIII.
I pray that members of your faith, and all others, come to discuss these issues openly. It can be a matter of life and death for those in your midst who are lesbian, gay, transgender– or unconventionally heterosexual– and who need your support even if, like my husband, they have sensibly fled.
I pray for the strength of your congregation, for the same fervor that helps the poor and champions environmental justice for all of God’s creation, for the Church that had the courage to embrace People with AIDS even as President Reagan shrank from them. I hope that the laity in the Church can act as a moral compass for those in the Vatican who seem stuck in outmoded and immoral directions. This I ask in the name of Jesus, who is for you the Christ, and for me the gentlest among the prophets.
1 www.ldschurchtemples.com/momon/marriage and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosexuality_and_the_Church_of_Jesus_Christ_of_Latter-Day_Saints