Jena Nassar: España as Text 2022

Madrid as Text

Having siblings a lot older than me means realizing my upbringing has been a lot different than theirs. My brother and sister grew up in Spain in the late 80s, while I was born in Miami in 2001. Thus, they were raised in an entirely different environment, surrounded by a different language and culture. Being Middle Eastern, yet incorporating the Spanish customs my siblings adopted during their childhood in Valencia has always created an interesting dynamic in my house. It’s as if there was an entirely different life that my family lived before I was born, and I’ve formed my own memories of them through the retelling of childhood stories. My time in Madrid has given me the opportunity to experience these stories for myself— particularly, while we visited El Rastro. 

El Rastro is an open air flea market located in Madrid, open every Sunday. I knew this day would be meaningful to me as while living in Spain, one of my dad’s first businesses was selling jeans at the local flea market. As expected, I’ve heard countless retellings of the flea market hustle, the bargaining, and the laboriousness of setting and packing up in the dry Valencia heat. Yet I have never experienced a true, authentic flea market for myself.

The market is located along Plaza de Cascorro and Ribera de Curtidores. As we trekked toward El Rastro as a class, little shops and tables began to appear along the street the closer we got to the market. Once we finally arrived, we were met by a courtyard of tables adorned with various tiny trinkets, one of a kind shoes, books, and nearly anything one could hope to find at a flea market. Professor Bailly had explained that so many of these items were obscure because they are often items that are found in the streets that are able to be resold. The deeper we explored into the market, the more commercial the shops seemed to be. I noticed much of the stores sold the same types of clothing, just with prices varying by one or two euros. Nonetheless, there were still some incredibly unique shops that I could not help but be in awe of, such as one that was dedicated to selling entirely vintage cameras and recorders. 

The way in which the sellers communicated, the kindness and attention they’d offer as I browsed their tables really struck a core with me. Sure, some might just be looking for an easy customer, but most of the people I encountered showed genuine warm-heartedness and wanted to know more about where I was visiting from and how I enjoyed the city thus far. Through these small but meaningful encounters, I could not help but to think of the young hustler my father was as he worked at the flea market nearly 30 years ago, trying to provide for my mother and siblings. It is experiences like this that truly made me realize I may have been feigning the stories and memories I’ve heard from before I was born as my own— part of my identity of having a “Spanish past.” Now, I’m getting the opportunity to experience the Spanish culture for myself. I’m proud to say the tables have turned, and I get to be the one to come home and tell my friends and family about my own Spanish experience and his things have changed since their time here. 

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