ENVISIONING THE BORDER: NATION, RACE AND CONTACT ZONES IN SPAIN
The Strait of Gibraltar is a border, a contact zone, a periphery and a liminal space. In Antiquity, Gibraltar’s rocks were the Pillars of Hercules, thrown upon Ceuta and the southernmost tip of the Iberian Peninsula as Hercules, the patron god of labor, was ordered to bring back the red oxen of a three-headed monster. Gibraltar was the end of the Earth, and what lay beyond its pillars were chaos, darkness, and the lost continent of Atlantis. For Rome, this western imperial border fended off Hannibal, while the Visigothic kings viewed it as the line between Christianity and Islam. But with the consolidation of the Spanish Christian kingdoms and European conquest and expansion beyond this natural and symbolic gateway, the conceptual relation that the Strait embodied—Europe in relation to the Far West or Far East—shifted to a relation of North and South. This realignment reinforced a vertical impulse that had already marked the ebbs and flows of the Muslim Invasion and the Christian Reconquest.
In the 21st century, we return to the myth of the labors of Hercules. Yet gone is the vision of a great white man, rendered by Disney as a golden-haired Teuton in a rise to stardom narrative. See instead media images of scores of brown and black bodies, shivering in the night as they clutch to a patera, embattled against walls of ice-cold water. These new gods of labor—cogs in the Almerian miracle wheel, organic energy to affirm the reality of Spain´s long-awaited attainment of European modernity—are the justification for the “Moat of Fortress Europe,” as the Strait is now termed.
Professors Woods Peiró, Paravisini-Gebert, and Rashid are leading a study-trip to Spain during Spring Break 2011 that will travel to four micro-contact zones on the Iberian Peninsula: the cities and peripheries of Madrid, Barcelona, Granada and Ceuta, Tetouan, and Chefchaoue (Morocco). This course stems from an ongoing initiative to foster the multidisciplinary exploration of the Iberian Peninsula’s contact zone. Spain, as a geographical imaginary and materiality, has marked and been marked by profound interdependencies with diaspora, immigration and coloniality: the co-habitation and expulsions of Muslim and Jewish Spaniards, the fifteenth century arrival of the Rrom, colonization of the Americas, the reconquest of the Ottoman Empire, nineteenth and twentieth century colonization of Africa, and the current migratory influx since the 1990s. This initiative responds to a deep interest in new scholarly approaches to the study of Europe’s borders. At Vassar, the study of the crucial interactions of peoples, goods, and ideas in Iberian contact zone falls within the scope of various programs and departments, but remains on its margins, a liminal space not fully reflected in our curriculum, however prevalent it may be in our research and scholarship.
The trip seeks to bring key areas of Immigration and Border Studies, Mobility Studies, Coloniality, Critical Race Theory, Jewish and Arab Studies—into greater focus by exploring the specificities of local responses to global movements. Through the study of the complexities of these four geographical flashpoints, students would have the opportunity to question seemingly fixed categories such as “Spanish national identity” through the prism of specific cultures and histories. Its underlying purpose is to demonstrate how immigratory and diasporic flows, processes that have led to both to racial mestizaje and violent homogenization or marginalization, has led to a post-colonial society that can hardly be subsumed by one singular term. The current forms that these intercultural processes have taken, are both responses to specific historical, political, economic, and social circumstances and also the result of the specificities of local conditions. They can best be understood, not by totalizing theories that essentialize a “national” experience and critique some apparently understandable and graspable notion of “national identity,” but by a detailed knowledge of the historical and material conditions responsible for specific phenomena at specific times.
This blog will chronicle our experiences in the classroom and in the field in Spain and Morocco.
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