My family and I have just returned from an unforgettable vacation, which, given the firestorm in the U.S. press, I’m a little embarrassed to admit, and feel I need to justify: We went to Spain – at the same time as Michelle and Sasha Obama and girlfriends, and to many of the same spots (though in different lodgings). It was my husband and my 20th Wedding Anniversary, and to save for this trip we set aside an amount from paychecks each month for a Travel Fund to make it possible. I’m well aware this remains an incredible privilege on many levels, but I felt compelled to share what Mrs. Obama’s trip looked like from the perspective “over there.”
As many are aware, Spain, known for gorgeous landscapes, beaches and soccer players, seductive flamenco, fine art and architecture is also marked by a millennium of outright racism, ethnic cleansing, and stark brutality, well into the 20th Century. With democracy opening in the country since 1975, it is now celebrated as a vibrant center of art and soul and beauty and relaxation – but nowhere is perfect. Friends of ours who have resettled into Spain bemoaned the surprising levels of bias voiced openly against anyone not Catholic and fair-skinned. While historically rich and gorgeous cities like Toledo, Seville and Granada flourished thanks to the peaceful coexistence of Jews, Muslims and Catholics for as much as seven hundred years, long Holy Wars, the Inquisition, Civil War, and dictatorship have left bitter remainders of prejudice in too many hearts and minds and institutions.
So, I found the on-the-ground response to Mrs. Obama’s visit to Southern Spain quite remarkable. As we drove through the nearby countryside, radio stations eagerly reported everything from tips on how crowds could fight the heat while waiting hours to catch a glimpse of the First Lady’s visit at a nearby Cathedral, to Sasha’s favorite ice cream flavor ordered earlier that day at a popular shop. It was as if the dignity of this strong, stylish, smart, black American woman, mother, professional and leader captured the highest ideals of their nation and might even help them atone for their past sins and present economic woes.
Deliberate or not, Mrs. Obama’s itinerary (which I gathered from the local radio reports) seemed to mock anyone clinging to old prejudices: In one city she visited the main Cathedral first, then went to the 11th Century Moorish (Muslim) palace. That same day the group also ventured up to the caves of the Gypsies, where traditional local music has been performed for centuries. The glossy magazine Hola! (think People magazine obsessed with the royal families of Europe) covered Mrs. Obama’s trip, including the visit to the Gypsies, one of the most continuously reviled, marginalized minority groups on the continent, and certainly not among the glamorized set. Photos show her clapping and enjoying the flamenco folklore, and might be one of the first instances of the culture shown in a positive light among the magazine’s glitterati. The constant, enthusiastic news reports about the Obama visit in Spanish media carried a strong message between the lines: these Americans come in all colors, interests, and backgrounds. They can show us how to value our own minorities and marginalized. This is what makes them so awesome. We are their friends. We want to be like them. They respect us and value our cultural contributions, as we value theirs.
I wish Mrs. Obama’s trip would have cost zero taxpayer dollars, but the reality is that anywhere the First Lady travels she’ll need Secret Service and a private plane. They can’t stay at a youth hostel, or squeeze their towels like sardines on the packed Mediterranean beach. As I read some of the Twitterati’s criticism, beyond the cost, it seemed that the very act of taking her daughter off American soil and (gasp!) enjoying this experience denoted a cardinal sin. Giving her daughter the gift of foreign travel is a priceless privilege, made particularly sweet by the joy and wonder that comes with Sasha’s young age. Travelling outside our borders can become a goal for any family or child, as a uniquely enriching, attainable, affordable experience (particularly through scholarships for youth, like those offered by Rotary International and NSLI-Y, or exchanges like AFS; click here for more ideas on raising children with a global perspective even without travel).
If any American travelling abroad instantly serves as an informal cultural ambassador, the First Family’s visit certainly had an impact beyond fun. In April 2004 Spain withdrew troops from the Coalition of the Willing fighting in Iraq, amidst an overwhelming wave of anti-American, anti-war feeling. The presence of Mrs. Obama and the pride for the USA evoked by her image and visit among the Spanish and Europe in general is helping steer sentiment back in a positive direction toward America. The price to pay for stronger alliances, customers for American products, and good-will is certainly worth a few nights in a five-star hotel or missing her husband’s birthday dinner one year.