(On June 14, 1986, I took a plane to NY’s JFK and another to Barajas, Madrid. I was going to “study abroad,” right after graduating from college and just before becoming a law student. This excerpt is from something I’ve been writing).
José Piovanetti, a writer from Buenos Aires, ended up exiled in Spain after the military regime incarcerated and tortured him in 1979. A journalist, poet and biographer, he became Academic Director of a college-level institution in Toledo, Spain. La Fundación José Ortega & Gasset, or just La Fundación, created a program where college students from Canada, United States, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Argentina and even Iceland spent a semester or a summer session, “studying abroad.” Almost six feet tall and medium built, forty-year old Piovanetti had a notable, dark moustache, small penetrating eyes and a dry, sarcastic wit. He spoke Spanish with the distinctive porteño accent.
Piovanetti travelled frequently to América, a term that for Spanish and Argentinians never means the United States, but rather all those countries “south of the border,” from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego as well as the islands of the Caribbean. He felt good in America, speaking his brand of Castilian and listening to the fascinating accents and idiomatic quirks of Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Mexicans, Chileans. Students from the University of Puerto Rico spent a semester in Toledo with other college students from Ohio, Minnesota, Colorado, Pittsburgh, New York, as well as Canada, Colombia, Argentina and Spain. The “students from America” met, mingled, took courses together; but, of course, those were not the only kinds of intercourse between them. Wherever there are men and women in their hormonal peaks, Eros takes over.
The cool breeze of the mountainous region and the warm sun of the eternal, semitropical summer invites everyone to bask in the outdoors. It was early May in the Cayey Campus of the University of Puerto Rico. Its former use was as a military base, named Henry Barracks, one of many established by the United States Armed Forces since the beginning of American rule over Puerto Rico. Eight hundred feet over sea level, the campus is almost bucolic, the pervasive green contrasting with the bone white of the old three-story buildings erected for the soldiers, now filled with classrooms and offices. The residential buildings were destined for the army officers and their families. Nowadays their occupants are professors.
The house of the Campus Chancellor is spacious, with well-tended landscaping and a spacious terrace facing a yard. Piovanetti scheduled a meeting with ten students who had been admitted to the Toledo program for the upcoming summer academic session. The new Chancellor, a professor of Spanish literature, welcomed them. Her father had been Chancellor of the famed Río Piedras Campus from the late 1940s until the 1960s, when he became President of the University.
After greeting the students, the young Chancellor excused herself and left them with Piovanetti. “We are always thrilled to welcome new students. I think that you will benefit from our program and from the unique experience of living in Toledo, which is sort of a very large museum. The city is a true architectural wonder, with Roman ruins and intact mosques, synagogues, Christian churches and the Gothic Cathedral, which can be seen from the residential quarters that you will occupy during your stay.” Many of Fernando’s friends had already studied at Toledo and it was his turn. He would graduate in a few weeks, so he did not need the courses, which would be in any event be classified as “elective.” He had not heard from the UPR Law School, the only one to which he applied.
“This summer, we will offer a Course on Contemporary Spanish History, covering the period from 1936 to the present day, exactly fifty years. We will offer also a course titled Politics in Latin America and several courses on Art History, Medieval Art and maybe a course on literature. We are still not sure about that one. You should take two courses. Most students do not take a third course, because the academic load would be too heavy for a summer session; and you also want to enjoy what Spain has to offer.” Spanish History and Latin American Politics sounded good.
Fernando looked at Omar Bettar and smiled. Omar had grown with Fernando in Cidra, the town just north of Cayey. Omar’s father was Lebanese, his mother Puerto Rican. Growing up, Fernando and his buddies teased Omar senseless. “Omar, it’s a fact. ‘Over the Top’ is a much better film than ‘The Godfather.’” “How could you say that?” Omar would utter, not realizing that they were pulling his chain. They got him every time with that sort of stuff.
Only Omar and Fernando made the trip to Spain. The other eight expressed misgivings in that little gathering with Piovanetti, concerned with Libya and terrorism. Fernando and Omar were well aware that just weeks before, President Reagan ordered the bombing of targets in Tripoli, the capital city of Libya. One of the two U.S. Air Force airmen who died was Captain Fernando Ribas Dominicci, a Puerto Rican civil engineer educated in the Mayagüez Campus of the state university. “He made the ultimate sacrifice,” politicians would say.
Piovanetti told them not to worry about terrorists. “Libya is as far from Spain as it is from here,” he said. Fernando did not need the reassurance. He was going. Reagan and Gadaffi could both go to hell. But the sincere fear that his fellow students expressed in their words and eyes baffled him. Aren’t we too young to be fearful? Shouldn’t we be afraid of stagnation instead; of staying put?
Fernando had met Piovanetti the previous November at the Diner Hall located in the Student Center. The food served there was mediocre at best, sometimes inedible, but students seemed not to mind it much. The place had enough room for eighty tables and its horrendous acoustics turned the conversations into a gigantic buzz. Mariana Banucci had just been named Chancellor. Every time that the Popular Democratic Party or the New Progressive Party regained the control of the government of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the chancellors of the different campuses also changed. Professor Banucci’s father was one of the elders of the PDP. Like her many partisan cousins, she was destined to hold a governmental post of some kind. Her father held power in the UPR for 25 years. It was now her turn.
Banucci and Piovanetti shared a table with Fernando, who even was not prone to flattery, but was charming in a non chalant way. They were talking about the Toledo Program and the interest of the young student in making the trip. Fernando was aware of the basic Spanish plot: The three-year Civil War, the long dictatorship of Francisco Franco, Caudillo de España por la Gracia de Dios (Leader of Spain by the Grace of God).
The title of the dictator articulated the fascist version of the divine right of the ruler. Fernando remembered his satisfaction after knowing of Franco’s death, exactly ten years earlier. Almost twelve then, it was the first expression of his instinctive aversion of dictators and authoritarian regimes, regardless of ideology. Leftist, rightist, non-ideological dictators or regimes, Fernando did not care for them from an early age. With franquismo dead, a new Constitution in place and the swift defeat of the 1981 attempted coup, it seemed that Spain was at last on its way.
“José, Fernando here will apply for Law School.” The new Chancellor said it with enthusiasm. Her father was himself a lawyer. Piovanetti turned to Fernando and uttered: “En este mundo de mierda, ¿para qué querés ser abogado? In this shitty world, what do you want to be a lawyer for?” Fernando had no answer for a question which he did not understand. He deflected it by saying that he also liked history. The Argentinian then turned to describe the history courses that the Fundación offered in Toledo. Going to law school was not mentioned again.