The sun was low as the luxurious chartered bus labored up the steep dirt track to the wedding reception in the hills above Madrid. We walked up the last of the slope from the buses to the lawn in front of the hunting lodge, where we looked down on the distant city. Middle-aged men and young girls circulated among us in uniforms, carrying trays with sliced Spanish ham streaked with fat, drinks, canapés, and small sliced sausages in hollowed-out bread. As the sun set, the groom explained that the half-finished house on the hilltop behind us—the highest point in sight—was a weekend retreat for Franco that was never completed because of the dictator’s death. We stayed on the lawn until dark, then we moved into the tent attached to the side of the lodge for the formal dinner.
There was a hint of the evening’s message when I heard that the priest who presided at the wedding had officiated at the weddings of the bride’s mother and grandmother. Surely, it should have been clear to me when the men of the tuna, friends of the groom wearing medieval short pants and mantles, threw their cloaks on the ground at the church door and sang to the bride and groom. During supper, the tuna—half fraternity, half glee club, each man a member for life—periodically burst into ribald or romantic song, the members seated at their table, playing guitars and small instruments similar to mandolins. I should have noticed that all the Spaniards knew the words and sang along. The point was obvious, but with my American eyes I couldn’t see it, even when the tuna surrounded the bride, the groom, and their parents at the head table to sing, then made the groom stand and serenade his new wife.
After we’d eaten, the bride and groom walked from table to table with Cuban cigars, and waiters with Fra Angelica and liquor de manzana verde circulated among the tables. When the cigar smoke and the roar of conversation drove me out into the night, I looked down on distant Madrid and watched the fireworks of the festival of San Isidro slowly rise and bloom above the city. Finally, at midnight, the party moved into the main hall, where the skins and skulls of game hung on the walls.
The world of the bride and groom was educated, cosmopolitan, international; their guests included psychiatrists, social workers, and lawyers from Scotland, Colombia, the United States, Great Britain, and Argentina. I was in the new Europe, where half the room spoke English and many of the foreigners, Spanish. The groom spoke three languages; his father spoke five. The DJ played disco and American music from the 70’s and 80’s, and Americans, North and South, mixed with Europeans on the dance floor. It was the kind of dancing any American would have recognized, that formless combination of disco and frug and nameless things we don’t take any time to learn, because there is nearly nothing to be learned.
But after half an hour the music changed, as Spain, having failed to reach me, resorted to a more direct method. The DJ played a passionate music one could only call Spanish: castanets, guitars, a sensuous, serious sound. Nothing was said, no announcement was made, but the Spanish women all moved to the center of the room, the men stepped back, and the Americans stepped away in confusion. Europe, the modern world, psychiatry: all gone. Three days in Madrid, and I was finally in Spain.
Hands in the air, their hands much of the dance, the women swirled and spun slowly. Some danced with each other, some by themselves, others pulled the 12-year-old girls onto the floor to teach them. Paco, a military psychiatrist in his 50’s with a large belly, watched his wife’s dancing with adoration, as if he had never seen this entrancing creature before this magical night. Barely moving his feet to punctuate her movements, he became a modest accompanist to his wonderful wife.
With their dance, the people of Spain jerked me into a world of magicians, hypnotists, gypsies, power, identity. Europe was a conceit, America a hollow thing, but Spain lived. The music started, the European face disappeared, and I was among the people who had spent seven centuries fighting the Moors, from whom they had taken this dance as finally they had taken back all of Spain. The dancers were from a particular place, with a specific history, a great and long and difficult history. Each dancer was a woman, not a person, and those who admired her were men.
The dance was intensely sensual and utterly proper. The few men still on the floor danced with their wives; mothers danced with daughters. Paco, whose own mother lived with him, stood entranced by the mother of his children. His intense love for his wife was bound to and by his church, his mother, his children, and his friends. His love was both proper and erotic, his pleasure wrapped round with stability, his self-control integrated with vibrant, pulsing life and love. When Paco talked to me that night, he didn’t use the word for wife; instead he said tu mujer—your woman—his choice of words reflecting the fact that her womanliness was the issue.
As the women danced, an American girl of 20 walked by. She had a tattoo on the nape of her neck, and on her lip there was a faint scar where once she had worn a small stud. Tonight, her hair was a shade between orange and pink. “Will somebody tell me why there are only women out on the dance floor?” she demanded of me. She was angry, sure that if only women were dancing, someone was being oppressed. I thought they had been liberated.
“There’s a rifle about this,” I said. “You don’t know it, and I don’t know it, but they all do, and they’re following it. We used to have this, but we’ve lost it. These people are a tribe.”
Later that night, I asked Cuca, a physician from the northern city of Oviedo, about the dance. Not knowing the word for tribe in Spanish, I struggled to convey the idea of what I’d seen. “I’m from a nation, a country. But you are a people.”
With the same gesture and the same expression I’d seen the new bride use when she was teased by the groom, Cuca raised a finger and wagged it back and forth. “No,” she said in Spanish. “We are one blood.” There might be Basques or Catalans who would disagree with her. But there were few Basques or Catalans among the women dancing on the floor.
Leaving the reception, I mentioned the dancing to the groom as we stood on the small porch of the hunting lodge. “Europe is nothing,” I said. “The music started, and all of that disappeared.”
He was a little drunk and was saying goodbye to friends he wouldn’t see again for months. Some, he would never see again. Scientist, physician, psychiatrist, he beamed, lighting up the night. “I love that kind of thing!” he roared.
My progressive American friends would say that to belong to a tribe is an evil thing, that tribes are the cause of discrimination, pogroms, and war. They would cite Bosnia, Kosovo, the Kurds in Turkey, the Hutus and Tutsis, the Cypriot Greeks and Turks. I might reply that there are tribes who make good neighbors: the Swiss, the Amish. I live in a neighborhood where I am surrounded by Orthodox Jews. When I run at night, I wave and say hello to them. They seldom answer or even acknowledge me, but I know I am safe, even from their adolescents, who walk to temple with their parents. My friends would say such tribes are the exceptions, safe only because they are few in number. That line of debate is sterile.
Better to say that without such belonging, we decline into the things that America has become. If we belong to nothing, we become no one. Our marriages fail, our streets are unsafe, our children become lost and go to their schools to kill each other. Our erotic love cannot be stable; what stability there is has little life. Better to say there is no escape from this dilemma, that this is our tragedy. This is who we are.
A second American woman in her early 30’s, never married, came up to me soon after the Spanish women had danced. She was sweating a little from dancing herself I had never seen her so excited. She was a social worker who thought herself progressive, and I wondered if she would agree with the American girl who had been so disapproving. Hesitantly, I asked her if she had seen what happened when the music began.
“Yes!” She was thrilled.
We talked for some time. She thought we Americans had never been a tribe; I told her I thought that once we had. Whether or not I was right, she made the wisest remark of the night. She was joking when she answered me, but spoke with utter sincerity. Up on her toes, nearly hopping with excitement, she said, “I want to be in a tribe!”
So do we all.