It was the start of the Spanish summer, and for a boy with ambitions to be the first in his family to go to college, here was the payoff for getting through chemistry and besting Mrs. Prieto’s brutal English tests. The first day of the rest of his life.
But Alejandro Gea Vida almost didn’t bother to come.
“The future?” the 19-year-old senior said, rounding the corner to Angel de Saavedra High School. In a neighborhood that looked as if it had the wind knocked out of it, Antonio’s Photography Studio had just shut down, and even La Repera, the equivalent of a dollar store, had a “For Rent” sign on the window. “Not sure I know what we’re celebrating,” Alejandro said.
Reaching his cement block of a school, he shot up the stairs and hugged a pack of friends. “You good?” he said, slapping Álvaro Perea, a lanky graduate from last year, on the back. Perea, who should have been working as an X-ray technician by now, shrugged. He was looking for jobs in bars — and finding none — after cuts at public hospitals left him on the waiting list for an internship. No guarantees until 2018. “My brother got laid off at the power company. My father just took a pay cut,” Perea later said. “Things aren’t going too good in Cordoba right now.”
Beyond the invisible wall of his social clique, Alejandro was getting stares. In front of the school auditorium, the Class of 2013 was working it as best they could in the teenage wastelands of central Andalucia, where construction froze four years ago. The girls giggled in flea-market party dresses. The boys threw play punches, filling out their one good suit. But here was Alejandro, 30 minutes from taking the stage to claim his diploma, in a loose black T-shirt and jeans.
It was less an act of rebellion than a self-imposed reality check.
“Working-class,” he told himself earlier, when deciding to leave his suit at home. “That’s what I am, that’s what I’m going to be.”
In crisis-hit Europe, a senior’s dreams are smaller these days. Once, graduation would have been a celebration of upward mobility, a leap up toward a degree, maybe even a master’s, from a blue-collar world. Instead, it had become a study of the uncertainty gripping a continent confronting record-breaking unemployment. In a family in which no member had a full-time job, Alejandro, his parents and his older brother could almost feel themselves slipping a bit more every day. Their story is a glimpse into the new normal of lives torn apart by an economic storm.
It just kept coming. Alejandro’s application for college financial aid was rejected. His parents, Francisco and Josefa, fighting to keep the family home, were unable to pay his way. His brother, an avid fan of Che Guevara and Jesus Christ, had ditched school early to help out at home. Still jobless and scrounging odd day work in a city with nearly 60 percent youth unemployment, he wanted more for his brother.
And Alejandro wanted more for himself. But he was already weighing a Plan B: a free technical school and the long job line at McDonald’s.
As Alejandro strode up a flight of stairs, a classmate slapped him on the back. “You going to the dinner?” — an after-graduation class fete skipped by lots of seniors this year — the boy asked before disappearing in a cloud of aftershave. Alejandro said nothing, just kept walking toward the wide auditorium door.
“It’s going to cost 36 euros” — $48 — “so, no, I don’t think I’m going.”
This is life in the fallout of Europe’s debt crisis, where the No. 1 problem plaguing the continent has shifted from zigzagging bond markets and panicky investors to broken lives among the mind-boggling ranks of the unemployed. In Spain, a once-booming corner of Europe, unemployment has shot from 8.6 percent in 2007 to 26.3 percent today. Recovery here is being measured not in years, but in generations.
Seen from across the Atlantic, this is a crisis crippling a playground of American tourists and igniting worries of social instability in a part of the world counted on for troops alongside U.S. boots. But at the most micro level, it is a hope-depleting force for families such as the Gea Vidas who, like Spain itself, once believed in the European dream.
Spain, seen as a symbol of the future in the era of the euro, was reconquering lost glory only a decade ago, this time through an armada of bankers and real estate developers sailing a sea of cheap cash. Amid debt-fueled growth, anything seemed possible here. Alejandro’s grandparents grew up picking olives in the ashes of the Spanish civil war. But his mother, over the span of one magic decade, had climbed from dustbin to Main Street, leaving behind work as a house cleaner to own her own business.
Surely, the family figured, a future brighter than the Andalusian sun awaited the two Gea Vida boys. But in a bust this deep, the reality of a grim, long haul is settling in.
Josefa Vida Bermudez