The Watson is a very unique fellowship—there is no required end product. However, fellows do turn in “quarterly reports” to the Watson offices every three months. Although I am not typically one to broadcast my feelings online, I have decided to share my first quarterly report here to give my readers a sense of how my project and thinking are adapting over time. I hope you enjoy, and as always I welcome any and all feedback.
This quarterly report comes perfectly timed with a transition in my journey. I have spent the last three months exploring cooperatives in Spain, and I am about to say a difficult goodbye to a country that I have truly grown to love.
Spain has been the perfect place to explore identity—my own identity and the varying identities connected to the cooperative movements here. Identity and how it interacts with your family, home, language, and values. It actually feels completely inaccurate to say I spent my first three months in Spain because I have only traveled in Basque Country and Catalonia, two autonomous regions that are famous (historically and currently) for their fights for independence and freedom to express their unique identities. New Basque friends showed me just how Basque they are at traditional sheep herders’ festivals or the famous locally-organized summer parties in each main city called La Semana Grande. And Catalans, the often soft-spoken but truly radical and daring Catalans, have shown me how a strong identity and desire for autonomy can lead to a bonafide independence revolution.
These powerful and proud demonstrations of community and identity have made me question my own understanding of community. At times, it has been challenging. As an American raised in Southern California with parents from very different places (a farm-town in Nebraska and Johannesburg, South Africa), I will never have a historically-rooted sense of belonging to a place the way that a Catalan or Basque person might have. But at the same time, they have showed me how little genetics or your parent’s origin have to do with the place you call home.
The Basques were the first to explain this to me. About three weeks into my journey, a new friend in Bilbao explained to me that anyone can be Basque. It is something that comes from inside—no one can tell you when you are Basque because you have to discover it yourself. I thought that was such a beautiful idea that I started to ask new friends what it means to be Basque. So many people I talked to felt the same way. Many also agreed that anyone who speaks Euskara, the Basque language, is Basque. In fact, the word Basques use for themselves is Euskaldunak, which literally means “one who speaks Basque.”
These conversations pushed me to contemplate in new ways the most defining feature of my first Watson quarter: language. First, I’ve been immersed in two cultures that have had to desperately fight to maintain their languages during Franco’s dictatorship, so I’ve had countless conversations with people about what their language means for their identity. And second, I’m in the process of learning Spanish, the language that binds those two cultures. Learning Spanish has been the great challenge and joy of these first three months. With some budgeting and lucky airline discounts, I’ve been able to extend my Spanish classes for longer than planned, and I feel like I have a solid foundation. For the first time ever, I feel like bilingualism is within reach for me. And furthermore, being surrounding by people that are all bilingual and more often tri- or quadrilingual has allowed me to imagine a future where I speak more than two languages. I spent all of my high school and college careers feeling like I ‘just wasn’t that good at languages,’ so this change in mindset is really a personal triumph for me.
Now, I’m a page into this reflection, and I’ve barely spoken about cooperatives. I think this is because one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned so far about cooperatives is that they are just a legal structure. They are method of gathering people than can produce a huge variety of real-life situations. The cooperatives that I have connected with so far have not spanned a wide geographical region, but they have been incredibly diverse. Each comes with its own set of values and perspectives.
As multiple worker-owners have explained to me, what makes a coop is not the structure but the people in it, which has become one of the most wonderful aspects of cooperatives for me. Coops are beautiful when a group of people comes together in pursuit of the shared values of economic and participatory democracy but adapt the cooperative structure to their particular cultural context. Just after seeing two regions in one country my image of cooperative is already becoming a colorful patchwork of visions for a better future. Coops have the ability to display one of the greatest strengths of humanity: diversity.
I have also come to realize that the cooperatives that excite me the most are those that affiliate themselves with the solidarity economy: an international movement of people, companies, and organizations that are bound by the fight for a more equitable and sustainable economy that places people over profits. Often the cooperatives that share these values are worker coops, so I am planning on focusing my research more on worker coops. I decided that New Zealand, which is mostly agricultural cooperatives, will not have much to offer for this new focus, so I am removing it from my itinerary. In its place, I am considering going to India because there are some amazing worker coop movements happening there. I am also adding Uruguay to my itinerary because Montevideo is just a short boat-ride away from Buenos Aires and has a flourishing worker coop scene as well.
Next quarter, I’m excited to see my Spanish language skills grow even further, and I hope to push myself to spend more time with people who do not speak English. I have also created what feels like a small community and home after spending just two months in Barcelona, so I can’t wait to see what I can create for myself in Buenos Aires. I am also nervous and excited to push myself a little more out of my comfort zone by traveling in South America. I have been to Spain before for a short trip, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Europe before my Watson. However, I’ve never been to South America. Something tells me that even if things feel usual and unfamiliar, once I connect with people at cooperatives I’ll grow to love it too.
Check back soon for updates about my first few weeks in Buenos Aires!